Hell: Wet, Dry, or No Heat?

Will there be heat in Hell? And if so, will it be wet or dry? I think it’s safe to say that the general consensus is that Hell should be as miserable as possible; therefore, reason would lead us to conclude that Hell is a wet heat.

But we can’t be sure with just reason, so let’s see what others have to say about it.

The Old Testament had only one abode of the dead called Sheol. Passages about this place are nebulous, and so is, apparently, Sheol. It’s a shadowy world where the souls simply exist, experiencing neither pain nor pleasure. When Saul has the witch of Endor conjure the prophet Samuel from Sheol, he doesn’t seem too pleased about it (1 Samuel 28). I think this is a vote for “no heat,” because if Samuel had been suffering, he would have been a little thankful to Saul and the witch for giving him some reprieve.

Believe it or not, the word “Hell” is nowhere in the Bible. It comes from Norse mythology where the goddess “Hel” ruled over an underworld of spirits named “Hel,” which sounds not only narcissistic but a bit confusing. I mean, when a Norseman says, “Go to Hel” he’d have to clarify exactly what he meant by it, which would take some of the sting out of the insult.

Later translators will attach the Norse concept of “Hel” with the Greek New Testament word, “Gehenna.” But Jesus wasn’t referring to the Norse Underworld when he talked about “Gehenna.” He was referring to a valley outside of Jerusalem known as the “Valley of Hinnom” found in 2 Kings 23:10 & 2 Chron. 28:3; 33:5. This was a place where evil acts were committed, including child sacrifices to a pagan god named Molech. Because of this, the Jews believed the valley was cursed and would be a place where the wicked would go to reside in judgment.

Jesus mentioned that it was better to enter the Kingdom of God with one eye then to be cast into Gehenna where “the worm does not die” (Mark 9:48). Some have concluded that the illustration referred to a burning trash dump in the valley, but there doesn’t seem to be any early evidence of this. Nonetheless, if we go with tradition, then this would definitely be a dry heat, albeit really stinky.

But not so fast. Revelation 20:14 describes condemned souls being tossed into a “Lake of Fire,” conjuring an image of lava. This seems to me to be a wet heat, if for no other reason than that it uses the word, “lake.” And note that this would be a far stinkier fire since the passage also mentions sulfur (brimstone). And I can’t imagine anything stinkier than that.

The Early Church Fathers tended to describe Hell as fire, but it’s tough to know exactly what they meant by it. Origin, for example, pondered a redemptive Hell where souls would be given more chances to turn to God. By the time we get to Augustine, however, Hell as a place of eternal punishment becomes popular. In the City of God, Augustine described hell as a literal fire, because, he argued, one must interpret the passage in Mark 9 (mentioned above) literally, except for the “worm” part which must be interpreted metaphorically. Because, let’s face it, who believes in eternal worms?

So two votes for dry heat.

By the time we get to the high period of Scholasticism in the 13th and 14th centuries, the notion of poena sensus arises in Aquinas. This essentially means that the damned will experience a pain of the senses which includes, but is not limited to, fire. When confronted with the idea that perhaps souls don’t have anything with which to sense, Aquinas sighed and rolled his eyes and explained that after Judgment Day the disembodied will be embodied so that God can torture them. Duh! This appears to be another vote for dry heat.

But then we get to Dante and his Inferno. There are all kinds of punishments described as a part of his version of Hell. Some verge on silliness, like fortune tellers with their heads put on backwards. And then there’s the just plain gross, like gluttons wallowing in eternal poop, which I guess is easier to believe in than eternal worms. This suggests a wet heat, which is further supported by the murderers treading boiling blood. But then blasphemers are exiled to a desert of flaming sand, which sounds like a vote for dry heat. Yet, further reading reveals that fiery flakes rain down on top of the tormented souls with hot feet, and since the word “rain” is used, I think we can safely put Dante’s hell in the wet heat category.

In “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Jonathan Edwards imagined a hell as a frightened human dangling over a roaring firestorm with nothing but air beneath him and the “pleasure of God” holding him up. He writes,

“Your wickedness makes you as it were heavy as lead, and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards hell; and if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend and plunge into the bottomless gulf, and your healthy constitution, and your own care and prudence, and best contrivance, and all your righteousness, would have no more influence to uphold you and keep you out of hell, than a spider’s web would have to stop a falling rock.”

On the surface, this appears to be a vote for wet heat since the word “gulf” is used. But “gulf” can be interpreted as an inlet of the sea as well as a deep ravine. And since the word “spider” is used, I think we can assume the latter. So dry heat.

Moving closer to today, C.S. Lewis seemed to enjoy imagining the netherworld. In his Screwtape Letters, it appears that demons are having a rather enjoyable time, and there doesn’t seem to be any mention of flickering flames or boiling vats. And in his book, The Great Divorce, Lewis imagined a Hell that looks very much like earth where the damned essentially get what they want, a world without God. But he describes no heat of any kind, so now we are back to where we began, with “no heat.”

In conclusion, though reason would lead us to believe that Hell is a wet heat since that seems to be a worse punishment, it appears that in our very unscientific summary of the history of the doctrine that the jury is still out.

So perhaps the prayer of St. Monty Python is a fitting way for us to end this post since it covers all the possible permutations:

“O Lord, please don’t burn us.
Don’t grill or toast Your flock.
Don’t put us on the barbecue
Or simmer us in stock.

Don’t braise or bake or boil us
Or stir-fry us in a wok.
Oh, please don’t lightly poach us
Or baste us with hot fat.

Don’t fricassee or roast us
Or boil us in a vat,
And please don’t stick Thy servants, Lord,
In a Rotissomat”

Amen.

Illustration credit: Medieval illustration of Hell in the Hortus deliciarum manuscript of Herrad of Landsberg (about 1180), public domain.

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