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.