THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Jon M. Sweeney Headshot

What About Hell? Fiction and Fact

Posted: Updated:
HELL
Michael Merck via Getty Images

5 popular fictions:

1. The Bible is crystal clear on the subject of Hell. (It isn't. The Bible is vague at best.)
2. Jesus said that Hell is real. (He didn't, but he spoke several times about Gehenna, a violent, sad place just outside Jerusalem where child sacrifice once took place.)
3. Hell has nine descending circles. (That's all Dante, Hell's true architect.)
4. The worse your sins in life, the worse your punishments for eternity. (Again, that's Dante, this time inspired by Aristotle and Cicero.)
5. Satan reigns in Hell, with pitchfork and tail. (In the Bible, Satan is mostly an impersonal force.)

5 little known facts:

1. Of all the world's scriptures, the Qur'an teaches most consistently the concept of a violent afterlife for unrepentant sinners.
2. Hell is far more real in Virgil's Aeneid than in the New Testament.
3. The Old Testament speaks only of Sheol, not Hell, and Sheol is the dusty place in the earth where everybody goes after they die.
4. St. Paul, who lived and wrote before the New Testament gospels were written, doesn't seem to have thought much about Hell at all.
5. The idea of Hell wouldn't have been possible without the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, and that comes most from Socrates and Plato.

What does all this mean? Perhaps: For 2,000 years, Christian teaching on Hell has been built more on ancient myth and pagan philosophy than the Bible. So, Christians who still want to preach Hell, should at least know what they're talking about.

Jon M. Sweeney is the author of
Inventing Hell: Dante, the Bible, and Eternal Torment, new from Jericho Books. He lives in Ann Arbor, MI.