The Christian concept of hell came from pagan cultures/religions, including Greek philosophy.
KINDLED BY THE ANCIENTS
From where did Augustine and Dante get their ideas about a never-ending suffering in store for sinners? Is it biblical? It’s true that by the time of Christ, Judaism had incorporated related concepts into its belief system, though in earlier times it did not teach that an ever-burning hell was to be the fate of the unsaved. Nor did the early New Testament Church teach it. The doctrine has its roots elsewhere.
Dante’s guide through the netherworld was Virgil, the first-century-B.C.E. Roman poet. In his epic poem Aeneid, the hero, Aeneas, is also taken on a tour of hell. Virgil’s graphic depiction of the dismal and macabre place profoundly influenced later artists and writers.
But the concept of hell as a place of torment predates Virgil as well. A number of ancient civilizations, including those of Mesopotamia, India, Egypt and Greece, held as part of their mythology the concept of an underworld—the realm of the dead. The first-century-B.C.E. Greek geographer and philosopher Strabo discussed the value of such myths, noting that “the states and the lawgivers had sanctioned them as a useful expedient.” He went on to explain that people “are deterred from evil courses when, either through descriptions or through typical representations of objects unseen, they learn of divine punishments, terrors, and threats.” In dealing with the unruly, reason or exhortation alone is not enough, wrote Strabo; “there is need of religious fear also, and this cannot be aroused without myths and marvels… . The founders of states gave their sanction to these things as bugbears wherewith to scare the simple-minded” (Geography 1.2.8).
With the rise of Western philosophy at the hands of Socrates and his intellectual heirs Plato and Aristotle, concepts of life, death and the hereafter took on new dimensions. In the East, too, the afterlife continued to stir the imagination. Strabo remarked on a group of Eastern philosophers who “weave in myths, like Plato, about the immortality of the soul and the judgments in Hades and other things of this kind” (Geography 15.1.59).
Plato (ca. 428–347 B.C.E.) became a key figure in the development of these ideas. His name appears frequently in the writings of Augustine, who noted that the Greek scholar had “perfected philosophy” and that he “is justly preferred to all the other philosophers of the Gentiles.” Though the bishop by no means endorsed all of Plato’s ideas, he did hold a number of his philosophical opinions in high regard—“opinions sometimes favorable to the true religion, which our faith takes up and defends” (City of God 8.4).
The result has been of immense importance to traditional Christianity. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which describes Augustine as a “Christian Neoplatonist,” remarks: “One of the decisive developments in the western philosophical tradition was the eventually widespread merging of the Greek philosophical tradition and the Judeo-Christian religious and scriptural traditions. Augustine is one of the main figures through and by whom this merging was accomplished.”
One of the key tenets of Neoplatonic thought adopted by Augustine was that humans possess an immortal soul. This was a critical step in his developing the idea that unbelievers could be made to endure eternal torment in hell.
Pagan cultures and philosophies have contributed greatly to modern concepts of hell. But what does the Bible itself say on the subject?