The concept of a hell of torment with these remarkable complexities did not exist before the church added the inferno, purgatory, and the limbos. It simply isn’t in the New Testament, written in the decades prior to 110 CE. Detailed explanations of this development of the hell myth follow.
The Idea of Hell as a Place of Torment Develops in the Second and Third Centuries
Hell did not exist as it is thought of today in the Old Testament, Yeshua’s teaching, Paul, or the earliest days of the church. It was a pagan instrument to keep the rabble in line. But by the second century, the church leaders had adopted it and were beginning to use it to marshal believers. The descriptions of a hell with punishment and torment gradually become more embellished with detail. Until the end of the second century, the penalty was simply eternal fire. The atrocities against those who wouldn’t swear allegiance to Yeshua increased in intensity by the third century.
150 CE: Second Clement (“eternal punishment” only)
If we do the will of Christ, we shall obtain rest; but if not, if we neglect his commandments, nothing will rescue us from eternal punishment (Second Clement 5:5).
151 CE: Justin Martyr (“eternal fire” only)
No more is it possible for the evildoer, the avaricious, and the treacherous to hide from God than it is for the virtuous. Every man will receive the eternal punishment or reward which his actions deserve. Indeed, if all men recognized this, no one would choose evil even for a short time, knowing that he would incur the eternal sentence of fire. On the contrary, he would take every means to control himself and to adorn himself in virtue, so that he might obtain the good gifts of God and escape the punishments (First Apology 12). [Jesus] shall come from the heavens in glory with his angelic host, when he shall raise the bodies of all the men who ever lived. Then he will clothe the worthy in immortality; but the wicked, clothed in eternal sensibility, he will commit to the eternal fire, along with the evil demons (First Apology 52).
155 CE: The Martyrdom of Polycarp (“eternal fire” only)
Fixing their minds on the grace of Christ, [the martyrs] despised worldly tortures and purchased eternal life with but a single hour. To them, the fire of their cruel torturers was cold. They kept before their eyes their escape from the eternal and unquenchable fire (Martyrdom of Polycarp 2:3).
177 CE: Athenagoras (“fire” only)
We [Christians] are persuaded that when we are removed from this present life we shall live another life, better than the present one. . . . Then we shall abide near God and with God, changeless and free from suffering in the soul . . . or if we fall with the rest [of mankind], a worse one and in fire; for God has not made us as sheep or beasts of burden, a mere incidental work, that we should perish and be annihilated (Plea for the Christians 31).
181 CE: Theophilus of Antioch (“eternal punishments . . . wrath, indignation, tribulation, anguish . . . everlasting fire”)
Give studious attention to the prophetic writings [the Bible] and they will lead you on a clearer path to escape the eternal punishments and to obtain the eternal good things of God…. [God] will examine everything and will judge justly, granting recompense to each according to merit. To those who seek immortally by the patient exercise of good works, he will give everlasting life, joy, peace, rest, and all good things. . . , For the unbelievers and for the contemptuous and for those who do not submit to the truth but assent to iniquity, when they have been involved in adulteries, and fornications, and homosexualities, and avarice, and in lawless idolatries, there will be wrath and indignation, tribulation and anguish; and in the end, such men as these will be detained in everlasting fire (To Autolycus 1:14).
212 CE: Hippolytus (“eternal punishment . . . unquenchable and unending fire . . fiery worm which does not die and which does not waste the body but continually bursts forth from the body with unceasing pain . . . no sleep”)
Standing before [Christ’s] judgment, all of them, men, angels, and demons, crying out in one voice, shall say: “Just is your judgment!” And the righteousness of that cry will be apparent in the recompense made to each. To those who have done well, everlasting enjoyment shall be given; while to the lovers of evil shall be given eternal punishment. The unquenchable and unending fire awaits these latter, and a certain fiery worm which does not die and which does not waste the body but continually bursts forth from the body with unceasing pain. No sleep will give them rest; no night will soothe them; no death will deliver them from punishment; no appeal of interceding friends will profit them (Against the Greeks 3).
226 CE: Minucius Felix (“clever fire burns the limbs and restores them, wears them away and yet sustains them, just as fiery thunderbolts strike bodies but do not consume them”)
I am not ignorant of the fact that many, in the consciousness of what they deserve, would rather hope than actually believe that there is nothing for them after death. They would prefer to be annihilated rather than be restored for punishment. . . . Nor is there measure nor end to these torments. That clever fire burns the limbs and restores them, wears them away and yet sustains them, just as fiery thunderbolts strike bodies but do not consume them (Octavius 34:12-5:3).
252 CE: Cyprian of Carthage (“ever-burning Gehenna . . . devoured by living flames . . . tormented . . . souls along with their bodies will be preserved for suffering in unlimited agonies . . . without the fruit of repentance; weeping will be useless, and prayer ineffectual”)
An ever-burning Gehenna and the punishment of being devoured by living flames will consume the condemned; nor will there be any way in which the tormented can ever have respite or be at an end. Souls along with their bodies will be preserved for suffering in unlimited agonies. . . . The grief at punishment will then be without the fruit of repentance; weeping will be useless, and prayer ineffectual. Too late will they believe in eternal punishment, who would not believe in eternal life (To Demetrian 24).