Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


For other uses of the word Hell see Hell (disambiguation)

Hell is, according to many religious beliefs about the afterlife, a place of torment, of great weeping and gnashing of teeth. The English word 'hell' comes from Old English 'Hel', meaning underworld, as well as the name of the goddess of the underworld.

In most religions' concept of hell, evildoers will suffer eternally in hell after their death or they will pay for their bad deeds in hell before reincarnations.

In monotheistic religions, hell is simply ruled by demons. In polytheistic religions, the politics of hell could be as complicated as human politics.

The Judeo-Christian term hell comes from the Hebrew word "Sheol", which technically means landfill. Commenting on the use of the word “hell” in Bible translation, Collier’s Encyclopedia (1986, Vol. 12, p. 28) says: “Since Sheol in Old Testament times referred simply to the abode of the dead and suggested no moral distinctions, the word ‘hell,’ as understood today, is not a happy translation.” The confusion over what this word actually means stems from the fact that the ancient Hebrews didn't belive in immortality of the "soul".

It is interesting to note that Hebrew landfills were very unsanitary and unpleasant when compared to modern landfills; these places were filled with rotting garbage and the Hebrews would periodically burn them down, however by that point they were generally so large that they would burn for weeks or even months. In other words they were fiery mountains of garbage. In The New Testament the word "Gehenna" refers to one such landfill, the valley of Hinnom.

Hell, as it exists in the Western popular imagination, has its origins in hellenized Christianity. Judaism, at least initially, believed in Sheol, a shadowy existence to which all were sent indiscriminately. Sheol may have been little more than a poetic metaphor for death, not really an afterlife at all: see for example Sirach. In any case, the afterlife was much less important in ancient Judaism than it is for many Christian groups today; indeed, the same can be said for modern Judaism as well.

The Hebrew Sheol was translated in the Septuagint as 'Hades', the name for the underworld in Greek mythology. The New Testament uses this word, but it also uses the word 'Gehenna', from the valley of Ge-Hinnom, a valley near Jerusalem in which in ancient times garbage was burned. The early Christian teaching was that the damned would be burnt in the valley just as the garbage was. (It is ironic to note that the valley of Ge-Hinnom is today, far from being a garbage dump, a public park.) Punishment for the damned and reward for the saved is a constant theme of early Christianity.

Table of contents
1 Rabbinic Jewish view of Hell
2 Ancient Greek views of Hell
3 Christian view of Hell
4 Islamic view of Hell
5 Chinese and Japanese view of Hell
6 Other religions
7 See also
8 External links

Rabbinic Jewish view of Hell

Gehenna is fairly well defined in rabbinic literature. It is sometimes translated as "hell", but this doesn't effectively convey its meaning. In Judaism, Gehenna—while certainly a terribly unpleasant place—is not hell. The overwhelming majority of rabbinic thought maintains that people are not tortured in hell forever; the longest that one can be there is said to be 12 months. Some consider it a spiritual forge where the soul is purified for its eventual ascent to Gan Eden (heaven), where all imperfections are purged.

Ancient Greek views of Hell

Another source for the modern idea of 'Hell' is the Greek Tartarus, a place in which conquered gods and other spriits were punished. Tartarus formed part of Hades in Greek mythology, but Hades also included the Elysian fields, a place for the reward of heroes (though some sources have the Elysian fields, not in the underworld, but as islands in the west), whilst most spent a shadowy existence wandering the asphodels (a flower, most likely Narcissus poeticus) fields. Like most ancient (pre-Christian) religions, the underworld was not viewed as negatively as it is in Christianity.

Hell appears in several mythologies and religions in different guises, and is commonly inhabited by demons and the souls of dead people.

Christian view of Hell

According to popular imagery connected to the Christian mythos, Hell is a place ruled by the Devil, or Satan, who is popularly depicted as a being who carries a pitchfork, has flaming red skin, horns on his head, and a long thin tail with a diamond shaped barb on it. Hell is often depicted as a place underground, with fires and molten rock. Demons, looking much like the Devil, eternally torment the souls of the dead. Christian theologians (or at least those who believe in the traditional Christian idea of Hell) reject this view: the popular image of the Devil has no biblical basis (it may be a Christian corruption of the god Pan), and rather than demons punishing humans, demons themselves are punished in Hell along with the humans led astray by them.

For many ancient Christians, Hell was the same "place" as Heaven: living in the presence of God and directly experiencing God's love. Whether this was experienced as pleasure or torment depended on one's disposition towards God. St. Isaac of Syria wrote in Mystic Treatises:

... those who find themselves in hell will be chastised by the scourge of love. How cruel and bitter this torment of love will be! For those who understand that they have sinned against love, undergo no greater suffering than those produced by the most fearful tortures. The sorrow which takes hold of the heart, which has sinned against love, is more piercing than any other pain. It is not right to say that the sinners in hell are deprived of the love of God ... But love acts in two ways, as suffering of the reproved, and as joy in the blessed!

The present Roman Catholic view of Hell is stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by [one's] own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called 'hell'" Thus, Pope John Paul II has said (see link below), "Rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy."

Most Christian groups teach that Hell is eternal. Some, however, believe that Hell is only temporary, and that souls in hell cease to exist after serving their time there; this belief is called annihilationism. Others believe that after serving their time in hell souls are reconciled to God and admitted to heaven; this belief is called universalism.

The Christian Hell is different to the Sheol mentioned in Judaism. The nature of Hell is described in the New Testament in several occasions. I.e., in Matthew 3:10-12, 5:22 and 29-30, 7:29, 8:12, 22:13 and 33, 25:30 and 41-46, Luke 3:9, 12:5, 13:28, 16:19-28, and the Book of Revelation 12:9, 14:9-11, 19:20, 20:10 and 14-15, 21:8; in the Book of Revelation Hell is also mentioned as the "abyss" and "the Earth" until the Doomsday, and after the end of the world, as lakes of fire and sulphur.

The biblical descriptions of Hell tell about a place of darkness, fire, sulphur, an oven of fire, and lakes of fire and sulphur, where weeping, tears, creaking of teeth and torment are eternal for those souls that will be condemned to live there. Hell is referred to a place out of Heaven, and implies that after the end of the world the Earth (or what it becomes) will be Hell too (as well as all what it is not Heaven).

The population of Hell is described as the souls of those humans that died out of God's grace, this means in sin and without repentance (this includes all bad Christians, and all non-Christian people, never mind if they have been good or not while alive), and the Devil and his angels (demons), who will be in charge of those souls. Matthew 25:41 mentions the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels. According to the Book of Revelation, after the Doomsday soul and body will be united again, and so those who were condemned to Hell will remain there in soul and flesh, tormented by an eternal fire that will never consume them.

According to Luke 16:19-28 nobody can pass from Hell to Heaven or vice versa, and fire is not the only torment, being thirst another, and more that are not described; in this biblical paragraph it is also mentioned that the souls that are in Hell can see those that are in Heaven and vice versa, but nothing is said of the sight of God; those that are in Hell can see the happiness reigning in Heaven, and those in Heaven do not feel compassion for the others in Hell.

Later Christian scholars speculated that Hell is an underground place, presumably derived from the idea of the Sheol, and referred to as the lower part of the universe under the Earth's ground (the fact that the Earth was spherical was unknown by that time).

As light and brightness were associated with God and Heaven, it is not strange that darkness was associated with Hell. Concerning the fire, some scholars speculated that the idea came from the fire consecrated to same Pagan deities like Adramelech, Moloch, etc., to whom children were sacrificed by throwing them into the flames; but other scholars, more recently, speculated that, being that Hell is considered an underground place, fire was associated with volcanic eruptions; the idea that volcanoes could be gateways to Hell was present in the mind of the ancient Romans, and later of Icelanders and other European peoples.

Mediaeval imagination added cauldrons inside which people will be "cooked" forever by demons and Christian demonology acquired a "terrifying" aspect concerning imagery of Hell.

More recently and to some theologians, the idea of an underground Hell gave place to the conception of an abstract spiritual status in an also intangible plane of existence, which is sometimes associated to a site in an unknown point of the universe or also abstract, but tradition continues referring to Hell as "down", meanwhile religion refers to it as the place of eternal punishment and torment, far of God's sight (2 Thessalonians 1:9).

A problem arose after the Protestant Reformation. To Catholicism Protestants were going to have Hell as their final destination, and vice versa to Protestant churches. As time went on this position became more tolerant by both sides.

See also

Islamic view of Hell

Islam holds a belief in Hell similar in many ways to the other Abrahamic religions. In the Quran, the holy book for Muslims, there are literal and possibly metaphorical descriptions of the existence in Hell for evildoers, and Paradise for the righteous belivers in Allah (God). However, human beings are said to be liable to committing mistakes, thus, Allah forgives the sins and wipes them out if the individual is truly sincere in repentance, true to the causes and determined in intention.

For those who believed, but eventually disbelieved in God in the end, the result seems unambiguously negative. Although Allah is said to be 'the Most Merciful, the Most Kind' and forgives all sins, the great sin of unbelief is deemed unforgivable. According to the Sunnah (life and way of the Prophet Muhammad), any person who for example, commits suicide and shows no regret for one's wrongdoing, will spend an eternity in hell, re-enacting the act by which they took their own lives. Some Islamic jurists hold the interpretation that hell is not eternal but indefinite and only remains to be while the earth endures. Once the Day of Recompense passes, Hell will eventually be emptied.

Chinese and Japanese view of Hell

The structure of Hell is remarkably complicated. The ruler of Hell has to deal with politics as human rulers. They are the subjects of many folk stories and manga. Note that in many such stories, people in hell could die again but none seems to care about the seemingly contradiction.

Other religions

Although some sects of Buddhism acknowledge several Hells, which are places of punishment and discipline for evildoers, they remain temporary for inhabitants. Those with sufficiently negative karma are reborn there, where they stay until their bad karma has been burnt, whereupon they are reborn as humans or hungry ghosts.

Bahá'ís do not accept Hell as a place but rather a state of being "Heaven is nearness to me and Hell is separation from Me." – Bahá'u'llah

See also

Eschatology, damnation, purgatory, The problem of Hell

External links