In our story, Satan has been fired from his diabolical management position and evicted from hell. In our current plans, one possible reason for his removal from office is that some other fiendish individual wishes to seize the reins of power in hell. But why would they do that? What kind of real estate are we talking about here? What is hell like and where is it?
Doing my lazy writer’s research (flicking through web-pages) I hoped to find some definitive answer. I was secretly hoping to stumble upon the writings of some lunatic medieval theologian who would give me the exact dimensions of hell, its population, key features and precise location. You know, something like:
“And between the Mountains of Abaddon and the Seas of Attrition, awash with the tears of the unsaved, is the Plain of Hell, home to seven times seven hundred demons. Here are the cities of Lapsidia, Zelan, Gehon and Ru and, at their centre, the great fortress of Balam, where the lord of flies sits enthroned and in chains. Here dwell the tortured souls who have rejected our Lord and their number is as the grains of sand on a beach. The Plain of Hell is of such a size that a man could not travel it from end to end within a lifetime and yet it is all bound up within a space no greater than an acorn, such is the glory of the Lord’s creation.”
I was even hoping for a map.
But fact is, there are as many hells are there are people who have written about it. So let’s take a little look.
Our English word, hell, comes to us from the Norse ‘Hel’ which refers both to the place where those who died of old age and disease go to when they die and the monstrous creature that reigns there. It’s not necessarily a bad place; it’s just not Valhalla. In various Viking stories, gods and kings visit Hel and see what it’s like and what potentially lies in store for them. Hel can be reached by long and dark roads from this world. It has gates and, at its heart, a hall where Hel’s inhabitants dwell.
This version of the afterlife quite probably borrows some of its concepts from earlier Christian and Greek ideas which the Viking writers may have been familiar with.
The Hebrew word ‘Sheol’ appears in the Old Testament and is usually translated as hell or grave in English Bibles. Ignoring later reinterpretations (which rely on Greek influences), Sheol was simply a shadowy world, a grave, to which most of us are going to go. It isn’t a place of torture or spiritual refinement but simply a grey world where those who have been forgotten by God simply reside. A bit like Grimsby on a wet Sunday afternoon.
Now the Greeks knew how to create an underworld. The word Hades is both the name of the underworld and its ruler. It’s also the word most frequently used for hell in the New Testament and in early Greek/Latin translations of the Bible.
As a place in Greek mythology, it has quite a lot. There’s the Elysian Fields, where the virtuous dead go. There’s the pit of Tartarus, reserved for the demonic Titans and the damned. There’s the Asphodel Meadows where the ‘neutral’ dead go.
There’s also a bit of physical geography. Hell has rivers (Acheron, Cocytus, Phlegethon, Lethe and Styx) each with their own symbolism. On top of that we have some interesting characters such as Charon and Cerberus.
It’s also here that we get some of our first contrapasso, the ironic punishments handed out to the damned. The king, Tantalus, was punished for his excesses by being placed in a river of water with low hanging fruit above him but whenever he reached for either they moved away, thus tantalising him for all eternity. Sisyphus, who managed to wangle his way out of Hades more than once, was given the punishment of pushing a boulder up a hill only for it to roll down again when he neared the top. Ixion was bound to a flaming wheel for his lustful acts. Okay, that’s not particularly ironic, just nasty, but you get the idea.
This too comes from the Greek, referring to a pit of torment into which the damned are thrown. Tartarus is beneath the earth. The writer, Hesiod, speaks of an anvil taking nine days to fall from heaven to earth and a further nine days for it to fall to the depths of Tartarus. In Greek mythology, it is where the titans are imprisoned but it also gets a single look-in in the New Testament, the word used as a synonym for hell.
Gehenna comes to us from the Bible as a word indicating ‘hell’ and is fascinating because it actually relates to a real geographical location. The word means ‘valley of Hinnom’ and was a place where, in ancient history, worshippers of Baal and other ‘false’ gods would offer sacrifices of children by fire.
You can try to visit Gehenna if you like; there are a number of possible and credible candidates in Israel for the true valley of Hinnom.
As a word for ‘hell’ it offers us with a number of interpretations. Is it the place of fire? A place for false gods? Is it a place for the wicked? Does it simply mean, as some Christian thinkers suggest, a place where people are destroyed? Is hell, in this sense, the total destruction, but not suffering, of those who are not destined for heaven?
Lake of Fire
St John the Divine, the frankly kooky writer of Revelations, also gives us the poetically resonating Lake of Fire. In his rambling, beautiful but mostly bonkers account of the end times, John tells us at various points that the beast, the false prophet, the devil, Death and Hades will all be thrown into the lake of fire (along with the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolators, liars, cold callers, queue jumpers and reality TV contestants*)
St John also gives us the sulphur and brimstone which we also often associate with hell.
Many Christians interpret the Lake of Fire as eternal torment but there are also some who take it to mean the final and painless destruction of those who are not going to heaven.
Dante and Milton
I’m an atheist and I don’t share any of the beliefs I’ve discussed above. However, all of the above were genuine beliefs whereas Dante (writer of the Inferno) and Milton (writer of Paradise Lost) were just making stuff up. It’s true that they were reflecting theological ideas and commonly held ideas of their time but their epic poems were not revelations from God. These were the works of fiction writers and are generally held to be amongst the greatest writings of all time.
Dante’s Inferno shared a lot of ideas with the classical underworld (i.e. Hades) but gave us some specific ideas that remain in our public consciousness.
For starters, Dante gave us the brilliant and frequently misquoted line: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
Dante gave us the nine circles of hell. Each circle is reserved for a certain sin or certain level of sinning. The first circle is where the poor fools who died before Christ’s coming or were good but did not accept Christ must live in a dull grey but not particularly horrible afterlife (see also: Sheol, Asphodel Meadows and Grimsby). We then range through a number of exciting sins such as Lust, Gluttony and Heresy up to the ninth circle of hell which is reserved for traitors and in which Satan is entombed in ice (although he does get to chew on Brutus, Cassius and Judas Iscariot to pass the time).
Dante also really goes to town with the contrapasso. The lustful are blown about by uncontrollable and endless storms. The gluttons must lie in icy slush, totally ignorant of those around them. The sullen lie on the silent and black bed of the River Styx. Fortune-tellers have their heads on backwards so, having pretended to see the future in life, cannot see the way ahead at all. Suicides become gnarled thorny bushes. Flatterers are drowned in excrement. Dante was either a sadistic fantasist or a comedy genius.
Dante also gave us Dis, the city of hell. Dis is an infernal reflection of the heavenly city of God and he does provide us with some architectural detail. Finally, the casual visitor to hell can look at some buildings and send some photos back home.
Milton, in Paradise Lost, also provides us with a capital of hell and names his Pandemonium. Not only that but he tells us its architect, a fallen angel called Mulciber.
By the way, Milton also gave us Satan/Lucifer’s best line ever: “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.”
Many modern Christians would argue that hell is not a place but a state of being, that to be apart from God is to be in hell. They would state that to reject God is to decline your place in heaven and that rejection of God is hell.
Some Christians, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, would take teachings about Gehenna and the Lake of Fire to indicate that the unbelievers will be simply destroyed at the end of time and cease to exist.
But, dear reader, there are still plenty of Christians who hold to the belief that hell is a physical place within our physical universe in which the damned are tortured in imaginative ways until the end of time.
So, we do not have a definitive version of hell but we do have a lot of exciting details to cherry-pick from. Here’s a selection of the most popular and personal favourites.
· Hell is underground and can be reached from our world. Journey times may vary.
· Unknown, but it’s big. Hell has rivers, gates and a capital city.
· Hell is a fiery place, possibly even featuring a Lake of Fire
· Hell smells of sulphur and brimstone
· Hell’s capital is Dis or Pandemonium, designed by the fallen angel, Mulciber
· Some versions of hell or places in hell are reserved for the not-particularly-bad and aren’t particularly horrible, just not nice (like Grimsby)
What to do in hell:
· The truly wicked will suffer cruel and ironic punishments
· In hell, the damned can seek forgetfulness (from the River Lethe) or can be utterly destroyed (Gehenna)
· Satan is in hell, but whether he’s in the Lake of Fire or entombed in ice or acting as general manager is uncertain.
· Vikings who didn’t die in battle
· Cold callers
· Queue Jumpers
· Reality TV contestants*
*I added these last three myself.