The Current

Hell does freeze over (and other things you never knew about damnation)

Author Marq de Villiers speaks about how different cultures and different religions have approached the idea of damnation, and why he wanted to write a sinner's guide to eternal torment.

Marq de Villiers' book examines how cultures and religions, over centuries, have conceptualized damnation

In his new book, Marq de Villiers explores how eternal damnation is far more varied than we might think. (Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images)

Read Story Transcript

Journalist Marq de Villiers' interest in hell was first piqued by Galileo Galilei.

The 17th-century Italian astronomer may be most famous for arguing that the Earth circled around the sun, but he also applied his scientific mind to an exact analysis of the location of hell.

Using an estimation of Satan's size from that time, and Dante's assertion that the centre of the earth was right at Satan's navel, Galileo calculated that hell must be about 650 kilometres below the surface of the earth.

"It was presumably not one of Galileo's signature achievements," de Villiers told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

From this starting point, de Villiers researched the many versions of hell, writing about them in his new book Hell and Damnation: A Sinner's Guide to Eternal Torment

Not only do many religions paint their own picture of damnation, some versions of Buddhism have a specific hell for thousands of sins, including one for borrowing a book and pretending to have lost it (so that you don't need to give it back).

But in all the variety, there seems to be one unifying purpose: life is unfair and sinners often prosper on Earth, so hell serves as a balancing act.

Marq de Villiers is a South African-Canadian writer and journalist. (Paul Orenstein; University of Regina Press)

"To people who lead virtuous lives and perhaps didn't prosper, and they saw these sinners doing extremely well, somehow there had to be a comeuppance," he said.

"If you couldn't get them during life, you had to invent a way that god would punish them when their life was over."

In his book, de Villiers points out that hell is a lot more interesting than just a fiery pit filled with the wailings of the eternally damned, and that some elements are surprising.

Hell does freeze over

According to multiple Christian descriptions, Satan is frozen into the middle of hell, with only his jaw loose, so that he can gnaw on the worst sinners, like Judas.

How can we possibly know what happens in hell? Through tourist accounts, said de Villiers.

"It seemed in the early medieval period that every monk or nun had at least either a vision of hell, or was taken there by a guardian angel and shown around," he said.

"So we have eminent and presumably trustworthy eyewitnesses."

Being too good can get you kicked out of hell

According to Chinese mythology, Miao-shen was a princess in the Epoch of the Golden Heaven, about 2,500 BCE.

She refused to marry the man her father had chosen for her because she wanted to become a Buddhist nun — so her father had her executed, and she descended into hell.

Aside from the typical physical torture often portrayed in pop culture, like being burned, some versions of hell match the torture to the specific sin, de Villiers said. (Inti Ocon/AFP/Getty Images)

But she was so pious that when she prayed in hell, all sins were removed, the tortures stopped, and hell became a peaceful place.

"The managers of hell were actually horrified," said de Villiers. "This wasn't the purpose of hell."

Miao-shen was promptly evicted, brought back to life, and everything returned to normal.

"Hell could go back gratefully to doing what it did best, which is to hurt people," he said.

Torture can be very creative

Aside from the more commonplace boilings in oil, flayings, or having entrails pulled out by a bird for all of eternity, some versions of hell match the torture to the specific sin.

One example, from Buddhism, is the Hell of the Sword-Leaf Trees that is reserved for husbands who deceived their wives. In this hell stands a tree about a kilometre tall, with razor-sharp thorns about a metre long. The men at the base of the tree would see seductive women at the top, and in their race to reach them would be cut to pieces. At the top, they would heal — and then see the same seductive women at the bottom of the tree, and be cut into pieces once more. 

One Chinese Buddhist version of hell consists of a waiting room where bureaucrats ignore you into oblivion, de Villiers said. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

"This went on for many thousands or even millions of cycles until they had purged themselves of the urge to deceive," said de Villiers.

In fact, the physics of many hells specifies that no matter how many times a sinner is destroyed, they heal quickly in order to start the torture again.

"It was anguished and it was eternal, but it was also incredibly tedious, I would think," de Villiers told Tremonti.

Hell is bureaucracy

One Chinese Buddhist version of hell consists of a waiting room with very hard chairs, with bureaucrats sitting at desks.

For the duration of a sinner's punishment, the bureaucrats completely ignore them.

"I think that's one of the worst hells of all," said de Villiers.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Written and produced by Karin Marley.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.