If you grew up as an evangelical Christian, you might have heard all about Hell from the Sunday morning pulpit. A brief survey of the Bible’s New Testament also reveals references in the four Gospels along with the Book of Revelation’s fiery lake of everlasting torment. However, you might be surprised to discover that the Christian concept of Hell may have older pagan origins.
The Greek Realms of Hades and Tartarus
The Ancient History Encyclopedia explains that some key ancient Greek writings, including Homer’s “Odyssey” and Plato’s dialogue “The Phaedo,” depicted the afterlife as a vast underworld network. The entry process to Hades began when departed souls boarded a ferry to cross the River Styx and reached its gates, guarded by a fearsome three-headed dog known as Cerberus. Once a person passed by this petrifying pooch, he or she moved into the inner realms.
Next, everyone faced judgment by Minos, Rhadamanthys and Aiakos, three legendary individuals said to have lived honorably by the ancient Greeks. The souls of the dead were then consigned to specific places in Hades for the rest of their existences. Elysium was reserved for the heroic and distinguished, the Asphodel Meadows for ordinary folk and the Mourning Fields for individuals who’d wasted their lives on unrequited love. Tartarus was a dark place far below the earth where the exceptionally evil endured endless punishment for their sins.
Greek Mythology, Jewish Hellenization and the Afterlife
The tale of how Hell came to exist in modern Christianity is a complex one. Patheos columnist and author Christian Piatt speculated in a 2013 write-up that Hellenism, or the spread of ancient Greek ideas, impacted Jewish culture. Repeated conquests, including those by Alexander the Great, resulted in a Jewish diaspora living throughout the Middle East. In the fourth century B.C., Jewish people in the region encountered Greek colonization and cultural fusion, resulting in a significant shift in their views of the afterlife. Prior to these invasions, Jewish tradition held that everyone went to Sheol upon death. It was a place of rest for both good and evil individuals, with no preference or distinction shown to either group.
Of course, the story of Hell doesn’t end there. Author Don M. Burrows mentions the Gospel of Nicodemus in a 2014 Patheos post, describing it as a syncretism between Christian and ancient Greek ideas. It’s one of a few works positing that Jesus descended into Hell, an idea reflected in some versions of the Apostle’s Creed and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Burrows also points to works such as Dante’s “Inferno,” influenced by Virgil’s “Aeneid,” a work in which the protagonist descends to an underworld to witness the wicked being tormented.
St. Augustine’s Influence on Modern Christian Thought
Hell’s appearance in Christian theology may have resulted from some additional factors. A 2016 piece by National Geographic contributor Mark Strauss explains that while there was no consensus on the afterlife by early Christian theologians, many thinkers such as Saint Irenaeus of Lyons proposed that the wicked simply faded from existence. It was St. Augustine of Hippo who developed the doctrine of “eternal conscious torment,” positing that the condemned burn and suffer while awake for eternity in a lake of fire. While many denominations are moving away from this idea, it remains alive and well in evangelical Christian dogma.
Whether they’re punitive measures for evildoers or scare tactics to push believers into unquestioning obedience, supernatural places in which justice is served have been conceived of by humans throughout history. While the Christian Hell gets the most press in the United States, there is proof that its roots lie in ancient Greek mythoi. Developed and expanded throughout the ages, Hell is a modern testament to pagan ideas that lived on past their original culture.