Heaven, Hell and Christianity

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Paradiso by Gustave Canto

Christians believe that when someone dies, they are judged by God. The righteous go to Heaven and the sinners go to Hell. Christians believe that Hell is the separation from the love of God: They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified by his saints. — 2 Thessalonians 1:9-10 [Source: BBC]

Like the neo-Platonists, early Christians of the A.D. 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries believed the soul was something lighter than air that tended to rise towards heaven but sometimes became damp and heavy in the earth’s atmosphere and weighted down by passions until it was brought down to earth. Those laden with passions were dragged down to hell. Christians have traditionally placed a great deal of emphasis on heaven as a reward for faith but conceptualizations of what heaven is like has changed greatly over time, with interest in it often peaking in times of stress and chaos. The idea of heaven as a garden, a temple of God, or a kingdom with streets of gold and precious stones, palm trees, ladders and people in white clothing playing harps emerged after Jesus's death.

According to a 2002 Newsweek poll, 76 percent of Americans believe that heaven exists and, of those, 71 percent think it is an actual place, 13 percent thinks it like a garden, 13 says it looks like a city, and 17 percent don’t know.

Book: “Heaven: A History” by Colleen McDaniel and Bernard Lang.

Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity britannica.com//Christianity ; History of Christianity history-world.org/jesus_christ ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/christ.htm ; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Bible: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks ;

Early Christianity: Elaine Pagels website elaine-pagels.com ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Gnostic Society Library gnosis.org ; PBS Frontline From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians pbs.org ; Guide to Early Church Documents iclnet.org; Early Christian Writing earlychristianwritings.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Early Christian Art oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth212/Early_Christian_art ; Early Christian Images jesuswalk.com/christian-symbols ; Early Christian and Byzantine Images belmont.edu/honors/byzart2001/byzindex

Heaven in Ancient Times

The concepts of heaven and hell was adapted by Zoroastrianism and passed on to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. See Zoroastrianism Under Animism, Shamanism and Ancient Religions

The Christian concept of heaven and resurrection was shaped by the Jewish concept of Sheol (see Jews), the Greek ideas of Hades and the Elysian Fields (see Greeks) and the personal beliefs of Christian followers. From the Jews came beliefs about resurrection. From the Greeks and later the Romans came the ideas of dualism between the soul and the world and an Underworld for bad people and paradise for good people.

The notion of Heaven espoused by early Christians differed from that of the Greeks and Hebrews in that the afterlife was viewed as a resurrection of a person in the flesh to live with a living God.

Heaven in the New Testament

Jesus did not talk specifically about heaven other than to say heaven was like a "treasure hidden in a field" and "a pearl of great price." In Luke there is a description of Lazarus being “carried up to be with Abraham.”

Jesus talked repeatedly about a kingdom of God as a kind of reward that awaited those who were saved. In his first sermon Jesus said, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." This kingdom is commonly seen as a place within an individual where worldly concerns are left behind and replaced with a state generated by faith in God. When asked, “When will the kingdom of God come?” Jesus replied. “You cannot tell by observation when the kingdom of God comes. There will be no saying, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘there it is’ of in fact the kingdom of God is within you.”

20120508-heaven Paradiselubok.jpg Paul described a man who was "caught up to the third heaven" but failed to give any details as to what his experience was like. In I Corinthians 2:9: "But, as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard...the things which God hath prepared for them that loved him." In I Thessalonians, Paul described a resurrection in which “the Lord himself will descend from heaven: first the Christian dead will rise, then we who are left alive will join them, caught up in clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord.”

The most vivid descriptions of heaven come from Revelation, in which John describes it as a place where God sits on a throne of jasper, fronted by a sea of crystal and outlined by a rainbow. He is attended by 24 elders dressed in white and eternally lauded by four-winged beasts who "rest not day and night, saying Holy, holy, holy, Lord Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come." All around are angels, "ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands."

Revelation was written at a time when the Christians were facing persecution by the Romans. Some scholars believe that the visions of a paradise-like heaven was encouraged so that Christians would remain faithful in a time of great distress. At that time heaven was regarded as place for a only few people who opposed “the world.”

Heaven in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

After Christianity became the official religion of Rome in the A.D. 4th century, the concept of heaven began to change. In the A.D. 5th century, St. Augustine described a “City of God,” filled with buildings and naked people (as God created them) who could marry and have sex. He also described a Beatific Vision in which saints had blissful direct communion with God.

Later in the Middle Ages, rural people envisioned heaven as natural place like the Garden of Eden while urban people tended to see it as a structured, hierarchal place with castles and courts and people in robes with Mary as the Queen of Heaven. Beginning in the 11th century, the Crusaders believed that they would go to heaven as a reward for fighting.

As interest in science grew and Western universities emerged heaven began to take on a more cosmological and metaphysical character. In the 13th century, the theologian Thomas Aquinas argued that heaven was not an earthly paradise but rather an abstract communion with God filled with light and knowledge.

Renaissance Catholics described heaven as a more human place presided over by the Virgin Mary. The concept of purgatory developed so that majority of people could reach heaven. Dante gave a vivid vision of Heaven, which was sort like a rose-shaped stadium filled with people, with God as the center as a brilliant light and nine concentric spheres of angels swirling about. Each sphere was associated with a heavenly virtue and a planet. These in turn were surrounded by two shells — The Heaven of the Fixed Stars and the Primum Mobile. Beyond was the Empyrean. How close you approached God depended on your capacity for love and joy. Milton also gave us elaborate visions of Heaven and Hell.

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Heronimus Bosch's Four Last Things (Paradise)

Heaven in the Modern Times

In the mid 1700s, the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg claimed to have visited heaven. He wrote a series of popular books that described heaven in great detail. He said heaven wasn’t all that different from earth: people ate and drank and went about every day life, often not realizing the were dead. Visions of heaven popular around this time pictured it as a place with material pleasure, romantic love and spiritual growth.

In the 1868 bestseller “The Gates Ajar” , Elizabeth Stuart Phelps described heaven as a place where people enjoyed garden parties and were reunited with their friends and relatives. "We stopped before a small and quiet house built of curiously inlaid woods...So exquisite was the carving and coloring, that on a larger scale the effect might have interfered with the solidity of the building, but so modest were the proportions of this charming house that its divinity was only enhanced by its delicacy...There were flowers — not so many; birds; and I noticed a fine dog sunning himself upon the steps."

In the 20th century, material views of heaven still predominate. Heaven has been the subject of films like “ It’s a Wonderful Life” , “Heaven Can Wait” .

Heaven and Hell in the 14th Century

Benedictus Deus (On the Beatific Vision of God) by Pope Benedict XII (Apostolic Constitution issued in 1336) says: According to the general disposition of God, the souls of all the saints who departed from this world before the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ and also of the holy apostles, martyrs, confessors, virgins and other faithful who died after receiving the holy baptism of Christ—provided they were not in need of any purification when they died, or will not be in need of any when they die in the future, or else, if they then needed or will need some purification, after they have been purified after death—and again the souls of children who have been reborn by the same baptism of Christ or will be when baptism is conferred on them, if they die before attaining the use of free will: all these souls, immediately (mox) after death and, in the case of those in need of purification, after the purification mentioned above, since the ascension of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ into heaven, already before they take up their bodies again and before the general judgment, have been, are and will be with Christ in heaven, in the heavenly kingdom and paradise, joined to the company of the holy angels. Since the passion and death of the Lord Jesus Christ, these souls have seen and see the divine essence with an intuitive vision and even face to face, without the mediation of any creature by way of object of vision; rather the divine essence immediately manifests itself to them, plainly, clearly and openly, and in this vision they enjoy the divine essence . Moreover, by this vision and enjoyment the souls of those who have already died are truly blessed and have eternal life and rest. Also the souls of those who will die in the future will see the same divine essence and will enjoy it before the general judgment.

Francesco Botticini's The Assumption of the Virgin

Such a vision and enjoyment of the divine essence do away with the acts of faith and hope in these souls, inasmuch as faith and hope are properly theological virtues. And after such intuitive and face-to-face vision and enjoyment has or will have begun for these souls, the same vision and enjoyment has continued and will continue without any interruption and without end until the last Judgment and from then on forever.

“Moreover we define that according to the general disposition of God, the souls of those who die in actual mortal sin go down into hell immediately (mox) after death and there suffer the pain of hell. Nevertheless, on the day of judgment all men will appear with their bodies "before the judgment seat of Christ" to give an account of their personal deeds, "so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body" (2 Cor. 5.10). [Source: "The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church", published by Alba House, Eternal Word Television Network, sourcebooks.fordham.edu]


Hell as a place of punishment and suffering where sinners are condemned is a concept that exists in Christianity, Islam and Hinduism and to a lesser extent in Judaism, Buddhism and many tribal religions in the world. What hell is or like is widely disputed even within Christianity.

According to a 2000 U.S. News and World Report poll, 34 percent of Americans believe that hell is a real place where people suffer fiery torment; 53 percent said they believed it was an anguished state of existence eternally separated from God; 11 percent said they didn’t know.

The concepts of hell as a place of punishment for evildoers was adapted by Zoroastrianism and passed on to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. See Zoroastrianism.

Early concepts of Christian hell were based on Greek Hades (see Greeks) and Jewish of Sheol.

Book: “The History of Hell” by Alice Turner (Harcourt Brace, 1993)

Hell in the Old Testament

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Early Jews developed the concept of Sheol, an Underworld where the all dead resided in a kind of semi-existence. Genesis, 1 Kings, Psalms and Job all mention Sheol. Eccles 9:10 describes it as a place in which "you are bound, there is neither dying nor thinking neither understanding nor wisdom." When Jacob concluded his beloved son was dead, he moaned, “I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.”

The concept of Sheol was partly based on the Greco-Roman belief of Hades, a dreary and depressing place where people went after they died. The Pharisees, a Jewish sect that lived around the time of Jesus, embraced the Greco-Roman idea of heaven as place with distinct “levels,” or areas. In the 2nd century B.C. when the Hebrew scriptures were translated to Greek, the word Hades was used instead of Sheol.

Isaiah predicts a punishment of fire for the wicked and Daniel describes “shame and everlasting contempt” for evildoers. There is no mention of Hell in the Old Testament as a permanent place of punishment for the wicked but Hades is represented as a temporary abode for the wicked. The Book of Enoch reads: “And this has been made for sinners when they die and are buried in the earth and judgment has not been executed upon them in their lifetime. Here their spirts shall be set apart in great pain, till the great day of judgment, scourging, and torments of the accursed for ever.”

Judaism widely reject a literal interpretation of hell. In the 18th century the influential Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn reasoned that hell couldn’t exist because a punishment of eternal suffering was is incompatible with God’s mercy.

Hell in the New Testament

There was not many descriptions of hell in the New Testament. Mark warns of “the fire that never be quenched” and “the undying worm” waiting sinners who “offend.”In Luke, Dives was taken to Hades, “where he was in torment,” but inexplicably he can talk to Lazarus who was sent presumably to heaven. The Gospel of Matthew mentions perdition, the “outer darkness,” a furnace of fire, the damnation of Hell and an everlasting punishment. There are also some indications that hell doesn’t exist. Paul said that “the wage of sin is death,” not damnation in an afterlife.

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Hortus Deliciarum
Many early Christians believed that everyone would have to pass through fire as a kind of test. Paul wrote in I Corinthians 3:13; “For that day dawns in fire, and the fire will test the worth of each man’s work.” This day was supposed to occur when Jesus returned

Jesus seemed to indicate the wicked would go hell immediately after death. According to the Gospels of Nicodemus and Bartholomew, which never became part of the Christian canon, Jesus’s descends into Hell after his crucifixion and before his resurrection.

Revelation describes Hell as lake of fire and an eternal place of punishment where the damned were sent after Judgement at the end of the world. According to Apocalypse of Peter, Hell is a place where sinners are thrown in an unquenchable fire, where the tongues of blasphemers are hung up, where fornicators are dumped in a pit, where murders face venomous beasts, clouds of worms and torment from the souls of the people they murdered and where women who had abortions have their eyes pierced by their unborn children.

Hell as a Place on Earth

For early Christians hell was not a metaphor but a real place with rivers, islands, prisons and torture chambers. In early Christian teaching after the final judgment, the are condemned to a hell of fire called “gehenna” , a Greek word derived from the Hebrew “Gehinnom” and referring to the desolate Valley of Hinom, just south of the Old City in Jerusalem, where the ancient Canaanites reportedly conducted human sacrifices in which children were immolated in front of their parents and the ancient Jews dumped their trash and burned it and dishonored corpses were disposed of.

Describing the Valley of Hinnom in 1999, Edwin Black wrote in the Washington Post, “Everywhere you see scorches and smolder from trash fires. Rivulets of urine trickle down from open sewers at the cliffs above, watering thorn bushes, weeds...You smell the stench of decaying offal, the congeal stink of putrefied garbage...Worms and maggots slither throughout.”

Hell in the Early Christian Era

Muhammad faces Hell
There was a lot of speculation and debate about Hell in the early years of Christian. Theologians tried to resolve inconsistencies in the scriptures and decide whether it was a concrete place or a state of suffering or separation from God. Sometimes these theologians wrote in their own name, sometimes they attributed their thoughts to Apostles. Theologians wrestled with thorny issues like, “Were the wicked to suffer forever?” and “If so was this a failure of Gods effort to redeem mankind” (some concluded that damnation was only temporary and even Satan would one day be saved).

There was also a sense that Hell will bring harsh justice to people who gave Christians a hard time. A North African theologian who wrote in the A.D. 2nd century during the persecution of Christians in Rome wrote: “What a panorama....Mighty kings whose ascent to heaven used to be announced publically groaning now in the depths with Jupiter himself...Governors who persecuted the name of the Lord melting into flames fiercer than those they kindled for brave Christians...The famous charioteer will toast in his fiery wheel; the athletes will cartwheel not in the gymnasium but in the flames.”

Hell in the Middle Ages

In the A.D. 5th century, Augustine upheld the idea of an eternal Hell “of material fire and torment to the bodies of the damned.”, to which atheists and the truly wicked were condemned, but argued that those who committed lesser sins such as overeating and laughing too much would be saved by means of passing through a “purgatorial fire before the Judgement Day.

In the Middle Ages, the idea of purgatory was developed, Satan became a major figure, reports of encounters with demons increased, heretics and witches were burned, and vivid descriptions of hell were presented in the written form and in art.

The nun Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1099-1179) described hell as "deep and braid, full of boiling pitch and sulphur, and around it were wasps and scorpions, who created but did not injure the souls of therin; which were the souls of those who had slain in order not to be slain...Near a pond of clear water I saw a great fire. In this some souls were burned and others were girdled with snakes, and others drew in and again exhaled the firelike breath, while malignant spirits cast lighted stones at them...And I saw a great swamp, over which hung a black cloud of smoke, which was issuing from it, And in the swamp there swarmed a mass of little worms. ere were the souls of those who in the world delighted in foolish merriment."

Hell in the Renaissance

Dante gave a vivid vision of Hell as an inferno. His Hell was divided into seven layers, each associated wi the a deadly sin, with the worst being at the bottom. So convinced that Dante’s Hell was a real, Galileo used his description to calculate that Hell was 405 11/22 miles below the surface of the earth.

Milton also gave us elaborate visions of Hell with burning sulfur, dudgeons, fiery downpours and hideous demons and helped define Hell in the English-speaking world. Paintings by Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) provided lurid images of the kind of beasts and landscapes one oculd expct to find there.

The great philosophers of the Enlightenment — Locke, Descartes and Hobbes — tackled the issue of Hell. Locke wrote that sinners in Hell “shall not live forever. This is so plain in Scripture, and is so everywhere inculcated — that the wages of sin is death, and the reward for righteousness is everlasting life...that one would wonder how the readers could be mistaken.” Others made a case for universal salvation. Later on people like Voltaire mocked the idea of Hell altogether.

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Hell and Purgatory by Meister von Torcello

During the Reformation and Counter-Reformation concepts of hell became increasingly abstract. Hell was viewed a real place but not one necessarily filled with fire. Rather it was seen a place of deep despair associated with separation from God.

Hell in the Modern Times

In the mid 1700s, the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg offered descriptions of hell that were just as material and accessible as the ones he offered of heaven. In the 1800s, Hell became less of something that people took literally and more of a symbol and a literary device used by people such as Lord Byron, William Blake and Baudelaire.

In the 20th century, fundamentalists and evangelicals pushed forward the fire and brimstone vision of hell while most people had difficult taking that view seriously. In films, art and the media, the images of hell and the devil were more often than not ridiculed and used as comic device.

In 1999, the an editorial in the influential Jesuit magazine “La Civilta Catolica” declared Hell “is not a “place” but a “state,” a person’s “state of being,” in which a person suffers from the deprivation of God.” A few days later Pope John Paul II added, “rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitely separate themselves from God” and said that Bible “uses a symbolic language.”


Catholics believe in Heaven and Hell, but also in Purgatory, a place for those who have died in a 'state of grace' (that is, they have committed 'venial' or forgivable sins) and may not go straight to Heaven. The concept developed so that majority of people could reach heaven. In the A.D. 5th century, Augustine upheld the idea of an eternal Hell “of material fire and torment to the bodies of the damned.", to which atheists and the truly wicked were condemned, but argued that those who committed lesser sins such as overeating and laughing too much would be saved by means of passing through a “purgatorial fire before the Judgement Day. In the Middle Ages, the idea of purgatory was developed, Satan became a major figure, reports of encounters with demons increased, heretics and witches were burned, and vivid descriptions of hell were presented in the written form and in art.

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Hell by Luca Signorelli

Catholics believe that the soul is immortal. At death each man and woman is sent to Heaven or Hell based on their deeds during their life and obedience to the laws of God and the church. Before entering Heaven many souls must spend time in Purgatory to become pure. The concept of purgatory arose in part because of the confusion over what happened to people after they died and waited for the second coming of Christ, when they would be whisked off to heaven.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “All who die in God’s grace, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven (1030).”

Catholics believe that in purgatory they will be cleansed of their sin before moving on to heaven. Along with idea of purgatory developed the notion that “indulgences” could be bought with money to the Pope and this could earn one time off in purgatory. Indulgences were the trigger for the Reformation launched by Martin Luther. Some Protestants say that purgatory is s one of the most detestable of all Catholic teachings, saying it represents “a medieval invention nowhere to be found in the Bible” and calling it "a denial of the sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice", instead representing "a second-chance theology that is abominable."

II Maccabees 12:39-46 — a part of the Bible accepted by Catholics and Orthodox Christians but rejected by Protestants and Jews — describes Judas Maccabeus and members of his Jewish military forces collecting the bodies of some fallen comrades who had been killed in battle. When they discovered these men were carrying “sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear”, Judas and his companions discerned they had died as a punishment for sin. Therefore, Judas and his men “turned to prayer beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out… He also took up a collection... and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably… Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” [Source: Tim Staples, catholic.com, January 18, 2014]


'Limbo': A Way to Deal with the Death of Unbaptized Babies

According to the BBC: “One of the biggest problems the Catholic Church faced over the years was the problem of children who died before they were baptised. Before the 13th Century, all unbaptised people, including new born babies who died, would go to Hell, according to the Catholic Church. This was because original sin had not been cleansed by baptism. This idea however was criticised by Peter Abelard, a French scholastic philosophiser, who said that babies who had no personal sin didn't even deserve punishment. [Source: September 17, 2009 BBC |::|]

“It was Abelard who introduced the idea of 'Limbo'. The word comes from the Latin 'limbus', meaning the edge. This would be a state of existence where unbaptised babies, and those unfortunate enough to have been born before Jesus, would not experience pain but neither would they experience the Beatific Vision of God. Abelard's idea was accepted in the 13th century by Pope Innocent III, the most powerful Pope in Roman Catholic history. The idea of Limbo was defined in 1904 by Pope Pius X in his catechism. |::|

“Babies dead without baptism go to Limbo, where they do not enjoy God, but neither do they suffer, because, having Original Sin alone, they do not deserve Paradise, but neither do they merit Hell or Purgatory. — Pope Pius X However, unease remained over reconciling a Loving God with one who sent babies to Limbo and the church still faced much criticism. The Church, which has never claimed to definitely know who will go to Heaven apart from the Saints, or Hell, has said that the issue has long been one of speculation in the Church. This speculation has led to an oversimplification of the matter, and some people have regarded it as fact when it was never the case. |::|

“Catholics are only sure of the following two pieces of information in this matter: 1) that God is merciful; 2) that baptism is necessary for salvation Catholics feel sure that God won't impose punishment on babies who are free from personal guilt, but they do admit they don't know what their afterlife will hold. |::|

“In 1992, Pope John Paul II had Limbo removed from the catechism and both Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict XVI urged further study on the concept. In April 2007 Pope Benedict XVI approved the findings of a report by the International Theological Commission, a Vatican advisory body, which found grounds that the souls of unbaptised children would go to heaven, thus revising traditional teaching on Limbo. The report said there were "reasons to hope that infants who die without baptism may be saved and brought into eternal happiness" Parents were urged to continue to baptise their children, as the Vatican stressed that baptism is still considered necessary to achieve salvation; the report emphasised that "there are reasons to hope that God will save these infants precisely because it was not possible" to baptise them.”

purgatory with limbo for children in the lower left

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Symbols of Catholicism” by Dom Robert Le Gall, Abbot of Kergonan (Barnes & Noble, 2000); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); Newsweek, Time and National Geographic articles about Jesus, the Bible and Christianity. Also the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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