Top 10 Worst Popes in History


In the two thousand years since Christ walked the earth and founded one of the most influential religions in the world, church history has been documented by an incredibly diverse collection of stories that speak to mankind of blessings, curses, and everything in between. Millions have found hope because of Christianity – but millions have also been slaughtered in the name of God.

Starting with St. Peter, the world has seen a total of 265 official popes. While many of the holy fathers have indeed shown themselves to be saintly men worthy of trust and respect, there are a few whose names must go down in the archives of infamy, because they chose to hold the things of the world above the things of God. Others, while not as blatantly wicked, simply made bad choices that adversely affected the people they were supposed to be saving.

The life stories of these popes now serve to illustrate the sinful side of human nature and remind us that even God’s own representative can lose his way. Here are ten of those stories, revealing some of the most power-hungry, sexually immoral, and ungodly men that have ever held the papacy – the worst popes.

10. Pope Boniface VIII (c. 1235 – 1303)

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Born to a minor noble family in Anagni, Italy, Benedetto Caetani became a successful student of canon law and later a member of the Roman Curia, eventually winning the position of cardinal priest in 1291. He was elected Pope Boniface VIII on December 24, 1294 after the pious yet incompetent Pope Celestine V abdicated (possibly due to Boniface’s own insistence). One of his first decisions as pope was to sentence Celestine to prison in the Castle of Fumone, where the old man was mistreated and eventually died ten months later.

Boniface quickly became one of the church’s strongest advocates for papal supremacy in both spiritual and civil matters, involving himself in foreign affairs to no end. His desire for political domination, of course, did not sit well with many rulers of the day, such as Philip IV of France, whose policies of clerical taxation angered the pope and prompted a string of bulls culminating in the famous Unam Sanctam, which essentially claimed all civil and spiritual authority for the papacy.

Other famous clashes include Boniface’s feud with the powerful Colonna family, which led to several of their towns being demolished – Palestrina, for example, was razed to the ground and 6,000 citizens were killed. In addition, Boniface aroused the anger of Dante Alighieri, whose portrayal of the pope in his Inferno is anything but kindly, since he places Boniface in the eighth circle of his imaginary hell.

Boniface never quite attained to the absolute power he craved. Not surprisingly, his insatiable ambition led directly to a brutal beating at the hands of those who refused to submit to him, and within a month of this incident he was dead.

9. Pope Leo X (1475 – 1521)

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Often associated with Martin Luther and the upheavals of the Protestant Reformation, Pope Leo X is also well-known for being one of the most lavish, uncontrollable spenders who ever headed the Christian church. A famous phrase attributed to Leo aptly illustrates his greatest priority: “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.” According to Alexandre Dumas, “Christianity assumed a pagan character” as Leo doggedly pursued worldly pleasures.

Born Giovanni di Lorenzo de Medici, Leo came from a powerful family and enjoyed early favors that helped him acquire the papal throne by the time he was 37. A patron of the arts, education, and charity, Leo certainly deserves to be recognized for elevating the church’s status, but his preference for money and political advancement rapidly exhausted the treasury. So financially unstable did his position become that he was eventually forced to pawn off furniture, jewels, and statues from the palace, as well as borrow huge sums of money from creditors (who were ultimately ruined when he died).

In addition to living a life of splendor, Leo practiced nepotism, famously used the sale of indulgences to finance the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica, and was even accused of homosexuality. In fact, some sources hold that he died in bed while getting it on with a youth. That accusation may or may not be true, of course, but one thing is for sure: Leo certainly let his love of luxury get the best of him.

8. Pope Clement VI (1291 – 1352)

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Pierre Roger, a Frenchman, was the fourth of the Avignon popes, and took the name Clement VI for his pontificate. He was not a particularly evil man; in fact, his efforts during the Black Plague did much to provide refuge for the Jews, who automatically became the scapegoats for the deadly breakout. Described as a fine gentleman, a prince, and a patron of the arts and learning, Clement lacked one important characteristic that is rightly expected of popes – saintliness.

By his own words, Clement was “a sinner among sinners.” His love for expensive living quickly drained the savings of his frugal predecessor (Benedict XII), and Clement resorted to raising taxes and selling off bishoprics to finance his worldly pursuits.

Throw in a little nepotism to boot, and you’ve got yourself a pope who may very well have been a man of decent character, but who also used his powerful position for his own sexual adventures, cheerful pleasures, and overall celebration of the world’s many vices.

7. Pope Urban II (ca. 1035 – 1099)

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It’s undeniable that Otho de Lagery, who became Pope Urban II in 1088, was a talented diplomat and successful leader, responsible for establishing the modern Roman Curia and supporting reforms of the clergy. What he is most often remembered for, however, is his unfortunate role in launching a bloody holy war against Muslims that has since come to be known as The First Crusade.

In 1095, Byzantine Emperor Alexios I requested Urban’s aid in fighting off the Turks, who had conquered most of Anatolia. Urban responded favorably by using his remarkable rhetorical skills to preach “Just War” – a holy, God-ordained crusade to liberate the eastern churches and the Holy Land from Muslim rule. By appealing to Catholic anger over the rumored (and often unfairly trumped-up) atrocities committed by the invading Turks, and by guaranteeing remission of sins to those who would participate in the fight, Urban was able to organize a large-scale uprising of piously outraged soldiers of Christ.

The religiously-sanctioned First Crusade, while successful in defeating Muslim forces in Anatolia and the Holy Land, was very costly in terms of casualties. Not only was there a huge loss of lives on both sides, but the horrible offenses committed by enraged Christians against Jews, Muslims, and even members of the “schismatic” Eastern church will always be a bloody stain on the pages of church history.

6. Pope Julius III (1487 – 1555)

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Born to a famous Roman jurist, Giovanni Maria Ciocchi del Monte was elected pope in 1550 as a compromise candidate, and chose the title Julius III. While his early career in the church shows that he was very capable and successful, his papacy is known for being extremely ineffective and undistinguished. For the most part, Julius withdrew to his palace and spent the majority of his time seeing to his own personal pleasures and keeping out of political affairs.

However, it was his relationship with a boy named Innocenzo that tarnished his name more than anything. Julius discovered Innocenzo as a young beggar in Parma before ascending to the pontificate, and he adopted him as his own nephew. When Julius became pope, he elevated Innocenzo to the status of cardinal-nephew and bestowed many gifts and benefices upon him. In fact, the relationship between Julius and Innocenzo showed signs of being much more intimate than normal family ties, and many reports indicate that Julius actually had an extended sexual affair with the young man.

5. Pope Stephen VI (? – 897)

Little is known about Pope Stephen VI’s personal life and background, although he was a Roman and the son of a priest named John. The reason his name stands out in church history is because of his involvement in what is perhaps the most bizarre ecclesiastical trial of all time – the Cadaver Synod of January 897.

As the name reveals, this grotesque synod was convened to put a corpse on trial. Stephen ordered it for the sole purpose of passing judgment on the freshly-exhumed body of Formosus, who had held the papacy from 891-96. Due to activities in Bulgaria which compromised his duties as bishop of Porto, Formosus had been excommunicated by then-pope John VIII (872-882), but after John VIII’s death he had reassumed his bishopric in Porto and was elected pope in 891.

Political interests regarding rightful claims to the throne of the Holy Roman Emperor resulted in animosities that created a trickle-down effect and impacted later popes. Stephen VI and the Cadaver Synod are the most famous instance of reactions to Pope Formosus.

While it is not perfectly clear who exactly instigated the trial, the fact of the matter is that Stephen ordered Formosus’s body to be disinterred and seated on a throne in the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. A deacon stood next to it to act as its spokesman while Stephen lambasted it with accusations.

The corpse was condemned for transmigrating sees, committing perjury, and acting as bishop after being deposed. As punishment, his body was stripped of its vestments, the three fingers of the right hand used for benedictions were cut off, and all his former ordinations were declared null. The body was then buried, exhumed again, and finally thrown into the Tiber River.

4. Pope Sergius III (? – 911)

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The son of a Roman noble and a member of the ultimately unsuccessful faction which opposed the policies of Pope Formosus, Sergius III must chiefly be understood through the biased writings of his enemies, since almost all sympathetic accounts have been destroyed.

Nevertheless, what we do have on Sergius suggests that he didn’t quite measure up to Christian standards for piety. He was accused of ordering the murders of his predecessor Pope Leo V and Antipope Christopher in prison. It is said that his mistress was the young Marozia (later to become a powerful Roman noblewoman), and it was their son who became Pope John XI in 931.

It gets weirder, though. Pope Stephen VI’s infamous Cadaver Synod had been declared void by succeeding popes, but when Sergius came to power, he voiced his displeasure with Formosus by annulling all of his recently reinstated ordinations. There is even a report that Sergius had the corpse of Formosus exhumed, tried, beheaded, and thrown into the Tiber – all over again!

3. Pope Benedict IX (c. 1012 – 1065/85)

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Benedict IX, born Theophylactus of Tusculum, is known mainly for two things: 1) he held office on three separate occasions, and 2) he is the only pope who ever sold the papacy (to his own godfather, of all people).

Benedict became pontiff at a very young age, thanks to the political prowess of his father, who had managed to get the papacy reserved ahead of time for his son. With little actual training or preparation that qualified him to act as pontiff, Benedict led a highly immoral life, and was accused of various rapes, adulteries, and murders. According to St. Peter Damian, Benedict was “a demon from hell in the disguise of a priest,” and his carousing eventually caused him to be forcefully expelled from Rome.

Benedict managed to regain his throne, but then – surprise, surprise! – he was sidetracked by a prospective marriage (to his cousin) and sold the papal chair for a significant amount of money to his godfather, a priest who named himself Pope Gregory VI. His later repentance and attempt to resume his position created quite a controversy, forcing the German King Henry III to intervene. Benedict was subsequently excommunicated from the church.

“His life as a pope,” wrote Pope Victor III, “was so vile, so foul, so execrable, that I shudder to think of it.”

2. Pope John XII (c. 937 – 964)

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Born in Rome, the young Octavianus practically had the papacy handed to him on a silver platter. His father, a patrician of Rome, made the Roman nobles swear an oath that at the next vacancy in the papal seat, Octavianus would be elected. Sure enough, when he was only 18 the reigning pope passed away, and Octavianus was chosen as the successor, taking the name Pope John XII.

Almost everything known about John XII is found in the writings of his enemies, so it’s possible that the accounts we have are factually distorted. Nevertheless, the stories we do have are quite shocking – he was accused of committing many adulteries (even with his own niece), turning the Vatican into a whorehouse, blinding his confessor, castrating and then murdering a subdeacon, invoking demons and foreign gods… the list goes on and on.

Even if some of the reports were falsified, it still appears that John XII made for a pretty bad pope. When we read the account of John’s death that claims he was murdered by a jealous husband whose wife was the object of the pope’s special attention, it’s not too hard to believe it.

1. Pope Alexander VI (1431 – 1503)

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The reward for “Baddest Pope Ever” arguably goes to Rodrigo Borgia, who enjoyed the benefits of having an uncle who just happened to be Pope Calixtus III. Thanks to his convenient social status, Borgia passed through the ranks of bishop, cardinal, and vice-chancellor, gaining enormous wealth along the way. In 1492, he was actually able to buy his way into the papacy, defeating two other opponents by means of bribery.

Alexander was so corrupt that his surname eventually became a byword representing the hellishly low papal standards of the time. He sired at least seven different illegitimate children by his mistresses, and didn’t hesitate to reward them with handsome endowments at the church’s expense. When low on finances, he either established new cardinals in return for payments, or he slammed wealthy people with completely fabricated charges, jailed or murdered them for said false charges, and then stole their money.

Not surprisingly, there is very little about Alexander VI that can be considered godly or even lawful. His goals were selfish and ambitious, and the orderly government he initially administered quickly deteriorated until the city of Rome was in a state of complete disrepair. The words spoken by Giovanni de Medici (the future Pope Leo X) after Borgia’s election are telling:

“Now we are in the power of a wolf, the most rapacious perhaps that this world has ever seen. And if we do not flee, he will inevitably devour us all.”

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  1. There were also some great popes though.

    And Alexander Borja brought Michelangelo to Rome, so I don’t know that he was the worst.

  2. For excellent histories of the RCC and papal history I recommend Garry Wills: Why I Am Catholic? (Ignore the title…it is a stunning academic work illustrating the abuses that have occurred with the phenomenal power that the Church acquired BUT concluding that the message of Christianity is the reason that the RCC remains so influential.) Lives of the Popes. Well-researched work on all of the “Popes” and Anti-Popes listed by the RCC. Wills’ book has a compelling section on the non-existence of a true Pope in Rome until Gregory the Great in 590. Consider that the actions of an organization’s or nation’s leaders are frequently temporary…the actions of a Pope or Synod cannot change or affect the message of the Gospels.

  3. I just wanted to say that I am just now reading the book and I do find it very interesting! I love History and anything that I can read. I found the book at the Pittsburg, Kansas Library.

  4. Christine Lazzaro on

    Does everyone’s bible says when Jesus say to St Peter on this rock I will build my church, what ever you bound on earth is bound in heaven, whatever you loose on earth is loose in heaven. Jesus is establishing the Catholic Church. And Jesus give the duties to St Peter representing the Pope, the priest. The person who wrote

  5. first of all christ is not the founder of the popes which is the head of the religon catholic. catholics fouder is judist priest the man who betrayed the righteouss one who is jesus christ. christ is the beginnig of christanity bc of the rising of the 3rd day of his sacrifce of is flesh, father god who created all things showed christians that life is everlasting through the spirit. the cover up of the peters made belief to look holy was the secrets of discpline that jesus thought the 12 men before the end of his fleshly life. they even used the cover to become rich wash hands and curse all in at the same time. may seem difficult to understand but the way they were thought through discpline is the knowing how to wash hands, the betryal is the love of money and the curse is the turning there back on my brother.

  6. Pretty scary that this outfit contributed to our present culture. Wonder how the present pedophilia scandals and cover-ups will be explained? “Don’t pay attention to the man behind that curtain”. No wonder the modern church is held in such low regard. There is a 2,000 year history of bad behavior.

  7. D catholic church is nt perfect, d pope has neva been her god, nd peter neva went 2 rome bt dat dosen’t mean his tomb cn’t b there nd if any1 cn boast of another church linked 2 peter let me knw. FACT Peter sinned afta been made head of d church so it hs been there these are jst the top 10

  8. Hello I’m interested in finding a book that lists the bad popes I have found one listing eight but not ten please send me an email if you no of one I can buy perhaps amazon or eBay thankyou

  9. Some are living humans &some are led by hollieness what is our role on this is to pray & get mercy from god for the past,present&next generations ,still there are lots of saints who sacrifices their whorthy lifes

  10. JC gave Peter the job to stablish a church based on the fact of who he was, (to tell the world that God loves man and had sent his only Son with this message) it’s a miracle that it survived the “primitive” sociates that it was then; is a miracle that the message of JC is still with us.
    The evolution shows and reflects the love of JC ….I believe humanaty has evolved and the gift that we have in preserving the message of the Son of God over 2000 years ago; Shows God’s love for his people. It also a great blessing the a country as the USA evolve and exist.
    It show that it is posible to evolve and to desire good for humanaty and to do it by resolving errors and searching for the perfetion of the individual as well as a Nation. Yes we have a long way to go! please know and be aware of our imperfections and willingnes always to improve. LOVE is the key!

  11. Its a mediocre list, there were Popes Who did much worse things then what is mentioned Here

    Ignoring The horrible Blasphemy’s against God, The attempted Changing of the Law of God, Discarding of The Second Commandment and The Forth Commandments

    The Spanish(Mass genocide) Inquisition and The Attacks on Early day Christians who didn’t go along with The Papacy

    What about the Creation of Islam?, so the Papacy could Win Jerusalem
    That didn’t work out to well now Did it?

    One raped a 7year old and another fathered his own grandson with his own daughter!
    But I forgot The Catholic Church is incapable of Making mistakes (Their Infallible)

    • Anna Richardson on

      Only in matters of the church is the Pope considered infallible.

      The creation of Islam is a deed of the Roman Catholics? I didn’t know that.

      These are all men, afterall, and all men are sinners irregardless of who they may be.


  13. can you print what cult means – so small educated people will , be exposed as those showing sarcastic anger and not necessarily intellegence.

  14. john smith on

    The topic is the papacy so lets not get off track. The problem with the belief in the papacy is placing your faith in a man. These guys, good of bad are men and are lacking the qualities that are bestowed on their position. I feel really sorry for those millions that place their faith in a man with the title pope.

  15. So having homosexual tendencies is worst than organizing wars? I’m insulted by that.

    • zaphenath paaneah on

      …nope! warmongering is in the same category…sin! some find some degree of solace in measuring degrees of error to justify their position. the same goes for those who overlook their sin as being a natural act or their ‘preference’ when it is plain for all to see its not ‘normal’ tendencies. the issue is the condemnation that goes with some of the preferences we opt in on. however, it is only in christ that the condemnation is removed. there is an amount of humility required on the part of the sinner – repentance! this is the dividing line between a believer and a non-believer. we who believe accept we are sinful, and accept the cleansing of our conscience through the blood of christ. where the presence of the lord id, there is freedom! freedom from all manner of bondage. what the papacy has done is turn people away from god; the list of 10 is by now means exceptions to the rule; contrary, it serves as an indication to all that they are a false religion taught by men. while they may have begun with good intentions the homosexuality that is rife within their priestly ranks should be an indication of this very thing. how can we accept that a merciful god wants us to approach him in confidence trusting that he only has our best interest at heart only to be betrayed by the craving lust of a sodomite. the act is not godly and is proof of ungodliness and is unacceptable in what they claim is the only true faith and the only house of god – the dove…the holy mother church of the living god? the ‘holy’ catholic(universal) church!

  16. zaphenath paaneah on

    Interesting for some but old news for others. Its nice to see this info public for all to see hoping they will see the papacy in truth – by their works shall ye know them! Are we to suppose papal infallibility is out of the window? one would think so based on historical records but yet they maintain their position. Holy Father, a title each successive pope bears, is a mockery of a title given to God alone in scripture. And when you factor in the child molestation that still happens to this very day you begin to see the fruit of Catholicism that forbids their priests to marry, a practice not condoned in scripture and we see why they are advised to rather marry than to burn with lust. Ironic that in Romans those who willingly forsook the truth of God to worhip idols were given over to strange flesh. You can see the work of 'faulty' humans in direct constrast with the signs of power that followed those who preached the word of salvation through Christ alone as God confirmed their witness. They cannot speak for God!


  18. Believe it or not assassins creed 2 takes borgia's evil to new highs. He's the big bad, and is portrayed as an utter psychopath. He's also the final boss.

  19. I just finished, reading about some of the worst popes in history,and I must say that what surprises me is that ,this info was brought to light. People will always fall if they take there eyes off of a Christ!!

  20. "But, it is hard to believe that such corruption could get so high in a group with God at the center."

    Remember, Judas hung around Jesus personally for 3 years. Corruption can maintain itself right inside God's inner circle.

    • Right you are!

      But look at it this way: even though Judas was part of Christ's inner circle, he was a follower, not a leader. Corrupt leaders are a little more problematic than corrupt followers, eh? 😉

    • Judas was NOT corrupt. If it was God’s PLAN for Jesus to be crucified then why be upset at the people who carried it out? Anyway it’s NOT like Jesus was HIDING. He had been at the Temple, which by the way was where they thought God actually LIVED as in it was His address, turning over tables and proclaiming to the world that what was going on there was wrong. This at the time of the pilgrimage when thousands of people from out of town were there visiting.

  21. Yes, some of the medieval popes really tarnished the reputation of the Catholic Church. It's kind of ironic to see such corruption where holiness should be expected, but that's how it often goes with men in positions of great power.

    It's probably good to keep in mind that many papal decrees and actions that may horrify us today were a little more culturally acceptable in medieval times, although I still don't think that justifies what they did. For instance, while it's unfortunate that Celestine was sentenced to prison by Boniface VIII, I'm guessing that action was probably considered very typical in 1294.

    Good quote from Baron Acton, by the way. Although I didn't know who had said it, that phrase was running through my mind as I researched this article.

  22. I know this list sheds the Catholic leadership in a bad light, but there are few bad apples in every organization. But, it is hard to believe that such corruption could get so high in a group with God at the center.

    "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." – John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton (1834–1902).

    • The Church of God in the bible cannot be corrupted according to what is written in the bible because you are commanded by God to behave inside as also the house of God.1 timothy3:15 and what will be your behavior teaches by God or the wisdom that you should do inside the church? you have to follow the instructions of God 2 Timothy 3:16 -17 All scripture is given by God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.

      • Our preacher teach us the reason why it ther are corruption inside the catholic church it is because they are not true church of God as they claimed that the RCC, that there first pope is apostle Peter. granting without accepting that apostle Peter was become the first pope. how can they(catholic church) explain the verse in the bible Mathew 23:9 And call no man your father upon the earth: for no one is your Father, which isa in heaven. cause pope means Father

        • O really? Using your logic, no Church or denomination is untainted
          and is therefore, overcome by satan.

          And if you then presume to point out the sex abuse scandals which
          began surfacing in the 90’s you are still missing the higher number
          of sexual abuses which are still occurring in larger percentages
          among other faiths.

          At least the RCC (alone) has in place a thorough screening process
          for those working with children which includes background checks,
          fingerprinting and a “two people deep” concept to ensure that a volunteer or paid employee is not alone with children. And it’s working. Even a hint of an abuse allegation now is enough to put a priest on leave while charges are investigated but the damage to his reputation is done, regardless of his innocence. Can you say the same for public school teachers who are abusing kids at the rate of a documented 38% of the population, compared to priests who comprise less than 3%? To date, I am unaware of even one Catholic lay religious teacher who has ever been accused of a sex crime with their students.

          As for your last complaint, “call no man on earth your father,”
          Jesus wanted your single-minded devotion to the Father in heaven
          since anyone “who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is
          not fit for the Kingdom of God.” You are conveniently forgetting
          that Jesus desired people leave “homes, spouses, families and
          siblings” to come and follow Him. Your earthly father cooperated
          in God’s plan of procreation to bring you into existence but your
          eternal Father is your true father and deserves your complete
          devotion. Jesus knew that. For a true and complete understanding
          of RCC teaching please speak with a good and holy priest. Most of
          them are and I never personally knew one who wasn’t. Every harvest reveals unharvestable fruits which will be thrown in the fire and burned and bad apples are everywhere. Your preacher is overwhelmingly guilty of favoritism, a lack of perspective and is very short on facts. The RCC is very aware of its evils in history and has gone to great lengths to root them out and well as apologize and financially compensate those who have been wounded in the process. I am still waiting on an apology from Jim Bakker who is spending 45 years in prison for fleecing his flock for millions and millions … guess I will be waiting awhile. In the meantime I will leave you with some food for thought from a true holy man in history whose words even now remind us that the LORD founded a Church which is not perfect but divinely instituted nonetheless: St. Ambrose (333-397 AD) – Where there is Peter, there is the Church!

    • There is no record that Peter ever went to Rome, he preached Christianity to the Jews and Paul preached to the Gentiles. The claim that Peters tomb is in Rome is completely false.

      After the death of the Apostles and in the following centuries apostasy entered the early Church. The teachings of Jesus and his disciples were corrupted by the minds of men speculating and theorising on matters that they considered was lacking in the written words of Jesus and his Apostles.
      By speculation, conjecture and theorizing beyond what is written in Scripture, they invented places such as , Limbo, Purgatory and a place of cruel and eternal torment called Hell. Neither “immortal soul”, Limbo or Purgatory are to be found in the Bible and neither is Hell in the sense that it is now portrayed. To suffer in such places one has to possess an Immortal Soul which is supposed to leave the body on death. Yet the Bible clearly tells us that the soul can be killed or die, so much for “immortality”.

      • That’s odd. Wiki states that “Peter came to Rome and was martyred there.” If you check a little further you can also discover the meaning and origins of Purgatory, Limbo (no longer taught) and hell. But you won’t because you don’t want to know. Too bad. Willed ignorance is a terrible thing.