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Bible Encyclopedias

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Hell Punishments, Nature of

The term HELL (Hö lle), as stated above, originally denoted the "nether world," the "place of departed spirits." It came to be almost exclusively applied at a later period to the "place of torment" for the wicked. The scholastic divines distinguished between the Limbus, or place of the souls of departed spirits, and hell, properly so called, where the damned suffer their punishment (Aquinas, Summae Suppleml. qu. 69).

The nature of the punishments of hell has been very variously understood in different times. In the early Church the fire of hell was generally considered as a real, material fire. So Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Cyprian. Origen, however, "believed the misery of the wicked to consist in separation from God, the remorse of conscience, etc. (De Princ. 2, 10. Opp. 1, 102). The eternal fire is neither material nor kindled by another person, but the combustibles are our sins themselves, of which conscience reminds us: thus the fire of hell resembles the fire of passions in this world. The separation between the soul and God may be compared with the pain which we suffer when all the members of the body are torn out of their joints. By outer darkness' Origen does not so much understand a place devoid of light as a state of complete ignorance; he thus appears to adopt the idea of black bodies only by way of accommodation to popular notions. It should also be bone in mind that Origen imagined that the design of all these punishments was to heal or to correct, and thus finally to restore the sinner to the favor of God" (Hagenbach, History of Doctrines, § 78).

From the latter part of the 3rd century onward to the rise of scholasticism, the punishments of hell were generally described by material images, and, indeed, were considered; to a large extent, as material punishments. Gregory of Nazianzus ( 389?) supposed the punishment of the damned to consist essentially in their separation from God, and in the consciousness of their own moral debasement (Orat. 16, 9, p. 306: Τοῖς δὲ μετὰ τῶν ἄλλων βάσανος μᾶλλον δὲ πρὸ τῶν ἄλλων τὸ ἀπεῤῥφθαι θεοῦ, καὶ ἐν τῷ συνειδότι αἰσχύνη πἐραςοὐκ ἔχουσἀ ). Basil, on the contrary, gives a more vivid description of that punishment (Homil. in Psalms 23; Opp. 1, 151, and elsewhere). Chrysostom represents the torments of the damned in a variety of horrid pictures (in Theod. lapsum, 1, c. 6, Opp. 4, 560, 561). Nevertheless, in other places (e.g., in his Ep. ad Rom. hom. 31 Opp. 10, 396) he justly observes that it is of more importance to know how to escape hell than to know where it is and what is its nature. Gregory of Nyssa (Orat. Catech. 40) endeavors to divest the idea of hell of all that is sensuous (the fire of hell is not to be looked upon as a material fire, nor is the worm which never dies an ἐπίγειον θηρίον). Augustine imagines that separation from God is in the first instance to be regarded as the death and punishment of the damned (De morib. eccles. cuth. c. 11); but he leaves it to his readers to choose between the more sensuous or the more spiritual mode of perception. It is, he says, at all events, better to, think of both (De civit. Dei, 21 9, 10).

From the 8th to the 16th centuries the tendency was to regard the punishments of hell more as physical and material than as moral and spiritual; in the doctrine of the Church the two sorts of punishment were combined. Aquinas treats of the punishments of hell under the title Poena Damnatorum (Summae Suppl. qu. 97), and teaches, 1. that the damned will suffer other punishments besides that of fire; 2. that the "undying worm" is remorse of conscience; 3. that the "darkness" of hell is physical darkness, only so much light being admitted as will allow the lost to see and apprehend the punishments of the place; that, as both body and soul are to be punished, the fire of hell will be a material fire. Augustine's view, he says, is to be considered rather as a passing opinion than as a decision (loquitur opinando et non determinando). The fire, according to Aquinas, is of the same nature as our ordinary fire, though "with different properties;" and the place of punishment, though not certainly known, is probably under the earth. Others of the schoolmen, however (especially the Mystics), made the suffering of hell to consist rather in separation from God, and in the consequent consciousness of sin, and of unavailing repentance, than in material penalties.

The Reformation made little change in the doctrine as to the nature of future punishment. The substance of the Reformed doctrine is given in the Westminster Confession, chap. 33, as follows: "The wicked, who know not God, and obey not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments, and be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power;" and in the Larger Catechism, quest. 29, "What are the punishments of sin in the world to come? A. The punishments of sin in the world to come are everlasting separation from the comfortable presence of God, and most grievous torments in soul and body, without intermission, in hell-fire forever." In general, both Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians agree in making that punishment to consist (1) of the pena damni, penalty of loss or deprivation, separation from God, and hence loss of all possible sources of enjoyment (Matthew 6:21; Matthew 22:13; Matthew 25:41; compare Wesley, Sermons, 2, 148), of which loss the damned will be fully conscious; (2) of the pana sensus, penalty of sense or feeling, as the natural consequence of sin. "These punishments are inevitable, and connected as closely and inseparably with sin as any effect with its cause. From the consciousness of being guilty of sin arise regret, sorrow, and remorse of conscience, and it is these inward pangs which are the most grievous and, tormenting. The conscience of man is a stem accuser, which cannot be refuted or bribed, and the more its voice is disregarded or suppressed here upon earth, the more loudly will it speak hereafter. Add to this that the propensity to sin, the passions and evil desires which in this world occupy the human heart, are carried along into the next. For it cannot be supposed that they will be suddenly eradicated as by a miracle, and this is hot promised. But these desires and propensities can no longer find satisfaction in the future world, where man will be placed in an entirely different situation, and surrounded by a circle of objects entirely new, hence they will become the more inflamed. From the very nature of the case, it is plain, therefore, that the state of such a man hereafter must necessarily be miserable. Shame, regret, remorse, hopelessness, and absolute despair, are the natural, inevitable, and extremely dreadful consequences of the sins committed in this life." (3) Besides these natural penalties of sin, there will also be positive penalties inflicted by divine justice. The New Testament speaks far more distinctly and frequently of these positive punishments than of the natural ones, and especially of the "undying worm," and of "the eternal fire." The general tendency of modern theology is to regard these expressions as figurative representations of the positive penalties of hell Doddridge remarks that, "On the whole, it is of very little importance whether we say there is an external fire, or only an idea of such pain as arises from burning; and should we think both doubtful, it is certain God can give the mind a sense of agony and distress which should answer and even exceed the terrors of those descriptions; and care should certainly be taken so to explain Scripture metaphors as that hell may be considered as consisting more of mental agony than of bodily tortures" (Lect. on Divin. 223).

Of similar tenor are the following remarks by Dr. Wardlaw: "What the nature of that suffering shall be it is vain for us to attempt to conjecture. It has been conceived that if we suppose clear apprehensions of God and sin in the understanding; an unslumbering conscience; an unceasing conflict between full, irrepressible convictions of all that is awful in truth, and an enmity of heart remaining in all its virulence; passions raging in their unmitigated violence; regrets as unavailing as they are torturing; conscious desert and unalleviated hopelessness; with the entire removal of all, in whatever form, that on earth enabled the sinner to banish thought and exclude anticipation, we have materials for a sufficient hell. I will not deny it. I cannot but think, therefore, that there must be something more than conscience, something of the nature of positive punitive infliction: conscience attesting its justice, certifying its being all deserved. What shall be the precise nature of that infliction is another question. There may surely be something of the nature of punitive infliction without adopting the theory of literal fire, of a lake of fire, a lake burning with brimstone. I have no more belief, as I have just said, in a literal fire than in a literal worm; and no more belief in either than in the existence, for the heaven of the Bible, of a literal paradise, in the center of which grows the tree of life, or of a literal city, of which the length, and breadth, and height are equal, of which the foundations are precious stones, the gates of pearl, and the streets of gold, with a pure river of living water flowing through the midst of it. But the mind of fallen man is in love with sin, and in selfish hatred of God and holiness. In a mind of this character the difficulty may amount to impossibility of awakening any adequate sense of future suffering, or any salutary alarm in the anticipation of it, by any representation of it more directly spiritual, or even mental. In these circumstances, then, if an impression of extreme suffering is to be made, it seems as if figure, taken from what is still in the midst of all the perversions of depravity felt to be fearful, were almost, if not altogether, indispensable for the purpose. The figures of Scripture on this subject are felt, and felt powerfully, by every mind. The very mention of the "worm that dieth not" awakens a more thrilling emotion, undefined as it is (perhaps, indeed, the more thrilling that it is undefined), than anything you can say to an unregenerate man about the operations of conscience, and the "fire that never shall be quenched" than any representation you can ever make to him of sin, and the absence of God, and the sway of evil passions, and the pangs of remorse, and horribleness of sin-loving and God-hating company. Such images have the full effect intended by them. They give the impression, the vivid and intense impression, of extreme suffering; although what proportion of that suffering shall be the native and necessary result of the constitution of human nature when placed in certain circumstances, and what proportion of more direct penal infliction, the Scriptures do not tell us, entering into no such discussions. And it would be useless for us to conjecture, or to attempt the adjustment of such proportions" (Systematic Theology, Edinburgh, 1857, 3:700). For a copious list of books on the subject, see Abbot's bibliographical appendix to Alger, History of the Doctrine of a Future Life, § 3 F, 3.

On the Duration of the punishment of hell, (See UNIVERSALISM).

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Hell Punishments, Nature of'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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