For a place that doesn’t actually exist, hell has received a great deal of attention. People have been talking about it, by various names, for thousands of years.
The word “hell” derives from the Old English “hel,” the goddess of the underworld.
Ancient Hebrews did not believe in the immortality of the soul. However, some Hebrews talked about Sheol, to which all were sent at death. Experts, however, think that Sheol may have been just a metaphor for death.
There’s a Hebrew word “gehinnon,” which stands for “landfill,” a place where garbage was burned. The New Testament refers to a specific landfill, Gehenna, in the valley of Hinnon.
So, it’s no surprise that early Christians thought that the damned would be burned in such a valley, as if they were so much garbage. But even then the burning lasted only 12 months. Then the souls would be purified. Are you taking notes on this?
The ancient Greek version of hell was called Hades. It had two parts: Tartarus, where conquered gods and other spirits were punished, and the Elysian fields, where heroes were rewarded.
Hell pops up in various mythologies, usually as a region inhabited by demons and the souls of the dead. The most imaginative hell-related creature was the devil, or Satan. He is the pure invention of the Christians, who gave him flaming red skin, a pitchfork, horns, a long thin tail, and a host of assistant mini-devils. Christian theologians tell us this colorful fellow has no basis in the Bible. In truth, old Satan may be no more than a Christian mockup of the Roman god, Pan.
The Roman Catholic pronouncement on hell is that it is self-exclusion from communion with God. Hell is to die “in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love.” In short, each of us voluntarily chooses hell.
Most Christians teach that hell is eternal. But some say it is a temporary place, where souls spend some time and then cease to exist. This is called annihilationism. Other Christians believe that, after suffering for a time in hell, souls are reconciled to God and are admitted to heaven. This is called universalism.
The book of Revelations describes hell as lakes of fire and sulfur. In his “Divine Comedy,” the Italian poet Dante goes into great detail about the various circles of hell and who inhabits them. The ancient Romans felt that volcanoes might be gateways to hell.
Which brings up the question of heat. Must hell be hot? Norse mythology didn’t think so. Their hell – Neflheim – was cold and foggy.
Some theories hold that hell is believed to be hot simply because the Mideast, where three major religions were born, is a fairly hot, dry and nasty place.
To me, the worst thing about hell is that many people actually believe it is real.