Encyclopedia  |   World Factbook  |   World Flags  |   Reference Tables  |   List of Lists     
   Academic Disciplines  |   Historical Timeline  |   Themed Timelines  |   Biographies  |   How-Tos     
Sponsor by The Tattoo Collection
Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


For alternative meanings 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 the Norse 'Hel', which originally referred to the goddess of the Norse underworld.

In most religions' conception 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.

Table of contents
1 Origins
2 Descriptions according to various religions
3 See also
4 External link


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 and is still considered to be distinct from "hell" by Eastern Orthodox Christians. The New Testament uses this word, but it also uses the word 'Gehenna', from the valley of Ge-Hinnom, a valley near Jerusalem used as a landfill. 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. 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.

Descriptions according to various religions

Rabbinic Judaism

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 religion

Another source for the modern idea of 'Hell' is the Greek Tartarus, a place in which conquered gods and other spirits 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.


Popular imagery

In popular imagery connected to the Western 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 smaller versions of 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.

Eastern Orthodoxy

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!" This ancient view is still the doctrine of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Roman Catholicism

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."

Other Christian denominations

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.

Latter-day Saints believe in a concept called Outer Darkness, a place of eternal emptiness for Sons of Perdition, those who are irredeemably evil to their core. However, this is not believed to be a place where people go if they still have any strains of righteousness in their hearts.

Additional observations regarding the history and description of Hell in Christianity

The Christian Hell is different to the Sheol mentioned in Judaism. The nature of Hell is described in the New Testament in several occasions. For example, 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 as a place apart from 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 comprises the souls of those who died out of God's grace, in sin and without repentance. Some consider the fate of righteous people who lived before the time of Christ (thus being non-Christian through no fault of their own...) a complication, especially for the many righteous Jews of the Old Testament. In some traditions, these people went straight to Heaven despite not being Christians. In other traditions, they had to wait in Limbo until the Harrowing of Hell during the three days between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.

According to Western Christian beliefs, the Devil and his angels (demons), who will be in charge of punishing the soul of the sinners also reside in hell. This doctrine is not part of Eastern Orthodox teachings. 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, thirst being 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 Western 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 details as proposed in Dante's Commedia or Divine Comedy are perhaps the pinnacle of literary speculation; it is from his work that the phrase "Abandon all hope, you who enter" originated.

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. Some claim that the conditions thought to prevail in Hell are influenced by the generally hot, dry climates found in the cradlelands of Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike; these observers point to the fact that the equivalent of Hell in Norse mythology, known as Neflheim, is pictured as a cold, foggy place (the name itself meaning "home of the fog").

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).

One problem with the Western Christian view of Hell is that it may be based in part on an error in translation. Jeff Priddy, writing in The Idle Babbler Illustrated (Volume 4, Issue 2), expresses the problem:

The religious and secular man's nightmarish ideas of HELL (that is, of a Christ-managed hothouse where sinners get burned forever) come to them compliments of ... careless translating ... the practice of ignoring separate Greek words.

In 2 Pet. 2:4, God chose the Greek word "Tartaroo" (ταρταροω; English transliteration, "Tartarus") to identify the temporary abode of sinning angels. Tartarus holds spirit beings, not humans. and there is not a flame on the premises. The KJV and NIV translators (neither of whose versions have any influence in the expression of Eastern Orthodox doctrine) gave this specific Greek word the English equivalent, "hell."

In Matthew 5:22 (and in several other places), God chose a different Greek word, "Geenna," (English transliteration: "Gehenna") to name a valley on the southwest corner of Jerusalem where the corpses of criminals will be disposed of during the thousand-year kingdom. There are flames here, yes, but the flames cremate the dead (Is. 66:24), they don't torture the living. Most of humanity is not even alive to see Gehenna (Rev. 20:5), let alone be tormented there. The KJV and NIV translators gave this specific Greek word the English equivalent, "hell."

In Luke 16:23 (and in other places), God chose the Greek word, "hades," to describe the state of invisibility; in Greek, the word means "unseen." God uses this word often to describe a person's nonexistence in death: unless spoken of figuratively, a dead person doesn't see anything, hear anything, feel anything, know anything, do anything: hades. Flames, screams, pointy tails and pitchforks are conspicuously absent. All the dead "go" here, not just the wicked. The KJV and NIV translators gave this specific Greek word the English equivalent, "hell."

Priddy goes on to point out that if a (Western) Christian says that someone is in "Hell", that "is a terrible lack of information", because many versions of the Bible indiscriminately use the word "Hell" to describe three different places. If you press the point, and the Christian says that person is in Gehenna, then you could take a plane to Jerusalem and look for the person there. If the claim is that the person is in Tartarus, you can point out that they were never a stubborn, sinning angel who surrendered their sovereignty during the days of Noah (1 Pet. 3:19-20. 2 Pet. 2:4, Jude 6). And if in Hades, you could rejoice that, like Christ (Acts 2:3 l), David (Ps. 16: 10), and Jacob (Gn. 37:35) before him, the person has ceased from their troubles and sufferings (Jb. 3:11-19), and now rests, as if asleep (Jn. 11:11,14).

This problem does not exist in Eastern Orthodox doctrine, which considers the "hell" state of the reprobate to not exist until after the events of Revelation.


The Muslim belief in jahannam (an Arabic transliteration of the Hebrew ge-hinnom) resembles that of other Abrahamic religions. In the Quran, the holy book of Islam, there are literal descriptions of the condemned in a fiery Hell, as contrasted to the garden-like Paradise enjoyed by righteous believers.

Chinese and Japanese religions

The structure of Hell is remarkably complex in many Chinese and Japanese religions. The ruler of Hell has to deal with politics, just as human rulers do. Hell is the subject of many folk stories and manga. In many such stories, people in hell are able to die again, but no one seems to care about the apparent contradiction. (Note: the strong influence of Buddhism (see below) on Chinese and Japanese Hells means that this is not necessarily a contradiction.)

See Feng Du for more information on Chinese Hell.

Other religions

Buddhism acknowledges several hells, which are places of great suffering for evildoers. Like all the different realms within cyclic existence, an existence in hell is temporary for inhabitants. Those with sufficiently negative karma are reborn there, where they stay until their specific negative karma has been used up, at which point they are reborn in another realm, like humans, hungry ghosts, animals, demi-gods or gods - all according to their karma.

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

Taoism has a slightly nebulous version of Hell. Some claim it has no Hell at all, but - particularly in its home country China - popular belief endows Taoist Hell with many deities and spirits who punish sin in a variety of horrible ways. (See Feng Du.)

See also

External link