The concept of hell is one of the oldest and most widespread concepts in the history of humanity. The idea that you are punished in the afterlife for your misdeeds during your earthly life is found in both the Western and Eastern hemisphere, from ancient civilisations to tribal communities to modern societies. Hell is typically described as the place the wicked are sent to for eternal damnation. It is often populated by all kinds of demons and monsters, located underground in a hot, fiery location. Depending on the religion, there may be a “death god” ruling over the realm, such as Satan, Yama, Hades or Hel. In hell, sinners are usually punished with various forms of torture, often fitting their crimes or having an ironic twist.
For example, in the Buddhist hell, seven “death gods” judge you for 49 days. One judgement tests whether you committed crimes of the tongue, such as lying or conning. If you are judged guilty, your tongue will be pulled out and it will be ploughed and sowed with seeds for eternity. In another court, you are judged for “how cold you were to others”, turning away from them when they needed your warmth and generosity. If you are guilty, you are locked away in a frozen hell for eternity. After being found not guilty in all seven courts, you are granted a chance to be reborn into your next life.
Why is hell such a common concept around the world? Every child knows the answer to that: if you do bad things, you will burn in hell. Ergo, you should not do bad things. This is the classic appeal to fear fallacy that has been used time and time again by politicians to control the masses. Death is an excellent deterrent to misdemeanour. In ancient times (and in certain modern nations), the death penalty was used to keep order in society, as the threat of death is usually good enough to persuade people out of doing something bad.
However, if a person does not care about death because they believe that all the woes of earthly life end with death, then what do you do? Early religious leaders most likely found the answer in hell – a place where you will suffer for eternity, without relief. Hell is an extremely simple way of persuading the masses that living by the law and a moral code will lead to a peaceful rest in the afterlife. Heaven is the perfect positive reinforcement and hell is the perfect positive punishment.
In Christianity, breaking one of the Ten Commandments is a clear sin. If you do not repent for this sin or ask for forgiveness, then you will be barred entry from heaven and be sent to a fiery hell, where Satan and his minions will put you in a chamber full of torture for the rest of eternity. However, the greatest punishment in Christian hell is not the torture itself, but knowing that you will forever be separated from the love and blessing of God.
(from The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch)
As with many aspects of religion, hell was an important part of keeping order in ancient civilisations. To enforce this system, the picture of hell had to be fleshed out with as many grotesque, horrific details as possible. Luckily, hell was a rich source of inspiration for artists and writers throughout history. Dante wrote extensively on how he imagined hell to be structured in The Divine Comedy. Hieronymus Bosch painted large works where he used his twisted imagination to create all kinds of strange monsters. Auguste Rodin made a large sculpture called The Gates of Hell to depict imagery from Dante’s The Divine Comedy (this is where the famous figures of The Thinker and The Kiss come from). Some of the most famous Greek mythology stories involve hell and the underworld in some way, such as Orpheus’ rescue of his wife and the banishment of the Titans to Tartarus by the New Gods.
Hell appears to be the perfect form of divine judgement of your sins, but it also poses a question. Many religions preach that their gods are benevolent, just and moral. How could a god that sends their beloved children into a place of eternal suffering be called just? One would expect this to be too harsh a punishment and unnecessarily immoral. This is especially the case for those who are called “wicked” for being a non-believer. The Rapture described in the Bible explains that on Judgement Day, Jesus Christ will collect those who are good and worthy of God’s love and ascend to heaven, while the rest of the world will be left in hell. This is very different to the doctrine of Buddhism and Judaism where it is believed that hell is a “process” through which you are cleansed of sin after paying for your sins, after which you may receive peace and rebirth.
One proposed answer to the so-called “problem of hell” is that human beings are given free will and what we decide to do with it is our responsibility. Therefore, going to hell is seen as a “choice” you make in life.
(The Last Judgement by Michelangelo, from the Sistine Chapel)
But is going to hell really a choice? I cannot speak for the process of going to the afterlife as I have never been there. However, one interpretation you could consider is that hell is not some fiery realm in another dimension – but Earth itself.
It appears that Earth itself is not the best world to live in. Children die of starvation, men are murdered, women are raped, the elderly suffer from incurable diseases… If that does not sound bad enough, most people live in a hell of their own in one way or another.
Our insecurities prevent us from truly loving. We fail to achieve our dreams because we are too afraid of taking the risk. When things do not go the way we planned, we blame and beat ourselves up about it until we are miserable. The neurotic are trapped in constant anxiety, the depressed cannot see light amongst the darkness they wallow in, the pessimists are too cynical to see joy in this world and the optimists have their hopes and dreams crushed by the cruel face of reality.
We do not know whether there is hell or heaven in the afterlife, but there certainly is a hell on Earth and that is the one you create in your own mind. Instead of worrying about what kind of eternal suffering we may experience after our death, perhaps we should focus on saving ourselves from the hell that we live in. Until you find a way to escape this hell, whether it be through love, happiness or success, you will forever be trapped in misery and regret. Hell is not a fiery underworld of suffering nor a frozen wasteland of damnation – it is a state of mind.
(Image source: http://akirakirai.deviantart.com/art/Fear-194527543)