Hell: According To Many Religions
Hell, according to many religious beliefs, is a place or a state of pain and suffering. The English word "hell" comes from the Germanic "hel", which originally meant "to cover". "Hel" later referred to the goddess of the Norse underworld and daughter of Loki, Hel. Compare Anglo-Saxon helan, Greek kalyptein and Latin celare="to hide, to cover" (all from PIE *kel-).

According to many religions, the afterlife affords evildoers to suffer eternally. In some monotheistic doctrines, Hell is often populated by demons who torment the damned. The fallen angel Lucifer in Christian cultures, otherwise known as Satan, is portrayed in popular culture as the ruler of Hell. Christian theologians portray Hell as the final resting place for the Devil and the fallen angels (demons), prepared as their punishment by God. Hell is also defined as complete and final separation of God's love and mercy from sinners who have rejected his moral standards of goodness and have chosen to live a rebellious life of sin. Purgatory, as believed by Catholicism, is a place of penance for the sinner who has ultimately achieved salvation but has not paid penance for the sins committed in life. Hell on the contrary is commonly believed to be for eternity with no chance of redemption or salvation for those who suffer there. Some branches of the Christian faith teach it is a domain of boundless dimension, scope, and torment. Many monotheistic religions regard Hell as the absolute ultimate worst-case-scenario, per se. For some Gnostics including the Cathars hell was none other than this present life on earth. Furthermore, hell is sometimes thought by others to be a permanent state of unconsciousness for all eternity, i.e. permanent death.

In polytheistic religions, the politics of Hell can be as complicated as human politics. Many Hellenistic Neopagans believe in Tartarus, which may also be considered a version of Hell.

Rabbinic Judaism

Gehenna is defined in rabbinic literature. It is sometimes translated as "Hell", but this doesn't effectively convey its meaning. The term Gehenna (also prononuced Gehennom) is originally taken from the name of a valley (Gai' ben-Hinom - the dry valley of the son of Hinom) in Jerusalem, into which the offerings to the Temple that did not qualify were thrown.

In Judaism, Gehenna is not hell, but rather a sort of Purgatory where one is judged based on their life's deeds. The Kabbalah describes it as a "waiting room" (commonly translated as an "entry way") for all souls (not just the wicked). The overwhelming majority of rabbinic thought maintains that people are not in Gehenna forever; the longest that one can be there is said to be 12 months, however there has been the occasional noted exception. Some consider it a spiritual forge where the soul is purified for its eventual ascent to Olam Habah (heb. ×¢××œ× ×”×‘×; lit. "The world to come", often viewed as analogous to Heaven). This is also mentioned in the Kabbalah, where the soul is described as breaking, like the flame of a candle lighting another: the part of the soul that ascends being pure and the "unfinished" piece being reborn.

Ancient Greek religion

Another source for the modern idea of 'Hell' is the Greek and Roman Tartarus, a place in which conquered gods, men and other spirits were punished. Tartarus formed part of Hades in Greek mythology and Roman mythology, but Hades also included Elysium, a place for the reward for those who lead virtuous lives, whilst others spent their afterlife in the asphodels fields. Like most ancient (pre-Christian) religions, the underworld was not viewed as negatively as it is in Christianity and Islam.


Most Christians see hell as the eternal punishment for unrepentant sinners, as well as for the Devil and his demons. Virtuous unbelievers (such as pagans or members of divergent Christian denominations) are said to deserve hell on account of original sin, and even unbaptized infants are sometimes said to be damned. Exceptions, however, are often made for those who have failed to accept Jesus Christ but have extenuating circumstances (youth, not having heard the Gospel, mental illness, etc.). As opposed to the concept of Purgatory, damnation to hell is considered final and irreversible. Various interpretations of the torment of hell exist, ranging from fiery pits of wailing sinners to lonely isolation from God's presence. Dante's The Divine Comedy is a classic inspiration for modern images of hell. Most Christians believe that damnation occurs immediately upon death (particular judgment), others that it occurs after Judgment Day. Attitudes toward hell and damnation have softened over the centuries (for example, see Limbo), and several Christian denominations reject the traditional concept of hell altogether (see Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, and Universalists).

According to George G. Ritchie M.D. (Father of NDE's) in his book Return from Tomorrow, at the age of twenty he died for nine minutes. While physically dead he had an out-of-the-body experience in which he saw different levels of hell. He described The Lost, The Evil and The Abandoned and that there was no end to the depth. He also indicated that the people there were real only without physical bodies and that hell itself seemed like an unreal place. There was no 'Prince of the Evil' or Demons only people trapped in a state of intense suffering and grief.


Muslims believe in jahannam (in Arabic: جهنÙ) (which is similar to Hebrew ge-hinnom and resembles the versions of hell in other Abrahamic religions). In the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam, there are literal descriptions of the condemned in a fiery Hell, as contrasted to the garden-like Paradise enjoyed by righteous believers.

The meaning of jahannam is to do with hotness (whereas in Hebrew Gehenna is said to mean a narrow deep valley). The word for paradise is jannah which means garden.

In addition, Heaven and Hell are split into many levels depending on the actions taken in life, where punishment is given depending on the level of evil done in life, and good is separated into other levels depending on how well one followed God (Arabic: Allah) while alive.

There is an equal number of mentions of both hell and paradise in the Qur'an.

The Qur'an also says that some of those who are damned to hell are not damned forever, but instead for an indefinite period of time. When Judgement Day comes, the formerly damned will be judged as to whether or not they may enter into Paradise. In any case, there is good reason to believe that punishment in Hell is not meant to actually last eternally, but instead serves as a basis for spiritual rectification.

Chinese and Japanese religions

The structure of Hell is remarkably complex in many Chinese and Japanese religions. The ruler of Hell has to deal with politics, just as human rulers do. Hell is the subject of many folk stories and manga. In many such stories, people in hell are able to die again.

See Di Yu for more information on Chinese Hell.

The Chinese depiction of Hell doesn't necessarily mean a long time suffering for those who enter Hell, nor does it mean that person is bad. The Chinese view Hell as similar to a present day passport or immigration control station. In a Chinese funeral, they burn many Hell Bank Notes for the dead. With this Hell money, the dead person can bribe the ruler of Hell, and spend the rest of the money either in Hell or in Heaven.


Ancient Taoism had no concept of hell, as morality was seen to be a man-made distinction and there was no concept of an immaterial soul. In its home country China, where Taoism adopted tenets of other religions, popular belief endows Taoist Hell with many deities and spirits who punish sin in a variety of horrible ways. A Japanese term for hell is "Jigoku".


In Hinduism, there are contradictions as to whether or not there is a hell (referred to as 'Nark' in Hindi). For some it is a metaphor for a conscience. But in Mahabharata there is a mention of the Pandavas and the Kauravas going to hell. Hells are also described in various Puranas and other scriptures.

It is believed that people who commit 'paap' (sin) go to hell and have to go through the punishments in accordance to the sins they committed. The god Yama, who is also the god of death, is the king of hell. The detailed accounts of all the sins committed by an individual are supposed to be kept by Chitragupta who is the record keeper in Yama's court. Chitragupta reads out the sins committed and Yama orders the appropriate punishments to be given to the individuals. These punishments include dipping in boiling oil, burning in fire, torture using various weapons etc. in various hells. Individuals who finish their quota of the punishments are reborn according to their karma. All of the created are imperfect and thus have at least one sin to their record, but if one has led a generally pious life, one ascends to Heaven, or Swarga after a brief period of expiation in hell.


As diverse as other religions, there are many beliefs about Hell in Buddhism.

Most of the schools of thought, TheravÄda, MahÄyÄna, and VajrayÄna would acknowledge several hells, which are places of great suffering for those who commit evil actions, such as cold hells and hot hells. Like all the different realms within cyclic existence, an existence in hell is temporary for its inhabitants. Those with sufficiently negative karma are reborn there, where they stay until their specific negative karma has been used up, at which point they are reborn in another realm, such as that of humans, of hungry ghosts, of animals, of asuras, of devas, or of Naraka (Hell) all according to the individual's karma.

There are a number of modern Buddhists, especially among Western schools, who believe that hell is but a state of mind. In a sense, a bad day at work could be hell, and a great day at work could be heaven. This has been supported by some modern scholars who advocate the interpretation of such metaphysical portions of the Scriptures symbolically rather than literally.

Zen does not really focus or use the idea of Hell. Rather, consider this koan:

A roshi meets two students in the garden. To them, he asks, "where is Hell?"

"In Heaven," the first student replies.

The roshi humphs, disappointedly. He then looks at the second.

"In the flower by your foot," the second replies. He then bends down and kisses it. The first student bows, enlightened.

Bahá'í Faith

The Bahá'í Faith regards the conventional description of hell (and heaven) as a specific place as symbolic. Instead the Bahá'í writings describe hell as a "spiritual condition" where remoteness from God is defined as hell; conversely heaven is seen as a state of closeness to God. Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, has stated that the nature of the life of the soul in the afterlife is beyond comprehension in the physical plane, but has stated that the soul will retain its consciousness and individuality and remember its physical life; the soul will be able to recognize other souls and communicate with them.

Bahá'u'lláh likened death to the process of birth. He explains: "The world beyond is as different from this world as this world is different from that of the child while still in the womb of its mother." The analogy to the womb in many ways summarizes the Bahá'í view of earthly existence: just as the womb constitutes an important place for a person's initial physical development, the physical world provides for the development of the individual soul. Accordingly, Bahá'ís view life as a preparatory stage, where one can develop and perfect those qualities which will be needed in the next life. The key to spiritual progress is to follow the path outlined by the current Manifestations of God, which Bahá'ís believe is currently Bahá'u'lláh. Bahá'u'lláh wrote, "Know thou, of a truth, that if the soul of man hath walked in the ways of God, it will, assuredly return and be gathered to the glory of the Beloved,"

The Bahá'í teachings state that there exists a hierarchy of souls in the afterlife, where the merits of each soul determines their place in the hierachy, and that souls lower in the hierarchy cannot completely understand the station of those above. Each soul can continue to progress in the afterlife, but the soul's development is not dependent on its own conscious efforts, but instead on the grace of God, the prayers of others, and good deeds performed by others on Earth in the name of the person.