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.