A Brief History of Hell

A Brief History of Hell
Rev. Douglas Taylor
6-21-09

Twenty years ago the Trinity Broadcasting Network broke a phenomenal story that purportedly offered proof of the literal existence of Hell as taught by some Christian denominations. Back in the ‘70’s the Russians were drilling very deep boreholes for geological research. In Murmansk Oblast, Russia they drilled a line nine miles down that broke through to a cavity. They lowered heat tolerant equipment including a microphone down the borehole. The report claims they discovered a temperature of 2,000 °F and the sounds of screaming human voices.

The truth of it is less interesting, sadly. The Kola Superdeep Borehole in Russia was in fact a little less than eight miles deep. While they did find some “interesting geological anomalies,” they discovered nothing supernatural. The temperature only reached 360 °F, hot enough to make deeper drilling prohibitively expensive. And they heard no screaming human voices.

The idea of a literal location called Hell is not something I can subscribe to. My faith, which allows science and other lessons of reality into the mix, compels me to agree with countless thinkers, theologians, and truth-seekers who see such ideas as metaphors and potent myths. Hell is not a reality that can be found by drilling deep enough into the Earth. It is instead a state of being, a metaphor of despair.

It seems to me that most people’s understanding of Hell has been influence not primarily by scripture or theologians, but instead by writers such as Milton and Dante. The gospels and the book of Revelation reveal certain messages about Hell and how one might end up there, but it is later literature and art that really breathed life into the place with greatly detailed description and sensual depiction.

Time Magazine nearly 10 years ago conducted a survey of the views we Americans hold about the afterlife. To the question: Do you believe in the existence of heaven where people live forever with God after they die? 81% answered yes. To the question: Do you believe in hell where people are punished forever after they die? 63% answered yes. The next question in this poll was a multiple choice one with five possible answers: Immediately after death which of the following do you think will happen to you: Go to heaven; Go to hell; Go to purgatory; Be reincarnated; or Death is the end of existence. And among the results they got to their multiple choice picks, only 1% said they were going to hell. Nearly 2/3 of our citizenry believe in hell but practically nobody thinks that they personally are going there!

A Universalist is one who forgoes the advantage of Hell for persons of another faith (Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary). Our Universalists heritage offers a resounding answer to the question of eternal punishment. No, they say, there is no Hell. God’s love is more powerful than your sins and mistakes. It would seem from the Time Magazine survey that Universalism is growing in popularity among people. The idea that Heaven is the final destination, that ultimately punishment is not the last word, is an idea that has gained firm foothold in the imagination of average folks.

Hell, however, is still surprisingly popular in its own right. Many people cherish this idea of eternal torturous punishment after death. While it is fair to say this theological idea is most clearly held among Christians and, by historical connection, Muslims, it is also true that neither the Muslims nor the Christians originated the idea. There is a concept of punishment in an afterlife found across cultures and ages, threading through many religious traditions. The history of Hell is not a simple trajectory beginning and ending inside Christianity!

Almost all religions speak about something after death – not all, but most. The Mayan people believed in a location under the world that held evil beings, but it had more to do with the struggle of the gods than a place of judgment and punishment for the dead. Among the Aztec, there was not a location under the ground; instead they believed the dead went on a journey to the north, a journey with trials but not necessarily of judgment.

Buddhism teaches that there are five or six realms of rebirth, and through your karma you merit rebirth into one or another of these realms, the lowest is akin to the western concept of Hell. The disciple who tried to kill Buddha three times, for example, is said to be in this lowest realm. Of course through persistence and rebirth, one may rise out of this lowest realm into eventual Buddha-nature. The Hindu tradition, from which Buddhism evolved, has a similar concept: a time between rebirths when the partial fruits of karma are meted out. It must be mentioned, however, that the earlier Vedic tradition, which serves as the root of Hinduism, has no such concept. Taoism also has no concept of hell, primarily due to the Taoist notion that morality is a human distinction. There is, it must be admitted, a very imaginative array of Chinese folklore about a realm of the dead in which earthly sins are atoned – this lore has an impact on Taoism and Buddhism as it is practiced. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hell)

Hell, as a location of punishment for the wicked, seems to really be focused in the religious traditions that arose in the Mesopotamian and Middle-Eastern regions. The Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh is the earliest record of an ‘underworld’ or land of the dead. This epic-tale of a descent into the Great Below is echoed throughout literature in many traditions: Tammuz and Ishtar, Osiris and Isis, Persephone and Demeter, Adonis and Aphrodite. (Turner, Alice; A Brief History of Hell, p5-7) Nearly all the accounts of the ‘underworld’ or ‘Great Below’ share a number of common elements: A mountain barrier, a river, a boat and boatman, a bridge, gates and guardians, an important tree (Ibid, p. 5). In these traditions – as in the Eastern religious traditions and Central American native traditions, the ‘underworld’ is not a place of everlasting punishment which is the prime feature of Hell. The question I have is how this ‘land of the dead’ evolved into the ‘land of the damned.’

The concepts from the Egyptian Osiris cult held judgment for the dead. If you were deemed worthy by a tribunal at death then you were welcomed into eternal life, otherwise you were devoured. This was certainly torturous, but not eternal. Zoroastrianism has several competing ideas of punishment for sins after death. Some of them do to be eternal, or at least lasting until a final judgment time. As such this pre-Christian Persian tradition displays significant parallels to the Hell of Christianity. There is a strongly supported claim that Zoroastrian eschatology and demonology has influenced all the Abrahamic faiths.

The ancient Greek version of Hades was a place of the dead – of all the dead – but there were sections set aside for punishment, so there is a sense of a hell in this. The early Hebrew people, based solely on their scripture, did not an clearly defined concept of an afterlife. Dead bodies were considered unclean, beyond that they were not given much attention.

The Hebrew word Sheol occurs frequently in the Old Testament; sometimes it is translated as “Hell,” sometimes as “the grave,” and sometimes as “the pit,” but nowhere does it seem to indicate anything other than the place in which a body is laid to rest, except when used metaphorically to indicate depression or despair. (Turner, Alice; A Brief History of Hell, p40)
The same is the case for the word Gehenna which literally refers to the garbage dump outside of Jerusalem where the bodies of criminals were thrown. The dump was perpetually burning for sanitary purposes. Rabbi Jesus and others use gehenna as a metaphor with great affect.

Which brings us the early Christians and how perceived Hell. The earliest canonical Christian writings are from Paul and he said nothing about Hell. He warned against several activities, several forms of sin, but went only so far as to say ‘the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 5:6); not eternal damnation, just death. A few of the letters written by people other than Paul (2 Peter and Jude) warn of future punishment, but make no reference to flames. In the gospels, written a little after the letters, Mark and Luke make passing reference to Hell, John’s gospel makes no mention, leaving Matthew to make up the difference (which Matthew does with a vengeance!)
The Gospel of Matthew makes repeated warnings of being ‘cast into a furnace of fire’ where there will be ‘wailing and gnashing of teeth.’ (13:40-42; 13: 50; 25: 30) And of course there is that wild ride of a text known as the book of Revelation – a colorful description of the defeat of Satan is described, but the punishment is for Satan and a ‘false prophet’ alone, rather than for all of the wicked and damned of humanity. (Turner, Alice; A Brief History of Hell, p52-65)

So much of what we have to go on about Hell comes from a handful of scriptural verses: In Luke the scene is painted of the beggar Lazarus in Heaven looking down at the rich man caught in the flames of Hell. In Matthew we are told that the wicked are ‘cast into a furnace of fire.’ In the Apostles Creed – which is not scripture – there is the line that saying Jesus descended into Hell, which many take to be a harrowing of Hell. As time goes on, the particular descriptions of Hell and hell-related scenes from scripture are expanded upon and detailed out quite extensively. By the time Islam is born and the Qur’an takes shape with its own versions of several stories from Jewish and Christian scripture, we find the descriptions of hell quite advanced.

Along with Dante and Milton, artists from the Middle-Ages like Bosch, and theologians such as Augustine, the notion of an underground pit of punishment populated by demons and the damned became quite fixed in the imagination of the Western world. At the time of Galileo, there was an entrenchment among Christians into a literalist view to fight off the encroachment of science. At the this time in history when, according to Karen Armstrong’s book A History of God, “Kabbalists were reinterpreting the biblical account of creation in a deliberately symbolic manner,” and “Mulla Sadra was teaching Muslims that heaven and hell were located in the imaginary world within each individual,” there were Jesuit scholars proclaiming that “Hell is a subterranean place distinct from the tombs.” (Armstrong, A History of God, p290-291)

Modern science certainly served as a catalyst for traditional literal interpretation of Hell among certain Christians; and as science progressed, the other monotheistic traditions developed growing enclaves of fundamentalism as well. We are at the point that, as sited earlier, nearly two-thirds of Americans “believe in hell where people are punished forever after they die.” (Time Magazine poll) But that was not always the case. Hell began as ‘the great below.’ It began as a question of death and judgment.

And so, my earlier question about the shift from the ‘land of the dead’ to the ‘land of the damned’ is not easily answered. Clearly the shift takes place most prominently with the advent and development of Christianity, although other traditions from Zoroastrianism to Buddhism carry some form of a story of punishment after death for the wicked. Clearly part of the answer is that Jesus spoke of Hell – even if only in parable or as metaphor as I could contend – he did speak of the place. But part of the answer also is cultural: Hell is a tool of social control. When Christianity became the religion of the Roman Emperor, the threat of Hell was surely useful in convincing people to behave in certain ways. Another, more nuanced, cultural aspect is in recognizing that significant portions of Jesus’ message came out as a mixture of Jewish theology and Hellenistic philosophy. So the notion of Sheol, metaphorically a place of despair, and Hades, the unpleasant land of the dead, merge to become a location of death and despair.

Each of these ideas has a share in the answer to that great turning point in the history of Hell. One aspect I haven’t mentioned yet, however, that intrigues me well beyond the scale of this one theological point, is the aspect of the evolution of myth. Part of why the concept of Hell changed over time is because evolution is not limited to biology; things like culture and myth evolve as well. Thus the idea of Hell evolved along an identifiable pattern.

In earliest times, myths of God and creation, heaven and hell, all revolved around knowing the rituals and following the rituals in the right way to assure the world would continue to function as we needed it to function. Eventually the myths developed into dichotomies of order and chaos. God created order out of chaos. Life consisted of a struggle between the pull of order and of chaos, and death was a release back into chaos. Eventually the myths evolved to say it is not enough to follow the rituals correctly and to keep things orderly. We must also treat each other well. Morality is added to the mix and the myths develop a layer to explain right and wrong, to offer punishment and reward. This is not to say that people didn’t care about or understand morality and the difference between right and wrong prior to the development of hell. Simply that shift from the ‘land of the dead’ to the ‘land of the damned’ was a mark in the mythic evolution of morality and justice.

Today we continue to evolve. The trajectory has been developing for the past few hundred years is that the big theological ideas become internalized: God is within, heaven and hell are internal consequences, both ‘Creation’ and ‘Judgment Day’ happen now rather than at the outer boundaries of time. The next evolutionary step in the mythic patterns seems to be around interconnectedness. The myth of Hell shall continue as more metaphor than literal location and likely develop the feeling of despair into a tone of alienation and dislocation. And Heaven, as always, will be about union.

In a world without end, may it be so