Where Did the Idea of Hell Come From?

What happens to bad guys when they die? Actor Danny Trejo is no stranger to villains, so he’s setting out to find the answer to this burning question. 70% of Americans have said they think hell is a real place, and Danny’s taking a journey into the afterlife to map out where the idea of hell came from. On Map of Hell, Danny will explore 3,000 years of ideas, taking us from Ancient Greece through the birth of Christianity to medieval Europe and modern America.

Here are ten surprising facts about the origins of afterlife thought:

1. Greek sea caves were long thought of as the mythical entrance to the underworld.

A giant cave called Alepotrypa that might have helped serve as the inspiration for the mythic ancient Greek underworld Hades may have supported complex settlements in its heyday. Here, the cave's main chamber. Credit: Gianluca Cantoro, Foundation for Research and Technology, Hellas.
The cave Alepotrypa may have inspired the mythic ancient Green underworld Hades. Credit: Gianluca Cantoro, Foundation for Research and Technology, Hellas.

Important archeological finds are beginning to reveal why Alepotrypa, a cave in Southern Greece, is thought to have been a kind of Neolithic cathedral where burials and rituals were performed. The cave has an underworld feel complete with its own “river Styx” and archeologists have speculated that this was the original entrance to the underworld and the source for later myths about Hades.

2. The first known image of Satan is in a 6th century church mosaic at the Basilica Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy.

Basilica Sant’Apollinare
Photo Courtesy Public Domain

The mosaic shows two angels at either side of Christ, one in red and the other in blue. Surprisingly, it is the angel in blue that depicts Satan because blue was viewed as a more sinister color than red.

3. During the early days of psychiatry in 19th century America, “religious anxiety” brought on by a “fear of future punishment” was found to be a leading cause of insanity.

Religious Melancholia and Convalescence from John Conollys book Physionomy of Insanity 1858. Photo Courtesy Public Domain.
Religious Melancholia and Convalescence from John Conollys book Physionomy of Insanity 1858. Photo Courtesy Public Domain.

4. In 1588, a young Galileo was invited to deliver a lecture on Dante’s Divine Comedy in which he debated the mechanics of the Inferno. Galileo calculated that the width of the Inferno would be 3,400 miles wide and 3,245 miles deep.

Dante finds himself lost in a gloomy wood, from Canto 1 of the Divine Comedy:Inferno illustrated by Paul Gustave Doré (1832-1883). The caption reads ‘In the midway of this our mortal life, I found me in a gloomy wood, astray’ Canto 1 lines 1,2. Photograph Courtesy Public Domain of the United States.

5. The Cimitero delle Fontanelle in Naples is an ossuary housing thousands of anonymous corpses, victims of the great plague of 1656. Some estimates say the cemetery once held around 8 million human bones.

Cimitero delle Fontanelle Photograph by Augusto De Luca
Cimitero delle Fontanelle Photograph by Augusto De Luca

6. Although the idea of Purgatory had been established in the early Middle Ages, it wasn’t embraced as official doctrine by the Catholic church until 1253.

An Angel, Freeing the Souls from Purgatory. Photograph by Public Domain of the United States.
An Angel, Freeing the Souls from Purgatory. Photograph by Public Domain of the United States.

7. Some speculate that the reason that there is a clear separation of church and state and no mention of God in America’s Declaration of Independence is in part due to Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin’s disdain for the religious zeal brought on by the waves of Great Awakenings.


8. A 2007 Harris poll found that 62% of Americans believe in the literal existence of the devil, while only 42% accept the Darwinian theory of evolution.

 Illustration of the Devil in the Codex Gigas, folio 270 recto. Photo Courtesy Public Domain

Illustration of the Devil in the Codex Gigas, folio 270 recto. Photo Courtesy Public Domain

9. The initial concept of a penitentiary – a prison designed to encourage regret and penitence in the criminal’s heart – was laid out in a 1787 meeting of influential Philadelphians at Benjamin Franklin’s house.

The Eastern State Penitentiary, also known as ESP is a former American prison in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It is found at 2027 Fairmount Avenue between Corinthian Avenue and North 22nd Street in the Fairmount section of the city, and was operational from 1829 until 1971. Photo Courtesy Public Domain.

It took another 30 years to persuade the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to build this kind of revolutionary prison. When Eastern State Penitentiary was finally built in 1829, it was one of the most expensive American buildings of its day and the most famous prison in the world.

10. In the 18th century, Enlightenment thinkers and scientists attempted to calculate the location of hell in order to align religion with the new sciences.

Image Credit: NASA/SDO
Image Credit: NASA/SDO

Among them was scientist Tobias Swinden, who calculated that only the sun was big and fiery enough to house all the damned souls, while mathematician William Whiston predicted that a comet would be the place of eternal torment.

Don’t miss Map of Hell this Sunday at 9/8c.
Our modern idea of hell retains concepts of Hades described by Homer in his ancient Greek classic, The Odyssey.


  1. Morris Ferrer
    Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
    May 15, 2016, 12:53 pm

    The thing is, I’m watching this documentary about the ‘Story of God’ with Morgan Freeman. I like it very much. However, as the documentary goes on I can see they are working with different religious groups supporting certain beliefs, but basically Abrahamic, Iranian, Indian, and East Asian religions. Where are the indigenous ethnic religions and African religions? Although Mr. Freeman is a black citizen his ancestors’s beliefs are not being shown in this documentary? Why? I’m from Brazil. We have Candomble. Cubans have Santeria. Many Latin American countries have their own indigenous representations, even in Australia with Aborigines. And I’m talking about major religious groups. Food for thought…

  2. Vaibhav
    May 15, 2016, 2:50 pm

    This is amazing. We are so ignorant about life and reality. Only followiing materialistic life.

  3. Dan
    Missouri, USA
    May 16, 2016, 12:29 pm

    It’s not hard to imagine how the idea of Hell was invented:

    PRIEST: You guys better bring your offerings to the ceremony so the gods don’t punish you!

    WARRIOR: I don’t see any gods around. What are you going to do about it, pipsqueak?

    PRIEST: Don’t defy my authority or the gods will surely punish you…. uh… AFTER you die! Yeah, that’s it!

    WARRIOR: How bad could it be? I’ll already be dead.

    PRIEST: You’re going to burned and tortured forever! The gods will make you grow new skin each morning so they can burn it off each day.

    WARRIOR: Damn, I better not risk that. Here’s your offering.

  4. Judas Christiansson
    United States
    February 17, 10:57 am

    The headline of this article is inaccurate and deceptive. What a waste of my time. Call it “TEN FUN HISTORICAL FACTOIDS ABOUT HELL!” Because all this article has done for me is convince me that NatGeo headlines can’t be trusted and I should avoid the site.

  5. David
    Your state, probably your city, a chance your street, perhaps right next door!
    February 22, 2:13 am

    I was a paramedic for 8 years. Every single burn patient I had said it did not hurt while their flesh burned, only later, once the event was over, did they feel pain. Which means, an endless of torture of burning flesh should require moments of no fire, so the damned can feel it.

    Another form of perpetual torture would be forever singing hymns and playing the harp to worship a god who would endlessly torture his creations for not believing in him. That’s a mighty messed up god.