In Hinduism, the cosmology works roughly like this: there's Earth; there are worlds above the Earth called Swargas where you go as a reward for good deeds; there are worlds under the Earth called Narakas where you go as a punishment for bad deeds; and finally there're realms within the Earth called Patalas where the demons dwell.

(Some Hindus interpret these worlds as existing in separate Universes or dimensions rather than just spatially separated from Earth.)

But in Christianity, things work somewhat differently: there's Earth, there's Heaven above the Earth where you go as a reward for good deeds, and then within the Earth there's He*l, which is both a place of punishment for bad deeds and the place where demons live. (Some Christians similarly interpret these places as existing in separate Universes or dimensions.)

But my question is, where did Christianity get the idea that the place of punishment is the same as the place of demons?

As a Hindu, I find this idea strange, because why would demons, who delight in doing evil, be the ones who administer punishment to those who do evil? Punishing evil-doers seems like the kind of thing an agent of good would do. Has there been any secular scholarship on how this idea developed?

The Christian conception of the afterlife is said to have borrowed a lot from Greek mythology, but I don't think the ancient Greeks saw the underworld as a place of demons.

So this idea must have come from somewhere else. Does it come from the notion that demons are fallen angels, punished for their rebellion against God by being cast out of heaven and sent to the same place that humans would later be sent to when they committed sins?


4 Answers 4


If anything early Christianity was well influenced by ancient Jewish culture of the day, including both Jewish laws, traditions, scriptures and mythology. For the most part both the New and Old Testament are rich sources from which Christians draw their doctrine of hell as a place of punishment and the place of demons. This was also influenced a number of ancient civilizations, including those of Mesopotamia, India, Egypt and Greece, held as part of their mythology the concept of an underworld as the realm of the dead. The Greek philosopher Plato greatly influenced St. Augustine in his thoughts on Christian doctrine on hell.

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment. 2 Peter 2:4

The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Revelation 20:13-14

But the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed the signs on its behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshiped its image. The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. Revelation 19:20

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. Matthew 25:41

The Evangelist St. Luke recounts an interesting story where Jesus performs an exorcism on a group of demons imploring him not to command them to go away into the abyss.

And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They were imploring Him not to command them to go away into the abyss.

Now there was a herd of many swine feeding there on the mountain; and the demons implored Him to permit them to enter the swine. And He gave them permission. And the demons came out of the man and entered the swine; and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. The Demoniac Cured

More interesting may be where both St. Augustine and Dante got their concept or ideas on hell.

The concept of hell as a place of torment predates Virgil as well. A number of ancient civilizations, including those of Mesopotamia, India, Egypt and Greece, held as part of their mythology the concept of an underworld—the realm of the dead. The first-century-B.C.E. Greek geographer and philosopher Strabo discussed the value of such myths, noting that “the states and the lawgivers had sanctioned them as a useful expedient.”

With the rise of Western philosophy at the hands of Socrates and his intellectual heirs Plato and Aristotle, concepts of life, death and the hereafter took on new dimensions. In the East, too, the afterlife continued to stir the imagination. Strabo remarked on a group of Eastern philosophers who “weave in myths, like Plato, about the immortality of the soul and the judgments in Hades and other things of this kind” (Geography 15.1.59).

Plato (ca. 428–347 B.C.E.) became a key figure in the development of these ideas. His name appears frequently in the writings of Augustine, who noted that the Greek scholar had “perfected philosophy” and that he “is justly preferred to all the other philosophers of the Gentiles.” Though the bishop by no means endorsed all of Plato’s ideas, he did hold a number of his philosophical opinions in high regard—“opinions sometimes favorable to the true religion, which our faith takes up and defends” (City of God 8.4). - Hell: Origins of an Idea

  • I like this answer very much, per the Greek component, as Christianity is both a European and Abrahamic religion. But I'm a little unclear on the Old Testament as a rich source for the mythology of hell. Words like Gehenna and Sheol are mentioned, but emphasis on these ideas and terms seems a distinctly Christian interpretation. I say this with the understanding that Judaism is not a monolith, evolved over the millennia, and that related concepts such as a place of purgation may exist in mystical conceptions. But it is never emphasized, to my knowledge.
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Jul 19, 2017 at 20:50
  • Update: I was scanning SE:Mi Yodeya and the questions on the Jewish concept of Hell all relate that it comes from the oral tradition, not the Scriptures and is a subject of dispute in the Jewish community to this day. There may be a connection to demons via the Midrash: "fathers would place their children in fires as offerings for the idol Molech, and the children's screams would reverberate from the fire"
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Oct 26, 2017 at 20:02

An interesting idea adding up to what was said already:

Making a little "comparative hells and abysses" attempt:

Tracing the idea of the Netherworld from the Epic of Gilgamesh: Humanity or humans were not allowed to enter the Realm of the Divine, most likely they could enjoy their lives, and afterwards joined the realms of the Shades, or Nether-World - considered a place of sadness and gloom. That is why Gilgamesh bemoans the loss of the pearl of immortality and laments over the death of his friend. Most likely the same ideas were shared in Akkad, although it is not certain.

In Egypt the situation was different, people were both enjoying the pleasantries of life in accord with the laws of Maat. There was a "pool of fire" envisioned for these who violated these laws (Religion of Ancient Egypt: Wiesław Bator), but it was only for "wicked people and violators of the Cosmic law". Individual soteriology was based on assistance from the Gods with proper, sometimes highly advanced rites. There was nothing to be feared, people could life pleasant, fulfilled lives, and on top of that for being nice to each other they became little Gods and Goddesses themselves.

The Hellenic views were most likely taken from Orphism (an offshoot of an Egyptian rite) that evolved in Eleusinian, Dionisian, Herkulean rites etc. This thought that one has to descent into the Abyss (Hells) by initiation in order to drink from the water of memory (Persophone) and ascend to Eleusis post-mortem and partake in the happiness of the Gods. The mysteries of Mithras in Roman Cults were similar - in order to ascend, one had to descend, by proper initations.

Now let's look at ethymology: Daimon in greek meant "Genius", just like Angelus meant a "horsed messenger" - the one that commonly travelled from city to city.

In Proclean theology and all theology of the ancient Hellens daimons were superior to humans, right above deified mortals, and below heroes, heroines and such. They were divided in agathodaimones (good-willing) and cacadoaimones (malevolent), or of mixed nature, appearing from different elements (fire, air, earth, water), of different geneaology, history and descent. Iamblich claimed daimons were created by the Gods to assist humans. Plutarch conveyed that agathodaimones became Deities themselves, and malevolent daimons were:

Punished, until they assumed a proper place in nature' (De Iside et Osiride)

The Christian concept of 'hell' was probably developed way after Christianity was formed (after 4th Century),by degrading daimones and Gods and branding everything as "devils", Christian theologians thus nicely put them in a place of evil that is a inverted projection of what Christian religion considered anti-dogmatic, or not within its canon of morality, principles, and belief-systems.

The whole hierarchies of God >= Jesus > Angels > Saints were a replacement of Proclusean (5th Century): Solar Providence > Gods and Goddessess > Demi-Gods > Heroes and Heroines > Winged Messengers > Daimons > Deified mortals and regular mortals.


My understanding is that the Christian idea of the underworld is more influenced by Greek mythology than Jewish. (In the New Testament, three terms are used for Hell, two Greek: Hades, Tartarus; and one Hebrew: Gehenna.)

Christianity itself may be said to be heavily influenced by both Greek Mythology (Dionysus/Persephone: Dying resurrected god; Heracles: deified son of Zeus; and even Achilles, who sacrifices himself for the community in an epic where the dignity of the gods is undermined and the dignity of humans is raised;) and ancient Greek philosophy (Platonism, Socrates' acceptance of his death sentence, catharsis as fear&pity in a religious context, Elysium.) I'd even go so far as to say that segments of Judiasm are influenced by Greek thinking on humanism.

Although there are no demons per se in the Greek underworld, it is a very depressing place, where drinking blood is one of the few pleasures in an eternal limbo of wandering in darkness:

But when with vows and prayers I had made supplication to the tribes of the dead, I took the sheep and cut their throats over the pit, and the dark blood ran forth. Then there gathered from out of Erebus the spirits of those that are dead, brides, and unwedded youths, and toil-worn old men, and tender maidens with hearts yet new to sorrow, and many, too, that had been wounded with bronze-tipped spears, men slain in fight, wearing their blood-stained armour. These came thronging in crowds about the pit from every side, with a wondrous cry; and pale fear seized me.
Source: Odyssey XI

(I have a great attraction to early pagan religions where one dies and simply goes to "hell", with no talk of redemption. You see the same thing in Chinese thought, I think, before Buddhism, and ancestor worship is partly an effort to provide better material conditions in the afterlife, burning money and so forth.)

  • The Greek underworld is a place of binding embodiments of ungovernable, destructive forces

Tartarus, a region of the underworld, is where the Titans are bound. Titans could be taken as a type of demon--they are often forces of nature, like the more abstract daimones, or "daemons", from which the word "demon" is derived. (Christianity, like all Abrahamic religions, casts nature spirits and lesser gods as demons, although in Christianity practiced in certain regions in history, such as the Carribbean, you also have certain pagan gods associated with saints or angels.)

  • The binding and torture of Prometheus is an early precedent for eternal punishment

Prometheus' punishment is cast as unending, and he is only freed by the intervention of a son of God, in this case Heracles. (Deus is the most common form of Zeus in Greek literature, and the same word the used in Latin to connote the Abrahamic God.) Prometheus' punishment is also quite vivid, an element we definitely find in Christian mythology regarding the conception of hell.

  • Tartarus and Hades are places of eternal punishment for mortals who have transgressed

Most famously, Sisyphus and Tantalus.

Greek mythology is filled with terrifying avatars of divine retribution, such as the Furies, who act in a demon-like manner to punish mankind. (The Furies were eventually pacified, but the principle is there, and many other instruments of divine vengeance abide.)

(Dīs Pater is the anti-sky father, or anti-Deus. The classical deity doesn't have the same degree of nefarious connotation as in Christianity, but is certainly a template. This deity, associated with Pluto, was also the god of wealth, as precious ores are delved from the earth, and as we all know, wealth was considered problematic in Christian thought, with avarice as a principal vice.)

I'm not an expert in Christian demonology, but in terms of casting Hades/Hell as a place of demons, it seems like a logical extension—if you are going to have eternal punishment for mankind, beyond just wandering around in the darkness forever, it makes sense that you would have agents for delivering very specific tortures.

  • 1
    Well, Hades doesn't seem like the most logical destination to me. Why would fallen angels, agents of evil, punish evil-doers? I could understand if fallen angels were the initial inhabitants made to suffer in that place, and then humans came later and suffered alongside the fallen angels. But the Christian view is different from that. Commented Jul 14, 2017 at 21:39
  • 1
    By the way, the Greek underworld wasn't necessarily a depressing place; look at Socrates' description of it in the Apology: "If indeed when the pilgrim arrives in the world below, he is delivered from the professors of justice in this world, and finds the true judges who are said to give judgment there, Minos and Rhadamanthus and Aeacus and Triptolemus, and other sons of God who were righteous in their own life, that pilgrimage will be worth making. What would not a man give if he might converse with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer? Nay, if this be true, let me die again and again." Commented Jul 14, 2017 at 21:45
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    None of the links you provided, so far as I can tell, discuss how the notion of the place of demons and the place of punishment being the same was developed. Commented Jul 15, 2017 at 3:11
  • Remember that Socrates' philosophical conception was distinct from the earlier mythological conception. (See @KenGraham's excellent answer for info on the former, and Book XI of the Odyssey for the latter. The original conception of the underworld was not a pleasant place, and part of it are only rendered so in the form of the Elysian Fields, which is related to the Christian conception of redemption and rebirth, but only for a chosen few.
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 21:28
  • 1
    @KeshavSrinivasan I've updated the answer to clarify my point about the Greek conception of hell as a place of eternal punishment, and related it to Dante who looms larger than any other thinker in the popular (mythological) conception of the Christian hell.
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 19:16
  • The Sumerian tradition has a hell with demons.

Although this material predates the time of Jesus by millennia, unlike the ancient Greek religion which was contemporaneous, it is surely an influence on the Hebrew side of the equation as Abraham is said to have come from of Ur.

  • The story of Inanna features demons from the underworld.

It's harder to find this source material online, but Penguin has a nice edition called Poems of Heaven and Hell which includes Inanna's descent. You can find an overview of the story at Hell-On-Line.

  • Baal is also a template for one form of the devil

Part of Baal cycle involves descent into and return from hell as part of a fertility cycle, but with the decline of paganism in the region, he seems to be relegated to the underworld full-time as Beelzebub.

There seems to be a quotation from the Jewish Midrash (commentaries on the scriptures) to the effect that "fathers would place their children in fires as offerings for the idol Molech, and the children's screams would reverberate from the fire". Although the Old Testament is not much concerned with "demons" (even the terms used in Torah translated as "demons" are shaky and almost certainly reflect post-Christian influence), false gods would certainly occupy a similar status.

  • @Gibet I appreciate the commentary. (Your point is a reason I omitted this from my Greek answer, and only proposed it an an independent answer.) I was kind of hoping you were going to weigh in on this question with an answer of your own, since you bring an additional perspective!
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Jul 19, 2017 at 19:53
  • @Gibet PS Baal was certainly remembered though: lds.org/manual/old-testament-stories/…
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Jul 19, 2017 at 19:54
  • @Gibet except in that he does not mention the rich sources of information on hell and demons in the Old Testament. My argument would be that the emphasis on hell is a Christian interpretation of Judaism, and vastly overstates the influence and importance of the idea in Jewish thought, where it is notably absent. To his credit he does acknowledge that the Christian conception of hell "was also influenced a number of ancient civilizations, including those of Mesopotamia, India, Egypt and Greece, held as part of their mythology the concept of an underworld as the realm of the dead."
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Jul 19, 2017 at 20:38

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