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Hell


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.

The Judeo-Christian term hell comes from the Hebrew word "Sheol", which technically means landfill. The confusion over what this word actually means stems from the fact that the Hebrews really didn't have a set word to describe their underworld, so when referring to it they used words they thought might describe it, thus the word Sheol.

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.

Hell, as it exists in the Western popular imagination, has its origins in 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

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 fiery place in which evildoers 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. Obviously, we need an erudite account from someone who has studied the relevant theology.

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 often 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!

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.

Islamic view of Hell

Muslims believe in Hell; their view of Hell is similar in most ways to the Christian. There are many Quranic texts about the suffering in Hell of evildoers.

Other religions

Although Buddhists 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


Hell or Inferno is the first book of Dante's Divine Comedy.


Hell is also a location in Norway see Hell, Norway.


Hell is also the site of unusual barren rock formations on Grand Cayman[?] in the Cayman Islands. The nearby post office of the same name is a popular location for tourists to send postcards "from Hell", complete with the postmark to prove it.


In Norse mythology, Hell was an alternate spelling for the goddess of the underworld, Hel, see for more details.



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