Medieval illustration of the Mouth of Hell
Hell (according to many religious beliefs about the afterlife) is a place of torment and pain. The English word 'hell' comes from the Norse 'Hel', which originally referred to the goddess of the Norse underworld. The original meaning was likely "The Hidden": compare Anglo-Saxon helan and Latin celare = "to hide". (Also, the Greek words `Hades' and similar, came from Greek a-wid- = "not seen".)
In most religions' conception of Hell (with the notable exception of Judaism), evildoers will suffer eternally in Hell after their death or they will pay for their bad deeds in hell before reincarnations. In monotheistic religions, hell is ruled by demons, or simply defined by an utter absence of God or redemptive force. In polytheistic religions, the politics of hell could be as complicated as human politics.
Hell, as it exists in the Western popular imagination, has its origins in Hellenized 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 and is still considered to be distinct from "Hell" by Eastern Orthodox Christians. The New Testament uses this word, but it also uses the word 'Gehenna', from the valley of Ge-Hinnom , a valley near Jerusalem used as a landfill. 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. 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.
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 religion
Another source for the modern idea of 'Hell' is the Greek Tartarus, a place in which conquered gods and other spirits 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.
Hell appears in several mythologies and religions in different guises, and is commonly inhabited by demons and the souls of dead people.
In Western Christianity , Hell is a place ruled by the Devil, or Satan, who is popularly depicted as a being or creature who carries a pitchfork, has flaming red skin, horns on his head, and a long thin tail with a triangle shaped barb on it. Hell is often depicted as a place underground, with fire and molten rock. Demons, looking much like smaller versions of the Devil, eternally torment the souls of the dead. Yet this image of hell is largely shaped by Zoroaster, and by the allegorical imagery in The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost. Christian theologians (or at least those who believe in the traditional Christian idea of Hell) reject this view: while most do not deny the existence of hell or Satan, the 'popular' image of the Devil has no Biblical basis (it may be a corruption of the god Pan), and rather than demons punishing humans, demons themselves are punished in Hell (seen in the Book of Revelation as the "Lake of Fire") 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!" This ancient view is still the doctrine of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
The present Roman Catholic view of Hell is stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from Him for ever by [one's] own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called 'Hell'." Thus, Pope John Paul II has said (see link below), "The images of hell that Sacred Scripture presents to us must be correctly interpreted. They show the complete frustration and emptiness of life without God. Rather than a place, Hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy."
Other Christian denominations
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.
Latter-day Saints believe in a concept called Outer Darkness, a place of eternal emptiness for Sons of Perdition, those who are irredeemably evil to their core. However, this is not believed to be a place where people go if they still have any strains of righteousness in their hearts.
More on the history and description of Hell in Christianity
The Christian Hell is different to the Sheol mentioned in Judaism. The nature of Hell is described in the New Testament in several occasions. For example, in Matthew 3:10-12, 5:22 and 29-30, 7:29, 8:12, 22:13 and 33, 25:30 and 41-46, Luke 3:9, 12:5, 13:28, 16:19-28, and the Book of Revelation 12:9, 14:9-11, 19:20, 20:10 and 14-15, 21:8; in the Book of Revelation Hell is also mentioned as the "abyss" and "the Earth" until the Day Of the Lord, and after the end of the world, as a lake of fire and sulphur.
The Biblical descriptions of Hell tell about a place of darkness, fire, sulphur, an oven of fire, and lakes of fire and sulphur, where weeping, tears, creaking of teeth and torment are eternal for those souls that will be condemned to live there. Hell is referred to as a place apart from Heaven, and implies that after the end of the world the Earth (or what it becomes) will be Hell, too (as well as all what it is not Heaven).
The population of Hell comprises of the souls of those who died without accepting Christ as their saviour, God's grace, in sin and without repentance. Some consider the fate of righteous people who lived before the time of Christ (thus being non-Christian through no fault of their own...) a complication, especially for the many righteous Jews of the Old Testament. In some traditions, these people went straight to Heaven despite not being Christians because Christ had not come and gone yet. In other traditions, they had to wait in Limbo until the Harrowing of Hell during the three days between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.
According to Western Christian beliefs, the Devil and his angels (demons), who will be in charge of punishing the soul of the sinners also reside in hell. This doctrine is not part of Eastern Orthodox teachings. Matthew 25:41 mentions the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels. According to the Book of Revelation, after the Day Of the Lord soul and body will be united again, and so those who were condemned to Hell will remain there physically, tormented by eternal fire that will never consume them nor be extinguished.
According to Luke 16:19-28 nobody can pass from Hell to Heaven or vice versa, and fire is not the only tormentor, thirst being another, and more that are not described; in this biblical passage it is also mentioned that the souls that are in Hell can see those that are in Heaven and vice versa, but nothing is said of the sight of God; those that are in Hell can see the happiness reigning in Heaven, and those in Heaven do not feel compassion for the others in Hell.
Later Western Christian scholars speculated that Hell is an underground place, presumably derived from the idea of the Sheol, and referred to as the lower part of the universe under the Earth's ground. The details as proposed in The Divine Comedy are perhaps the pinnacle of literary speculation; it is from this work that the phrase "Abandon all hope, you who enter" originated.
As light and brightness were associated with God and Heaven, it is not strange that darkness was associated with Hell. Concerning the fire, some scholars speculated that the idea came from the fire consecrated to same Pagan deities like Adramelech, Moloch, etc., to whom children were sacrificed by throwing them into the flames; but other scholars, more recently, speculated that, being that Hell is considered an underground place, fire was associated with volcanic eruptions; the idea that volcanoes could be gateways to Hell was present in the mind of the ancient Romans, and later of Icelanders and other European peoples. Some claim that the conditions thought to prevail in Hell are influenced by the generally hot, dry climates found in the cradlelands of Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike; these observers point to the fact that the equivalent of Hell in Norse mythology, known as Neflheim, is pictured as a cold, foggy place (the name itself meaning "home of the fog").
Medieval imagination added cauldrons inside which people will be "cooked" forever by demons and Christian demonology acquired a "terrifying" aspect concerning imagery of Hell.
More recently and to some theologians, the idea of an underground Hell gave place to the conception of an abstract spiritual status in an also intangible plane of existence, which is sometimes associated to a site in an unknown point of the universe or also abstract, but tradition continues referring to Hell as "down", meanwhile religion refers to it as the place of eternal punishment and torment, far of God's sight (2 Thessalonians 1:9).
One problem with the Western Christian view of Hell is that it may be based in part on an error in translation. Jeff Priddy, writing in The Idle Babbler Illustrated (Volume 4, Issue 2), expresses the problem:
The religious and secular man's nightmarish ideas of HELL (that is, of a Christ-managed hothouse where sinners get burned forever) come to them compliments of ... careless translating ... the practice of ignoring separate Greek words.
In 2 Pet. 2:4, God chose the Greek word "Tartaroo" (ταρταροω; English transliteration, "Tartarus") to identify the temporary abode of sinning angels. Tartarus holds spirit beings, not humans. and there is not a flame on the premises. The KJV and NIV translators (neither of whose versions have any influence in the expression of Eastern Orthodox doctrine) gave this specific Greek word the English equivalent, "hell."
In Matthew 5:22 (and in several other places), God chose a different Greek word, "Geenna," (English transliteration: "Gehenna") to name a valley on the southwest corner of Jerusalem where the corpses of criminals will be disposed of during the thousand-year kingdom. There are flames here, yes, but the flames cremate the dead (Is. 66:24), they don't torture the living. Most of humanity is not even alive to see Gehenna (Rev. 20:5), let alone be tormented there. The KJV and NIV translators gave this specific Greek word the English equivalent, "hell."
In Luke 16:23 (and in other places), God chose the Greek word, "hades," to describe the state of invisibility; in Greek, the word means "unseen." God uses this word often to describe a person's nonexistence in death: unless spoken of figuratively, a dead person doesn't see anything, hear anything, feel anything, know anything, do anything: hades. Flames, screams, pointy tails and pitchforks are conspicuously absent. All the dead "go" here, not just the wicked. The KJV and NIV translators gave this specific Greek word the English equivalent, "hell."
Priddy goes on to point out that if a (Western) Christian says that someone is in "Hell", that "is a terrible lack of information", because many versions of the Bible indiscriminately use the word "Hell" to describe three different places. If you press the point, and the Christian says that person is in Gehenna, then you could take a plane to Jerusalem and look for the person there. If the claim is that the person is in Tartarus, you can point out that they were never a stubborn, sinning angel who surrendered their sovereignty during the days of Noah (1 Pet. 3:19-20. 2 Pet. 2:4, Jude 6). And if in Hades, you could rejoice that, like Christ (Acts 2:3 l), David (Ps. 16: 10), and Jacob (Gn. 37:35) before him, the person has ceased from their troubles and sufferings (Jb. 3:11-19), and now rests, as if asleep (Jn. 11:11,14).
However, the theory of translation error for the term, "Hell", fails to explain Biblical descriptions of such a place:
Mathew 13:49 So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, Mathew 13:50 And shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Revelation 14:9 "...If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand, Revelation 14:10 The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God... and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: Revelation 14:11 And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night..."
This problem does not exist in Eastern Orthodox doctrine, which considers the "hell" state of the reprobate to not exist until after the events of Revelation.
Words in the Bible, which are translated into the word "hell"
The Greek words "Hades" and "Geenna" are sometimes translated into the word "hell", though the concepts are dissimilar. Martin Luther translated for example the word "Hades" five times as the word "hell" (for example Matthew 16,18), and twice as "the dead", twice as the "world of the dead", and once as "his kingdom". "Geenna" was translated by Martin Luther eight times as "hell" (for example: Matthew 5,22,29,30; 18,9; Mark 9,43,45; and so on) and four times as "hellish".
The German Martin Luther was the first to use the word "hell" in a German translation of the Bible. In Norse mythology the underworld was a cold, monotonous place, which was commanded by the goddess Hel. Later the place was called Hel, too.
Newer translations of the Bible translate "Hades" or "Sheol" into the words "world of dead", "underworld", "grave", "crypt" or similar, but still translate the word "Geenna" into the word "hell".
The word "Hades" of the New Testament is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word "Sheol" of the Old Testament (Ap. 2,27, Psalm 16,10). What happens in Hades, or rather Sheol, Ecclesiastes tells us: "for in the Sheol, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom." (Ecclesiastes 9,10) and "For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten. " (Ecclesiastes 9,5; see also Psalm 89,49; 139,8; 4. Mose 16,30). "The Lord brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the Sheol and raises up. " (1. Samuel 2,6). Into the Hades are going the souls of all human beings, if they believe or not (Joh. 5,28-29; Job 3,11-19, 14,13; Ez 32,18-32; Ps. 31,17; Dan. 12,2).
Geenna (or Gehenna) is the name of a real place. It comes from Hebrew and means "gorge of Hinnom (Ge-Hinnom)". This gorge can still be visited today near Jerusalem. In the time of the Old Testament it was a place, where children were sacrificed to the Ammonite god Molech (2 Kings 23,10). That cultic practice was imitated by King Solomon in the 10th century before Christ and under the leadership of king Manasseh in the 7th century before Christ and in times of crisis until the time of exile of Babylon (6. century before Christ). The prophet Jeremiah, which condemned that cult strictly, called that valley "gorge of killing" (Jeremiah 7,31-32; 19,5-9). Gehenna became later a central garbage dump, to stop the practice of child sacrifice. At the time of Jesus that place was - like some researchers believe - used also to burn the dead bodies of criminals after their execution. The imagination of burning dead bodies probably inspired Jewish, and later Christian theologists to translate that place into the word "hell".
The sea of fire after the last tribunal in Revelation 20,14 isn't translated into the word "hell", but sometimes gets the connotations of "hell". In that sea of fire are thrown the beast, the devil and the false prophetand Hell (Hades) itself: "And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for eaons of eaons." (Revelation 20,10)
The Muslim belief in jahannam (similar to Hebrew ge-hinnom, as Arabic and Hebrew are closely related languages) resembles that of other Abrahamic religions. In the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam, there are literal descriptions of the condemned in a fiery Hell, as contrasted to the garden-like Paradise enjoyed by righteous believers.
The meaning of jahannam is to do with hotness (whereas in Hebrew Gehenna is said to mean a narrow deep valley). The word for paradise is "jannah" which literally means "garden".
There is an equal number of mentions of both hell and paradise in the Qur'an.
Chinese and Japanese religions
The structure of Hell is remarkably complex in many Chinese and Japanese religions. The ruler of Hell has to deal with politics, just as human rulers do. Hell is the subject of many folk stories and manga. In many such stories, people in hell are able to die again, but no one seems to care about the apparent contradiction. (Note: the strong influence of Buddhism (see below) on Chinese and Japanese Hells means that this is not necessarily a contradiction.)
See Feng Du for more information on Chinese Hell.
In Hinduism, there are many hells, and Yama, Lord of Justice, sends human beings after death for appropriate punishment. Such punishment can be in boiling oil, torture, etc. However, Naraka in Hinduism is not equivalent to Hell in Christian ideology. Naraka, instead is only a purgatory where the soul gets purified of sin by sufferings. Even Mukti-yogyas (souls eligible for mukti or moksha), and Nitya-samsarins, (forever transmigrating ones in Dvaita theology) can experience Naraka for expiation. Cited from Bhakti Schools of Vedanta, by Swami Tapasyananda.
Buddhism acknowledges several hells, which are places of great suffering for those who commit evil actions. Like all the different realms within cyclic existence, an existence in hell is temporary for its inhabitants. Those with sufficiently negative karma are reborn there, where they stay until their specific negative karma has been used up, at which point they are reborn in another realm, such as that of humans, of hungry ghosts, of animals, of asuras, of devas, or of demons all according to the invidual's karma.
Bahá'ís do not accept Hell as a place, but rather as a state of being. "Heaven is nearness to Me and Hell is separation from Me." – Bahá'u'lláh
Taoism has a slightly nebulous version of Hell. Some claim it has no Hell at all, but - particularly in its home country China - popular belief endows Taoist Hell with many deities and spirits who punish sin in a variety of horrible ways. (See Feng Du.)
Hell in entertainment
In a deleted scene from the movie Dogma, a fallen angel explains the past and current "versions" of Hell. When Hell was first formed to hold Lucifer and the rebel angels, the angel says, it was merely a place devoid of the presence of God. To those who had previously been in the presence of God, this was punishment enough.
The angel goes on to say that when humanity was created, Hell was infected with a disease of sorts. Believing that God could never forgive their sins, many humans came to Hell and subconsciously demanded to be actively punished, although that was not their due. Slowly but surely (and reminiscent of the doctrine of responsibility assumption), Hell became a "suffering pit" to contain all these gluttons for punishment. According to this angel, Hell is far more horrifying for the fallen angels residing there than for the Damned themselves, as the angels not only have to endure the absence of God, but also the unending howls of the Damned as they undergo torture essentially at their own hands.
The 2004 Insane Clown Posse album "The Wraith: Hell's Pit" is a concept album about Hell.
"Hell" is sometimes "pronounced" "H-E-double-hockey-sticks", "H-E-double-toothpicks", "heck" or "Sam Hill" ("What the Sam Hill is going on here?"). Another common euphemism for Hell is "The Other Place".
Example: "Gosh will darn you to heck and tarnation" in place of "God will damn you to hell and damnation."
The word "Hell" used away from its religious context was long considered to be profanity. Although its use was commonplace in everyday speech and on television by the 1970s, many people still consider it somewhat rude or inappropriate language, particularly involving children.