The subject of Hell is an unusual one for this writer. One main reason the writer usually never publishes such musings on topics like this is because of the practical and potentially negative implications the opinions expressed here about such topics could/probably will have on said writer’s profession. With that caveat, here is Hell.
It strikes this writer as odd that one needs to, at times, make the following statements in the 21st century: Hell is not a place, and it does not exist inside the earth. Yet, because of the shower of ignorance that passes for Christianity today in the United States, such a statement is sometimes needed. No, Virginia, there is no lake burning with fire beyond the tectonic plates of earth, despite the vehement protestations and admonitions of such fire-and-brimstone preachers like Jonathan Edwards (See below).
“Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company.”-Mark Twain
How can this writer state this for a fact? Because science. While one has the freedom, certainly, to believe differently, that does not change the fact that science can demonstrate that no fiery, sulfuric, brimstoney Hell exists “down there” where your immortal soul will burn in perpetuity. And, no, a red devil with a forked tail and pitchfork does not await you.
That remains a mystery for some, by the way, or at least an imponderable for which they see no solution. If the “soul” is a spiritual entity (for lack of a better word), then how would it be possible for such an entity to experience the undeniably physical pain of burning? Of course, the opposite must be true; how can Heaven be made of streets of gold with pearly gates and be 140,000 miles long/wide/tall? Both descriptions deny or ignore the definition of “spirit” as that which is not physical.
“You may all go to Hell, and I will go to Texas.”-Davy Crockett
We owe a major debt to the Exile of the three remaining tribes of Israel into Babylon in the 6th century B.C.E. for much of what most believers today think about Hell. Before the Exile, Israel/Judah rarely spoke of life after death–or death after death, for that matter. Before the Exile, the Israelites had a place-Sheol-where the dead “went,” but the Hebrew Scriptures mention this only here and there. King David is said to have recognized it when he spoke of the infant son that he and his wife, Bathsheba, lost. David remarked something like, “I can go to him, but he cannot come to me.” (II Samuel 12) Sheol housed both good and bad people. It was were their “shades” rested.
Another metaphor for the afterlife in Hebrew Scriptures was Gehenna. That is the name of valley near Jerusalem where some of Judah’s kings sacrificed their own children to other “gods” using fire to do so. In some rabbinic literature, this valley became synonymous with the place where evil people go when they die where they, too, will be consumed by fire.
“The infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists. That is why they invented Hell.”-Bertrand Russell
As stated above, the influence of Zoroastrianism finally fixed the Jewish belief about Hell as the Hebrew Scriptures began to be collated and collected and written during and after the Exile. It seems one of the core tenants of that religion is the idea of a good god and an evil god who fought for men’s souls. In death, the good god would take good souls while the evil god would take evil ones. While the word Hell does not seem to actually be in the Sacred Scriptures of Zoroastrianism, the concept is explicit throughout them.
The evil god, also called the Adversary or Accuser (a noun used several times in the Hebrew Bible for the Evil One, by the way, and almost always as the Satan), will preside over those evil souls in the “House of Falsehoods” because they all are, at heart, liars. This dovetails nicely with Christian Scripture theology that calls the Evil One “The Father of Lies.” While the narrative in the Bible book of Genesis calls the tempter “the Serpent” in the Garden of Eden, it takes the Apostle John, writing in his apocalyptic letter to 7 Christian communities in modern-day Turkey, to make the connection between the Serpent in the Garden and Satan.
“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider… abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire.”-Jonathan Edwards
But we digress. The Jews in the inter-testamental period from about 500 B.C.E. to the first century A.D. composed books and compiled rabbinical texts (some of which many Christians call the books of the Apocrypha) that flesh out the concept of Hell as being a lake that burns with fire where evil people will spend an eternity in torment. Thus, by the time of Jesus, a well-formed theology of Hell and Satan had developed, as did the concepts of Angels and Heaven. Add to these notions the Greek (Thanks, Alexander the Great) ideas of a subterranean Hades and other such stories, and one begins to put together a picture of how the concept of Hell developed. Then, in the early 1300s, Dante’s Inferno captured the minds of a Christian Europe and continued our fascination with the underworld.
Adam and Even never mention Hell. Nor do Abraham, Moses, Isaac, Jacob and all his sons, Saul, David, Solomon, or most of the kings of both Israel and Judah. And neither do the prophets, really. Thus, pre-Exile, Hebrew theology had little idea of Hell, if any at all, and certainly not like we know it today.
Ask a theologian where Hell is. Note well his or her answer.
The picture above is from The Condemned in Hell, fresco by Luca Signorelli, 1500–02; in the Chapel of San Brizio in the cathedral at Orvieto, Italy.