Hell is a place of punishment after death or, in more abstract terms, a state of spiritual damnation. In religions and mythologies that separate the dead according to their conduct in life or the purity of their souls, the evil go to hell while the good go to heaven.
Hell is related to the concept of the underworld. In the myths of many ancient cultures, the underworld was the mysterious and often gloomy realm of the dead. Although usually imagined as a dark underground kingdom associated with caves and holes in the earth, hell was not always a place of punishment and suffering. Later belief systems introduced the idea of an afterlife in which the wicked received punishment, and hell was where that punishment occurred.
Although the word hell comes from Hel, the Norse* goddess of death, hells appear in the beliefs and mythologies of many cultures. Common features of hells include burning heat or freezing cold, darkness (symbolizing the soul's separation from light, goodness, and truth), physical agony that represents spiritual suffering, and devils or demons who torment the damned.
Hindu Version. Hinduism is based on the belief that each soul lives many, many lives. A soul may spend time in any of 21 hells to
Buddhist Version. There are numerous versions of Buddhism with various ideas of hell. The strictest form of Buddhism does not include a hell, but some Buddhists still follow the traditional belief of up to 136 hells. The hell to which a dead soul goes for punishment depends on the person's actions in the most recent life. Some Buddhist doctrines speak of the karmavacara, the realm of physical and sensory perceptions, as a series of hells. The Chinese belief that souls are punished after death to pay for sins or errors committed during life combines some Buddhist ideas with elements of traditional Taoist Chinese mythology.
Pre-Christian European Version. Before Christianity gave its own meanings to the concepts of heaven and hell, the pagan peoples of Europe imagined the dark side of the afterlife. The Norse pictured Hel, the corpselike goddess of death, as queen of a grim underground realm populated by those who had died of sickness and old age. This view of hell involves a dread of death and a horror of the cold, dark, decaying grave, but it does not suggest a place of punishment.
The Greek underworld was divided into three regions: Hades, Tartarus, and Elysium. Most of the dead went to the kingdom of the god Hades. In the deepest part of the underworld, a terrible dark place known as Tartarus, the very wicked suffered eternal punishment at the hands of the Furies. The third region, Elysium or the Elysian Fields, was where exceptionally good and righteous people went after death.
Persian Version. The image of hell as a place of torment for sinners emerged fully in the Persian mythology based on the faith founded in the 500s B . C . by Zoroaster. According to Zoroastrian belief, souls are judged after death at a bridge where their lives are weighed. If the outcome is good, the bridge widens and carries them to heaven. If they are judged to have been evil, the bridge narrows and pitches them down into a dreadful hell. Those whose lives were an equal mix of good and evil go to a realm called hamestagan, in which they experience both heat and cold.
Jewish Version. The early Hebrews called their afterworld Sheol and pictured it as a quiet, sad place where all the dead went. By around 200 B . C ., under the influence of Zoroastrianism and other belief systems, the Jews had adopted the idea of judgment for the dead. The afterworld became a heaven for the good and a hell for the wicked.
A river of fire known as Gehenna ran through hell, and sometimes the whole region was called Gehenna. Scores of demons dwelled there and so did the gods and goddesses of the Greeks,
To Hell and Back
Images of hell in Chinese myth are a blend of Buddhist scriptures and Taoist beliefs. Such images enlivened books about fictional journeys to hell, such as Travels in the West , which gave readers an unsettling glimpse of possible future torments. Sinners descend to the base of the sacred mountain, Meru, to undergo a set period of punishment in one hell or in a series of hells. When they have paid for their sins and are ready for rebirth, they drink a brew that makes them forget their past lives. In some accounts, a wheel of rebirth lifts them to their next life, while in others they are thrown from a bridge of pain into a river that carries them onward.
pagan term used by early Christians to describe non-Christians and non-Christian beliefs
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
Romans, Celts*, and other peoples who had also been turned into demons. Some interpretations described hell as a series of ever-smaller levels or rings, like a downward-pointing, seven-tiered mountain. Half the year the sinners being punished in hell endured the torments of fire. For the rest of the time they suffered the even worse misery of bitter cold.
Christian Version. Christian belief built upon the Jewish notion of hell as a place of punishment for the wicked and the home of Satan, the chief devil, and all of his evil demons, or fallen angels. Most often hell was pictured as an inferno, a place of flames and cruel heat. Many early Christian writings emphasized the agonies that sinners suffered in hell when demons boiled them in kettles or stabbed them with pitchforks. In such interpretations of hell the punishments were often tailored to fit specific sins.
During the Middle Ages, Christians sometimes pictured hell as a fiery dragon's mouth swallowing up sinners. In The Divine Comedy, an allegory of the soul's journey written in the early 1300s, Italian poet Dante Alighieri drew upon many mythological traditions. He portrayed hell as an inferno of punishment, descending through many levels where sinners of different categories received punishment. Dante also described the realm that Christians had come to call purgatory, a state between hell and heaven. Christian belief included the possibility that a soul could, after punishment in purgatory and true repentance, work its way toward heaven and salvation.
Islamic Version. The Muslims inherited their vision of hell, like many other elements of their faith, from the Jews and the Christians. The Islamic hell is called Jahannam (or sometimes Gehenna). Jahannam can be portrayed as a devouring, fire-breathing monster or a multilayered, pitlike realm below the earth whose chief characteristic is fire. As in Persian mythology, the souls of the dead are required to cross a bridge of judgment, "sharper than a sword and finer than a hair," that stretches over Jahannam to paradise. Sinners and unbelievers slip and fall into hell. The kind of punishment that each sinner receives matches his or her sins.
allegory literary and artistic device in which characters represent an idea or a religious or moral principle
Central American Version. According to the Maya, the souls of most of the dead went to an underworld known as Xibalba. Only individuals who died in violent circumstances went directly to one of the heavens. In the Mayan legend of the Hero Twins, told in the Popol Vuh, Xibalba is divided into houses filled with terrifying objects such as knives, jaguars, and bats. The twins undergo a series of trials in these houses and eventually defeat the lords of Xibalba. The Aztecs believed that the souls of ordinary people went to an underworld called Mictlan. Each soul wandered through the layers of Mictlan until it reached the deepest level.