The concept of ‘Hell’ is known to most folk in the West from Christian mythology, where it is portrayed as an infernal abode and the final judgement for sinners and the wicked. Though often conceptualized as an afterlife, ‘Hell’ (and its opposite, ‘Heaven’) can also be a state of being endured by those who have consistently gone against the natural order and imposed upon themselves or others torturous conditions through ignoring the inner voice of the divine, and instead focusing only on the external, one’s emotions, desires, cravings and pain. Often-times, the suffering inflicted upon an individual causes them to enact the same pain upon others, either in the form of vengeance, or through being overcome by impulses which mirror the suffering initially experienced. This can explain all forms of abuse, even if the suffering inflicted upon an individual may not have been experienced in this lifetime. Therefore, it is not worth dismissing the notion of experiencing Hell after death entirely, but seeing it as a state that can be experienced by any being which is excessively attached to its own suffering.
The word ‘Hell’ is derived from the Germanic word Hel, referring to both the giantess who presides over the realm of the dead and the realm itself, which is identical to the Greek conception of “Hades.” However, in both Greek and Norse mythology, the Underworld is portrayed as a cold, dark place where the spirits of the dead wander aimlessly in cold and hunger. These husks represent the part of our soul which consists of our external attributes and are kept alive by the memories of the one’s who we knew in life (because in most traditions, our soul is composed of composite parts that each go to different places when we die, which explains why in Greek mythology, Achilles was described as inhabiting both Hades and the Elysian Fields, the Greek equivalent of Heaven). It could be said that once we are forgotten, these husks disappear in any distinct form, becoming ‘recycled’ into the aether.
However, this is still not the same as the Christian notion of ‘Hell.’ which is derived from the Greek concept of Tartarus and is analogous to the Norse Nastrond (“Corpse Shore”), a place of torture and suffering for the most wicked: adulterers, oath-breakers and murderers. There are many tales in Greek mythology of men such as Tantalus and Sisyphus, who were tormented by conditions which suited their sins (unending desire for the former, attempting to escape death for the latter) in Tartarus. While these conditions are said to have been imposed upon them by the gods, in mythology the gods merely play the role of natural forces in returning the consequences of the actions of such individuals to them. The responsibility for their state lies with the individuals themselves, because they consciously chose to act upon their desires to harm themselves or others.
This is why most people are generally not described as going to either Hell or Heaven (except within Protestantism, generally-speaking), but to a ‘middle place,’ whether it be the Catholic “Purgatory” or such places as Hel or Hades, or the Hebrew Gehinnom. This is because most people live their lives in general ignorance, meaning that they are generally incapable of both great good or great evil. Therefore, their ‘karma’ is a mixture of good and bad, which will mean that they are likely to experience a moderate amount of suffering during life and after death. However, for those who possess gnosis or esoteric knowledge, the capacity to experience suffering will be far greater, but they will also have a deeper knowledge of what actions are good and which are evil.
Only a minority of humanity falls into either camp: those who consciously choose to serve others in the same capacity as themselves and are destined for ‘Heaven’ and those who serve themselves at the expense of others (or sometimes even those who serve others at the expense of themselves) are ‘Hell-bound.’ This has been the general understanding of most religions throughout history; however, some belief systems are much more dualistic in their conception of the afterlife. In Ancient Egypt, the soul of the deceased was thought to have been judged during a process by the gods Anubis, Thoth and Osiris, where his heart was weighed on a scale against a feather. If it was found to be lighter than the feather, he was permitted to enter the Kingdom of Osiris; if however, the heart was weighed down by the sins he had committed during his life, then the heart was fed to a demoness named Ammit and his soul was destroyed forever.
This is rather unusual though and the only other belief system which holds to such a concept is Protestantism, which, through attempting to purge itself of “popish” and “pagan” fantasies, dispensed of the notion of Purgatory, which left only Heaven and Hell. The idea of Final Judgement in Christianity is mostly derived from the Book of Revelations and is very similar to the Zoroastrian concept of Frashokereti and the Muslim Yawm al-Qiyamah. This informed the teachings of John Calvin, who taught that souls were predestined to be saved or not, and that therefore it did not matter what actions one performed in this life, though one would do best to make sure that one is part of the “elect” by living as a ‘good Christian.’ These ideas helped shape the highly capitalist cultures of the countries where Calvinism took root, such as Scotland and the Netherlands (as well as the places where people from such lands settled), because they encouraged people to pursue worldly success as long as they went to church and gave lip service to Christ’s teachings.
The concept of Hell has thus been used by Calvinist ministers (but also those of other Christian denominations) to threaten those who did not abide by their moral standards, because the Protestant conception of the afterlife provides no intermediate option for those who are not capable of living either a necessarily good or evil existence. However, this abusive use of the concept of Hell is not exclusive to Christianity, as it is also present within Islam and Buddhism (even though the former has the concept of Barzakh, which is analogous to Purgatory and the latter teaches reincarnation); for example, in some of the Mahayana sutras, the threat of ending up in the Buddhist equivalent of Hell is used to castigate those who commit the unforgivable sin of eating meat. Such judgements reflect the attempts by ecclesiastical figures to impose their morality upon others, even if this means attempting to portray the founders of their respective religions as holding the same perspectives as they do.
However, the truth lies in the fact that such religions were founded to encourage people to walk with God and to consistently choose to perform good (or at the very least, neutral) actions over evil ones. The concept of Hell is not simply a threat such as one would use to get a naughty child to do what one wants, but a rational explanation of the consequences of one’s actions if they are driven by an evil inclination. There is much debate over whether an action itself should be considered good or bad (which is known as “deontology”), or whether the consequences are of primary concern (“consequentialism”). I personally see actions as inherently good or evil, since putting the emphasis on the consequences leads to the mentality that “the ends justify the means.” Referring to the results of evil intentions and actions, Jesus said: “Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt, and his fruit corrupt: for the tree is known by his fruit” (Matthew, 12:33).
This implies that all inclinations, whether good or bad, arise in the mind and that following through on these actions (or else restraining oneself from performing them) produces the ‘fruit’ (consequences). Therefore, whether oneself or another being experiences ‘Heavenly bliss’ or ‘Hellfire’ is dependent on one’s choices; fatalist doctrines such as Calvinism make a mockery of free will, because they excuse ill actions as being pre-ordained and thus unavoidable (as with good actions). However, this was also an issue within early Catholicism, since the Irish monk, Pelagius, was branded a heretic for teaching that man has free will to a point that even I would consider extreme, as he supposedly propounded the tabula rasa or “blank slate” theory, which is that human behaviour is completely driven by socialization and that no trauma can be inherited (which has been disproven by the study of epigenetics). However, because this went against Augustine’s doctrine of original sin (which was derived from Manichaeism, a religion that saw spirit as good and matter as evil), this meant that man could rely on his own knowledge of right and wrong without the guidance of the Church, for which Pelagius’ teachings were seen as a threat to ecclesiastical authority.
Nevertheless, there is some truth to the idea that compulsive behaviours are very difficult to control, and that it takes persistent effort to change them. This not only applies to bad habits such as eating, drinking or smoking excessively, but to much deeper trauma such as verbal, physical or sexual abuse, and even long-standing feuds between groups of people. By repeating actions, we prolong their results, and therefore it is important to keep in mind not just what is happening as a result, but (more importantly) what is driving those actions. Actions fuelled by fear, delusion and possessiveness (the “Three Poisons” in Buddhism) will lead to the creation of Hell on Earth if repeated enough, but actions derived from love, compassion and kindness will make Heaven on Earth.
In addition, if one follows the logic of any religion, the consequences of one’s actions will extend beyond one’s death, even if one retains the merely secular view that the actions you take will affect others in a psychological sense. Too often, people are tempted to justify their vicious, greedy or fearful thoughts and deeds with pretensions to morality and virtue, but they will always reap what they sow as they create a Hell for themselves and/or others by doing so. Any religious or political ideology founded on lies will turn into a Hell for those subjected to its followers’ actions, which is why I would also like to make the point that someone’s experience of Hell is not always that person’s fault. However, the ability to forgive and to strive to perform good deeds will help to overcome the pain experienced at the hands of oneself or others.
There is no need to fear Hell, unless someone knows that what they are doing is wrong, it is just a shame that such concepts are often unquestioningly absorbed from the outside through one’s cultural or religious upbringing. Typically, you will be able to see for yourself if actions are good or bad by how they make you feel, or what feelings are experienced that lead to acting upon impulses. Nevertheless, performing good deeds will not always make us feel good, so it is also wise to use logic alongside one’s feelings in determining whether a given action is good or bad. Though there may be some comfort in the belief that the wicked are destined for Hell, taking pleasure in this is in fact an evil way to think, since it wishes suffering upon others rather than simply acknowledging that their actions will have consequences for them. The trick, I think, is that it is right to prevent someone from harming others if one can, but to make sure that in doing so we ourselves don’t become vengeful and self-righteous, since the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.