Hell is the underworld abode of souls of the dead. In Christianity, hell is the opposite of heaven and is the place ruled by the Devil, where Demons torment sinners for eternity. Hell is the complete absence of God, light, and love; a place of unbearable fire and horrible tortures. Hell takes its name from HEL, the Norse goddess of the netherworld. Most concepts of the afterlife segregate the good from the evil, sending them to separate abodes.
Amenti (also Amentet) is the underworld in the Osiris cult of Egyptian myth and religion. Amenti, which means “hidden land,” is located where the Sun sets in the west. After arriving at Amenti, the soul is taken by the jackalheaded god of death, Anubis, to a judgment hall. Anubis weighs the soul’s heart against the feather of truth and light, and the soul is judged by 42 judges. Worthy souls go to the fields of Aalu (also Aaru), which are reached by passing through either 15 or 21 gates guarded by evil Demons armed with long knives. The Elysium-like fields were cultivated for food for the dead. Souls who fail judgment and weighing are eaten by a monster named Ammit (Ammut) and sent to a place of torment.
The Greek underworld of Hades is a realm of shadows. The souls of the dead are colorless shades who wander about in a depressing, gloomy world. According to Homer, they have no blood or bones, twitter like bats, and seek the vitalizing life forces from sacrificed animals and necromantic rituals. In later Greek thought, the good are rewarded and the wicked are punished.
The dead reach the afterlife by crossing the river Acheron, the river of sorrow, in a boat driven by the ferryman Charon. He must be paid for passage, usually in the form of a coin placed under the tongue of the deceased. After passing by the guardian, the three-headed dog Cerberus, the dead proceed to the place of judgment. Hades is divided into the Elysian Fields, a paradise for the good, and Tartarus, a hell for the wicked. There are many rivers. Besides the Acheron, major ones are the Cocytus (lamentation), Phlegethon (fire), Lethe (forgetfulness), and Styx (hate), the last of which divides the upper and lower worlds.
Three judges of the underworld, Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Aeacus, weigh souls at a place where three roads meet. The blessed are sent to the Elysian Fields, the wicked are sent to Tartarus, and those who are neither are sent to the Fields of Asphodel. The wicked are unhappy and suffer, but not at the hand of Demons.
Early Christians used the term Hades to translate the Hebrew term Sheol, the land of the dead.
In Zoroastrianism, hell is created in the middle earth by Ahriman, the personification of ultimate evil. In his battle against Ohrmazd, the good god, Ahriman attacks the earth, ripping apart the sky, thereby creating night. He hurtles toward the earth and bores straight through it, making a tunnel. This hole becomes hell, infested with Demons. Damned souls are sent here to suffer extremes of heat and cold, loathsome stenches, rotting food, and the torments of Demons, who gnaw, swallow, and pierce the damned with spears. The extent of punishment is suited to the crimes and sins of the souls. Souls who are neither wholly good nor wholly evil go to a purgatorylike place, Hamegstan, a shadowy and oppressive realm with extremes of heat and cold. Being sent to hell is not permanent, however. At the Last Judgement, all sin is purged.
After death, the soul spends three days sitting at the head of its body praying for its future. Then, it must cross a river swollen with the tears of weeping loved ones. If too many tears have been shed, the river cannot be crossed. The soul is aided by its guardian angel. If the river is crossed, the soul then arrives at the Chinvat Bridge, or “Bridge of the Requiter,” to meet three angels of judgment: Mithra, Srosh, and Rashnu. The deeds of the soul are weighed. Depending on the good or evil reckoning, the bridge is wide and easily crossed, or sharp and narrow, causing the wicked to fall into hell.
One text, The Book of Arda Viraf, describes hell in detail as a gloomy, stinking, fiery, and depressing abode. There are four significant hills: Dush-humat, the place of evil thoughts; Dush-hukht, the place of evil words; Dushhuvarsht, the place of evil deeds; and Chakat-i-Daitih, a desert and dark stinking pit full of Demons below the Chinvat Bridge. The deepest pit is Drûgâskan, a place so dark that the sense of sight is lost.
Punishments fit the nature of sins; 85 are described in The Book of Arda Viraf from the sixth century. Eightyfive of its 101 chapters concern hell. The visionary is Arda Viraf, who travels to both heaven and hell with two guides: Srosh the pious and Ataro, an angel. Besides witnessing landscapes and tortures of hell, Arda Viraf sees Angra Mainyu, the deadly world destroyer later known as Ahriman.
Unlike the Christian hell to come, Demons do not force the punishments upon the damned; rather, the damned inflict the punishments on themselves, while Demons look on. The most common punishment is eating fetid and putrid things for thousands of years until the final resurrection. Other punishments include the eating of their own corpses, flesh, and excrement, menstrual fluids and semen, blood and brains from skulls of the dead, and their own children. Tortures also include hanging (particularly upside-down), dismemberment, decapitation, laceration, mutilation and self-mutilation by cutting, gnawing, devouring, gnashing, piercing, beating, tearing, trampling, stinging, and dragging. The wicked are stabbed and pelted and stretched on racks; they are forced to bear enormous burdens and perform painful and fruitless tasks; are burned and cooked in ovens, cauldrons, and frying-pans; are cast down into heat, cold, smoke, snow, and stench. They endure hunger and thirst, and they are forced to lick hot things or to defecate and masturbate continually; they are submerged in mud and turned into Serpents. Their eyes are gouged out and their tongues pulled out; putrid substances are forced into their noses, eyes, and mouths. Their penises are gnawed and their breasts are gnashed and cut off.
Fire is present in the Zoroastrian hell but is not an instrument of torture; instead, hot implements and objects and molten metal are used against the damned.
Sheol (place of the dead) is a shadowy place under the earth where souls continue their existence in the afterlife. The equivalent Greek term for the Hebrew Sheol is Hades, but as a place after death, not as a place of punishment. Daniel 12:2, which concerns the coming of the messianic kingdom, expresses the conviction that God will not abandon souls in Sheol: “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and contempt.”
All souls go initially to Sheol (with the exception of a few righteous ones whom God takes straight to heaven). In 3 Enoch, two angels of destruction escort “intermediate” souls (those equally good and bad) and wicked souls to Sheol. The intermediate souls are purified in fire in order to be fitting in God’s presence. They have spiritual forms that are human faces with eagle bodies. The faces are green because of the taint of their sin and will remain so until they are purified.
The wicked souls, whose faces are as black as the bottoms of pots because of their sins, are taken by an angel to Gehenna (hell) for punishment. Gehenna or Gehinnom (Valley of Hinnom) is associated with the literal valley of Hinnom south of Jerusalem, where human sacrifices were made to Moloch. Different accounts exist concerning the creation of Gehenna: it was created by God on the second day, or it existed before the world and its fire was created on the second day. It exists either above the firmament, behind dark mountains, or deep within the earth. Its fire is 60 times hotter than any fire on Earth and is never extinguished. It stinks of sulfur. Sinners go immediately to Gehenna, where they are punished in terrible pain for eternity.
In orthodox Christianity, hell has four levels. The first two are limbo regions for pre-Christian souls, now unoccupied, and for the souls of unbaptized children. The third is purgatory, where most mortals go prior to admission to heaven. The duration of their stay depends upon the gravity of their sins. The fourth is hell itself, reserved for eternal punishment of the damned, who have no hope of redemption.
Hell exists in the bowels of the earth. Earthquakes are produced by the convulsions of the damned, according to orthodox belief.
There are three gates to hell: in the inhabited land, in the wilderness, and at the bottom of the sea. In the Middle Ages, caves were considered to be the entry points to hell.
Hell is characterized by extremes of temperature. There are unbearable furnaces and pitch and flames, and extreme cold, ice, and frigidity. The damned are punished according to their sins, and in ways similar to the descriptions of the Zoroastrian hell. Their bodies are tortured and ripped apart by Demons; they are subjected to piercings and hanging in agonizing postures, such as by their tongues or breasts. They have their organs and flesh devoured; they eat excrement and filth. They have their genitals and breasts mutilated. Worms crawl in and out of their eyes.
Jahnnam is the Islamic hell, the destination of not only criminals but infidels and those who do not believe in God. The damned are forced to eat bitter fruit from a tree called Zaqqum and endure a host of other tortures. The Qur’an emphasizes the torments of hell for wayward Muslims. The guilty are “bound with chains, their garments pitch, and their faces covered with flames” (sura 14:49–50). For those who oppose God’s message, “Hell will stretch behind them, and putrid water shall he drink: he will sip, but scarcely swallow. Death will assail him from every side, yet he shall not die. Harrowing torment awaits him” (sura 14:16–17), and “Garments of fire have been prepared for the unbelievers. Scalding water shall be poured upon their heads, melting their skins and that which is in their bellies. They shall be lashed with rods of iron” (sura 22:19–20).
Visits to Hell
Numerous religious figures and visionaries have visited one or both sides of the afterlife. Zarathustra (Zoroaster) was said to have made midnight trips to both heaven and hell, as did Moses. There is a tradition that Jesus went to hell for three days between his Crucifixion and ascension to heaven. The Bible makes no clear reference to it, but the statement that Jesus went to hell is in the Apostles’ Creed. 1 Peter 3:19 says that Jesus went to preach to “the spirits in prison,” a reference interpreted as meaning hell. Emanuel Swedenborg had numerous out-of-body visits to the afterlife, and ST. JOHN BOSCO visited hell in vivid lucid dreams.
Further Reading :
- Masters, Anthony. The Devil’s Dominion: The Complete Story of Hell and Satanism in the Modern World. London: Peter Fraser & Dunlop, 1978.
- Ogden, Daniel. Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Sourcebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
- Rudwin, Maximilian. The Devil in Legend and Literature. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1959.
- Russell, Jeffrey Burton. The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity. Ithaca, N.Y., and London: Cornell University Press, 1977.
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