Why did hell go from being hot to cold to hot again?

In response to the Satanists installing a statue of Baphomet on the grounds of the state capital in Little Rock, Arkansas in response to the installation of a Ten Commandments monument, Republican state senator Jason Rapert, a minister and lead sponsor of the law allowing the Ten Commandments monument, promised to have the Satanist statue removed, saying that it will be a “very cold day in hell” before a statue of Baphomet would be installed.

Statements along the lines of “it will be a cold day in hell” and “when hell freezes over” are often used to suggest that something will never happen. Actually, while the New Testament of the Bible (especially that hilarious Book of Revelation) refers to hell as a fiery place, in the past hell has also been considered a very cold place because hell used to be thought of as located at the center of the Earth and thus as far away as you could get from the heavenly firmament where the Sun was. In Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, for example, which was published around 1320 CE, hell is placed in Earth’s innermost core. Dante also speaks of hell as not full of flames but as frozen and immobile.

This view was consistent with Aristotelian dynamics in a geocentric universe that was the dominant view at that time, in which the basic elements were earth, fire, water, and air. Fire being the least dense of the four would tend to go ‘up’ towards the heavens while earth being the most dense would gravitate towards the center of the universe, since that was as far ‘down’ as you could go. This was evidenced by the fact that rocks fell to the ground since earth, being heavy, was drawn to the center. Similarly flames leaping upwards showed that fire, being light, was drawn towards the heavens. The center of the Earth was considered the worst place in the universe, a kind of squalid basement where all filthiest stuff collected. Fire would not be found there, so hell was in the worst place in the universe and it was cold.

But hell is now again considered to be a hot place. The idea of a cold hell has not entirely disappeared and pops up in unexpected places such as in the song When I Die by Blood, Sweat, and Tears when they sing that they hear that it is “crazy cold way down there”.

So why has the temperature of hell oscillated between these two extremes? I suspect that religious scholars have looked into this question, since it is the kind of contradiction that they would feel the need to try and reconcile. Without doing any research whatsoever, I am going to make guesses as to the reasons.

There have always been attempts to reconcile religious knowledge with science. In the early days, it was science that tried to adjust itself (within limits) to religious dogma while nowadays religions try to reconcile their beliefs with science. While Aristotle was a pagan, his theories were too influential to ignore. Going from hot to cold may have been caused by the dominance of Aristotelian dynamics and the desire to have hell be consistent with its cosmology. But it may be that a hot hell was an idea too appealing to give up and still lurked around in the shadows. The decline of Aristotelian dynamics and the arrival of Newtonian mechanics in the 18th century entirely changed our ideas of ‘up’ and ‘down’. A hot hell became viable again because it was not inconsistent with the new dynamics. A hot hell was also more likely to be believed because for some reason, many Christians love to think of sinners suffering enormous torment. It is easier to imagine people suffering unbearable pain because of fire rather than because of cold, the former having an immediate effect while the latter takes time to be felt. People are more likely to scream in agony because of being burned than when they are cold and that seems to be what believers in hell want to think happens to evildoers. Also, while everyone has experience with the pain of fire, people in the tropics have never really experienced what it is like to be really cold. So a hot hell has universal relevance.


  1. Owlmirror says

    In Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, for example, which was published around 1320 CE, hell is placed in Earth’s innermost core. Dante also speaks of hell as not full of flames but as frozen and immobile.

    Not all of hell, but only the bottom part, where traitors were entombed. Dante has plenty of hot tortures in other parts.

    I am confident that early knowledge of geology in antiquity — volcanoes, hot springs, fulmaroles, lava fields, and the depths of mines — contributed to the idea of the underworld being hot.

  2. Mano Singham says


    Considering that the Earth was then considered to occupy such a large part of the universe, those hot eruptions could be seen as phenomena involving just the top layers of the Earth and that the heat that emerged was because the fire was trying to ‘escape’ and go ‘up’ to the heavens. This would support the idea that the center of the Earth was cold.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    Ancient Scandinavians pictured Hell as being cold as hell, quite reasonably considering their climate and its hazards.

    And they ought to know, seeing as how their giant goddess “Hel” (meaning “hidden”, as in “buried”) was the namesake for her domain then and now.

  4. DonDueed says

    And When I Die was written by Laura Nyro, although the version by Blood Sweat and Tears is better known. The line about being “cold way down there” refers to the grave, not Hell — the full line is “Bundle up my coffin ’cause it’s cold way down there”.

    Nyro wrote quite a few songs that became hits for other groups/singers, such as Wedding Bell Blues and Eli’s Comin’.

  5. jrkrideau says

    @ 3 Pierce R. Butler
    Ancient Scandinavians pictured Hell as being cold as hell, quite reasonably considering their climate and its hazards.

    Given my part of Canada, until very recently, seldom got warmer than 25 degrees or so, but a few days in winter would go to -30 or -40 plus a windchill factor, I understand their point. And I live in a fairly mild part of Canada.

  6. Mano Singham says

    DonDueed @#4,

    Thanks for the fuller quote from the song. But I still think the song is referring to going to hell and not the grave because a grave is shallow and the temperature is not much different from above ground. And it also says ‘way down there’ suggesting great depth. I think the ‘bundle up’ refers to the common belief that when you go to hell, you go with whatever you take whatever you were buried with.

  7. cartomancer says

    One thing that has to be borne in mind is that, to the Medieval theologians who speculated seriously about the nature of the hereafter, the precise temperature of the torments on offer was not really an important question. Whether they were hot or cold or a bit of both did not matter as far as the doctrines of Christian faith were concerned -- the important bit was that there was an eternal torment awaiting the damned, and how one went about avoiding it. The lurid details were a matter best left to lay speculation, and thus taken up primarily by artists and poets like our friend Dante.

    At any rate, the cutting edge of theological speculation in the high Schoastic period of the Central Middle Ages (12th-14th Century) regarded the eternal torments of the hereafter as decidedly non-physical in nature. Descriptions of lakes of fire that never cool and worms that never die were taken as metaphors for some kind of extra-physical psychic torment that afflicted the souls of the damned directly, not via physical bodies. Perhaps the memory of bodily torment, or the fear of it, but not bodily torment itself. This is because Christian doctrine had it that the damned existed, for the moment, only as disembodied spirits, (as did the blessed) and they would only be reunited with their bodies at the end of time following the last judgement. Once the resurrection had occurred, then the bodies of the damned could be physically tormented, but for the moment they were just tormented in a manner apt to disembodied souls. As such Hell didn’t have a physical nature at all, much less an ambient temperature -- it was a place of pure spirit, beyond such earthly things. Likewise, Heaven was not the Empyrean (from the Greek En Pyron -- “in fire”), the highest circle of physical existence where all the fire ultimately went, but a non-physical realm without dimension beyond it.

    Even after the Last Judgement, the physical world and its physical laws would be wound up and remade, so Aristotelian physics was regarded as of little help in determining what reality would eventually look like in its final, post-eschaton state.

    So what we are dealing with, overwhelmingly, when we look at Medieval and Early Modern ideas about what Hell looks like, is popular folk tradition. A lot of which can be traced back to the ancient world. The Greek Hades often had rivers of fire and blood (which is what Pyriphlegethon, one of the rivers of Hades, actually means), and it is likely that John of Patmos who wrote Revelations had this sort of thing on his mushroom-addled mind when he did so. The Aeneid and the Odyssey both have cold, misty, dreary underworlds, and Dante, who straddled the line between popular folklore and learned literature, was heavily influenced by both.

  8. DonDueed says

    Mano@6: Sadly, we can no longer ask Ms. Nyro what her 17-year-old self had in mind. The song’s other lyrics mention both heaven and hell but don’t go into detail.

  9. says

    There was some story I recall about hell being exothermic because, as some physicist explained, he asked a girl out and she said “it’ll be a cold day…”

    My people are from just north of Hell. Hell, Norway, that is. I visited Hell one winter and it was pretty F’in cold. But they have great salmon in hell. So it seems like an OK place.

  10. Mano Singham says

    cartomancer @#7,

    Thanks! I was hoping you’d chime in with your deep knowledge of the medieval world!

  11. lorn says

    Half a lifetime ago I was smacking ideas around with friends over beers. Of the four of us I was the one without a PhD. Two of the group had studied a lot about religion and/or philosophy as it relates to religion. Although I don’t remember any of the PhDs as being in those subjects. Two of them, long term friends, had PhDs in chemistry. Myself excluded, smart guys all.

    Somehow the subject of Hell, or other places of torment, came up. One comes forth with an observation that the geography and climate of the culture has a profound impact on their version of Hell. Desert tribes tended to think in terms of heat, burning and flames. Arctic tribal religion saw Hell as being an endless whiteout with nothing but snow and ice. He cited a tribe living on a flood plain as having a vision of hell where there was nothing but endless rain and mud.

    Two seemed to agree, one was skeptical.

    I didn’t know. And had no facts to back or refute it. It is an interesting theory. I always meant to look it up or have it confirmed or rejected by someone with a deeper understanding, and sober. Sounds good, and that was probably good enough for debate among drunks. Is this a cultural anthropological fact, possibility, or drunken bunk.

  12. ridana says

    Christians aren’t the only ones with a hot hell. There is an anime called Hōzuki no Reitetsu in which the afterlife is envisioned as a nightmarish bureaucracy. This is its theme song:

    Japan’s Hell is a multi-sectional Hell.
    All together it has 272 sections.
    This is Hell, Hell, a wonderful Hell.
    This is Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell.
    Sanjiva, Kalasutra, Samghata, Raurava,
    Maharaurava, Tapana, Pratapana, Avici,
    Visashana and Kumbhipaka,
    Sarameyadana, Lavana, Asipatravana, the Lake of Blood.
    There are more, there’s all kinds of Hells here.
    So be careful what you do in the mortal world!
    This is Hell, Hell, a wonderful Hell.
    This is Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell.
    This is Hell, Hell, an enjoyable Hell.
    This is Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell!
    Japan’s Hell is a Hell we’re proud of.
    Clap your hands to the beat.
    Japan’s Hell is a multi-section Hell.
    All together it has 272 sections!

    All the Hells mentioned in the song are Buddhist (I’m neither a Buddhist nor versed in it at all, so take the following with tolerance and a few shakers of salt! Corrections welcomed, nay solicited!).

    The first 8 in the song are the Eight Hot Narakas (Hells):

    Sanjiva: the Reviving Naraka where people are tortured with hot, slicing weapons and molten iron, and are revived each time they “die” from the torture.

    Kalasutra: the Black Thread Naraka, essentially Sanjiva with jigsaws. Stay on the black lines when cutting!

    Samghata: the Crushing Naraka, where people are repeatedly crushed to jelly by boulders, and restored as in Sanjiva.

    Raurava: the Screaming Naraka, where people run around trying to find shelter from the heat, only to be locked inside and burned once they find it.

    Maharaurava: the Great Screaming Naraka, it’s Raurava with hell beasts to torment and eat people, reserved for people who harm others for their own benefit.

    Tapana: the Heating Naraka, or Vlad the Impaler Land with fire spears.

    Pratapana: the Great Heating Naraka -- Tapana with tridents instead of spears.

    Avici: the uninterrupted Naraka, for oven-roasted sinners.

    Visashana: Murderous Hell, for prideful people who kill animals as a status symbol, and maybe weapons makers. They are whipped to death by yamadutras (the Death God Yama’s messengers). Not sure if that means they go here before they die or if they are revived like in Sanjiva.

    Kumbhipaka: If you cooked animals and birds, you go here to be cooked in a pot of boiling oil for as many years as the hairs (and feathers I assume) on the bodies of your victims.

    Sarameyadana: for thieves who kill and government officials who abuse their power and bring ruin to the nation. Here they are attacked by 720 sons of Yama’s dog Sarama, mother of dogs and maybe all wild beasts.

    Lavana: Salt Hell. Don’t mouth off about your betters or you’ll end up here. Not sure what happens when you get there though. Maybe cutting and salt in the wounds?

    Asipatravana: the Hell for heretics and those who wantonly cut down trees, which apparently leads to heresy. Sinners are whipped by yamadutras, or cut by trees whose leaves are swords.

    the Lake of Blood: this one’s kind of hard to pin down. I can’t find a specific Lake of Blood in Buddhism. But in the story “The Spider’s Thread,” the Buddha looks down on sinners in Hell in a lake of blood and casts down a spider’s thread to climb out with. Sometimes the 9th Circle of Hell in Dante’s Inferno is a frozen lake of blood, sometimes it’s just ice. Also, on Kyūshū, around the city of Beppu, there are a lot of too-hot-for-bathing springs called jigoku, and one of those is called Chi no Ike Jigoku (Lake of Blood Hell).

    My rudimentary understanding is that Buddhist hells are, unlike the Christian version, not for eternity, and you can get out of them after several thousand or tens of thousands of years.

    I wonder if Trump will be sent to Sarameyadana or Maharaurava?

  13. Owlmirror says

    The decline of Aristotelian dynamics and the arrival of Newtonian mechanics in the 18th century entirely changed our ideas of ‘up’ and ‘down’. A hot hell became viable again because it was not inconsistent with the new dynamics.

    Even before the 18th century, the rise of various Protestant denominations included the concept of sola scriptura, and scripture largely refers to the punishment of the damned as being hot.

    Although it is probably more complicated than that

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