Analytic Theology

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Is Hell Hot or Cold?

November 9th, 2006 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

DAVID KRONEMYER: When I was in fourth grade, we used to play a little game, which went something like this: would you rather die in the heat of the desert, or be submerged in snow and ice? Pretty macabre, n’est-ce pas? The former probably was the result of reading too much Beau Geste; I suppose the latter was its counterpart, though this turned into a real-world issue for the unfortunate David Sharp, who perished on Mt. Everest as fellow climbers passed him by, Cowell, A., “’Dead’ Climber’s Survival Impugns Mount Everest Ethics,” New York Times (May 28, 2006); Thomas, P., “Morality on a Slippery Slope,” Los Angeles Times (Jun. 1, 2006); Cowell, A., “Everest’s Challenge; Adventurers Change, Danger Does Not,” New York Times (Jun. 4, 2006).

I was reminded of this dilemma on a recent run-through of Dante’s Divine Comedy, with particular emphasis (of course) on the first cantica, Inferno. There are some fiery spots, to be sure, such as that reserved for heretics in the Sixth Circle, and Bolgia Eight of the Eighth Circle, wherein reside august personages such as Ulysses, who “In their flame they mourn the stratagem” of the Trojan Horse, Canto XXVI:58. That being so, Dante famously described the Ninth Circle of Hell, the innermost circle, as a cold place indeed:

“When we were down in that ditch’s darkness, well below the giant’s feet, my gaze still drawn by the wall above us, I heard a voice say: ‘Watch where you walk. Step so as not to tread upon our heads, the heads of wretched, weary brothers.’ At that I turned to look about. Under my feet I saw a lake so frozen that it seemed more glass than water. Never in winter did the Austrian Danube nor the far-off Don, under its frigid sky, cover their currents with so thick a veil as I saw there.”

Canto XXXII:16 – 28. This prison of ice is reserved for a variety of different species of traitors. Depending on the severity of their offense, they may only be frozen from the waist down; or, they may be completely immersed.

The Ninth Circle comprises four zones, a series of concentric circles. My favorite is Zone 2, traitors to the state. Here may be seen Count Ugolino, gnawing on the head of his former colleague, Archbishop Ruggieri. Theirs is a tale of political intrigue in 13th-century Tuscany. Following a series of shifting alliances, Ruggieri imprisoned Ugolino, together with his four sons, and they starved to death. This is Ugolino’s revenge. In some of Dante’s most vivid imagery, Ugolino raises his head from the “skull and other parts of the brain.” Before speaking, he wipes his mouth with his neighbor’s hair. Satan himself lives at the center of Zone 4. He has three mouths – the left and right are dining on Brutus and Cassius, who killed Julius Caesar. The center one (of course) is reserved for Judas Iscariot, the greatest sinner of all.

The other great chronicler of Hell is John Milton. Milton’s Hell is almost the reverse of Dante’s. There are a couple of cold spots, such as those discovered by frolicsome devils after Satan has ventured forth to return to earth. That being so, the dominant motif is one of fire:

“At once, as far as Angel’s ken, he views
The dismal situation waste and wild.
A dungeon horrible, on all sides round,
As one great furnace flamed; yet from those flames
No light; but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all, but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed
With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed.”

Paradise Lost I:59 – 69. Even the aforementioned cold region is described in terms of heat: “the parching air Burns frore [frozen], and cold performs the effect of fire,” II:587 – 603.

It’s tempting to think of Dante’s version as the Catholic version of Hell, whereas Milton’s is the Protestant version. The validity of this inference is enhanced by the fact that Dante was Catholic, whereas Milton was Protestant. But the inquiry isn’t this simple, because we also must ask, which temperature better implements the “punishment thesis” of Hell, i.e., the main purpose of hell is to punish those whose earthly lives and behavior warrant it, Kvanvig, J., “Heaven and Hell” (Oct. 2003). To address this question, we must consider several further primary sources.

To begin with, the New Testament refers to Hell on numerous occasions. Many warnings about it come directly from Jesus. Without question Hell’s most common attribute is its high temperature. Examples: Matthew 13:42 (“And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth”); Matthew 25:41 (“Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels”); Mark 9:43 – 48 (“And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched”); Luke 16:24, the parable of Lazarus (“And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame”); Revelation 20:13 – 15 (“… hell delivered up the dead which were in them … And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire”); and of course Revelation 21:8 (“But the fearful, and unbelieving … shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone”), emphases added.

Though it’s hard to say exactly where their ideas come from, the early Church Fathers also wrote extensively about Hell. Fire again is the dominant motif. It variously is described as “unquenchable” (e.g., Ignatius of Antioch), “eternal” (e.g., Justin Martyr)“everlasting” (e.g., Theophilus of Antioch), “perpetual and unending” (e.g., Tertullian), and “punishing” (e.g., Cyprian of Carthage).

If anything, the commentators’ powers of description improved over the centuries. A mid-19th Century tractarian, Fr. John Furniss, wrote an inspiring pamphlet entitled The Sight of Hell (1880). Commenting on Hell’s fire, he says:

“Look at the floor of hell. It is red hot like red hot iron. Streams of burning pitch and sulfur run through it. The floor blazes up to the roof. Look at the walls, the enormous stones are red hot; sparks of fire are always falling down from them. Lift up your eyes to the roof of hell; it is like a sheet of blazing fire. Sometimes when you get up on a winter’s morning, you see the country filled with a great thick fog. Hell is filled with a fog of fire. In some parts of the world torrents of rain come down which sweep away trees and houses. In hell, torrents, not of rain, but of fire and brimstone, are rained down. Storms of hail stones come down on the earth and break the windows in pieces. But in hell the hail stones are thunder bolts, red hot balls of fire. See that great whirlwind of fire sweeping across hell. Look how floods of fire roll themselves through hell like the waves of the sea. You may have seen a house on fire. But you never saw a house made of fire. Hell is a house made of fire. Take a spark out of the kitchen fire, throw it into the sea, and it will go out. Take a little spark out of hell, less than a pin-head, throw it into the ocean, it will not go out. In one moment it would dry up all the waters of the ocean, and set the whole world ablaze. Set a house or town on fire. Perhaps the fire may burn for a week, or a month, but it will go out at last. But the fire of hell will never go out; it will burn forever. It is unquenchable fire. St. Teresa says that the fire on the earth is only a picture of the fire of hell. Fire on earth gives light. But it is not so in hell. In hell the fire is dark.”

I particularly like his use of analogy. In the same vein is the French Jesuit Fr. Francis X. Schouppe. In The Dogma of Hell (1883), he relates the stories of several people who either are in hell, and somehow managed to communicate its horrors back to earth; or, who almost died, but were resuscitated, catching a glimpse of hell in the process. One of my favorites is the following sad tale:

“It was in Rome. A brothel, opened in that city after the Piedmontese invasion, stood near a police station. One of the bad girls who lived there had been wounded in the hand … Whether her blood, vitiated by bad living, had brought on mortification of wound, or from an unexpected complication, she died suddenly during the night. At the same instant, one of her companions, who surely was ignorant of what had just happened at the hospital, began to utter shrieks of despair to point of awaking the inhabitants of the locality, creating a flurry among the wretched creatures of the house, and provoking the intervention of the police. The dead girl of the hospital, surrounded by flames, had appeared to her, and said: ‘I am damned! And if you do not wish to be like me, leave this place of infamy and return to God.’”

And, in a tract called Eternal Loss (date not available), Fr. P. Rosari expounds on the characteristics of the fire:

“First, the fire is all-extensive and tortures the whole body and the whole soul. … The fire in which he is totally enveloped, as a fish in water, burns around him, on his left, his right, above and below. His head, his breast, his shoulders, his arms, his hands, and his feet are all penetrated with fire, so that he completely resembles a flowing hot piece of iron which has just been withdrawn from an oven. The roof beneath which the damned person dwells is fire; the food he takes is fire; the drink he tastes is fire; the air he breathes is fire; whatever he sees and touches is all fire. … It penetrates his brain, his teeth, his tongue, his throat, his liver, his lungs, his bowels, his belly, his heart, his veins, his nerves, his bones, even to the marrow, and even his blood.”

One more reference, because for a neo-Joycean like myself, it’s irresistible. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man 117 (1964 ed.), James Joyce describes a lengthy, almost nightmarish incident. Stephen Dedalus, the hero of the book (actually, it would make more sense to call him the “protagonist”) is sitting on the front bench of a chapel. Father Arnall is lecturing from a table to the left of the altar. Stephen is day-dreaming; “His soul, as these memories came back to him, became again a child’s soul.” The preacher perorates about Adam and Eve’s fall from grace. Which in turn leads into a detailed description of the horrors awaiting the damned, that goes on for nine full pages. An example: “The blood seethes and boils in the veins, the brains are boiling in the skull, the heart in the breast glowing and bursting, the bowels a redhot mass of burning pulp, the tender eyes flaming like molten balls.”

Needless to say, from an epistemological standpoint, much of this is dubious. One commentator observes:

“If Hell is so inescapable, why does Furniss know so much about what goes on there? Naming unnameable horrors and charting the unseen world for scoffers and unbelievers isn’t easy. Furniss had no photographs, filmstrips, or videos of Hell to show his kids every Friday, nor could he conduct a Hell Career Day, inviting scorched witnesses, escaped from eternal conflagration by their teeth’s skin, to ‘rap’ with the kids. … Furniss, Schouppe, and their fellow nuns and priests worked from a loose tradition of visionary saint histories. If St. Whoozit saw it during a 30-day fast, it was so. Thus was Catholic belief in perdition fueled for centuries.” Kelly, D., “Book Hell!”, 7 Book Happy (2002).

What are the Church’s modern views? The best way to summarize them is by distinguishing between what the Scholastics called the poena sensus (pain of sense), and the poena damni (pain of loss). The former is the fire of Hell, to which the damned are consigned. But the latter is estrangement from God, from the Church, from the community of Christ, itself. In this sense, the various descriptions of the temperature of Hell throughout the ages are more like metaphors. The fiery furnace of Hell is poena sensus; whereas Dante’s icy cold is poena damni, the exclusion from the Beatific Vision.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church seems to validate this point of view. It states:

1033. We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. … To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.”

* * *

1035. The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.

* * *

1057. Hell’s principal punishment consists of eternal separation from God in whom alone man can have the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.

In conclusion, I don’t think a distinction between Catholic theology and Protestant theology is particularly useful in evaluating the temperatures of Hell. Both speak about how hot and fiery Hell is. Rather, I think it’s more useful to think of “hot” and “cold,” particularly as used by Milton and Dante, as symbolizing different states of estrangement from God. If this hypothesis were true, then the puzzle would be to figure out why Dante (evidently) is more concerned with poena damni, whereas Milton (evidently) is more concerned with poena sensus.

A related inquiry would be whether poena sensus refers to a material fire, and so a real fire; or, if it’s more of a metaphor, thus denoting an incorporeal fire. One that is real, but of a different nature than fire, per se. The current Catechism makes it sound more like the latter. Whereas other authorities, e.g., Hontheim, J., “Hell” (1910), definitely are inclined towards the former. The Catholic Church doesn’t take a position on this issue.

In Summa Theologica I, q. 72, art. 3, St. Thomas observed we shouldn’t think about Hell as a variation of life here on Earth. It’s a completely different place, both from an ontological and a metaphysical perspective. While poena sensus is “real” suffering, it isn’t like that endured by mortals, because that exists only for individuals with corporeal bodies. Rather, suffering and pain for spiritual beings (i.e., the human soul after death) is more of a struggle against God, which in turn entails anguish and despair (perhaps better terms than “suffering” or “pain,” because they’re more existentialized). “Fire” is the instrument God uses to inflict this punishment. In reaching this conclusion, St. Thomas was way ahead of St. Augustin, who viewed it as a mystery, The City of God, bk. XX, ch. 22; bk. XXI, ch. 9.

I tend to think that Milton, William Blake, etc. wouldn’t buy into this schematic; they probably thought of Hell fire as qualitatively the same as real fire, conventionally understood. They would have viewed the Latin word ignis (for “fire”) in strictly a realistic way. Of course they would have other differences with the Catholic vision of Hell, too; for example, it could be argued they believe the severity of punishment might be mitigated over time, whereas, for Catholics, it’s fixed and inalterable. Protestants also deny there is any kind of place like Purgatory (more on that later, I suppose).

These doctrinal nuances simply emphasize that whether we “bathe in fiery floods, or reside in thrilling regions of thick-ribbed ice” (Shakespeare, Measure for Measure III:I), we’ll all end up in the heaven (or hell) of our own design.

Additional references:

Broadbent, J. B., “Milton’s Hell,” 21 ELH 161 (Sep’t 1954).

Hankins, J. E., “The Pains of the Afterworld: Fire, Wind, and Ice in Milton and Shakespeare,” 71 PMLA 482 (Jun. 1956).

Kuby, L., “The World is Half the Devil’s: Cold-Warmth Imagery in Paradise Lost,” 41 ELH 182 (1974).

Kuhns, O., “Dante’s Influence on Milton,” 13 Modern Language Notes 1 (1898).

Martin, C. G., “Fire, Ice, and Epic Entropy: The Physics and Metaphysics of Milton’s Reformed Chaos,” 35 Milton Studies 73 (1997).

Stark, R. J., “Cold Styles: On Milton’s Critiques of Frigid Rhetoric in Paradise Lost,” 37 Milton Quarterly 21 (Mar. 2003).