Are you afraid that a friend or someone you know is in hell, burning now and forever in fiery torment? On the other hand, you might not be too worried about the thought of your enemies burning in hell. Perhaps you don’t buy this concept of going to hell at all. Some think it’s just a mere superstition. Is hell real? After all, if God is love, why would He condemn people to suffer horrendous agony in hell forever? Could hell be just a state of eternal separation from God? Or are there different levels of torture depending on how bad your sins are? Is it an actual place of suffering or perhaps just a symbol of a very bad outcome after death? Even for Christians, it can be disturbing and difficult to understand. The truth is much simpler.
Did you know that history itself proves that early Christians did not believe in the idea of an ever-burning hell until hundreds of years after Jesus’ crucifixion? It wasn’t a teaching of Jesus or the Bible. Doesn’t that sound far-fetched?It’s almost unbelievable! Reading through this article, you’ll see exactly what Jesus did teach the early Church about hell and judgment. So where did the concept come from then, of souls burning in eternal fiery torment? Tertullia, who lived around 200AD. Now about that same time a Greek manuscript called the Apocalypse of Peter described the lost as they that blasphemed the way of righteousness and under them was laid fire flaming and tormenting them thus shall they ever be tormented. Where did they get that out of the Bible? The fact is they didn’t.
Ancient Persians, Ancient Greeks, and even the philosopher Plato believed in a place where the wicked are punished. Those aren’t biblical things. Those are traditional things. Those are the things that influenced early Christianity. So by the time you get to 550AD, the Catholic Council of Constantinople validated the teaching of never-ending punishment for the wicked. Now here’s where the story gets very interesting. Not much of those traditional ideas changed for 1 000 years until someone that you are familiar with came along. His Name? Dante Allighieri.
In the early 1300s, Dante Allighieri wrote an imaginary description of hell in his work called The Divine Comedy. The beginning section of that epic story is known as “Inferno.” It’s this one story that is probably most responsible for the ideas of hell today. Why? How could this one story about hell form and shape the ideas of what millions believe?
Here’s how: In his poem, Dante imagines that the ancient Roman poet, Virgil, takes him on a guided tour through hell. At the entrance gates to Dante’s hell is the ominous sign: “Abandon All Hope, You Who Enter Here” (Inferno, A New Verse Translation, Dante Alighieri, ed. Elio Zappulla, Canto III, p.39). Virgil tells Dante about the journey through the inferno of hell: “I’ll be your guide, and you will follow me, and I will lead you through a world of pain where dead souls writhe in endless agony and clamor, as they cry, to die again” (Canto I, p. 24).
Dante is lead through nine circles of hell – various compartments and levels of torturous afterlife. He writes about what he envisions: “So in the ditch, far down below the arch on which we stood, there bubbled viscous pitch… I only saw the bubbles rise and burst, the huge mass heave, contract, heave, and contract repeatedly” (Canto XXI, pp. 189-190). He looks to see someone condemned to this level: “The sinner plunged into the pitch… [and] They pricked the sinner with a hundred prongs” (Canto XXI, pp. 190-191).
He envisions a three-headed sadistic dog guarding the gluttonous sinners. They’re forced to lie in a vile slush – produced by ceaseless disgusting, icy rain. Dante is shown souls locked in searing fiery tombs, people boiling in blood, rained on by fire. Malicious demons jab, poke, whip, and beat those who have been lost. These sinners are buried head first but suffer even more misery as scorching flames burn their feet. But this isn’t the fate of all. Others are frozen in a lake up to their heads to suffer the agony of stinging, bitter cold – only able to move their chattering teeth.
Dante created stunning, unforgettable visual images that have been etched into people’s minds. He played on our worst fears. The gripping scenes that he imagined captured the attention and horror of the world. This one story about hell so effectively painted a horrid picture of Dante’s ideas of punishment for the sinner, that story, it shaped, it molded the thinking of the world – not the Bible. Don’t forget, it was a time that was so very different from today. There were no Bible bookstores. There certainly wasn’t a Bible in every home.
Now, if we fast forward 200 years after Dante, Martin Luther regarded hell as a real place, but he believed the torment was figurative. He said that hells worst agonies were the terror and utter despair of spending eternity cut off from God. But wait a minute, is that tradition or truth? You see that theory is not based on the truth of Jesus’ teaching either. Now I hope you don’t minimize the influence that these wrong teachings have had even to this very day. No wonder people believed it to be true even though it barely has any reference to actual Bible passages, i has become the benchmark of what you should believe about the afterlife. The Catholic Encyclopedia even calls it “the Sacred Poem.” Dante’s Inferno became the standard of what hell is like and who it was for. This is important: It is fiction – fantasy and imagination. It’s a made-up story – It’s pretend! This poem is absolutely not literal. It is not a factual interpretation of the Bible’s teaching on hell! It’s not what Jesus taught about the fate of sinners.
Dante wrote The Divine Comedy as an allegory, an imaginary story. It reflects the politics and history of Italy of that day. The author himself probably didn’t realize the incredible impact it would have on people’s ideas of what hell is like. It stirred up, and it reinforced the belief that there must be blistering punishment for the incorrigibly wicked in an ever-burning hell. The result? Sadly, many have come to believe
Dante’s descriptions are more or less accurate. But they’re not! Just think about this: More people have been influenced by Dante’s imaginary hell than by what Jesus taught. That means theology, religion, yes, perhaps even your church. In fact, have you been infected by this popular tradition? Has Dante’s Inferno’s vision replaced true biblical teaching about hell in your mind? Do you know what the Bible actually teaches about eternal punishment? Notice this short but powerful scripture: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
Did you notice the contrast described in this verse? What do sinners earn? They earn death, not eternal life. But on the other hand, God’s gift is eternal life through our Saviour Christ Jesus. So God’s plain teaching is “the wages of sin is death,” not “eternal life in torment.” Simple but true, yet so many confuse this very plain truth. Notice how clearly Scripture describes this – God says: “Behold, all souls are Mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is Mine; the soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4). A few verses later, God repeats this – giving it emphasis: “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20). This is significant! It’s a major difference between what God says and what so many people believe. God tells us that souls can die.
The Bible plainly says that you don’t automatically go on living forever either in hell or even in heaven, for that matter. Jesus Himself taught: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
There is something very important in this famous verse that you may have missed. Jesus tells us that without His sacrifice, we die – we perish, we don’t live forever. To “perish” doesn’t mean just to stop living, but to be destroyed, or “to come to nothing” – to cease to exist. Not to have eternal life in torment. You may not have realized that Jesus’ teaching is exactly that.
So here’s a challenge: Are you willing to be honest with yourself and look at the facts of the Bible and consider that what you may have been taught is an error? Here’s another passage that God inspired that you won’t want to overlook. It gives insight into the truth about hell: “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, and all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble. And the day which is coming shall burn them up,’ says the LORD of hosts, ‘that will leave them neither root nor branch…You shall trample the wicked, for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day that I do this,’ says the LORD of hosts” (Malachi 4:1-3).
The Bible shows that God is a God of mercy and love. The wicked will be consumed by fire and forgotten. They will not be tortured for all eternity. They’ll receive their eternal PUNISHMENT, but not eternal PUNISHING. Their death, their eternal punishment, will last forever, but not the punishing.
So, God is the God of great mercy, wisdom, and righteous judgment. You don’t have to get bogged down with fabricated traditions, but we can take comfort. We can be encouraged in what Jesus really taught in the pages of your Bible.
But then are there other biblical texts that suggest that there is a place of torment for souls day and night? Doesn’t the Bible say something? One of those is what Jesus said back in the book of Matthew. Matthew 10:28 – Christ says: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” And someone reads that and says,”There’s Jesus talking about hell, but what is exactly the thing that He is pointing to here?” In that verse, Christ is referring to an actual spot in Jerusalem – His disciples would have known exactly what He was saying – it was the Valley of Hinnom. Which was a place of refuse and a dump, really, in its day. Fires were going all the time, burning things up. And that is the word for hell. It is translated as “gehenna” in the Greek but the Valley of Hinnom. And it is an actual place. And so they understood that reference clearly not as something under the ground, down in an ever-burning place of torment, but as a geographical spot. Actually, you can go to Jerusalem today.