What is Hell?

In religion and folkloreHell is an afterlife location, sometimes a place of torment and punishment. Religions with a linear divine history often depict hells as eternal destinations while religions with a cyclic history often depict a hell as an intermediary period between incarnations. Typically these traditions locate hell in another dimension or under the Earth’s surface and often include entrances to Hell from the land of the living. Other afterlife destinations include Heaven, Purgatory, Paradise, and Limbo.

Other traditions, which do not conceive of the afterlife as a place of punishment or reward, merely describe Hell as an abode of the dead, the grave, a neutral place located under the surface of Earth (for example, see Sheol and Hades).

Etymology

The modern English word hell is derived from Old English helhelle (first attested around 725 AD to refer to a nether world of the dead) reaching into the Anglo-Saxon pagan period. The word has cognates in all branches of the Germanic languages, including Old Norse hel (which refers to both a location and goddess-like being in Norse mythology), Old Frisian helle, Old Saxon hellia, Old High German hella, and Gothic halja. All forms ultimately derive from the reconstructed Proto-Germanic feminine noun xaljō or *haljō (‘concealed place, the underworld’). In turn, the Proto-Germanic form derives from the o-grade form of the Proto-Indo-European root kel-, *kol-: ‘to cover, conceal, save’. Indo-European cognates including Latin cēlāre (“to hide”, related to the English word cellar) and early Irish ceilid (“hides”). Upon the Christianization of the Germanic peoples, extension of Proto-Germanic *xaljō were reinterpreted to denote the underworld in Christian mythology, for which see Gehenna.

Welcome to Hell

Welcome to Hell

Related early Germanic terms and concepts include Proto-Germanic xalja-rūnō(n), a feminine compound noun, and *xalja-wītjan, a neutral compound noun. This form is reconstructed from the Latinized Gothic plural noun *haliurunnae (attested by Jordanes; according to philologist Vladimir Orel, meaning ‘witches’), Old English helle-rúne (‘sorceress, necromancer’, according to Orel), and Old High German helli-rūna ‘magic’. The compound is composed of two elements: *xaljō (haljō) and *rūnō, the Proto-Germanic precursor to Modern English rune. The second element in the Gothic haliurunnae may however instead be an agent noun from the verb rinnan (“to run, go”), which would make its literal meaning “one who travels to the netherworld”.

Proto-Germanic *xalja-wītjan (or *halja-wītjan) is reconstructed from Old Norse hel-víti ‘hell’, Old English helle-wíte ‘hell-torment, hell’, Old Saxon helli-wīti ‘hell’, and the Middle High German feminine noun helle-wīze. The compound is a compound of *xaljō (discussed above) and *wītjan (reconstructed from forms such as Old English witt ‘right mind, wits’, Old Saxon gewit ‘understanding’, and Gothic un-witi ‘foolishness, understanding’).

Religion, mythology, and folklore

Gehrts, depicts the Old Norse Hel

Hel (1889) by Johannes Gehrts, depicts the Old Norse Hel, a goddess-like figure, in the location of the same name, which she oversees

Hell appears in several mythologies and religions. It is commonly inhabited by demons and the souls of dead people. A fable about Hell which recurs in folklore across several cultures is the allegory of the long spoons. Hell is often depicted in art and literature, perhaps most famously in Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Punishment

Main articles: Divine Judgment and Divine Retribution
See also: Hell Is Punishment For Actions

Punishment in Hell typically corresponds to sins committed during life. Sometimes these distinctions are specific, with damned souls suffering for each sin committed (see for example Plato’s myth of Er or Dante’s The Divine Comedy), but sometimes they are general, with condemned sinners relegated to one or more chamber of Hell or to a level of suffering.

In many religious cultures, including Christianity and Islam, Hell is often depicted as fiery, painful, and harsh, inflicting suffering on the guilty. Despite these common depictions of Hell as a place of fire, some other traditions portray Hell as cold. Buddhist – and particularly Tibetan Buddhist – descriptions of Hell feature an equal number of hot and cold Hells. Among Christian descriptions Dante’s Inferno portrays the innermost (9th) circle of Hell as a frozen lake of blood and guilt. But cold also played a part in earlier Christian depictions of Hell, beginning with the Apocalypse of Paul, originally from the early third century; the “Vision of Dryhthelm” by the Venerable Bede from the seventh century; “St Patrick’s Purgatory”, “The Vision of Tundale” or “Visio Tnugdali”, and the “Vision of the Monk of Eynsham”, all from the twelfth century; and the “Vision of Thurkill” from the early thirteenth century.

Polytheism

Ancient Mesopotamia

Main article: Ancient Mesopotamian underworld

the god Dumuzid

Ancient Sumerian cylinder seal impression showing the god Dumuzid being tortured in the Underworld by galla demons

The Sumerian afterlife was a dark, dreary cavern located deep below the ground, where inhabitants were believed to continue “a shadowy version of life on earth”.This bleak domain was known as Kur, and was believed to be ruled by the goddess Ereshkigal. All souls went to the same afterlife, and a person’s actions during life had no effect on how the person would be treated in the world to come.

The souls in Kur were believed to eat nothing but dry dust and family members of the deceased would ritually pour libations into the dead person’s grave through a clay pipe, thereby allowing the dead to drink. Nonetheless, funerary evidence indicates that some people believed that the goddess Inanna, Ereshkigal’s younger sister, had the power to award her devotees with special favors in the afterlife. During the Third Dynasty of Ur, it was believed that a person’s treatment in the afterlife depended on how he or she was buried; those that had been given sumptuous burials would be treated well, but those who had been given poor burials would fare poorly.

The entrance to Kur was believed to be located in the Zagros mountains in the far east. It had seven gates, through which a soul needed to pass. The god Netiwas the gatekeeper. Ereshkigal’s sukkal, or messenger, was the god Namtar. Galla were a class of demons that were believed to reside in the underworld; their primary purpose appears to have been to drag unfortunate mortals back to Kur. They are frequently referenced in magical texts, and some texts describe them as being seven in number. Several extant poems describe the galla dragging the god Dumuzid into the underworld. The later Mesopotamians knew this underworld by its East Semitic name: Irkalla. During the Akkadian Period, Ereshkigal’s role as the ruler of the underworld was assigned to Nergal, the god of death. The Akkadians attempted to harmonize this dual rulership of the underworld by making Nergal Ereshkigal’s husband.

Ancient Egypt

In this ~1275 BC Book of the Deadscene

In this ~1275 BC Book of the Deadscene the dead scribe Hunefer’s heart is weighed on the scale of Maatagainst the feather of truth, by the canine-headed Anubis. The ibis-headed Thoth, scribe of the gods, records the result. If his heart is lighter than the feather, Hunefer is allowed to pass into the afterlife. If not, he is eaten by the crocodile-headed Ammit.

With the rise of the cult of Osiris during the Middle Kingdom the “democratization of religion” offered to even his humblest followers the prospect of eternal life, with moral fitness becoming the dominant factor in determining a person’s suitability. At death a person faced judgment by a tribunal of forty-two divine judges. If they had led a life in conformance with the precepts of the Goddess Maat, who represented truth and right living, the person was welcomed into the heavenly reed fields. If found guilty the person was thrown to Ammit, the “devourer of the dead” and would be condemned to the lake of fire. The person taken by the devourer is subject first to terrifying punishment and then annihilated. These depictions of punishment may have influenced medieval perceptions of the inferno in hell via early Christian and Coptic texts. Purification for those considered justified appears in the descriptions of “Flame Island”, where humans experience the triumph over evil and rebirth. For the damned complete destruction into a state of non-being awaits but there is no suggestion of eternal torture; the weighing of the heart in Egyptian mythology can lead to annihilation. The Tale of Khaemwese describes the torment of a rich man, who lacked charity, when he dies and compares it to the blessed state of a poor man who has also died. Divine pardon at judgement always remained a central concern for the Ancient Egyptians.

Modern understanding of Egyptian notions of hell relies on six ancient texts:

  1. The Book of Two Ways (Book of the Ways of Rosetau)
  2. The Book of Amduat (Book of the Hidden RoomBook of That Which Is in the Underworld)
  3. The Book of Gates
  4. The Book of the Dead (Book of Going Forth by Day)
  5. The Book of the Earth
  6. The Book of Caverns

Greek

Main article: Tartarus

In classic Greek mythology, below Heaven, Earth, and Pontus is Tartarus, or Tartaros (Greek Τάρταρος, deep place). It is either a deep, gloomy place, a pit or abyss used as a dungeon of torment and suffering that resides within Hades (the entire underworld) with Tartarus being the hellish component. In the GorgiasPlato (c. 400 BC) wrote that souls were judged after death and those who received punishment were sent to Tartarus. As a place of punishment, it can be considered a hell. The classic Hades, on the other hand, is more similar to Old Testament Sheol.

Europe

See also: Celtic Otherworld

The hells of Europe include Breton mythology’s “Anaon”, Celtic mythology’s “Uffern”, Slavic mythology’s “Peklo”, the hell of Sami mythology and Finnish “tuonela” (“manala”).

Asia

The hells of Asia include the Bagobo “Gimokodan” (which is believed to be more of an otherworld, where the Red Region is reserved who those who died in battle, while ordinary people go to the White Region)] and ancient Indian mythology‘s “Kalichi” or “Naraka”.

According to a few sources, hell is below ground, and described as an uninviting wet or fiery place reserved for sinful people in the Ainu religion, as stated by missionary John Batchelor. However, belief in hell does not appear in oral tradition of the Ainu. Instead, there is belief within the Ainu religion that the soul of the deceased (ramat) would become a kamuy after death. There is also belief that the soul of someone who has been wicked during lifetime, committed suicide, got murdered or died in great agony would become a ghost (tukap) who would haunt the living, to come to fulfillment from which it was excluded during life.

In Tengrism, it was believed that the wicked would get punished in Tamag before they would be brought to the third floor of the sky.

In Taoism, hell is represented by Diyu.

Africa

African hells include Haida mythology’s Hetgwauge and the Hell of Swahili mythology (kuzimu). Serer religion rejects the general notion of heaven and hell. In Serer religion, acceptance by the ancestors who have long departed is as close to any heaven as one can get. Rejection and becoming a wandering soul is a sort of hell for one passing over. The souls of the dead must make their way to Jaaniw (the sacred dwelling place of the soul). Only those who have lived their lives on earth in accordance with Serer doctrines will be able to make this necessary journey and thus accepted by the ancestors. Those who can’t make the journey become lost and wandering souls, but they do not burn in “hell fire”.

Native American

The hells of the Americas include the Aztec religion’s Mictlan, Inuit religion’s Adlivun, and the Yanomami religion’s Shobari Waka. In Mayan religion, Xibalba (or Metnal) is the dangerous underworld of nine levels. The road into and out of it is said to be steep, thorny and very forbidding. Ritual healers would intone healing prayers banishing diseases to Xibalba. Much of the Popol Vuh describes the adventures of the Maya Hero Twins in their cunning struggle with the evil lords of Xibalba.

The Aztecs believed that the dead traveled to Mictlan, a neutral place found far to the north. There was also a legend of a place of white flowers, which was always dark, and was home to the gods of death, particularly Mictlantecutli and his spouse Mictlantecihuatl, which means literally “lords of Mictlan”. The journey to Mictlan took four years, and the travelers had to overcome difficult tests, such as passing a mountain range where the mountains crashed into each other, a field where the wind carried flesh-scraping knives, and a river of blood with fearsome jaguars.

Oceania

In pre-Christian Fijian mythology there was belief in an underworld called Murimuria.

Abrahamic religions

Hell is viewed by most Abrahamic traditions as a place of or a form of punishment.

Judaism

See also: Gehenna and Sheol

Early Judaism had no concept of Hell, although the concept of an afterlife was introduced during the Hellenistic period, apparently from neighboring Hellenistic religions. It occurs for example in the Book of Daniel. Daniel 12:2 proclaims “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, Some to everlasting life, Some to shame and everlasting contempt.”

Judaism does not have a specific doctrine about the afterlife, but it does have a mystical/Orthodox tradition of describing Gehinnom. Gehinnom is not Hell, but originally a grave and in later times a sort of Purgatory where one is judged based on one’s life’s deeds, or rather, where one becomes fully aware of one’s own shortcomings and negative actions during one’s life. The Kabbalah explains it as a “waiting room” (commonly translated as an “entry way”) for all souls (not just the wicked). The overwhelming majority of rabbinic thought maintains that people are not in Gehinnom forever; the longest that one can be there is said to be 12 months, however there has been the occasional noted exception. Some consider it a spiritual forge where the soul is purified for its eventual ascent to Olam Habah (heb. עולם הבא; lit. “The world to come”, often viewed as analogous to heaven). This is also mentioned in the Kabbalah, where the soul is described as breaking, like the flame of a candle lighting another: the part of the soul that ascends being pure and the “unfinished” piece being reborn.

According to Jewish teachings, hell is not entirely physical; rather, it can be compared to a very intense feeling of shame. People are ashamed of their misdeeds and this constitutes suffering which makes up for the bad deeds. When one has so deviated from the will of God, one is said to be in Gehinnom. This is not meant to refer to some point in the future, but to the very present moment. The gates of teshuva (return) are said to be always open, and so one can align his will with that of God at any moment. Being out of alignment with God’s will is itself a punishment according to the Torah.

Many scholars of Jewish mysticism, particularly of the Kabbalah, make mention of seven “compartments” or “habitations” of Hell, just as there are seven divisions of Heaven. These divisions go by many different names, and the most frequently mentioned are as follows:

  • Sheol (Hebrew: שְׁאוֹל — “underworld”, “Hades”; “grave”)
  • Abaddon (Hebrew: אֲבַדּוֹן — “doom”, “perdition”)
  • Be’er Shachat (Hebrew: בְּאֵר שַׁחַת, Be’er Shachath — “pit of corruption”)
  • Tit ha-Yaven (Hebrew: טִיט הַיָוֵן — “clinging mud”)
  • Sha’are Mavet (Hebrew: שַׁעֲרֵי מָוֶת, Sha’arei Maveth — “gates of death”)
  • Tzalmavet (Hebrew: צַלמָוֶת, Tsalmaveth — “shadow of death”)
  • Gehinnom (Hebrew: גֵיהִנוֹם, Gehinnom — “valley of Hinnom”; “Tartarus”, “Purgatory”)

Besides those mentioned above, there also exist additional terms that have been often used to either refer to Hell in general or to some region of the underworld:

  • Azazel (Hebrew: עֲזָאזֵל, compd. of ez עֵז: “goat” + azal אָזַל: “to go away” — “goat of departure”, “scapegoat”; “entire removal”, “damnation”)
  • Dudael (Hebrew: דּוּדָאֵל — lit. “cauldron of God”)
  • Tehom (Hebrew: תְהוֹם — “abyss”; “sea”, “deep ocean”)
  • Tophet (Hebrew: תֹּפֶת or תוֹפֶת, Topheth — “fire-place”, “place of burning”, “place to be spit upon”; “inferno”)
  • Tzoah Rotachat (Hebrew: צוֹאָה רוֹתֵחַת, Tsoah Rothachath — “boiling excrement”)
  • Mashchit (Hebrew: מַשְׁחִית, Mashchith — “destruction”, “ruin”)
  • Dumah (Hebrew: דוּמָה — “silence”)
  • Neshiyyah (Hebrew: נְשִׁיָּה — “oblivion”, “Limbo”)
  • Bor Shaon (Hebrew: בּוֹר שָׁאוֹן — “cistern of sound”)
  • Eretz Tachtit (Hebrew: אֶרֶץ תַּחְתִּית, Erets Tachtith — “lowest earth”).
  • Masak Mavdil (Hebrew: מָסָך מַבְדִּ֔יל, Masak Mabdil — “dividing curtain”)
  • Haguel (Ethiopic: ሀጉለ — “(place of) destruction”, “loss”, “waste”)
  • Ikisat (Ethiopic: አክይስት — “serpents”, “dragons”; “place of future punishment”)

Christianity

Main articles: Christian views on hell and Christian views on Hades

The Christian doctrine of hell derives from passages in the New Testament. The word hell does not appear in the Greek New Testament; instead one of three words is used: the Greek words Tartarus or Hades, or the Hebrew word Gehinnom.

In the Septuagint and New Testament the authors used the Greek term Hades for the Hebrew Sheol, but often with Jewish rather than Greek concepts in mind. In the Jewish concept of Sheol, such as expressed in Ecclesiastes, Sheol or Hades is a place where there is no activity. However, since Augustine, Christians have believed that the souls of those who die either rest peacefully, in the case of Christians, or are afflicted, in the case of the damned, after death until the resurrection.

Hebrew OT Septuagint Greek NT times in NT Vulgate KJV NIV
שְׁאוֹל (Sheol) Ἅιδης (Haïdēs) ᾌδης (Ádēs) x10 infernus Hell Hades
גֵיא בֶן־הִנֹּם (Ge Hinom) Εννομ (Ennom) γέεννα (géenna) x11 infernus Hell Hell
(Not applicable) (Not applicable) Ταρταρόω (Tartaróō) x1 infernus Hell Hell

While these three terms are translated in the KJV as “hell” these three terms have three very different meanings.

  • Hades has similarities to the Old Testament term, Sheol as “the place of the dead” or “grave”. Thus, it is used in reference to both the righteous and the wicked, since both wind up there eventually.
  • Gehenna refers to the “Valley of Hinnom”, which was a garbage dump outside of Jerusalem. It was a place where people burned their garbage and thus there was always a fire burning there. Bodies of those deemed to have died in sin without hope of salvation (such as people who committed suicide) were thrown there to be destroyed. Gehenna is used in the New Testament as a metaphor for the final place of punishment for the wicked after the resurrection.
  • Tartaróō (the verb “throw to Tartarus”, used of the fall of the Titans in Illiad 14.296) occurs only once in the New Testament in II Peter 2:4, where it is parallel to the use of the noun form in 1 Enoch as the place of incarceration of the fallen angels. It mentions nothing about human souls being sent there in the afterlife.

The Roman Catholic Church defines Hell as “a state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed.” One finds oneself in Hell as the result of dying in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love, becoming eternally separated from him by one’s own free choice immediately after death. In the Roman Catholic Church, many other Christian churches, such as the Baptists and Episcopalians, and some Greek Orthodox churches, Hell is taught as the final destiny of those who have not been found worthy after the general resurrection and last judgment, where they will be eternally punished for sin and permanently separated from God. The nature of this judgment is inconsistent with many Protestant churches teaching the saving comes from accepting Jesus Christ as their savior, while the Greek Orthodox and Catholic Churches teach that the judgment hinges on both faith and works. However, many Liberal Christians throughout Liberal Protestant and Anglican churches believe in universal reconciliation(see below) even though it might contradict more evangelical views in their denomination.

Some modern Christian theologians subscribe to the doctrines of conditional immortality. Conditional immortality is the belief that the soul dies with the body and does not live again until the resurrection. As with other Jewish writings of the Second Temple period, the New Testament text distinguishes two words, both translated “Hell” in older English Bibles: Hades, “the grave”, and Gehenna where God “can destroy both body and soul”. A minority of Christians read this to mean that neither Hades nor Gehenna are eternal but refer to the ultimate destruction of the wicked in the Lake of Fire in a consuming fire after resurrection. However, because of the Greek words used in translating from the Hebrew text has become confused with Greek myths and ideas. In the Hebrew text when people died they went to Sheol, the grave and the wicked ultimately went to Gehenna which is the consuming by fire. So we see where the grave or death or eventual destruction of the wicked, was translated using Greek words that since they had no exact ones to use, became a mix of mistranslation, pagan influence, and Greek myth associated with the word, but its original meaning was simple death or the destruction of the wicked at the end.

Christian mortalism is the doctrine that all men and women, including Christians, must die, and do not continue and are not conscious after death. Therefore, annihilationism includes the doctrine that “the wicked” are also destroyed rather than tormented forever in traditional “Hell” or the lake of fire. Christian mortalism and annihilationism are directly related to the doctrine of conditional immortality, the idea that a human soul is not immortal unless it is given eternal life at the second coming of Christ and resurrection of the dead.

Biblical scholars looking at the issue through the Hebrew text have denied the teaching of innate immortality. Rejection of the immortality of the soul, and advocacy of Christian mortalism, was a feature of Protestantism since the early days of the Reformation with Martin Luther himself rejecting the traditional idea, though his view did not carry into orthodox Lutheranism. One of the most notable English opponents of the immortality of the soul was Thomas Hobbes who describes the idea as a Greek “contagion” in Christian doctrine. Modern proponents of conditional immortality include some in the Anglican church such as N.T. Wright and as denominations the Seventh-day Adventists, Bible Students, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christadelphians, Living Church of God, The Church of God International, and some other Protestant Christians, as well as recent Roman Catholic teaching. It is not Roman Catholic dogma that anyone is in Hell. Also, the 1993 Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) seems to allow room for new understanding. In 1033 it states: ‘This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell”’. Then in 1035 its use of quotation marks can imply the metaphorical nature of the description, and the words that follow are certainly open to interpretation: “… they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God” (CCC 1035). During an Audience in 1999, Pope John Paul II commented: “images of hell that Sacred Scripture presents to us must be correctly interpreted. They show the complete frustration and emptiness of life without God. 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 denominations

The Seventh-day Adventist Church‘s official beliefs support annihilationism. They deny the Catholic purgatory and teach that the dead lie in the grave until they are raised for a last judgment, both the righteous and wicked await the resurrection at the Second Coming. Seventh-day Adventists believe that death is a state of unconscious sleep until the resurrection. They base this belief on biblical texts such as Ecclesiastes 9:5 which states “the dead know nothing”, and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 which contains a description of the dead being raised from the grave at the second coming. These verses, it is argued, indicate that death is only a period or form of slumber.

Adventists teach that the resurrection of the righteous will take place at the second coming of Jesus, while the resurrection of the wicked will occur after the millennium of Revelation 20. They reject the traditional doctrine of hell as a state of everlasting conscious torment, believing instead that the wicked will be permanently destroyed after the millennium.

The Adventist views about death and hell reflect an underlying belief in: (a) conditional immortality (or conditionalism), as opposed to the immortality of the soul; and (b) the holistic(or monistic) Christian anthropology or nature of human beings, as opposed to bipartite or tripartite views.

Jehovah’s Witnesses hold that the soul ceases to exist when the person dies and therefore that Hell (Sheol or Hades) is a state of non-existence. In their theology, Gehenna differs from Sheol or Hades in that it holds no hope of a resurrection. Tartarus is held to be the metaphorical state of debasement of the fallen angels between the time of their moral fall (Genesis chapter 6) until their post-millennial destruction along with Satan (Revelation chapter 20).

Christian Universalists believe in universal reconciliation, the belief that all human souls (even demons and fallen angels) will be eventually reconciled with God and admitted to Heaven. This view is held by some Unitarian-Universalists.

According to Emanuel Swedenborg’s Second Coming Christian revelation, hell exists because evil people want it. They, not God, introduced evil to the human race.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) teach that hell is a state between death and resurrection, in which those spirits who did not repent while on earth must suffer for their own sins (Doctrine and Covenants 19:15–17).

Islam

Main article: Jahannam

In Islam, jahannam (جهنم) (related to the Hebrew word gehinnom) is a place filled with blazing fire, boiling water, and a variety of other torments for those who have been condemned to it in the hereafter. After the Day of Judgement, it is to be occupied by those who do not believe in God, those who have disobeyed his laws, or rejected his messengers. “Enemies of Islam” are sent to Hell immediately upon their deaths.

Like Zoroastrians, Muslims believe that on Judgement Day, all souls will pass over a bridge over hell (Chinvat Bridge in Zoroastrianism, As-Sirāt in Islam) which those destined for hell will find too narrow and fall from into their new abode. Jahannam resembles the Christian versions of Hell in being below heaven and full of fire, but it is primarily a place of punishment, created by God, instead of devils domain to wage war against the heavens above.

The holy book of Islam, the Quran, gives many literal descriptions of the condemned in a fiery Hell, contrasting them with the garden-like Paradise (Jannah) enjoyed by righteous believers. Suffering in Hell is both physical and spiritual, and varies according to the sins of the condemned. In the Quran, God firmly declared that a lot of mankind and Jinns will go to the fiery Jahannam.

Heaven and Hell are each divided into seven different levels, with occupants assigned to each depending on their actions—good or bad—during their lifetimes. The gate of Hell is guarded by Maalik, who is the leader of the angels assigned as the guards of hell, also known as Zabaaniyah. While hell is usually described as hot, there is one pit (Zamhareer) characterized in Islamic tradition as unbearably cold, with blizzards, ice, and snow.

Polytheism (shirk) is a particularly grievous sin therefore entering Paradise is forbidden for a polytheist (musyrik) because his place is Hell; and the lowest pit of Hell (Hawiyah), is intended for hypocrites who claimed aloud to believe in God and his messenger but in their hearts did not. Not all Muslims and scholars agree whether hell is an eternal destination or whether some or all of the condemned will eventually be forgiven and allowed to enter paradise.

Eastern religions

Buddhism

Main article: Naraka (Buddhism)

A mural from a temple in northern Thailand. Human-animal figures are dismembered and disemboweled by hell guards and birds, while Phra Malaya watches from above.

In “Devaduta Sutta“, the 130th discourse of the Majjhima Nikaya, Buddha teaches about hell in vivid detail. Buddhism teaches that there are five (sometimes six) realms of rebirth, which can then be further subdivided into degrees of agony or pleasure. Of these realms, the hell realms, or Naraka, is the lowest realm of rebirth. Of the hell realms, the worst is Avīci or “endless suffering”. The Buddha’s disciple, Devadatta, who tried to kill the Buddha on three occasions, as well as create a schism in the monastic order, is said to have been reborn in the Avici Hell.

However, like all realms of rebirth, rebirth in the Hell realms is not permanent, though suffering can persist for eons before being reborn again. In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha teaches that eventually even Devadatta will become a Pratyekabuddha himself, emphasizing the temporary nature of the Hell realms. Thus, Buddhism teaches to escape the endless migration of rebirths (both positive and negative) through the attainment of Nirvana.

The Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha, according to the Ksitigarbha Sutra, made a great vow as a young girl to not reach Nirvana until all beings were liberated from the Hell Realms or other unwholesome rebirths. In popular literature, Ksitigarbha travels to the Hell realms to teach and relieve beings of their suffering.

Hinduism

Main article: Naraka (Hinduism)

Yama’s Court and Hell. The Blue figure is Yamaraja (The Hindu god of death) with his consort Yami and Chitragupta 17th-century painting from Government Museum, Chennai.

Early Vedic religion does not have a concept of Hell. Ṛg-veda mentions three realms, bhūr (the earth), svar (the sky) and bhuvas or antarikṣa (the middle area, i.e. air or atmosphere). In later Hindu literature, especially the law books and Puranas, more realms are mentioned, including a realm similar to Hell, called naraka (नरक). Yamaas the first born human (together with his twin sister Yamī), by virtue of precedence, becomes ruler of men and a judge on their departure. Originally he resides in Heaven, but later, especially medieval, traditions mention his court in naraka.

In the law-books (smṛtis and dharma-sūtras, like the Manu-smṛti), naraka is a place of punishment for sins. It is a lower spiritual plane (called naraka-loka) where the spirit is judged and the partial fruits of karma affect the next life. In Mahabharata there is a mention of the Pandavas and the Kauravas both going to Heaven. At first Yudhisthir goes to heaven where he sees Duryodhana enjoying heaven; Indra tells him that Duryodhana is in heaven as he did his Kshatriya duties. Then he shows Yudhisthir hell where it appears his brothers are. Later it is revealed that this was a test for Yudhisthir and that his brothers and the Kauravas are all in heaven and live happily in the divine abode of gods. Hells are also described in various Puranas and other scriptures. The Garuda Purana gives a detailed account of Hell and its features; it lists the amount of punishment for most crimes, much like a modern-day penal code.

It is believed that people who commit sins go to Hell and have to go through punishments in accordance with the sins they committed. The god Yamarāja, who is also the god of death, presides over Hell. Detailed accounts of all the sins committed by an individual are kept by Chitragupta, who is the record keeper in Yama’s court. Chitragupta reads out the sins committed and Yama orders appropriate punishments to be given to individuals. These punishments include dipping in boiling oil, burning in fire, torture using various weapons, etc. in various Hells. Individuals who finish their quota of the punishments are reborn in accordance with their balance of karma. All created beings are imperfect and thus have at least one sin to their record; but if one has generally led a pious life, one ascends to svarga, a temporary realm of enjoyment similar to Paradise, after a brief period of expiation in Hell and before the next reincarnation, according to the law of karma.

According to Brahma Kumaris iron world (kalyug, a stage of world cycle) is regarded as hell.

Jainism

Main article: Naraka (Jainism)

In Jain cosmology, Naraka (translated as Hell) is the name given to realm of existence having great suffering. However, a Naraka differs from the hells of Abrahamic religions as souls are not sent to Naraka as the result of a divine judgment and punishment. Furthermore, length of a being’s stay in a Naraka is not eternal, though it is usually very long and measured in billions of years. A soul is born into a Naraka as a direct result of his or her previous karma (actions of body, speech and mind), and resides there for a finite length of time until his karma has achieved its full result. After his karma is used up, he may be reborn in one of the higher worlds as the result of an earlier karma that had not yet ripened.

Seven levels of Jain hell

A cloth painting depicting seven levels of Jain hell. Left panel depicts the demi-god and his animal vehicle presiding over each hell.

The Hells are situated in the seven grounds at the lower part of the universe. The seven grounds are:

  1. Ratna prabha
  2. Sharkara prabha.
  3. Valuka prabha.
  4. Panka prabha.
  5. Dhuma prabha.
  6. Tamaha prabha.
  7. Mahatamaha prabha.

The hellish beings are a type of souls which are residing in these various hells. They are born in hells by sudden manifestation. The hellish beings possess vaikriya body (protean body which can transform itself and take various forms). They have a fixed life span (ranging from ten thousand to billions of years) in the respective hells where they reside. According to Jain scripture, Tattvarthasutra, following are the causes for birth in hell:

  1. Killing or causing pain with intense passion.
  2. Excessive attachment to things and worldly pleasure with constantly indulging in cruel and violent acts.
  3. Vowless and unrestrained life.

Sikhism

In Sikh thought, Hell and Heaven are not places for living hereafter, they are part of spiritual topography of man and do not exist otherwise. They refer to good and evil stages of life respectively and can be lived now and here during our earthly existence. For example, Guru Arjan explains that people who are entangled in emotional attachment and doubt are living in hell on this Earth i.e. their life is hellish.

So many are being drowned in emotional attachment and doubt; they dwell in the most horrible hell.

— Guru Arjan, Guru Granth Sahib 297,

Taoism

Ancient Taoism had no concept of Hell, as morality was seen to be a man-made distinction and there was no concept of an immaterial soul. In its home country China, where Taoism adopted tenets of other religions, popular belief endows Taoist Hell with many deities and spirits who punish sin in a variety of horrible ways.

Chinese folk beliefs

Main article: Diyu

Hell's torturer

A Chinese glazed earthenware sculpture of “Hell’s torturer”, 16th century, Ming Dynasty

Diyu is the realm of the dead in Chinese mythology. It is very loosely based upon the Buddhist concept of Naraka combined with traditional Chinese afterlife beliefs and a variety of popular expansions and re-interpretations of these two traditions. Ruled by Yanluo Wang, the King of Hell, Diyu is a maze of underground levels and chambers where souls are taken to atone for their earthly sins.

Incorporating ideas from Taoism and Buddhism as well as traditional Chinese folk religion, Diyu is a kind of purgatory place which serves not only to punish but also to renew spirits ready for their next incarnation. There are many deities associated with the place, whose names and purposes are the subject of much conflicting information.

The exact number of levels in Chinese Hell – and their associated deities – differs according to the Buddhist or Taoist perception. Some speak of three to four ‘Courts’, other as many as ten. The ten judges are also known as the 10 Kings of Yama. Each Court deals with a different aspect of atonement. For example, murder is punished in one Court, adultery in another. According to some Chinese legends, there are eighteen levels in Hell. Punishment also varies according to belief, but most legends speak of highly imaginative chambers where wrong-doers are sawn in half, beheaded, thrown into pits of filth or forced to climb trees adorned with sharp blades.

However, most legends agree that once a soul (usually referred to as a ‘ghost’) has atoned for their deeds and repented, he or she is given the Drink of Forgetfulness by Meng Po and sent back into the world to be reborn, possibly as an animal or a poor or sick person, for further punishment.

Other traditions

Zoroastrianism

Main article: Zoroastrian eschatology

Zoroastrianism has historically suggested several possible fates for the wicked, including annihilation, purgation in molten metal, and eternal punishment, all of which have standing in Zoroaster’s writings. Zoroastrian eschatology includes the belief that wicked souls will remain in hell until, following the arrival of three saviors at thousand-year intervals, Ahura Mazdareconciles the world, destroying evil and resurrecting tormented souls to perfection.

The sacred Gathas mention a “House of the Lie″ for those “that are of an evil dominion, of evil deeds, evil words, evil Self, and evil thought, Liars.” However, the best-known Zoroastrian text to describe hell in detail is the Book of Arda Viraf. It depicts particular punishments for particular sins—for instance, being trampled by cattle as punishment for neglecting the needs of work animals. Other descriptions can be found in the Book of Scriptures (Hadhokht Nask), Religious Judgments (Dadestan-i Denig) and the Book of the Judgments of the Spirit of Wisdom (Mainyo-I-Khard).

Wicca

In Wicca, there is no such thing as hell because Wiccans largely do not believe in the concept of punishment or reward. Although Wiccan views differ among different denominations, Wiccans tend to prefer viewing the Horned God and the Goddess as gentle deities.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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