All Soul’s Day is fast upon us when the veil between dimensions stretches thin. Before you pop over to the other side for a cold brewski, you might want to consider which hell is the right one for you. Depictions of an afterlife, particularly one for naughty folk, have been part of religious beliefs from the beginning. After this word ends, any person who says the right prayers and acts according to the dictates of those in charge gets a fast-pass to the next. A common belief is the journey; good go up to the light, bad go down to a darker realm. No surprise there. Night was scary for our ancestors. With no understandings of modern science, demons in the dark were blamed for every bad thing that happened when the sun went down. Best stay indoors and huddle around the fire.
Greeks even had a special word katabasis, meaning descent or downward to describe a journey to Hades. For the Greeks, it wasn’t always a one-way trip; sometimes the road to Hell resembled a superhighway. Although a place of fiery desolation, Odysseus managed to drop in for a nice chat with his mom, Hercules went there to rescue Theseus, Theseus was only trapped there because the dope muffed an attempt to spring Persephone. For the Greeks, the trip to Hades could have an upside. There was always the chance of snagging some mystical device, or at the very least, coming back wiser and more insightful. A quest to Hell was often a part of the hero’s journey.
The version of Hell in Judaism can be summed up in one word: meh. Little mention is made in Judaic texts other than references to a place called Sheol that is dark and deep (naturally.) In general, there are no fixed notions of particular judgments or punishments. Another place in Judaic texts is Gehinnom, but again the views are mixed. Some scholars view it as a place of punishment and retribution, others more of a section of the afterlife set aside for introspection to review mistakes committed in life and then repent them. Don’t repent enough? Something bad is bound to happen, but details are murky.
In Christian mythos, heaven and hell are ethereal planes that can’t be reached or seen by the common folk until after death. They are always characterized as “up” or “down” in no uncertain terms as if AAA designed a TripTik. The route never detours; heaven is up, hell is down, and it’s definitely one-way. Christians had no doubts about punishment. They adopted earlier pagan beliefs that Hell was a place of burning and eternal punishment reserved for the wicked. The term ‘wicked’ has relaxed over the years. Many notions of Hell can be trace to the 14th century and Dante Alighieri’s epic poem. In the section of The Divine Comedy called The Inferno, Dante described nine circles of Hell; limbo, lust, gluttony, greed, anger, heresy, violence, fraud, and treachery. Today, being consigned to hell because you snagged the last piece of double fudge chocolate cake seems unduly harsh, but gluttony meant more to folks in the Renaissance. Scarfing down all the gruel first meant the rest of the household starved to death.
While not all religions have an actual Hell, the up/down movement of the soul after death is often present. In the case of Hinduism, it is an ascending/descending judgment. After death the best of the best rise up and are led by divine beings to the highest, immortal heaven of Brahman. Those who led virtuous lives, but haven’t quite reached the top tier can be reincarnated according to previous actions. You can come back (down) as a person and try to live a more virtuous life. Those that reveled in sinful ways don’t end up in Hell, but do descend to a lower life form, often one that lives underground such as an insect. Tibetan Buddhism has a similar outlook. After 49 days in a limbo-type place called Bardo the soul either ascends to enlightenment or, if the soul doesn’t make the cut, it’s back down to a rebirth on Earth to try again.
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