When we talk about Hell, certain societies think it is taboo or a sinful topic to talk about because of its relation with the devil, Satan; for that reason, it is common to have Hell excluded or forbidden from use and mention in ordinary subjects of conversation. For others, Hell is a human construct of an imaginary place. There is no evidence whether Hell exist or not. Perhaps we will never know, but what we know for certainty is that it is in our human nature to believe in life after death. As Alice K. Turner puts it, “Some part of us, we believe, continues to exist somewhere.” It is logic to think that the afterlife cannot exist if the soul stopped existing after death. According to Socrates, the “soul is above all immortal and indestructible” because of its opposition to death. Consequently, death is the separation of the soul from the body. While some cultures believe in the reincarnation of the soul into new living beings, others believe in a perpetual existence whether it is Hell or Heaven. In his book The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker mentions that certain beliefs based on tradition need to be analyzed using reasoning and evidence. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to challenge the belief that Hell does exist whether it is physical or psychological, by showing that it has been present since the first human civilization.
Before focusing on Hell, it is necessary to remark that primitive cultures used the terms of Hell, Land of the Dead, and underworld interchangeably. While we continue reading, I will show how these terms have changed their meaning and interpretation throughout the human history, demonstrating that the concept of Hell has never ceased to exist, and that it is part of our lives.
The first recorded accounts of Hell date from five thousand years ago with the first human civilization composed of several Mesopotamian kingdoms. The two most important accounts about Mesopotamian mythology regarding Hell are the ancient poem “Gilgamesh” and “Innana’s Journey to Hell.” In both poems, the main characters go to the underworld seeking for forbidden power and everlasting life. These poems exhibits a fear to death and the place designated to be the abode of the dead. The reason for this negative panorama on the Mesopotamian Hell is that there is no covenant between their gods and men, embodying the fear that everybody goes to Hell whether you do good deeds or not. In other words, your soul is fated to go to this place. The Mesopotamian vision of hell is unfair and sad. Hence, there is no reason to achieve good deeds if it causes you trouble or difficulties. For example, “Gilgamesh” depicts the underworld as a dark, dusty, and gloomy place in which the dead spirits live a depressing existence. The main point about all this is that the Mesopotamian culture, as the first human civilization, included Hell in every poem.
In comparison with the bleak outlook on death of the Mesopotamian mythology, the Egyptian mythology has the most positive outlook on Hell. This culture prepares its dead people through a process of embalmment and spells contained in the Book of the Dead. The Egyptian Book of the Dead, according to Turner, ensures “a safe trip through the otherworld” with the hope of reaching the abode of gods, after being judged by the Egyptian god, Osiris. For the Egyptians, the place of the after life consisted to entering to the kingdom of Osiris. In other words, Hell is the abode of gods. The Egyptian Hell is path to become one with Osiris At this point, we can see why the Egyptians dedicated most of their lives as a preparation for death. In addition to that, Turner is right that the majestic Egyptian pyramids built as tombs for their important leaders portray the Egyptians’ concern of death. The Egyptian Hell is not a place of punishment if we examine it from the Hebrew and Christian perspective. With a hope for immortality and judgment, these conclusions explain why the Mesopotamians did not attempt to preserve and bury human bodies after their death, and it is because the Mesopotamians did not consider death and journey to the underworld as a continuation of life.
By the fifth century A.D., in the classic Greek mythology, we have a wealthy source of information regarding Hades, the Greek Hell. It is important to notice that Hades has a subdivision named Tartarus. Tartarus is the Greek conception of the Christian and Islam Hell where damned souls are punished and purified and then reborn into another body. I wonder what made the Greek culture to develop Tartarus as a place of permanent punishment, possibly influencing the world with this concept of Hell as a place for wrong doers. On the other hand, the Greek realm of Hades represents a dark and depressing scenario full of unhappy inhabitants. For instance, in the Odyssey, Achilles answers Odysseus that he “rather be a paid servant in a poor man’s house and be above ground than king of kings among the dead.” The essence of Achilles’s argument is that it expresses a natural fear and pessimism about going Hell. According the Odyssey and Phaedo, we can conclude that the nature of the Greek Hell is egalitarian. With this, I mean that Hades makes no distinction between king and peasant. In the Odyssey, Hades appears to be similar to the Mesopotamian Hell because Hades is nothing else than the abode of the dead. My own view about Hades and Tartarus is that these places fit for two kinds of wrongdoers: incurable sinners go to Tartarus, and curable sinners go to Hades. Perhaps the Greek mythology mirrors these concepts of Hell from daily situations, trying to regulate people’s action. What I find most interesting is that the idea of Hades is present in every moment of the ancient Greece.
In the ancient Rome, the poet and writer Virgil writes the Aeneid between 30 and 19 B.C., which is the Roman answer to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, telling the story of the Greek victory over the Trojans from the Trojan perspective. Virgil’s Aeneid “Book VI” represents, as Turner says, “the first thoroughly graphic description of Hell” with the description of terribly mutilated bodies, physical rooms for specific punishments, and disturbing descriptions. In some way, the horror that the Roman Empire lived throughout its constant wars generated a Roman Hell very alike to its judicial system. According to the Roman mythology and Virgil, Minos is the judge of the underworld. Minos decides how to punish the sinners. Interestingly, the renowned artist Michelangelo depicts a scene of Hell with Minos in the Last Judgment, situated on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. It holds my attention that Virgil’s Hell influenced so much Michelangelo and the Catholic Church that Minos became part in one of the most important paintings in the world. It follows, then, that the Roman Hell resembles and forms part the Christian idea of Hell.
During the sixteenth century, the Mayan culture depicts Xilbaba, the Mayan underworld, in several writings. The best-known poem of the Mayan mythology is the Popol Vuh, the Mayan book of the dawn of life. According to this book, the Hero Twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque, the protagonists of the story, decide to go to Xilbaba and avenge the death of their father and his uncle who were tricked and killed by the Lords of the Mayan underworld. The nature of Xilbaba is very similar to Hades and Sheol (the Hebrew Hell), rather than a place of punishment such as the Christian Hell. The Mayan mythology did not have any kind of contact with Greece and Judaism. Nevertheless, the similarities of Xilbaba to their ideas about Hell may hint us that Hell is within any culture, and it does not come from influence. Because Hades, Sheol, and Xilbaba share so many similar traits, I find hard to believe they are only a coincidence.
According to the New Testament Matthew 27.52-53, at the moment of Jesus’s death, an earthquake occurs, “and many bodies of the saints which slept arose.” This source refers the “Harrowing of Hell.” In addition to that, in an Easter poem, the Pope Gregory the Great states, “Jesus has harrowed Hell: He has led captivity captive: Darkness and chaos and death flee from the face of the light.” Pope Gregory’s lines embody my common concept of Hell. In order to understand the Christian Hell, we need to retrace its origin that dates from the wealthiest period of the history of Hell, the Middle Ages.
John of Patmos, author of the Book of Revelations, provides us the Christian explanation of the fall of Lucifer (light bearer), the most beloved angel by God, after a war in Heaven, and the imminent creation of the modern concept of the Christian Hell. The importance of the Book of Revelations is that it demonizes Satan and creates the important notion that fearing God “turns [us] away from evil” (Job 1.9).
The fall of Lucifer is a key factor for the development of the Christian Hell during the Middle Ages. Once that God jails Lucifer and his rebellious angels, the Christianism starts to represent, in a religious point of view, the inevitable destination of wrong doers to Hell. Visio Pauli’s “XI Pains of Hell” and Dante’s “Inferno” from the Divine Comedy are among the most important accounts of Hell from the Middle Ages. Both poems have boiling rivers, disturbing punishments, adders sucking sinners’ brain, and many more torments, which Mark Musa concludes as “the torments suffered by the sinners represent, in one way or another, the sins themselves.” This is called contrapasso, and the Christian Church uses it as a tool to control or reduce bad actions, in order to ascend to realm of God. By honoring the holy Church, Pauli states, “[it] may Christ help us to forsake sin… so that we may be saved.” The influence of the Catholic Church is best manifested in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Doctor Faustus
symbolizes a battle between Hell and Heaven over men with no faith in God. In Sylvan Barnet’s words, “[Doctor Faustus] sacrificed righteous living for earthly gain,” and it is exactly what the Christian religion and Catholic Church want us to avoid. The Christian Hell is used as a way to change human nature and its dispositions.
In the 20th Century, Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit states straightforwardly, “Hell is other people.” This concept of Hell is the doctrine of Existentialism. Existentialism believes that God does not exist, and that there is no purpose to our presence in the universe. In No Exit, the Existential Hell is not a place of punishment; instead, it is the lack of freedom and inability to make free choices. Edvard Munch’s The Scream helps me out to express what I mean with No Exit. The Scream embodies the concept of inner torment and psychological Hell. I define psychological Hell as the product of a twisted-protean mind and surrounding environment that brings up uneasiness upon isolated individuals. For example, Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” exhibits a subconscious descent motif to Hell due to the extreme isolation, distorting the main character’s personality and transforming himself into a malignant and perverse man. Consequently, No Exit, The Scream, and “The Shining” present Hell as a state of mind, in contrast with any other mythology from this paper.
My conclusion, then, is that Hell has been present throughout the human history. Hell is part of our human nature. Each culture, tradition, doctrine, religion, and mythology has, if not a concern, an interest in Hell and the destination of the soul. There is no evidence that Hell exist, but at least we know that Hell is somehow present in our lives. In Mark Musa’s words, the “journey through Hell is precisely this: to learn all there is to know about sin, as a necessary preparation for the ascent to God.” With this, the concept of Hell is a path toward human
perfection, rather than a concept of punishment and miserable existence. The concept of Hell exists and will never stop to exist as long as our human nature does not change.
Post by Ricardo Tanasescu. Check his LinkedIn profile here.