“Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.
Think’st thou that I that saw the face of God,
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,
In being deprived of everlasting bliss?” –
Mephistopheles in Marlowe’s The Tragedie of Doctor Faustus (B text) Act 1.3.
Among the living, the threat of it serves to calm the populace. The promise of it makes the wicked tremble, and comforts the injured. It is the sheer drop on the left side of the straight and narrow path that is a life spent well. It is believed that in the afterlife, there is punishment in hell for evil, and reward in heaven for the good.
I think hell’s a fable.
Ay, think so still, till experience change thy mind.
Mephistopheles in Marlowe’s The Tragedie of Doctor Faustus (B text) Act 2.
Hell is eternal and there is no redemption. It is a pit of fire ruled by Lucifer, the Devil, otherwise known as Satan. Under him are demons cast down from heaven with Lucifer when he coveted God’s rule. Demons torment the damned.
According to Mephistophilis in Marlowe’s Faust, Hell is a place without God; He does not see into Hell, and cannot hear the cries of the dammed.
According to ancient Greek and Roman religious thought, “Hell” was Tarturus, a place of punishment, a cold, gloomy pit far below Hades that sinners went to.
The Western idea of Hell, came partly out of a Hellenized Christianity, but also out of the Judaic idea of Sheol, a shadowy underworld to which all must go. Sheol may have been little more than a poetic metaphor for death, or a reference to the grave. However, by the third to second century B.C. the idea had grown to encompass a far more complex concept.
Hell appears in several mythologies and religions in different guises, and is commonly inhabited by demons and the souls of dead people.
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 is not hell, but rather a sort of Purgatory where one is judged based on their life’s deeds. The Kabbalah describes it as a “waiting room” (commonly translated as an “entry way”) for all souls (not just the wicked). The overwhelming majority of rabbinic thought maintains that people are not in Gehenna 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 Olam Habah (heb. עולם הבא; lit. “The world to come”, often viewed as analogous to Heaven). This is also mentioned in the Kabbalah, where the soul is described as breaking, like the flame of a candle lighting another: the part of the soul that ascends being pure, and the “unfinished” piece being reborn.
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 Elysium, a place for the reward for those who lead virtuous lives, whilst others spent their afterlife in the asphodels fields. Like most ancient (pre-Christian) religions, the underworld was not viewed as negatively as it is in Christianity.
General history and description
The Christian idea of Hell is different from the Sheol of Judaism. The nature of Hell is described in the New Testament on several occasions. For example, in Matthew 3:10-12, Matthew 5:22, Matthew 5:29-30, Matthew 7:29, Matthew 8:12, Matthew 22:13, Matthew 25:30, Matthew 25:41-46, Luke 3:9, Luke 12:5, Luke 13:28, Luke 16:19-28, and the Revelations 12:9, Revelations 14:9-11, Revelations 19:20, Revelations 20:10, Revelations 20:14-15, Revelations 21:8; in the Book of Revelation Hell is also mentioned as the “abyss” and “the Earth”.
The population of Hell comprises the souls of those who died without accepting Christ as their saviour, God’s grace, in sin and without repentance, although beliefs on these categories differs among Christian denominations. 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 are receiving punishment, reside in hell along with the souls of the damned. This doctrine is not part of Eastern Orthodox teachings. Yet, 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.
“Thou wouldst know what Hell is, but the mortal soul is such that all thy speculations can never comprehend Hell, nor canst thou conceive the manner of place where the Wrath of God is stored. The origin and structure is God’s Wrath, and it hath many titles and designations, as: House of Shame, Abyss, Gullet, Pit, also Dissensio. For the souls of the damned are so shamed, scorned and mocked by God and His Blessed Ones as to be confined in the House of the Abyss and Gullet. For Hell is an insatiate Pit and Gullet which ever gapeth after the souls which shall not be damned, desiring that they, too, might be seduced and damned. This is what thou must understand, good Doctor.” Faust Book, Ch. XI
According to Luke 16:19-28 (Lazarus and Dives) 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. Many view this story as a parable, and as such, believe its meaning may not literally define the existence in the afterlife, but instead serve as a lesson about the dangers of wealth and the unwillingness to listen to God.
Concerning the fire, some scholars speculated that the idea came from the fire consecrated to some Pagan deities like Adramelech, Moloch, etc., to whom children were sacrificed by throwing them into the flames; but other scholars, more recently, speculated that, since 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 Niflheim, 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. Medieval theologians were keen to portray all manner of hideous tortures, designed to inflict horrific pain upon the eternally-damned inhabitants 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 from God’s presence (2 Thessalonians 1:9).
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 “Tartaros” (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 (briefly, 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, given the perfectly natural evolution of concepts over a long period of time, examples such as Sheol, provide us with a good example of how ideas can begin with a simple meaning – “the grave” – and morph into a far larger concept – a place of eternal torment.
Words in the Bible translated as “hell”
The Greek words “Hades” and “Gehenna” are sometimes translated into the word “hell”, though the concepts are dissimilar. Martin Luther, for example, translated the word “Hades” five times as the German word for “hell” (Hölle) (for example Matthew 16,18), and twice as “the dead”, twice as the “world of the dead”, and once as “his kingdom” (all in German). “Gehenna” 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”. In Norse mythology the underworld was a cold, monotonous place, which was commanded by the goddess Hel. 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 “Gehenna” 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; Numbers 16,30). “The Lord brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the Sheol and raises up. ” (1. Samuel 2,6). The souls of all human beings are going to Hades, whether 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, according to the Old Testament, imitated by King Solomon in the 10th Century B.C.E. and under the leadership of king Manasseh in the 7th Century B.C.E. and in times of crisis until the time of exile of the Jews in Babylon (6th Century B.C.E.). The prophet Jeremiah, who condemned that cult strictly, called the valley the “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 turn of the 1st Century C.E. the gorge was used also to burn the dead bodies of criminals after their execution. The imagination of burning dead bodies probably inspired Jewish, and later Christian theologians 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, the false prophet, and Hell (Hades) itself, along with evil-doers, according to Revelation 20,12-15. “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 aeons of aeons.” (Revelation 20,10) Many people mistakenly assume “Ages of Ages” to mean forever, but Aeon is definitely a fixed length. See 
In most Protestant Christianity traditions is a place originally designed by God for placement of the Devil (ie Lucifer, Beelzebub, or Satan) and fallen angels (demons), but will be the final dwelling place of every soul that did not obey the teachings of God, and accept the salvation of Jesus from God’s holy wrath, thus are like accomplices (demons) of Satan (Matt. 25:41, Acts 4:11-13). It is described by many different symbols in the Bible; “outer darkness”, “abyss”, “lake of fire”, “eternal fire”. Jesus Christ spoke about Hell more than any other person in the Bible. Those in Hell will receive God’s righteous and holy judgment for an eternity based on their deeds (Acts 17:30-31,Rom. 2:1-11, Rev. 20:11-15). It is a place of everlasting punishment and separation from God (2Thes. 1:8-10, Jude 1:7, Luke 16:24, Matt. 25:30,46). Their punishment will be proportional to the deeds of each soul (Luke 12:47-49, Matt. 10:15, Matt. 11:24).
The unchangeable traditional Catholic teaching on hell is found in the Baltimore Catechism, at question 185, as follows: “Those are punished in hell who die in mortal sin; they are deprived of the vision of God and suffer dreadful torments, especially that of fire, for all eternity…The souls in hell are beyond all help…The souls in hell do not have supernatural faith. They believe, however, the truths revealed by Almighty God, not with divine faith, but because they cannot escape the evidence of God’s authority…The punishment of hell is eternal.” Hell is described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as, “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’.”(1033) Pope John Paul II is known to have said, “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”. However, the Catholic version of Hell as a place was confirmed at Fátima in 1917 during the church-approved apparition of Our Lady of Fatima to three young shepherd children. Lucia Santos, the eldest of three children, reported in 1941 that Mary revealed Hell to them as follows, “Our Lady showed us a great sea of fire which seemed to be under the earth. Plunged in this fire were demons and souls in human form, like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, floating about in the conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames that issued from within themselves together with great clouds of smoke, now falling back on every side like sparks in a huge fire, without weight or equilibrium, and amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fear. The demons could be distinguished by their terrifying and repulsive likeness to frightful and unknown animals, all black and transparent.”
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 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.
Hell is often depicted as a place underground, with fire and molten rock where the devil lives. The devil is popularly depicted as a being or creature who carries a pitchfork (which in turn is actually a trident), has flaming red skin, horns on his head, and a long thin tail with a triangle shaped barb on it. This description of the Devil is popular, to the point of being a cliché and nearly comical to most, but is not supported by any religious scripture.
- A Catechism of Christian Doctrine, Revised Edition of the Baltimore Catechism, St. Anthony Guild Press, New Jersey (1949), pp144, 145
- Lucia Santos: Fatima, In Lucia’s Own Words, The Ravengate Press, Still River Massachusetts (1995), p104
- Concept of Hell in Iranian culture
- Christian Doctrines of Hell – statements from the Old Testament, New Testament, church fathers and modern denominations on Hell, plus common arguments for and against Hell.
- July 28, 1999 statement of Pope John Paul II concerning the topic of Hell
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Heaven and Hell