Frozen or flaming: What’s the better depiction of hell?

In summer, it’s “hotter than hell.” In winter, “hell has frozen over.”

So, which is it? Hot, or cold?

"Fallen Angels in Hell." John Martin [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Fallen Angels in Hell.” John Martin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A couple years ago, The Economist took a close look at the Western world’s perceptions of hell and where they came from in terms of theology, history and literature. Some see hell as “a medieval relic.” In contemporary culture, “it is merely a bark, not a place.” And for others, it exists “not just as a concept, but as a place on the map.” (As a religion reporter, and someone who loves literature, I recommend the article – you can read it here.)

BBC has a “ten-point tour of the underworld,” taking its hits from the likes of writers from Dante to Dan Brown. The writer of the piece surmises that hell is conical, diverse, and underground – maybe.

And, in similar fashion, The Guardian has a list of the 10 best visions of hell in literature. From Virgil, we read, “From hence are heard the groans of ghosts, the pains / Of sounding lashes and of dragging chains.” John Milton tells us the place is “A dungeon horrible, on all sides round / As one great furnace flamed; yet from those flames / No light; but rather darkness visible…” Here’s James Joyce on the subject: “Imagine some foul and putrid corpse that has lain rotting and decomposing in the grave, a jelly-like mass of liquid corruption.”

Satan freezes in the Ninth Circle of Dante’s “Inferno,” from a classic Gustav Dore’ illustration Via Wikipedia Commons

The ninth circle of hell, from Dante’s “Inferno.” By. Gustav Dore, via Wikipedia Commons

Speaking strictly in literary terms, I think back to my college English classes. I think of the ninth circle of Dante’s hell, where the likes of Cain and Judas are frozen in a lake of ice. Then, I think of Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” with all its mention of hell fire:  “the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them, the flames do now rage and glow.” (After this polar vortex, or whatever we’re calling this recent bitter weather, I think the lake of ice sounds like quite a punishment.)

What about you?

Regardless of whether you believe in hell, what’s the better depiction?

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About Kellie Moore

Kellie Moore (formerly Kotraba) served as the editor and community manager of Columbia Faith & Values through summer 2014. Although she is originally from the West – Nevada and California – she’s now proud to call Missouri home. She currently teaches English at Fr. Tolton High School.

2 Responses to “Frozen or flaming: What’s the better depiction of hell?”

  1. Steve Swope

    Steve Swope

    Kellie, I’ve long been fond of C. S. Lewis’ description of it in “The Great Divorce.” Not being in my office at the moment, I don’t have my copy at hand. But my overriding memory of it is as somewhere very dreary and “gray,” perhaps cold in the emotional sense, but neither overwhelmingly hot or cold.

  2. Kris Katarian

    Kris Katarian

    I don’t believe in hell as an actual physical place; in fact I don’t believe in hell at all, except as perhaps a state of mind like deep depression.


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