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A place of suffering or punishment. Hell is commonly conceived of as a locality or a state encountered after death, and all religions have some forms of belief about such a state. In some religious traditions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, hell is understood as a temporary place of suffering, while in others, such as Christianity, it is regarded as a place of eternal punishment. In the latter case, many Christian theologians have wrestled with this belief in unending punishment due to its apparent inconsistency with the assumed infinite mercy of God. Such a view of hell has been questioned, for instance, by Origen and Gregory of Nyssa as early as the 3rd and 4th centuries CE.

Judeao-Christian Tradition. Beliefs about hell in the biblical tradition come from four words in the Old and New Testament that have been translated as “hell” in the King James Version: Sheol, Hades, Tartarus, and Gehenna.

(a) Sheol is the Hebrew word used in the Old Testament that means “grave” or the place of the dead. In fact, the King James Version translates the word sheol as “grave” or “pit” more often than it translates the word as “hell.” It is thus not a place of punishment. It may be said that the Old Testament does not have a concept of hell similar to the modern view of eternal damnation.

(b) Hades comes from the Greek word which refers also to the grave, and is not identical with the modern concept of hell. Thus modern translations such as the Revised Standard Version no longer use “hell” as the equivalent of Hades, but just retain the latter name untranslated. Hades is the equivalent of kama-loka in Hinduism, and the Amenti of the Egyptians.

(c) Tartarus, in Greek mythology, is the prison or place of punishment of the gods, particularly the Titans. It occurs only once in the New Testament, and refers to the place where angels may be cast (2 Pet 2:4).

(d) Gehenna, from Geh Hinnom, or “the valley of Hinnom,” is the place where the Jews burn wastes, brazen images, animal carcasses or unburied bodies of criminals, with fire that continuously burns. Used figuratively, it implies a place of torment or suffering. Thus among the four original words, this is the only one that hints of continuing suffering and punishment. The word occurs only in the Gospels and the epistle of James, but not in Paul or any other New Testament writings.

Islam. The word for hell in the Qur’an is Jahannam, which is but one of seven gates or levels of hell in Islam. Jahannam is the purgatorial hell that all Muslims will have to go through. Other levels are for those people of other religions, beliefs, or moral character.

Eastern religions. The concept of eternal punishment is not found in eastern religions in view of the idea of REINCARNATION, that is, the necessity of rebirth to face the consequences of the actions of previous lives. When once a person has transcended these personal actions that produce KARMA, then a person attains freedom or liberation.

In eastern religion and mythology, the nearest equivalents of abodes of suffering are kama-loka, patala, and naraka. These are concepts somewhat different from the idea of everlasting damnation of the soul through suffering. Kama-loka is the abode of the soul after death, and is not essentially a place of suffering. It is equivalent to Hades of the New Testament, the region of the dead. In the Hindu Puranas, Patala is the lowest or grossest of the seven nether worlds where wicked souls go after death. In Buddhism, AVICHI (lit. “waveless”) is the lowest of eight hells.

Other traditions also have similar concepts. Norse mythology has Nifelheim, also called Hel. The Greeks have Hades and Tartarus.

Purgatory. Related to the concept of hell is purgatory, which is a temporary place of suffering that purifies, or purges the soul of uncleanliness. The Catholic Church adds that the purification process is aided by the action of the living, called indulgences, or prayers for the departed. The origin of this belief is both traditional and biblical (for Catholics), while Protestants generally repudiate the view. The biblical verse often alluded to is 2 Maccabees 12:44-46: “Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin” (2 Mac 12:46). Another is a verse in revelation that states that “nothing unclean shall enter heaven” (Rev. 21:27). The first source, 2 Maccabees, however is not recognized in Protestantism, being a deuterocanonical book. The doctrine was promulgated by Catholic Church during the Councils of Florence (1438-9) and Trent (1545-1563).

Descent into Hell. The term “descent into hell” is found in Christian dogma when it states that Christ, after his death, descended into hell and rose from the dead on the third day. This descent is not original with Christianity. It is also found in the stories of Hercules, Theseus, Orpheus, Osiris, and Krishna. Helena P. BLAVATSKY writes that:\

Mystically, it typified the initiatory rites in the crypts of the temple, called the Underworld. Bacchus, Heracles, Orpheus, Asklepios and all the other visitors of the crypt, all descended into hell and ascended thence on the third day, for all were initiates and “Builders of the lower Temple.” . . . To speak, therefore, of anyone as having descended into Hades, was equivalent in antiquity to calling him a full Initiate. (CW XI:89-91)

Descent into Hades or underworld is then a requirement in initiation. This is apparently analogous to the story of Jonah when he was swallowed by the whale for three days.

Theosophical View. Theosophical literature, particularly the writings of H. P. Blavatsky, do not subscribe to the popular notion of hell and eternal punishment. Suffering is but the result of the law of karma. With certain qualifications, all human beings have the opportunity of compensating for past karma until they attain liberation from the cycle of rebirth. This liberation is the same as the concept of NIRVANA and moksha in Eastern tradition.

Theosophy affirms the existence of kama-loka and avichi as temporary states after death. In addition to this, theosophical literature speaks of the EIGHTH SPHERE, which is a globe in the solar system where souls that have lost their link with the inner ātman go. It is denser than the earth, and souls drawn into this sphere are dissipated into their elements. This is the abode of the “lost souls.”

Hell as a state of retributive suffering concerns the personal ego or the lower self, and not the true Self or atman. Thus in all the supposed states of suffering, whether kama-loka, patala or naraka, it is the personal ego that suffers and learns the lessons that eventually lead to its purification and harmony with the higher Self. Even with the Eighth Sphere, it is the middle principles of manas (mind) and kama (emotions) that are dissipated, and not the true spiritual Self.

Hell as an everlasting punishment therefore finds no place in theosophical philosophy. Any suffering is but the corresponding karmic consequence of previous action and hence has limited duration and intensity. These sorrowful consequences primarily occur while the person is conscious in a physical body. Thus Blavatsky states that:

The true Hell is life on Earth, as an effect of Karmic punishment following the preceding life during which the evil causes were produced. The Theosophist fears no hell but confidently expects rest and bliss during the interim between two incarnations, as a reward for all the unmerited suffering he has endured in an existence into which he was ushered by Karma. (CW 8:299)


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