The evolution of Heaven and Hell

By  Doug Archer, Catholic Register Special
  • October 30, 2008
{mosimage}In the 14th century the Italian writer and scholar Dante Alighieri wrote his famous poem, the “Divine Comedy,” in which he presented a Catholic vision of the Inferno, the Purgatorio and the Paradiso — Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. But the Christian doctrine of the afterlife did not start with Dante. It predates the poet by more than 2,000 years and has its roots in ancient Jewish thought.  

The Old Testament speaks of the deceased descending to a subterranean place of the dead called Sheol. Part of Sheol was reserved for the righteous, who found rest and comfort there; another part, however, was set aside for those who did not keep God’s Covenant. This dark side of Sheol was identified with Hell or Gehenna.  
Gehenna refers to a valley where, in the centuries before Christ, waste, the carcasses of animals and even the bodies of executed criminals were thrown. Continually burning fires were necessary in the valley to consume the waste and eliminate the odor of putrefaction. It was also associated with the worship of false gods and was considered a place of abomination.  

The Christian concept of Hell built on the notion of Gehenna and became a place of pain, punishment and exclusion from the Kingdom of God. Dating from the first and second centuries, the authors of the Gospels describe Gehenna, or what we have come to call Hell, as the underground pit, the furnace of fire and the place of eternal torture for the damned.

Several hundred years later, Augustine suggested that this “underground pit” was populated by flesh-eating animals.  Thomas Aquinas postulated that the tortures of Hell were physical as well as spiritual, and that real fire played a part in them. And many writers and painters throughout the Middle Ages depicted the torments of Hell with such specific detail that one would think they had been there. Dante’s “Inferno” is famous for his hair-raising and horrific detailed descent into the depths of Hell.

Throughout the centuries, endless conjecture has been made concerning where “there” is. While the Bible speaks of Hell as being within the Earth, Christian writers have placed it variously on islands in the Mediterranean, on the sun and outside of the universe. Whatever its location, however, it is generally agreed that Hell is the residence of Satan or Lucifer. 

The devil is referred to in numerous passages in both the Old and New Testament, but it is only in the last book of the Bible, Revelations, that a full account is given of Lucifer turning on God and being cast out of Heaven by the Archangel Michael. The fallen angel became the keeper of Hell in Christian thought.

While the New Testament positioned Hell as a place of everlasting damnation, as early as the third century some Christian thinkers proposed that banishment to Hell may not be eternal. They believed that the fires of Hell were purifying and could contribute to the afterlife education and purification of the soul. Although this notion was denounced by the church at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553, the notion of refining fire in the afterlife persisted.

The Christian tradition of reciting prayers and celebrating Masses for the deceased, to aid them in the afterlife, did not fit with the concept of Hell as eternal. And the establishment of All Soul’s Day at the beginning of the 11th century by St. Odilo focused further attention on the ability of the faithful, through prayer and almsgiving, to help the departed who had not fully atoned for their transgressions before death.   

Two hundred years later, the theology of penance and purification was extended to the deceased and Purgatory (from the Latin verb, “to purge”) was formally recognized as part of Catholic doctrine. Positioned between the two extremes of Heaven and Hell, the First Ecumenical Council of Lyon defined purgatory in 1254 as a place of “transitory fire” where minor sins can be cleansed. Purgatory still offered the hope of Heaven to Christians who had died in sin.

Jewish visions of Heaven evolved over several centuries before the time of Christ. As the Jewish people were subjected to invasions and oppressive rule by other nations (such as the Babylonians in the sixth century B.C.), belief that the righteous would be rewarded on Earth began to wane. It was replaced by a belief in reward after death. Sheol came to be seen as too gloomy a place for the souls of the just and the idea to set them apart in an otherworldly paradise began to take hold. By the second century before Christ, the heavenly city of Jerusalem was not only the place of God and the angels, but the eternal abode of the just. 

Early Christians carried on this belief and saw Heaven as a paradise above the world. It occupied the highest point in a cosmology of celestial spheres that circled the Earth. Generally seven heavens were pictured, corresponding to the sun, the moon and the five visible planets. In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul reported that he had been transported to the third heaven and also to paradise — perhaps the seventh heaven. This notion of a celestial Heaven manifested itself in the commonly held medieval view that Heaven existed as a physical place above the clouds from where God and the angels watched over humanity. 

The Christian notion of Heaven was more fully developed in the fifth century by St. Augustine. In his work, The City of God, the famous theologian argued that Heaven was a place of order, governance and citizenship where saved Christians saw God “face-to-face” and were re-united with loved ones.   

By the 13th century, scholasticism challenged how Heaven could be considered a physical place.  Rather it was proposed that Heaven was a quintessence: a fifth essence beyond the four elements of earth, air, fire and water. As a quintessence, Heaven was outside the natural laws governing the universe. Writing at the time, St. Thomas Aquinas maintained that when we speak of our Father in Heaven, as is done in the Lord’s Prayer, it is meant to describe God as a divine being beyond nature, not a body inhabiting a place called Heaven. Heaven was more a state than a place. 

These days the church is relatively silent on such issues as the location and nature of Heaven. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states simply that Heaven is the “fulfilment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.” In the same way, while the church affirms the existence of Hell, it does not speak to its location. At a general audience in 1999, Pope John Paul II stated that, “Rather than a place, Hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitely separate themselves from God.”

Although there is a long history in Christian thought of trying to characterize Heaven, Purgatory and Hell, perhaps like the nature of God, they are ineffable.

(Archer is a freelance writer in Port Elgin, Ont.)

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