“[A]bandon all hope, you who are entering.” This often-quoted phrase, translated from Dante’s three-part hymnal Divina Commedia, is the final part of a longer sentence written on a sign at the entrance to hell. Dante’s journey makes for fascinating reading, with its corrupt politicians being boiled in hot tar, false prophets trying to walk with their heads pointing backwards, thieves attempting to escape, only to be hit by arrows thrown by pursuing centaurs—even popes and religious leaders being tortured for their double lives.
The concept of hell has been present in Christian literature from its beginnings. In fact, it existed even before Christianity came into being. It comes not only from Jewish Scripture but also from the Greco-Roman pre-Christian world. Later Germanic cultures added a few nuances, including the word “hell” itself.
In the Bible we find several synonymous words that spin around the concept of hell. Words like Sheol, Hades, and Gehenna describe certain aspects of the underworld: the grave, the dump, the place for the wicked or, in simple terms, the afterlife. We also read that hell is a place of torment and destruction, and especially of future judgment (see Matt. 5; Mark 9). Whether hell is a place or a state or condition, or whether it has a temperature or dimension or location, is also controversial and much-debated.
But one thing we know for sure. Hell is distance from God, separation from his beatific presence. In a curious note, Jesus was particularly incisive about hell when he interacted with many religious leaders (see Matt. 23:15) and did not even touch on the topic when he socialized with everyday sinners (see John 8:1-11).
The Apostles' Creed mentions hell as the place where Jesus descended after his crucifixion and death. Scholars call it the Descensus Christi ad infernos (the descent of Christ to the inferior abode or to hell). Interestingly, there is only one Bible reference for such an event (1 Pet. 3:19-20). The point is that Jesus conquered death itself. We may even personify death in animated movies with Greek characters (as in the Disney blockbuster Hercules), but Jesus is our true hero because he conquered death. Jesus went to hell, suffered its torments, and came back victorious.
During the Middle Ages in Europe, the notion of hell was used as a deterrent for a society that was highly superstitious and wild. Even today there is a lot of residual memory from those long-ago centuries; in fact, Christians still use hell as a deterrent for bad behavior and sin. (If you do a Google search, you’ll find that the topic of hell is almost twice as popular as heaven.)
So what are we to make of all this? Never mind the endless linguistic, philosophical, and theological debates about the conditional, literal, metaphorical, or purgatorial nature of hell. That road leads to hellish confusion.
Fortunately, God's grace is superior to any self-projection we might have about hell and its effects—especially for others. We might believe either that hell is literal or that it exists only as a metaphor. But I suspect that every time we do think about hell, we tend to think about it in the context of our enemies. We may even take satisfaction in the vision of eternal punishment for “them,” of their utter destruction in a place that may resemble Dante's own version of inferno. But in the end, we must remind ourselves that it is not about us but about our victorious brother Jesus and his infinite grace and love for us.
- How do you imagine hell? Is it a hot place where souls fry? Is it the place of chilly, outer darkness where teeth are set a-chattering? What does the Bible say?
- Explore the different concepts of hell as “Sheol” and “Hades” (the place where we all go when we die) go “Gehenna,” the place of ultimate judgment. Who ends up in the latter? Is it helpful to think of the former as a “remand center” where all are brought before Judgment Day while the latter is the place of punishment to which only the condemned are sent after Judgment Day?
- Do you agree that “hell is distance from God, separation from his beatific presence?” If that is so, then did Jesus suffer its torment before he died or after he died? Look up Matthew 27:45-46; Luke 23:43; and Luke 23:46. Do they give us some clues?
- Do we need to fear hell? For ourselves? For others? What kind of motivation should the concept of hell give us?
- Do you agree with Pimentel that the topic of hell is first and foremost “about our victorious brother Jesus and his infinite grace and love for us?” Give some reasons for your answers.