Dear Straight Dope:
Innumerable times I've received warnings against doing certain things at risk of suffering the "fire and brimstone" of Hell. What is brimstone, and why is it so bad? Also, what is the origin of the expression? Shouldn't they update it to something that actually scares adolescents like fire and algebra?
Brimstone is an ancient term for sulphur. The alchemists considered sulphur the essence of combustion, because of its inflammability–er, flammability–er, because it easily bursts into flame. When ignited (a blue flame), it gives off sulphur dioxide (a colorless gas), which forms sulfurous acid when exposed to air (and water). That would make it pretty special in ancient times. Sulphur is "abundantly distributed in nature," according to my Britannica. The name brimstone probably arises because sulphur was found on the brims of volcanoes.
The origin of the term "fire and brimstone" is, of course, Biblical. In Genesis 19:24, God rains fire and brimstone down upon the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah, utterly destroying them. The rain of fire and brimstone was seen as a tool of divine punishment of sin, echoed in other verses such as Psalms 11:6, Ezekiel 38:22, and Luke 17:29. Other citations mention as punishment that the land is covered with fire and brimstone, such as Isaiah 34:9 and Deuteronomy 29:22.
Fire and brimstone become associated with hell in the New Testament book of Revelation. Revelation 14:10 continues the "judgment" theme, not much different from the imagery of Ezekiel. Revelation 20:10 speaks of the devil being thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, "tormented day and night forever." Thus, the imagery moves from judgment to Last Judgment, when the forces of evil are destroyed, symbolized by the lake of fire and sulphur. (I wonder if sulfuric acid helped formed the notion of a lake that burns?) In Revelation 21:8, the devil is joined in that fiery lake by "the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolators, and all liars," all those who have sided with evil, whether by willing alliance or by fear.
So that’s how fire and brimstone became associated with hell. The imagery became pretty pervasive; Milton, for example, mentions "a fiery deluge, fed/With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed" in Paradise Lost. (As an aside, note that the fantasy image of Hell being run by devils is not biblical, but relatively modern, from the last thousand years or so. In the New Testament, the devil is thrown into hell, not given charge of it.)
Aside from the sulphur, the association of fire with condemnation is fairly common. It’s a very effective image for destruction and loss. It’s also idiomatically associated with "cleansing" in the Bible and elsewhere–burning the weeds in a field so they won’t spread, purifying precious metal, burning the leaven before Passover. The corrupting or destructive item is burnt to ashes, and can never be dangerous again.
An interesting side note: During the 18th century, American preachers such as Jonathan Edwards used the imagery of fire and brimstone extremely effectively in their sermons. So effectively, in fact, that the term has been applied dismissively to preaching about final judgement: thus, a "fire and brimstone sermon."
Rounding this out, if being charred by fire and brimstone doesn’t bother you, and you want some scarey torments in hell, try Dante’s Inferno or Goethe’s Faust. You’ll find some terrifying stuff. Gnawing on your own flesh, f’rinstance, how’s that grab ya? Algebra … hmph.
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