Hell in Western Culture
Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons
Hell is all over the world and is a part of many world religions now and in ancient history. One would be surprised by a few of the historical and biblical facts regarding Hell, and just how many people still believe in Hell. So, while our world feels pretty secular and godless these days, people are still holding on to Hell. “According to a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center, more than 50 percent of American adults still believe in the existence of a place ‘where people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally punished.” (Do We Still Need to Believe in Hell? By Scott G. Bruce, Sept. 14, 2014, wjs.com)
While Hell is all over the world, because Hell in the religions of the far East is so dramatically different conceptually, I am going to just focus on the West in part one then tackle the East in part two.
There is a very clear pattern regarding Hell: it appears to start more neutral as the place where all the dead go then evolves into a place of torment. In our very earliest civilizations, the earliest depictions were more about the harsh reality of death rather than justice. “In Mesopotamian traditions, Hell is described as a distant land of no return, a house of dust where the dead dwells without distinction of rank or merit, and a sealed fortress, typically of seven gates, barred against invasion or escape.” (Hell: Quick Facts by Carol Zaleski, britannica.com) In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word that is translated as hell in English (which comes from the Germanic word Hel—the Norse goddess guardian of the underworld) is Sheol. However, the problem is that while the English word hell is loaded with a lot of imagery and emotion that is pretty grimly fantastic, the Hebrew word Sheol is far less dramatic. For the most part—especially in the first books of the O.T.—it simply means grave. Later in the O.T. the word Sheol would come to have a symbolic meaning, and they would use it exactly like we use the term hell today. The phrase war is hell does not literally mean war is hell; rather, we use hell to mean something horrible and filled with adversity. Sheol for Hebrew people was used in that same manner—but only in reference that dying is something bad, therefore saying Sheol is a way to say something is bad. There was still not a concept of an afterlife that involved punishment as we view Hell today. It becomes especially confusing if one is not familiar with Hebrew—they will see the term hell all over the O.T. and grossly misinterpret what is being meant. For the early part of the O.T. people simply died and went to their grave. Both good and evil met with the same oblivion. However, when we get to the period after the Babylonian occupation of Israel, we see a whole new cosmological world where now the afterlife involves justice, and we have a divided afterlife: one for bad people and one for good people.
This transition from hell being more neutral (though still a bummer) to being a place of justice where the wicked get their due can be seen throughout the west. In Iran, Zoroastrianism would bring in judgment and justice for the dead. “During the interval between death and resurrection, there is a preliminary judgment in which the dead have their deeds weighed in a balance. At the time of judgment, the dead confront their conscience in personified form on a symbolic bridge, from which they fall into hell to be tortured, pass to heaven for blissful reward, or enter the limbo-like realm of the ‘mixed’ which is reserved for those of neutral merit.” (Hell: Quick Facts by Carol Zaleski, britannia.com)
The ancient Greeks would also bring some justice to the afterlife. Initially, Hades was neutral—it simply was the place all the dead went to become sort of zombie-like shadows (referred to as shades). Later, the Greek poets offered up some punishments like rolling a boulder continually up a hill or having one’s liver pecked out by birds only to have it regrow back. Then even later, they had an afterlife that was divided: a good part for good people and a horrible part for wicked people.
One of the interesting aspects of Hell—especially when we get to Christianity is that the issue of hell is not as settled as one would think. In fact, in an excerpt from a classical work on hell (The Biblical Doctrine of Hell from the ‘The Origin and History of the Doctrine of Endless Punishment’ by Thomas B. Thayer, written in 1855, auburn.edu), the author argues compellingly that if you study the Hebrew word Sheol and, later in the N.T., the words Jesus used (that are translated into English generically as hell), there is a compelling argument that Jesus was not literally talking about a supernatural place where people are tortured for eternity. Rather, Jesus was using the terms in a metaphorical way. The three words translated as Hell in the N.T. are Hades, Tartarus (both Greek), and Gehenna (which is Greek for the Hebrew words Gee and Hinnon). The problem is that none of them really mean Hell in the way we think of the word now, and the term Gehenna during Jesus’ time was used by the Jews metaphorically as something truly awful. Believe it or not, the solid doctrine and description regarding Hell came four hundred years after Jesus’ time on Earth. “But it was Augustine of Hippo and his book, City of God, published in AD 426, that set the tone for official doctrine over the next 1,500 years. Hell existed not to reform or deter sinners, he argued. Its primary purpose was to satisfy the demands of justice. […] In theological circles this doctrine is known as Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT).” (The Campaign to Eliminate Hell by Mark Strauss, news.nationalgeographic.com)
Yes, there is a technical term for the hell we know today, and that is the ECT or the Eternal Conscious Torment. Now, if that sounds super harsh to you—many others in the theological world have noticed that too. The problem is that if God is indeed omnibenevolent, how could he create Hell and send people there to be tortured for all eternity? It seems a bit unequal to the crime. There is also another problem—there is not as strong a case, biblically speaking, that backs the existence of ECT as previously imagined. This has especially been brought to light as biblical scholarship has become more sophisticated and translations more accurate. Even in the notoriously biblically conservative evangelical circles do we see a quiet, but steady change of opinion. For some evangelical biblical scholars and preachers, a new idea is emerging that marries better to biblical evidence. “Fudge is among those who endorse an alternative doctrine, know as ‘annihilationism’ which holds that, after death, sinners simply cease to exist, while those who are saved enjoy eternal life under God’s grace.” (The Campaign to Eliminate Hell by Mark Strauss, news.nationalgeographic.com) The Catholic Church too is quietly changing some of their more draconian afterlife doctrines. Limbo was a place in Catholic dogma that was right at the door of hell and where all unbaptized babies were sent. It was a pretty harsh dogma. However, “In 2007, Pope Benedict [XCI] quietly abolished the concept of Limbo, the otherworldly destination of babies who die before their baptism.” (Do We Still Need to Believe in Hell? by Scott G. Bruce, Sept. 14, 2018, wsj.com)
Throughout the history of Western Civilization, people evolved from seeing the afterlife as simply a place all people go to after dying to a place where justice was carried out. Eventually, the idea of Everlasting Conscious Torment came into play and is still largely believed in today. In the Wall Street Journal essay, Do We Still Need to Believe in Hell? the author makes a pretty insightful comment regarding hell and why we still need it. He argues that hell and ECT came about as a way for people to cope with tyranny and injustice in the world. To keep from going insane, we have to believe that somewhere somehow there has to come a time when the evil gets their just desserts. I think there is a lot of truth to that, and we can track hell’s intensity and popularity with whatever is going on in the world. Times of war, poverty, and tyranny are times of vivid and brutal hells. Times of prosperity and relative peace—hell softens and sometimes is thought as purely metaphorical.
Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.”
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