What purpose does hell serve?

Hell in the Middle Ages


1 Introduction

2. Hell
2.1 The beginning of the end
2.1.1 The origin of the term
2.1.2 Your Purpose
2.2 A look into the abyss
2.2.1 The localization
2.2.2 Characteristics of the underworld
2.3 The punishment of sins
2.3.1 Types and degrees of sin
2.4 The agony of hell
2.4.1 The Apocalypse of Peter
2.4.2 The Visio Tnugdali

3. Summary

4. Bibliography
4.1 Sources and literature used
4.2 Online Evidence

1 Introduction

"The traffic this morning was hell". "There was another hell of a noise in the classroom today." “No wonder she's unhappy; since her marriage her husband has made her life hell ”. "Go to hell!"

The term hell is used in everyday language today to describe a situation negatively. This means that people have a clear definition of this term or have certain negative associations with it. Undoubtedly the term hell viewed as a religious concept, especially as a Christian one. The proportion of people without religion in the world population is around 1.333 billion - higher than some world religions[1]. It cannot therefore be assumed that the term hell associated with a threatening, profound and emotional meaning in our century. It is therefore not surprising that most people are not afraid of going to hell after their death, as they fundamentally negate the existence of otherworldly places or the hereafter in general. However, historical review shows that this has not always been the case in human history. Due to the Christianization in the epoch of the European Middle Ages, the vast majority belonged to a Christian denomination. It is particularly crucial that the faith of Christians at this time was strongly shaped by the fact that the day of judgment was near. Because of this, the fear of hell and the torments of hell were omnipresent at that time, which is why people tried to lead a pious and sin-free life in order to get to heaven from God on the day of judgment. Nevertheless, it is questionable how the precise picture of hell and its torments could even come about, since even in the New Testament there is no clear answer to the question of what exactly happens to sinners after the Last Judgment[2]. The answer can be found, on the one hand, in the once high number of reports from the hereafter, which increasingly ensured that the upcoming religious event within the Christian community was not forgotten. Because in addition to a number of visions of the afterlife who reported a stay in the kingdom of heaven, there were also some statements that illustrated the place of hell. In addition, they functioned to a certain extent as evidence for the existence of the afterlife. On the other hand, in addition to said reports of the afterlife, a general apocalyptic worldview also provided for the concept of hell in the European Middle Ages[3]. How exactly hell came about as a place beyond and how it was basically represented in the Middle Ages forms an important core of my scientific housework. Furthermore, the specific question arises as to what was considered to be sin in the Middle Ages, what weighting sins had and how they were punished in hell. For this purpose, the origin of the term and the specific purpose of hell will first be discussed. In this way one gains knowledge of the background that shaped the Christian medieval conception of hell. This is followed by a comprehensive description of Hell, which shows the typical characteristics it had in the Middle Ages. A subsequent closer examination of the types of sins and southern levels helps to better understand how medieval Christians directed their lives, why they avoided certain things and why certain things were forbidden to citizens. Then concrete punishments in hell are examined and related to important aspects. My final résumé serves to summarize the most important findings.

Since a large number of vision reports from the Middle Ages were preserved and passed on, some of them - especially the Visio Tnugdali, one of my main sources. In addition, important contributions from research literature on the subject of hell were helpful, including, for example, the abundant vision literature by the historian and medievalist Peter Dinzelbacher and the book heaven and hell by Bernhard Lang. Another important source was provided by excerpts from the Greek fragments of the Apocalypse of Peter. Reasons for my choice of sources can be found in the further course of my work.

2. Hell

Even before the Middle Ages, a pessimistic worldview emerged - called apocalyptic, which was characterized by the belief that the earthly world was doomed and could no longer be saved[4]. Through this apocalyptic worldview the idea developed that after the Last Judgment the places of heaven and hell should serve for liberation from the world[5]. From a historical perspective, this continued well into the Middle Ages and developed systematically from then on[6]. How exactly hell came into being, how the image of hell evolved and what core tasks it fulfilled for Christians of the European Middle Ages will be examined in more detail below.

2.1 The beginning of the end

In general it can be said that "[t] he theology of the Middle Ages [...] the eschatological teachings of the early Church and the Church Fathers"[7] evolved. Christians in the Middle Ages assumed a total of five possible afterlife rooms after death, these would be: 1. Heaven, 2. Hell, 3. Purgatory, 4. Room for the pious of the Old Testament and 5. Room for children who do not Received the sacrament of baptism because they died earlier[8]. In the following, the origin of the concept of the second space beyond, that of hell, as well as its core function are examined.

2.1.1 The origin of the term

According to Gnilka, the definition of hell is a result of the mixing of the Sheol and the Gehinnom valley[9]. The term Sheol can be found in the Old Testament and do not mean any earthly or otherworldly place, since the Old Testament does not yet know any life after death[10]. Rather, describe the term Sheolthat after death one descends into the underworld - a metaphor for the pit in which the deceased lay[11]. These deceased, who were in Sheol, were considered to be so-called spirits of the dead[12]. Basically, it must be emphasized again that Sheol and the spirits of the dead were viewed metaphorically. The living were of the opinion that nothing would follow after their death. According to Gnilka, it was not death itself that was particularly serious, but the final end of the relationship with God[13]. A decisive turning point is from the 2nd century BC. Was the apocalyptic[14]. The apocalyptic assumes that the earthly world will be destroyed by a cosmic catastrophe, but that the dead can hope for a life beyond[15]. After the revelation of God, there is then a judgment on the dead, who either go to heaven or hell through God[16]. Sheol is no longer viewed metaphorically, but serves as the place where the dead remain until the day of judgment[17]. Two divided chambers would ensure that poor [good] from rich [bad] spirits of the dead would be separated and that they would get an idea of ​​what to expect after the day of judgment in the respective chambers[18]. During the judgment, the wrongdoers [sinners] then gather in the Gehinnom Valley to descend into Sheol at the end of the judgment, which is then converted into hell[19]. In addition, it should be mentioned that the Gehinnom Valley was seen as an earthly place[20]. The term hell is also from the Greek Biblical term Gehinnom Valley Gehenna derived[21].

2.1.2 Your Purpose

An important question to be answered is what purpose Hell serves. First of all, it must be noted that the life of Christian people in the Middle Ages was marked by constant fear, since, as already mentioned, they assumed that the day of judgment was approaching. Plagues such as the great plague, which struck many peoples in the Middle Ages, or natural disasters such as floods were interpreted as God's wrath over the sins of mankind[22]. As a result, one of the greatest fears was to die unprepared and without spiritual assistance - the so-called bad death[23]. For whoever died without repentance went straight to hell in the absolute distance from God[24]. Whoever went to hell had sinned in his earthly life. There is, however, an enormous difference between the function of hell and that of purgatory. While purgatory served to punish souls for their sins for a certain time and thereby purify them so that they could go to heaven on the day of judgment, sinful souls were tormented forever in hell. However, the answer to the question of the duration of the agony of hell was not always clearly answered. The first concrete statements on this question developed in the history of theology[25]. The Alexandria Origen was one of the first to take a position on this[26]. The former saw the hell punishments as limited in time[27]. According to Origen, hell serves to cleanse the souls, which for this purpose would have to go through a few stages after their death[28]. Possible stages are, for example: 1. The ordeal by fire (harmless to good souls) or 2. The customs barrier - step number 1: The dead pass a customs post while the devil and his helpers are soul checkers; at the same time a fight arises between the evil spirits for the souls. Step number 2: Those souls who do not get through the customs barrier remain in Hades, in which the punishments are limited in time[29]. Augustine was the first to start from the uninterrupted eternity of the torments of hell[30]. Inquiries such as whether a "special [...] purification for [...] venial [...] sins"[31] possible, formed the basis for the emergence of the later purgatory in the Middle Ages[32].

If one looks at all possible ideas of what can happen to sinners after death, one comes to, among other things three different possible solutions[33]. These three possibilities are shown below. Number 1: TheAnnihilation of the unbelievers[34]. This view comes from the seer John of Patmos. He sees the destruction of the unbelievers in a vision and describes that all would be judged according to their sins. Furthermore, sinners who go to hell suffer a second death by being thrown into a lake of fire. John also speaks of a book of life. Whoever is not to be found in this one also suffers the second death[35]. Number 2: Thetemporary torment of hell[36]. There is tremendous heat in Hell and at the same time there is a lack of cool drinking water[37]. These torments are said to continue until the final judgment, but what will happen afterwards is unclear[38]. Number 3: Theeternal torments of hell[39]. Taken from the book of Revelation, hell is a place for "superhuman powers and certain people who [...]"[40] are guilty of individual sins[41]. If one turns to the seer John of Patmos again, then within a war [between the devil and his followers and God and his believers] the devil followers of "heaven falling fire"[42] destroyed. In addition, at the same time "the devil [...] is thrown into a [m] burning lake"[43] and suffer eternal torments in him[44].


[1] See Schmitt: Redemption undesirable 2010.

[2] See Lang: Heaven and Hell, p.39.

[3] See Dinzelbacher: High and Late Middle Ages, p. 170.

[4] Compare Gnilka: Uncertain Beyond? P. 18f.

[5] Ibid.

[6] See Scheffczyk: Uncertain Beyond? P. 38.

[7] Scheffczyk: Uncertain afterlife? P. 38.

[8] See ibid.

[9] Cf. Gnilka: Uncertain Beyond? P. 20.

[10] Ibid., P. 16f.

[11] Ibid., P. 17.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., P. 18.

[15] Ibid., Pp. 18f.

[16] Ibid., P. 19.

[17] Ibid., P. 20.

[18] Ibid., Pp. 20f.

[19] Ibid., P. 20.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Cf. Angenendt: History of Religiosity in the Middle Ages, p. 622.

[23] See Gutschmidt: Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, Min .: 03.50-04.00.

[24] Ibid., Min .: 05.03-05.52.

[25] See Scheffczyk: Uncertain Beyond? P. 35.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., P. 36f.

[28] Ibid., P. 36.

[29] Ibid., P. 36f.

[30] Ibid., P. 37.

[31] Scheffczyk: Uncertain afterlife? P. 38.

[32] See ibid.

[33] See Lang: Himmel und Hölle, p. 39.

[34] Lang: Heaven and Hell, p. 39.

[35] See ibid., P. 39f.

[36] Lang: Heaven and Hell, p. 40.

[37] See ibid.

[38] Ibid., Pp. 40f.

[39] Lang: Heaven and Hell, p. 41.

[40] Ibid.

[41] See ibid.

[42] Lang: Heaven and Hell, p. 41.

[43] Ibid.

[44] See ibid.

End of the reading sample from 18 pages