Apart from images of Gehenna being used to picture hell, there is minimal information from the Bible. There is nothing in the Bible to compare with Dante’s Divine Comedy, which not only captured the imagination of most people living during the Middle Ages but long afterward continued to be “the” image of hell for millions of people.
Dante began writing his literary masterpiece around 1300 and finished just before he saw for himself what Life After Death is truly like. He pictured himself visiting the Inferno (Hell), the Purgatorio (Purgatory), and the Paradiso (Paradise). His guide Virgil takes him into hell deep within the earth where inhabitants are being tortured/tormented by devils at various levels of monstrous misery which artists have endeavored to picture.
Our only biblical images are associated with the literal garbage dump outside Jerusalem, and are taken by many to be figurative, not literal. However, Jesus declared without any equivocation or hesitation that hell is a place of real and awful suffering beyond our wildest imagination, even that of a Dante Alighieri.
First and foremost, we must keep in mind that any effort to visualize Hell must take into consideration the nature of evil. Harry Blamires wisely observes how the great theologian Augustine struggled to understand the nature of good and evil until:
“…the crucial truth occurred to him that evil was not a substantial, positive force with its own grounding in supernatural reality, but a totally negative force, only operative by eroding what is good, depleting it, and eventually destroying it.”
“… There is no evil thing that is not a good thing corrupted. There is no evil being who is not a good being perverted.”
Blamires notes how John Milton envisioned hell in his Paradise Lost as a place/existence where everything is a “perversion, distortion, or negation of what is in heaven.” Milton understood that “… improper self-assertion turns creation toward discreation or destruction. Willing self-sacrifice alone can turn the discreational back into its rightful creational grooves.”
This is a perceptive understanding of evil. Cancer is evil, and evil is very much cancerous. Evil is Darkness, and darkness is where there is the absence of light. In that simple yet profound statement, Evil is Live spelled backwards. It is life going the wrong way, off-course, de-railed, self-destructing.
My own personal view of hell has been heavily influenced if not inspired by the imaginative thought of C.S. Lewis in such classic books of his as The Problem of Pain, The Screwtape Letters, and The Great Divorce. Being a pastor has taught me how many people experience real and awful suffering in this life brought on by the root cause of every sin: excessive self-centeredness.
That experience is a foretaste of hell – a place and a state where everything is oriented around oneself and apart from God. Lewis observes that the characteristic of lost souls is “their rejection of everything that is not simply themselves.”
There is nothing sadder for me to see than people with great and gifted potential turn inward more and more, dwelling upon themselves and what they want to the neglect of others, even loved ones, and what they need. You can almost see their inner mind, soul, and heart shriveling up within themselves – and in so doing becoming increasingly more lonely and miserable. In Lewis’ book The Great Divorce his image of a damned soul is piercing:
“…a damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself. Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouths for food, or their eyes to see.”