The Human Truth Foundation

Hell in World Religions

By Vexen Crabtree 2015

#afterlife #hell #history #judaism #religion

The history of hell in Western culture is derived from Christian mythology, which accepted a shadowy and ill-defined concept of the afterlife in Judaism and combined it with some misunderstood verses from the Hebrew Scriptures, mostly to do with the Valley of Gehenna where criminals were sometimes burnt. It fundamentally contradicts the Western concept of a moral God (a place of "infinite punishment for finite sins"). In the Western world, many people say their fear of hell is one of the reasons they follow their religion1. Across the rest of the world the concept of hell has mostly been very poorly defined or dismissed; it does not fit in with much of the rest of the world's concepts of reincarnation and the cycles of life. Nonetheless in modern times it is a universally understood concept, even if not actually taken seriously.

In 2008, under 20% of Britons said they believed in hell2 - down from a 2003 poll that placed that figure at 32%3

"Religion in the United Kingdom: Diversity, Trends and Decline: 5.2. Belief in the Afterlife" by Vexen Crabtree (2020)

1. History of Hell

#buddhism #christianity

Book CoverThe Teutonic Goddess of the Dead and daughter of Loki was named Hel, a Pagan god of torture and punishment. Another "L" was added when the books of the Old Testament were formulated. The prophets who wrote the Bible did not know the word "Hell"; they used the Hebrew Sheol and the Greek Hades, which meant the grave; also the Greek Tartaros, which was the abode of fallen angels, the underworld (inside the earth), and Gehenna, which was a valley near Jerusalem where Moloch reigned and garbage was dumped and burned. It is from this that the Christian Church has evolved the idea of "fire and brimstone" in Hell.

The Protestant Hell and the Catholic Hell are places of eternal punishment; however, the Catholics also believe there is a "Purgatory" where all souls go for a time, and a "Limbo" where unbaptized souls go. The Buddhist Hell is divided into eight sections, the first seven of which can be expiated. The ecclesiastical description of Hell is that of a horrible place of fire and torment; in Dante's Inferno, and in northern climates, it was thought to be an icy cold region, a giant refrigerator.

Book of Lucifer 4
"The Satanic Bible" by Anton LaVey (1969)4

A word which appears to have come from the Old English hel meaning 'concealed' (and, some suggest, 'dark hole'). Hell as a place of everlasting torment appears to have been an invention of the early Christian, perhaps a misunderstanding of the esoteric ABYSS which figures in Qabalistic texts and in the ancient mystery wisdom. The near equivalent to Hell in classical times was HADES, which was more of a post-mortem shadow land (where there was no torment, though gnashing of teeth) than the place of torture visualized in the modern European concept of Hell. The Hebraic Sheol has been translated in biblical texts as meaning Hell, but this translation is inaccurate.

"Dictionary of Demons" by Fred Gettings (1988)5

Notice in the histories below that some descriptions of the afterlife are a single place for everyone, both good and bad. But more common there is a special place and a special set of punishments for bad people. No doubt, such horrendous places were imagined up by the victims of life, so they could console themselves by placing their tormentors into them in order to bring revenge and justice to the world. Humanity has now grown beyond such simple wishful-thinking, but the imagery of hell remains part of the popular symbolism of all cultures. The role of the afterlife in general in religion is explored more holistically on this page: Causes of Belief in the Afterlife and Differences Across Religions and Cultures.

2. Egyptian, 2400BCE


The pyramid texts composed by the priests of Heliopolis for the tombs of the V Dynasty c.2400 BC [are the first historical record of an idea of heaven and hell]. This invention of the hell/heaven sanction by the Egyptians has been of the highest significance in subsequent moral control, and in Egypt, as with most other societies, its function was to support the monarchy.

"A History of Sin" by Oliver Thomson (1993)6

3. Sheol (Hebrew)

Sheol is Hebrew, Jewish, and therefore one of the primary sources of Christian mythology.

"Sheol" is a Hebrew word used for the abode of the dead. It is thought of as a place situated below the ground (e.g. Ezek. 31:15), a place of darkness, silence and forgetfulness (Job 10:21; Ps. 94:17, 88:12). Although the dead in sheol are apparently cut off from God (Ps. 88:3-5), he is not absent (Ps. 139:8), and is able to deliver souls from sheol (Ps. 16:10). It is sometimes translated as "hell"; however, it is not seen as a place of eternal punishment, and its use in the New Testament (e.g. Matt. 16:18; Acts 2:27) suggests a meaning relating simply to the power of death.

"Bible Facts" by Jenny Roberts (1997)7

Sheol is the place where the dead go. There has been very little or no usage of Sheol in Satanic imagery, but it forms part of the prehistory of Hell.

4. The Valley of Gehenna (Hebrew)

The word translated as "hell" in the New Testament comes from the Hebrew word "Gehenna". Gehenna meant "the valley of Hinnom", and was originally a particular valley outside Jerusalem, where children were sacrificed to the god Moloch (2 Kgs 23:10; 2 Chron. 28:3;Jer. 32:35). In later Jewish literature Gehenna came to be associated with a place of torment and unquenchable fire that was to be the punishment for sinners. It was thought by many that lesser sinners might eventually be delivered from the fires of Gehenna, but by New Testament times punishment for sinners was deemed to be eternal.

"Bible Facts" by Jenny Roberts (1997)7

5. Markandeya Purana: A Classic Description of Hell (300-750CE, Hinduism)

The Markandeya Purana is a collection of semi-canonical Hindu stories probably written down from ancient sources between 300 to 750CE8. Chapter 10 contains a description of the afterlife. The speaker explains the many similarities in the route taken by the dead who are good people, and those who are bad. Whilst this description is technically more of that of an afterlife in general which, like Hades, is the destination for all people both good and bad, the description of the fate of the bad people is a very familiar, classical, description of what goes on in hell in all traditional religions.

He, who has given away food with a meat purified by reverence, obtains satisfaction even without food. (52) He who has never uttered a falsehood, he who has not made a distinction of love, he who believes in God and who is reverential, meets with happy death. (52) [...] He who does not forsake virtue through lust, anger or spite, he who keeps his promise and is gentle, meets with easy death. (55)

But he who does not give water to one who is thirsty, food to one who is hungry, are assailed by them when death presents itself. (56) [...] Those worst of men, who cause ignorance and stupefaction, attain great fear and are crushed by fierce pangs. (58) [...] The dreadful and vicious-souled followers of Yama, breathing hellish smell around, with nooses and maces in hands; approach them. (60) And when they come within the range of their vision they all tremble and continually bewail for their brothers, mothers and sons. (61) [...] Then he is dragged by the emissaries of Yama sending out dreadful, inauspicious yells through grounds rough with Kusha, thorns, ant-hills, pins and stones, glowing with flames at places, covered with pits, blazing with the heat of the sun and burning with its rays. (66-67) Dragged by the dreadful (emissaries) and eaten by hundreds of jackals, the sinful person goes to Yama's house through a fearful passage. (68) But those, who have distributed umbrellas and shoes, those who have given away cloth, and as well as those who have given away food, go easily by that way. (69) Going through such sufferings, losing all control over self and assailed by sin a man is taken on the twelfth day, to the city of Dharma. (70) When his body is burnt he experiences a great burning sensation; and when his body is beaten or cut he feels a great pain. (71) His body being thus destroyed, a creature, although walking into another body, suffers eternal misery on account of his own adverse actions. (72) [...] After the twelfth day, being drawn, a man beholds the dreadful and terrible-looking iron city of Yama. (77) As soon as he enters there he beholds Yama in the midst of the Destroyer, Death and others having blood-red eyes, and resembling a mass of crushed collyrium, with face with dreadful teeth, and a dreadful frowning countenance; - the lord, encircled by hundreds of distempers having disfigured and dreadful visages, carrying his rod, mighty-armed, with the noose in his hand and highly fearful to look at. A creature attains to a state, good or bad, assigned by him. (78-80)

One giving false evidence or uttering falsehood goes to Raurava. Hear now, I will give what is the true description of Raurava. (81) It measures two thousand Yoyanas. There is a pit which is knee-deep and difficult of being crossed. (82) Levelled with heaps of flaming charcoal it is heated by a piece of land burning dreadfully with coal. (83) Into it the followers of Yama throw the perpetrator of impious deeds. And burnt by the dreadful fire he runs about. (84) His feet get torn and injured at every step and within a day and night he can but once take away his feet. (85) When he thus goes over a thousand Yoyanas he is let alone. Then to have his sins washed off he is taken to another such hell. (86) After having gone through all the hells the sinner takes upon a beastly life. Then going through the lives of worms, insects, and flies, beasts of prey, gnats, elephants, trees, horses, cows, and through diverse other sinful and miserable lives, he, coming to the race of men, is born as a hunch-back, or an ugly person or a dwarf or a Chandala Pukkasa. (87-89) Then carrying the remnant of his virtue and vice he goes up gradually to the higher caste, Sudras, Vaishyas, Kshatryas, Brahmanas, and the state of the king of gods; sometimes perpetrating iniquities he falls into the hell beneath.

Markandeya Purana, chapter 10 verses 52-909

Although this description concludes with the eventual rebirth into higher states of being than insects and creatures, the description of the endless torture and punishment could easily have been penned by a Christian, such are the similarities in style.

6. Hades (Greek)

When the world was divided between the three brothers, the underworld and hell fell to Hades, while Zeus took the heavens and Poseidon, the sea. [...] He was formidable in battle and took part in the fight against the Titans. Hades ruled the dead, assisted by demons over whom he had authority. He forbade his subjects to leave his domain and became enraged when anyone tried to steal his prey from him. Among mortals, he was the most hated of the gods, and gods themselves had an abhorrence of him (Iliad, XX, 61). [...] He was also known as Pluto.

"Wordsworth Dictionary of Mythology, the" by Fernand Comte (1994)10

Hades was the son of Cronos and Rhea, and the brother of Zeus and Poseidon. [...] The most characteristic feature of the god of the darkness that lay beneath the earth was his cynëe, a helmet given to him by the Cyclopes which made him invisible. And sure enough, Hades was enclosed for ever in an invisible, shadowy country beneath the ground. [...] Hades [is] closely associated with the concept of death, the souls of the departed descended into his dark, musty kingdom, which was a kind of perpetual house of imprisonment guarded ceaselessly by Cerberus, Hades' fierce, ruthless and loyal hound.

"Greek Mythology and Religion" by Maria Mavromataki (1997)11

This is similar to Sheol in that all the dead go to Hades, not just sinners or saints. The afterlife is itself separated into areas, and delivery to some of these areas is dependent on actions during one's life.

7. Tartaros (Greek)

Tartaros in Greek culture was never a popular concept, and features only in a few stories. It is the closest precedent to Hell as defined by later Christians.

Tartaros. In Greek mythology this was a place, supposed to be as far below HADES as Heaven was above Hell, in which the Titans who had rebelled against the gods were kept prisoners. By Roman times, however, the place was sometimes equated with Hades and even used as a name for the ruler of Hades, often called PLUTO.

"Dictionary of Demons" by Fred Gettings (1988)12

8. Origin of the Christian Hell

#christianity #judaism

The Gospel of Matthew contains some of the classic New Testament imagery of Hell. It is a place of everlasting fire (Matthew 25:31), where body and soul are destroyed (Matthew 10:28), where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth ((Matthew 8:12). But history isn't as simple as to presume that these description came about without drawing on historical present and pagan religion.

Book CoverThe more enlightened sages of the Mysteries viewed such horrors [as hell] as merely stories to encourage better moral behavior. Plutarch calls the terrors of the Underworld an 'improving myth'. The Christian philosopher Origen likewise argued that the literal terrors of hell were false, but they ought to be publicized in order to scare simpler believers. [...]

Origen, however, was posthumously condemned by the Roman Catholic Church as a heretic for his compassionate belief that all souls would eventually be redeemed. The Roman Church required all Christians to believe that some souls would suffer in hell forever, while the faithful would enjoy eternal salvation. This is the one doctrine on the afterlife which Celsus regards as distinctively Christian. He writes:

'Now it will be wondered how men so desperate in their beliefs can persuade others to join their ranks. The Christians use sundry methods of persuasion, and invent a number of terrifying incentives. Above all, they have concocted an absolutely offensive doctrine of everlasting punishment and rewards, exceeding anything the philosophers (who have never denied the punishment of the unrighteous of the reward of the blessed) could have imagined'.

"The Jesus Mysteries"
Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy (1999) [Book Review]13

In the King James Version of the Bible, the Hebrew word sheol and Greek word hades (two very different concepts) are both generally translated as Hell.

Plutarch (46-125CE) and the early Christians viewed hell as a symbolic place. It was only over time that Christianity became the literalistic belief system that it is now, initially all of its teachings were either Roman Mystery religion or Jewish in origin. The Valley of Hinnom (see above) was a place where sinners were actually burnt, the hell that the pagan religions believed in was a symbolic place (where those who died went) used to persuade people to behave better, and the Jews had little actual teachings on the concept of Hell. The result was that Christianity, a religion that was popular amongst the illiterate and undereducated in the Roman empire, lost its inner symbolic nature and became seen as an actual real place where sinners were punished forever, after death.

9. Hell in the Koran

Book CoverIn the Koran, hell is said to have seven divisions or portals (15:44); in Zohar 2.150 we find the same description. These notions go back to old Indo-Iranian sources, because in both Hindu and Zoroastrian scriptures we find the seven creations and seven heavens. [...] In sura 43.76 we find reference to Malik as the keeper of hell who presides over the tortures of the damned; similarly the Jews talk of the Prince of Hell. Malik is obviously a corruption of the Fire God of the Ammonites, Molech, mentioned in Leviticus,1 Kings, and Jeremiah.

"Why I am not a Muslim" by Ibn Warraq (1995)14

10. Satanism

10.1. Hell in LaVeyan Satanism


The Christian medieval exciting and grand artistic portrayals of Hell are accepted within Satanism as powerful imagery, although Satanic doctrine itself denies any form of afterlife and therefore does not believe in any form of Hell. Hell is sometimes used as a symbolic place where power, demonic forces and strength come from, and is sometimes jokingly considered a place where stupid people and religious sheep are punished. If something is from hell it is normally considered powerful and good, but something in Hell is normally considered to be suffering. There is no consistent usage of the term because Satanism does not hold that hell is real, and the images used by Satanists are taken from other religion's conceptions.

There is no heaven of glory bright, and no hell where sinners roast. Here and now is our day of torment! Here and now is our day of joy! Here and now is our opportunity! Choose ye this day, this hour, for no redeemer liveth!

"The Satanic Bible" by Anton LaVey (1969)4"The Satanic Bible" by Anton LaVey (1969)4
The Book of Satan IV:2

Despite the lack of belief in a literal Hell, the imagery and symbolism of Hell is used a lot in Satanic writings and art. Satanism does not accept the later Christian mutations of the original concept of hell as a non-symbolic place. Therefore, Satanism accepts hell only in symbolism. The imagery is used to inspire and to create emotional responses.

In Anton LaVey's list of Infernal Names there are a few who are related to concepts of Hell.

There is no consistent use of the concept of Hell in Satanism. The references to hell are varied and uncoordinated. In general, Satanism uses imagery of Hell derived from medieval times, of hordes of people being tormented by demons. A brief look at the graphics used on the Church of Satan website reveals a few comments that imply that the masses who are being tortured are the unthinking sheep of Humanity.

The secular usage of the word Hell frequently alludes to it being a temporary state on Earth when a person's life is very difficult. 'Living in Hell...', 'Hell on Earth'.

Satanic imagery frequently uses Hell as a place where power is obtained, where powerful demonic forces are called from and where our impurities are cleansed.

10.2. Sayings from The Satanic Bible

The flames of Hell burn fierce and purify!

"The Satanic Bible" by Anton LaVey (1969)4"The Satanic Bible" by Anton LaVey (1969)4
The Book of Satan introduction

Purification and mental well-being are benefits of being without guilt; of being able to understand and accept your own past without the hindrance of guilt inspired by the belief that an eternal God is going to ruminate over your errors. Without the need for forgiveness from anyone but oneself; the negativity and pent up emotion that turns a good man into a bitter one instead turns into a relaxing and calming sensation of inner peace. Cleansed. Part of this cleansing process, the fierce burning of hell, involves revoking past demons and, would you guess, allowing those god-shaped holes in your heart to heal.

Open wide the gates of Hell! The lower heavens beneath you, let them serve you!

"The Satanic Bible" by Anton LaVey (1969)4
Part of the 19th Enochian key

Liberal Christianity views Hell as being the state you are in whilst, after death, you choose not to accept God. In Conservative Christianity it is a place where people are sent, after their life and actions are judged, for an eternity of punishment and torment.

In Satanism, Hell is a place of power, safety, self-development and pleasure. The thinking man who treads the left hand path's first obstacle is to avoid mindless faith and thoughtless belief, and this is also the path to Hell. Intelligence and curiosity will take you there... and you will be rewarded with independence, self reliance, strength, will power and powers that enable you to be successful on this Earth.

The Heavens beneath is the Satanic power of being able to tap into yourself and create a demon.

The Eighteenth Enochian Key opens the gates of Hell and casts up Lucifer and his blessing.

"The Satanic Bible" by Anton LaVey (1969)4
The 18th Enochian key introduction

Lucifer the Crown Prince brings enlightenment. Lucifer's blessing is Redemption, as we become secure in the knowledge that we are our own, masterless, and no God exists. As the entire world realizes this, Hell is unleashed, and all of humankind is redeemed from past guilts and misinformation. Enlightenment.

The flames of Hell burn brighter for the kindling supplied by these volumes of hoary misinformation and false prophecy.

Anton LaVey speaking of past religions. "The Satanic Bible" by Anton LaVey (1969)4 preface

All religion, blind faith, herd mentality and sources of stupidity are firewood. A source of power for the fire that burns is the knowledge of just how much rubbish and stupidity there is in the world. The ego does wonders for your productivity and energy as you see how crap most people are!