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What is a hell?

Hell is a place in the hereafter where bad souls are subjected to punitive torment, most commonly by torture, as a permanent punishment after death, according to religion and tradition. Hell is generally shown as a permanent destiny in religions with a narrative divine history, such as Christianity and Islam, but faiths that believe in reincarnation commonly picture hell as a transitional time between incarnations, as is the case with dharmic religions. Hell is usually located in another realm or under the Earth’s surface, according to religions. Heaven, Paradise, Purgatory, Limbo, and the Underworld are some of the other afterlife locations. Other faiths, who do not see the hereafter as a place of retribution or reward, simply refer to the grave as a resting place for the deceased, a neutral location under the Earth’s surface (for example, see Kur, Hades, and Sheol). These areas are commonly referred to as “hell,” while a more accurate translation would be “underworld” or “world of the dead.” Entrances to the underworld from the living are found in ancient Mesopotamian, Greek, Roman, and Finnic religions.


In theology and folk traditions, souls go to either heaven or hell, depending on their goodness or evilness. Evil souls are sent to hell, where they are put through several forms of torture as the eternal punishment for their wrongdoings during their life. Good souls, on the other hand, are sent to heaven. Abrahamic religions like Christianity and Islam, which have a linear conception of life, believe hell to be the ultimate destination for the evil souls for eternity. In contrast, dharmic religions like Hinduism, which believe in reincarnation, see hell as a transitional space until the next birth cycle. All religions do not have a codified conception of hell. Still, they usually have references to places of punishment and suffering, such as Hades or the Underworld in Greek pantheism or Sheol in Judaism.

‘Hell’ comes from the Old English word ‘hell’ or ‘helle,’ which is further derived from the Anglo-Saxon language and refers to a nether or underground world of the dead. Hell is often visualized as another dimension under the Earth in various religions and folklore. Some ancient religions like Greek, Roman, Norse and Mesopotamian religions also conceive the entrance or the gate to the underworld on the Earth. Hell appears in various religions, folk traditions, and mythologies and is usually guarded by demons. Evil souls of the dead people are sent there to atone for their sins.

Punishment is an essential concept in the conceptualization of hell, particularly in the Abrahamic religions. The souls are punished according to their sins during their time on Earth. Sometimes sinners are segregated according to the level of sins to different chambers of hell. Hell is traditionally depicted as a burning place, where the damned souls are subjected to harsh, painful, and fiery surroundings. This is the common perception in religions like Islam and Christianity. But there are religions, like in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, where the hell is considered a cold and dreary place. There have also been some references to a freezing hell in the Christian tradition, such as in Dante’s portrayal of the innermost circle (the 9th circle) of hell in Inferno as a frozen lake of blood and guilt in his epic poem The Divine Comedy. A more religious document like the Apocalypse of Paul also references such an idea of a cold hell.

Hell in Christianity

The concept of hell is most prominently described in Christianity. The word ‘hell’ appears mainly in the New Testament. The Roman Catholic Church defines hell as “a state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed.” In other words, an individual will find himself in hell if he dies in ‘mortal sin,’ that is, without the repentance of his sins. As he is unable to accept God’s mercy, he comes separated, for all eternity, from God and thus has to repent in hell. On the day of the Last Judgment, the souls deemed unworthy are sent to hell for eternity. The various denominations of Christianity have different theories and beliefs regarding this judgment. While the Roman Catholic Church and some other sects like the Methodists, Episcopalians, Baptists, and Greek Orthodox churches believe hell to be the final place of the damned, the Protestants believe that the damned souls can achieve salvation through the acceptance of Christ as the savior of humanity.

Hell in Judaism

While Christianity has a definite understanding of hell, Judaism does not have a specific idea or tenet of the afterlife. It has a more mystical interpretation of the concept of Gehinnom, which is not precisely hell but a kind of grave, and in later texts, a Purgatory where people are judged for their lives' deeds. It is much more complex than just a place of judgment – in this place, people also become aware of their shortcomings or the various negative things they have done throughout their lives. The Kabbalah, an esoteric school of thought of Jewish mysticism, describes the Gehinnom as a ‘waiting room’ or an entryway for all the souls, not just the evil ones. Whereas in Christianity, the evil souls are condemned to hell for eternity, in Judaism, the souls have to be in Gehinnom only for a limited period. The concept of punishment is not as severe as in Christianity. Still, Jewish teachings often talk about the idea of intense shame associated with Gehinnom.

Hell in Islam

Like Christianity, Islam also has the concept of heaven and hell. Islam uses the Arabic word ‘Jahannam’ for hell, which derives from the Hebrew Gehinnom in Judaism. Here too, hell is conceptualized as a boiling world on fire, full of torment and suffering. Islam is much harsher in its condemnation of the damned souls. God, in the Quran, declares that after the Day of Judgment, whoever does not believe in God or has disobeyed his laws or messengers will be condemned to the fires of Jahannam. Additionally, all those who are not believers of Islam are automatically sent to hell after their deaths. There are seven gates of Jahannam corresponding to the seven stages of punishment: Jahannam, Laza, Hutama, Sa’ir, Saqar, Jahim, and Hawiya. It is thought to be ruled by Iblis, who resides at the bottom of Jahannam and commands his army of infernal demons.

Hell in Literature

Hindu literature, especially law books like the smritis, and the Puranas, refer to the concept of Naraka, which is a similar place to hell. Naraka is a place of punishment instead of svarga, which is the abode of gods. According to the karmic and dharmic rules, it is believed that punishments are meted out to people in Naraka until their next reincarnation. The idea of hell has also been portrayed in various texts of Classical European literature. In his epic The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri charts the journey of Virgil through Inferno and Purgatory in Hell. Dante describes the geography of hell in vivid, elaborate detail. John Milton, in Paradise Lost, traces Satan’s rebellion against God and his later rule in hell. Like Dante, Milton paints a vivid picture of hell and Pandemonium, drawing from Christian mythology.

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