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Is hell hot or cold?

Before readers roll their eyes and wonder whether I have lost my marbles and am next going to discuss how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, let me reassure them that I have a sociological and not theological interest in this question. It turns out that this question has had answers that have varied with time and I became curious as to the reasons why.

Most of us, at least those who grew up in the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam think of hell, to the extent that we think of it as all, as a hot place. And the Bible, especially the New Testament, seems pretty clear that hell is hot and the writings of the early church leaders also emphasized that hell was like a fiery furnace.

So it came as a bit of a surprise to me when I was researching my article The Copernican Myths published in Physics Today in 2007, to learn that “In Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, hell itself is placed in Earth’s innermost core. Dante also speaks of hell in ways consistent with Aristotelian dynamics—not full of flames, which would be displaced skyward by the heavier Earth, but as frozen and immobile.”

David Kronemeyer at the website Analytic Theology, investigating the same question of whether hell is hot or cold, quotes from Dante’s ninth and innermost circle of hell:

“When we were down in that ditch’s darkness, well below the giant’s feet, my gaze still drawn by the wall above us, I heard a voice say: ‘Watch where you walk. Step so as not to tread upon our heads, the heads of wretched, weary brothers.’ At that I turned to look about. Under my feet I saw a lake so frozen that it seemed more glass than water. Never in winter did the Austrian Danube nor the far-off Don, under its frigid sky, cover their currents with so thick a veil as I saw there.”

Canto XXXII:16 – 28. This prison of ice is reserved for a variety of different species of traitors. Depending on the severity of their offense, they may only be frozen from the waist down; or, they may be completely immersed.

Dante describes an elaborate system of locations of punishment for different categories of evildoers and identifies some of them by name, and while some of those places are hot, the ninth and innermost circle, reserved for the worst of the worst is extremely cold. Even within the ninth circle, there are gradations with the worst spot reserved for Judas Iscariot.

So Dante seems pretty convinced that hell was cold. And according to this Wikipedia article on hell, the idea that hell was cold can be found in Buddhist writings and in the works of some early Christian writers as well.

But then comes along another influential Christian writer John Milton in the 17th century who also has his vision of hell in Paradise Lost, except that here hell is again hot.

“At once, as far as Angel’s ken, he views

The dismal situation waste and wild.

A dungeon horrible, on all sides round,

As one great furnace flamed; yet from those flames

No light; but rather darkness visible

Served only to discover sights of woe,

Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace

And rest can never dwell, hope never comes

That comes to all, but torture without end

Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed

With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed.”

So why the difference? How did hell go from being hot in Jesus’s time to cold in the 14th century to hot again? Oddly enough, while I am certain that theologians have studied this question in great detail (this is after all the kind of question that is right up their alley), I found it hard to find an authoritative answer online. So here is my speculation as to how this came about. I really have no evidence that it is true. It is just a scenario that I made up that seems at least superficially plausible.

The region where Jesus lived had a Mediterranean climate with hot summers and mild winters. They likely had no idea of winter as we who live in the far northern climes know it as being bitterly cold with snow and ice. So if you wanted to imagine a really unpleasant place to put evildoers, it was easier for them to extrapolate to an extremely hot place rather than an extremely cold one. The issue of whether this was consistent with whatever their cosmology was likely did not occur to them.

But as time went on and scientific ways of thinking started gaining ground, people may have begun to realize that in the pre-Copernican model of the universe with the Earth at the center of the universe and the direction of up pointing towards the Sun in the heavens, a hot hell located at the center of the Earth was inconsistent with the idea of fire rising up. So the idea of a cold hell could have gained some attraction, though how widespread I don’t now. At least Dante, writing in the 14th century, liked it. Since he lived in a cold climate, the idea of a very cold place could easily be envisaged as being unpleasant enough to serve as hell.

But after the Copernican revolution, Earth was no longer at the center of the universe and got raised to be among the planets. The old ideas of up and down directions no longer held and so hell no longer needed to be cold. Thus the Biblical idea of a hot hell became compatible with the new model of the universe. And Milton in the 17th century went along with that idea.

Of course, all this is pure speculation on my part. Since I do not believe in hell or an afterlife, nothing really hinges on what the answer is.

Interestingly, the group Blood, Sweat & Tears in their great song And when I die revert to the idea of hell as being cold. I have no idea why.

Comments

  1. grumpyoldfart says

    How did hell go from being hot in Jesus’s time to cold in the 14th century to hot again.

    In the 14th Century sweet Christian folk were able to see old ladies burnt at the stake every Saturday evening on the village green. Torture by flames was commonplace, so the preacher gave his flock something a little more exotic to contemplate as they thought about hell – extreme cold.

  2. daved says

    Working from memory here, I seem to recall that there was a valley called “Hinnom” outside of Jerusalem, where there were constant fires going, and the bodies of criminals were burned there. The Greek for this valley was “Gehenna.” That’s the actual Greek used in the New Testament, and is usually translated as “hell” when the New Testament is translated into English.

    As for the idea of hell being cold, I read the Inferno in college, so I knew about that one, but the origin of the idea? I don’t know.

  3. TriffidPruner says

    In college I had a sardonic roommate who liked to assert that “hell has to be about room temperature.” If you took the bait and asked why, he’d explain that when it’s hot, people say “It’s hotter than hell today,” but when it’s cold out, they say “It’s colder than hell out here,” — and QED.

  4. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    The region where Jesus lived had a Mediterranean climate with hot summers and mild winters. They likely had no idea of winter as we who live in the far northern climes know it as being bitterly cold with snow and ice.

    Sorry, but I think you are wrong there. You forget the mountains. Snow happens even in Jerusalem almost every year. That has been used as evidence that Jesus wasn’t born in December. It is too cold for the shepherds to be out in the fields.

    Dante could have made hell cold simply to be compatible with the theology of the times. The Scholastics had canonised Aristotle’s writings, and as you note, his down under was cold.

    And some pop trivia: when the Eagles split, Don Henley promised that the band would play together again “when Hell freezes over”. So their comeback tour was called the Hell Freezes Over Tour.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hell_Freezes_Over

  5. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    Might the temperature of hell depend on other factors- the mood or temperament of the person imagining it, perhaps? As Frost(!) said:

    Some say the world will end in fire,
    Some say in ice.
    From what I’ve tasted of desire
    I hold with those who favor fire.
    But if it had to perish twice,
    I think I know enough of hate
    To say that for destruction ice
    Is also great
    And would suffice.

  6. Mano Singham says

    But here Frost seems to be talking of the end of the world and not the afterlife. Or am I wrong?

  7. Vote for Pedro says

    Indeed he is talking about the end of the world, but the claim that both work for torment is similar. There’s a great anthology of poems put together by the late Isaac Asimov (Familiar Poems, Annotated) organized historically by the subject of the poem. It runs from Ozymandias to Fire and Ice and is quite interesting as a history book, actually. Believe it’s out of print, but it was easy to find at Better World Books.

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