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Lake of Fire

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The Christian notion of being tortured in a lake of fire, as found in the Book of Revelation, is actually a very old, pagan idea that goes all the way back to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. The oldest known beliefs about the afterlife appeared in Mesopotamian literature from the middle of the third millennium BCE, which adhered to a neutral death. For most of the ancient Near East, the dead inhabited regions of the earth in distant lands that required crossing harsh mountainous terrain or dangerous seas to reach it. The land of the dead was a barren wasteland, lacking light, water, and energetic life. The major theme was a clear distinction between the netherworld and the land of the living.

Ancient Sumerian cylinder seal showing the god Dumuzid being tortured by galla underworld demons.

During Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (ca. 2160-1580 BCE), a distribution of the dead appeared based on a person’s loyalty to different Egyptian gods, though the concept of eternal torment was not yet present. The punishments, whether dismemberment or burning, resulted in the total annihilation of the dead. These depictions of the afterlife from Egypt and Mesopotamia came complete with mischievous serpents, fiery pits, lakes of fire, and incarnate gods descending into the netherworld to rescue mortals from death. An eighth-century BCE text, Hesiod’s Theogony (or Birth of the Gods), discusses the rebellion of superhuman Titans against the Olympian gods who are subsequently imprisoned in Tartarus, a place located deeper in the bowels of Hades. Tartarus is the very cultural background for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim notions of Hell. Much like the Egyptian and Babylonian texts, the netherworld existed in a distant land with multiple rivers, one of which was the Pyriphlegethon (the river of fire).

By the Hellenistic age, the Greeks imagined humans suffering alongside the Titans based on the person’s cultic devotion to particular deities. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus (fifth century BC) attributed these ideas to the influence of ancient Egypt. Over the next few centuries, the compartmentalization of the dead intensified with more images of fire, serpents, and devilish monsters, eventually finding its way into Second Temple Apocalyptic Judaism and the primitive Christian church.

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