Hell as Eternal Torment

This is the fifth in a 13-part series wherein I give you Hell, a little booklet by the inimitable Dr. Jeff Obadiah Simmonds.

The early Christian writers, who were influenced by a Greek doctrine of the immortal soul, also adapted another element into their theology: that of a place of eternal torment. Their reading of the Bible and its reference to hell was influenced by their understanding of Greek philosophy and mythology.

The notion of an eternal hell was a logical result of the immortality of the soul—God, or the gods, had to “put” the evil souls somewhere, since they will eternally continue to be. The theory of a place for these souls, in which they will be tortured for their sin, is a Greek idea. For example, Plato wrote:

Wild men of fiery aspect… seized and dragged off several of them… they bound head and foot and hand, and threw them down and flayed them with scourges, and dragged them along the roads at the side, carding them on thorns like wool, and declaring to the passers-by what were their crimes, and that they were being taken to be cast into hell. (Plato, Republic 10)

Here, and elsewhere, we find a pagan notion of eternal suffering. Some early Christians were influenced by this mythology, and created a barbaric and horrific theology of eternal torment. An early Christian writing from the early second century describes some of the miseries of hell:

There were certain there hanging by the tongue: and these were the blasphemers of the way of righteousness; and under them lay fire, burning and punishing them. And there was a great lake, full of flaming mire, in which were certain men that perverted righteousness, and tormenting angels afflicted them…
And near those were again women and men gnawing their lips, and being punished and receiving a red-hot iron in their eyes, and these were they who blasphemed and slandered the way of righteousness…
And other men and women were being hurled down from a great cliff, and reached the bottom, and again were driven by those who were set over them to climb up upon the cliff, and thence were hurled down again, and had no rest from this punishment, and these were they who defiled their bodies acting as women, and the women who were with them were those who lay with one another as a man with a woman. (Apocalypse of Peter).

This vision of terrible torment was created by Christians reading the Bible with a pre-understanding of hell derived from Greek mythology. We, too, inherit the theology and presuppositions which have been handed down throughout Church history, and come to the Biblical text with a pre-understanding of what we are reading, which is sometimes quite wrong. When we read of everlasting fire and eternal damnation we think of the kinds of torment outlined in that 2nd century writing. But this is derived more from Plato and pagan mythology than from the Bible. The idea of hell which we inherit is only partly Biblical, and is partly mythological. (The English word “hell” is derived from an ancient Norse myth in which the underworld is ruled by a goddess named “Hel”.)

The first century Jewish people who heard Jesus and who read Paul and John also had a pre-understanding of what “hell” was. They had images in their mind—but they were not the images of Greek philosophers. Jesus’ audience would have recognised the Old Testament references and allusions, and their world-view would have included Hades—a shadowy underworld of the dead—and Gehenna—the city dump of Jerusalem. While the Greek idea of eternal punishment was of eternal torment (and it is this idea we inherit in our Christianity), the Jewish idea is of ultimate destruction and annihilation. It is this idea which the New Testament writers, and Jesus Himself, was speaking about, though we often miss the point because our pre-understanding is so different.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *