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In the Bible Hell is always referred to in physical, concrete terms. Descriptions include a lake of fire and brimstone, a weeping and gnashing of teeth, darkness, and physical pain. The rich man in the parable has a tongue, a finger, and overall a whole body.

Mainstream Christianity has always put forth this view. Here I will be discounting viewpoints which have softer versions of Hell, like the view that Hell does not last forever.

I am confused on this. The Bible lists Hell as a physical place, where people have a physical body and a physical pain. And yet,

  • Hell being physical energy and matter, with the fire being presumably much hotter than regular fire, would likely be detected due to the amount of heat and radiation it gives off,
  • People in Hell have bodies. But the bodies do not burn up, and in evangelical circles the pain lasts for ever and ever, day and night, with no rest. Therefore, the body must either be regenerating rapidly, or is indestructible.
  • People who are cremated have no body to resurrect. This means either God will make new bodies, or the soul in Hell has no body. If the soul in Hell has no body, then it cannot feel physical pain, because souls are spiritual.
  • Hell was created for the devil and his demons (fallen angels). They do not have bodies, they are all spirit. So if Hell was for them, it would need no physical components.
  • If Hell is infinite physical pain, like Mainstream Christianity shows, then there must be an infinitely hot and large Hell. But if Hell is physical, then infinite heat and size/mass means infinite gravity, which means that if Hell is physical at all and can interact with physical things (like a body or pain receptors) then the whole world would have collapsed into a black hole.

And yet,

  • Most Christian interpretations of Hell include extreme and vast physical pain, the fire is usually like Earth fire, but it is much hotter and much more painful.
  • Most Christian views of Hell include eternality, which means that the pain goes on forever.
  • The Bible is interpreted literally, unless there is a logical contradiction (God does not contradict Himself)
  • The Christian Hell up until recently (ancient, Medieval, and 1900s) was mainly physical, with fire and brimstone sermons being common (like Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God).

With all of this in mind, is Hell a physical place? If Hell is a physical place, then the view that Hell is physical pain holds. But if Hell is not a physical place, then there can be pain but not physical pain.

If Hell is a physical place, then it would seem to have many physical contradictions; it would not be physical per the usual definition of the word. If Hell is not a physical place, then most of the historical view of Christianity is inaccurate. This is a contradiction.

Is Hell a physical place of infinite physical pain, and if it is, how does Mainstream Christianity account for the inconsistencies with physical nature of things?

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  • People who are cremated still have bodies, they are just turned to ash and smoke.
    – Mary
    Jan 17, 2023 at 0:02
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    @Mary . . . . . and angelic powers can recover such, whether actually or through knowing the DNA, we know not. But it is an easy matter for such powers to do so. Agreed.
    – Nigel J
    Jan 17, 2023 at 4:33
  • Just for the record, if a couple of billion dead people were burning in e.g. Alpha Centauri, the very nearest star to us, they'd be undetectable. Let alone in the billions of more distant stars, or space outside the observed universe. Other dimensions are a step less observable again. Jan 17, 2023 at 20:39
  • Extreme weather conditions (super-hot, super-cold) are exactly what's being predicted by climate scientists (global warming). Your question is intriguing - from the descriptions of hell we see in scripture, is it possible to build one with current or future technology or is hell in violation of physical laws that make it impossible?
    – Hudjefa
    Jan 20, 2023 at 7:42
  • Destructive bushfires, pain and weeping exist here on earth. Apparently neither will exist in heaven. Jul 30, 2023 at 10:09

3 Answers 3

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Similar to the question on heaven, there are two different meanings for the word hell here. An equivocation is happening that causes confusion.

On the one hand, hell refers to the state of someone's soul. This is the case whether that person is in hell before or after the resurrection. Yet, clearly, prior to the resurrection, anyone in hell cannotbe suffering physically, since they are not yet in their bodies. There will also be a resurrection, according to mainstream Christianity, in which all people are raised in their bodies. The blessed will go into eternal beatitiude, but the damned into eternal torment. And, as they are now in their bodies, this second understanding of hell, the eternal hell, is a physical torment.

Read through the accepted answer to the linked question to understand this distinction between heaven/hell prior to the resurrection and heaven/hell after the resurrection.

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  • Ok, so in the eternal Hell people have their bodies. Since that Hell does not exist yet, thus it is undetectable. But will people have their original bodies?
    – user61001
    Jan 16, 2023 at 21:47
  • The doctrine of the resurrection of the dead typically teaches that people are resurrected into their original bodies. The blessed are resurrected into a glorified form of their original bodies, but made from the same matter that constituted their original bodies.
    – jaredad7
    Jan 16, 2023 at 22:06
  • Ok. So it is physical just like right now? Like Hell is the same type of pain as getting a hand chopped off?
    – user61001
    Jan 16, 2023 at 22:19
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    Up-voted +1, but hades, the place of departed souls, is still torment (you say that - disembodied - there is no suffering). The rich man lifted up his eyes (metaphorically) in hades, his brothers yet on earth, and was in torment, gasping for water (metaphorically). The eyes and the gasping are metaphors to help us understand. The torment is real, but incomprehensible, since it is of spirit, disembodied.
    – Nigel J
    Jan 17, 2023 at 4:30
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    @NigelJ I said there was no physical suffering. Of course the gasping is a metaphor for spiritual suffering.
    – jaredad7
    Jan 18, 2023 at 17:37
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It might be more accurate to say that all mainstream Christian teaching is that hell is an actual place, with actual pain, and actual awareness of that by the souls in it. In this question, the word 'physical' is stressed. Think again about Jesus' speaking of Lazarus dying and finding himself in bliss "in the bosom of Abraham" and the rich man dying and finding himself in torments in hell (Luke 16:19-31). Read the whole account and note that the two men had left the physical realm and were in a spiritual realm.

Certainly, mainstream Christianity has always taught the reality of heaven and hell, and of the spirits of the dead returning to God (Ecclesiastes 12:6-7), some souls experiencing bliss while others are tormented in hell. In both cases, bodies are spoken of in the Bible. Yet as physical existence is the only one we have experienced, Jesus wisely used words we understand to describe a state we cannot possibly understand until we find ourselves in that state. He used the strongest words possible to convey the horror of ending up in hell, words like 'torments, in flames'. 'Weeping' and 'gnashing of teeth' are other descriptions.

Hell is horribly real. Worryingly, though, some unChristian ideas about hell have been absorbed by much of mainstream Christianity, for instance, some Islamic teachings. But that is not to be gone into here. Let me quote from a Reformed Protestant source that details its views, starting with the relevant part of its Confession XXXII 'Of the State of Men After Death, and of the Resurrection of the Dead':

"1. This section of the Confession teaches us (1) that at death the physical bodies of all men alike return to dust and see corruption, (2) that the souls of all men then enter upon the intermediate state, (3) that the intermediate state differs as respects the righteous and wicked...

The resurrected body of Lazarus was not like unto that glorious body which will be his, and ours, on the resurrection day, if we believe in Jesus (1 Cor. 15:36,37)... At the resurrection, the body will be at last delivered also, to be reunited with the soul, and both body and soul will be spiritual. This does not mean that the body will not be physical...

But the wicked are dead already in this life, both in body and soul. The soul is dead from the very beginning of its natural existence because it is derived from Adam. All men are by nature 'dead in trespasses and sins' (Eph, 2:1f.) But the unbeliever remains dead. And his physical death merely marks an advancement into death as a more complete experience. Unbelievers are already without God and without hope in the world, and yet - in the world - still enjoy some of God's common blessings. But at the time of physical death, they lose even that which they have. Then, there are no more blessings of any sort to alleviate the torment and darkness of their condition. Neither is there any longer a free and gracious invitation of God to salvation through Jesus Christ. All hope is now abandoned. The soul descends into hell. Yet the condition and place of the wicked souls of unbelievers after physical death, and prior to their resurrection, is not a totally new development. It is rather the complete manifestation, the full development, of that condition of soul which began with natural birth in a lost and sinful condition. The wrath of God remains on them. But now it comes to full expression. But even this intermediate state, in which the soul alone reaches mature development in sin and experiences the unalleviated consequences of sin, is not the full manifestation of the damnation of the wicked. That must await the resurrection of the body. Then, and only then, can the reconstituted man experience the physical and spiritual torment that God has reserved for them that are not his. Thus, paradoxically enough, physical death has the effect of delaying not only the full perfection and joy of the righteous but also the full misery and suffering of the wicked." The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes, pp.253-4, G.I. Williamson, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1964

The official doctrine of Hell in Catholicism is detailed in D 16, 40, 429, 464, 693, 717, 835 and 840. It upholds hell's eternity against the doctrine of the apocatastasis as put forward by Origen and other ancient writers (D 211). Here are just a few quotes from the Catholic source below:

"Jesus, like the Baptist, spoke in his eschatological menaces of hell as the eternal place of punishment, prepared not only for the devil and his angels (Mt25:41) but for all who have rejected the salvation offered by God. It is the punishment of their unbelief and refusal to repent. He speaks of hell as a place where eternal, unquenchable fire burns, where there is darkness, howling and gnashing of teeth... St. Paul speaks of hell in abstract theological terms as eternal destruction, ruin and loss...

A certain distinction is made between the loss of the vision of God and the pain of sense (D 410), but apart from this there is no official declaration on the nature of the pains of hell...

The metaphors in which Jesus describes the eternal perdition of man as a possibility which threatens him at this moment are images (fire, worm, darkness, etc.) taken from the mental furniture of contemporary apocalyptic. They all mean the same thing, the possibility of man being finally lost from God in all the dimensions of his existence. Hence it can be seen that the question of whether the 'fire' of hell is real or metaphorical is wrongly put, since 'fire' and suchlike words are metaphorical expressions for something radically not of this world... This does not mean that 'fire' is to be given a 'psychological' explanation. ...It also follows that speculations about the 'place' where hell is to be found are pointless. There is no possibility of inserting hell into the empirical world around us...

The just God is 'active' in the punishment of hell only insofar as he does not release man from the reality of the definitive state which man himself has achieved on his own behalf, contradictory though this state be to the world as God's creation. Hence the notion of vindictive punishment, such as inflicted by political society on those who infringe social order, is not at all suitable to explain the doctrine of hell." Encyclopedia of Theology, pp.602-4, article by Karl Rahner, Burns & Oates, 1981 [Bold emphases mine]

Hence it can be seen that these two mainstream Christian groups are in agreement on those points (although they differ in some other aspects, but not regarding the points raised in this question.)

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Is Hell a physical place in mainstream Christianity?

Historically, Christians believe that hell is a physical place, but as St. Augustine says: "It is my opinion that the nature of hell-fire and the location of hell are known to no man unless the Holy Ghost made it known to him by a special revelation", (City of God XX.16)

Where is hell? Some were of opinion that hell is everywhere, that the damned are at liberty to roam about in the entire universe, but that they carry their punishment with them. The adherents of this doctrine were called Ubiquists, or Ubiquitarians; among them were, e.g., Johann Brenz, a Swabian, a Protestant theologian of the sixteenth century. However, that opinion is universally and deservedly rejected; for it is more in keeping with their state of punishment that the damned be limited in their movements and confined to a definite place. Moreover, if hell is a real fire, it cannot be everywhere, especially after the consummation of the world, when heaven and earth shall have been made anew. As to its locality all kinds of conjectures have been made; it has been suggested that hell is situated on some far island of the sea, or at the two poles of the earth; Swinden, an Englishman of the eighteenth century, fancied it was in the sun; some assigned it to the moon, others to Mars; others placed it beyond the confines of the universe [Wiest, "Instit. theol.", VI (1789), 869]. The Bible seems to indicate that hell is within the earth, for it describes hell as an abyss to which the wicked descend. We even read of the earth opening and of the wicked sinking down into hell (Numbers 16:31 sqq.; Psalm 54:16; Isaiah 5:14; Ezekiel 26:20; Philippians 2:10, etc.). Is this merely a metaphor to illustrate the state of separation from God? Although God is omnipresent, He is said to dwell in heaven, because the light and grandeur of the stars and the firmament are the brightest manifestations of His infinite splendour. But the damned are utterly estranged from God; hence their abode is said to be as remote as possible from his dwelling, far from heaven above and its light, and consequently hidden away in the dark abysses of the earth. However, no cogent reason has been advanced for accepting a metaphorical interpretation in preference to the most natural meaning of the words of Scripture. Hence theologians generally accept the opinion that hell is really within the earth. The Church has decided nothing on this subject; hence we may say hell is a definite place; but where it is, we do not know. St. Chrysostom reminds us: "We must not ask where hell is, but how we are to escape it" (In Rom., hom. xxxi, n. 5, in P.G., LX, 674). St. Augustine says: "It is my opinion that the nature of hell-fire and the location of hell are known to no man unless the Holy Ghost made it known to him by a special revelation", (City of God XX.16). Elsewhere he expresses the opinion that hell is under the earth (Retract., II, xxiv, n. 2 in P.L., XXXII, 640). St. Gregory the Great wrote: "I do not dare to decide this question. Some thought hell is somewhere on earth; others believe it is under the earth" (Dial., IV, xlii, in P.L., LXXVII, 400; cf. Patuzzi, "De sede inferni", 1763; Gretser, "De subterraneis animarum receptaculis", 1595). - Hell (Catholic Encyclopædia)

St. Thomas Aquinas who is honoured in several denominations as as renowned theologian wrote in his Summa Theologica that hell would be a physical dwelling, with a physical fire that will not be made of matter!

In Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas taught that hell is reserved for the wicked and the unbaptized immediately after death, but that those who die only in original sin will not suffer in hell. Aquinas also taught that, on Judgment Day, the punishment of hell will consist of fire and of "whatever is ignoble and sordid," since "all the elements conduce to the torture of the damned," who "placed their end in material things." Aquinas further taught that the worm of the damned is a guilty conscience, that the damned will suffer over the fact of having separated themselves from God, that the damned will physically weep on Judgement Day, that hell is so full of darkness that the damned can only see things which will torment them, that the "disposition of hell" is "utmost unhappiness," that the fire of hell is non-physical (before Judgment Day) and physical (at Judgment Day), that the physical fire of hell will not be made of matter, and that whether or not hell is under the earth is unknown. Aquinas taught that the suffering of punishment is according to one's sins, so that some will suffer more, in deeper and darker pits of hell, than others. - Hell (Wikipedia)

Nevertheless, a divergence of opinions reside amongst many denominations about the question of Hell. Some deny it all together.

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