The Origin of Hell
“HELL,” explains the New Catholic Encyclopedia, is the word “used to signify the place of the damned.” A Protestant encyclopedia defines hell as “the place of future punishment for the wicked.”a But belief in such a place of punishment after death is not limited to the main churches of Christendom. It originated many centuries before Christendom came into existence.
The Mesopotamian Hell
About 2,000 years before the birth of Jesus, the Sumerians and the Babylonians believed in an underworld that they called the Land of No Return. This ancient belief is reflected in the Sumerian and the Akkadian poems known as “The Epic of Gilgamesh” and the “Descent of Ishtar to the Underworld.” They describe this abode of the dead as a house of darkness, “the house which none leave who have entered it.”
As to the conditions prevailing there, an ancient Assyrian text states that “the nether world was filled with terror.” The Assyrian prince who was supposedly granted a view of this subterranean abode of the dead testified that his “legs trembled” at what he saw. Describing Nergal, the king of the underworld, he recorded: “With a fierce cry he shrieked at me wrathfully like a furious storm.”
Egyptian and Oriental Religions
The ancient Egyptians believed in the immortality of the soul, and they had their own concept of the afterworld. The New Encyclopædia Britannica states: “Egyptian funerary texts depict the way to the next world as beset by awful perils: fearsome monsters, lakes of fire, gates that cannot be passed except by the use of magical formulas, and a sinister ferryman whose evil intent must be thwarted by magic.”
The Indo-Iranian religions developed various beliefs on punishment after death. Concerning Hinduism, the French Encyclopædia Universalis (Universal Encyclopedia) states: “There are innumerable descriptions of the 21 hells imagined by the Hindus. Sinners are devoured by wild beasts and by snakes, laboriously roasted, sawed into parts, tormented by thirst and hunger, boiled in oil, or ground to powder in iron or stone vessels.”
Jainism and Buddhism both have their versions of hell, where impenitent sinners are tormented. Zoroastrianism, founded in Iran, or Persia, also has a hell—a cold, ill-smelling place where the souls of sinners are tormented.
Interestingly, it would appear that the torments of the Egyptian, Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, and Zoroastrian versions of hell are not everlasting. According to these religions, after a period of suffering, the souls of sinners move on to some other place or state, depending on the particular religion’s concept of human destiny. Their ideas of hell resemble Catholicism’s purgatory.
Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Hells
The ancient Greeks believed in the survival of a soul (psy·kheʹ, the word they also used for the butterfly). They called Hades the realm of the dead and believed it was ruled over by a god of the same name. In his book Orpheus—A General History of Religions, French scholar Salomon Reinach wrote of the Greeks: “A widely spread belief was that [the soul] entered the infernal regions after crossing the river Styx in the boat of the old ferryman Charon, who exacted as the fare an obolus [coin], which was placed in the mouth of the dead person. In the infernal regions it appeared before the three judges of the place . . . ; if condemned for its crimes, it had to suffer in Tartarus. . . . The Greeks even invented a Limbo, the abode of children who had died in infancy, and a Purgatory, where a certain mild chastisement purified souls.” According to The World Book Encyclopedia, souls that ended up in Tartarus “suffered eternal torment.”
In Italy the Etruscans, whose civilization preceded that of the Romans, also believed in punishment after death. The Dictionnaire des Religions (Dictionary of Religions) states: “The extreme care that the Etruscans took of their dead is explained by their conception of the nether regions. Like the Babylonians, they considered these to be places of torture and despair for the manes [spirits of the dead]. The only relief for them could come from propitiatory offerings made by their descendants.” Another reference work declares: “Etruscan tombs show scenes of horror that inspired Christian paintings of hell.”
The Romans adopted the Etruscan hell, calling it Orcus or Infernus. They also borrowed the Greek myths about Hades, the king of the underworld, calling him Orcus, or Pluto.
The Jews and the Hebrew Scriptures
What about the Jews before Jesus’ day? Concerning them, we read in the Encyclopædia Britannica (1970): “From the 5th century B.C. onward, the Jews were in close contact with the Persians and the Greeks, both of whom had well-developed ideas of the hereafter. . . . By the time of Christ, the Jews had acquired a belief that wicked souls would be punished after death in Gehenna.” However, the Encyclopædia Judaica states: “No suggestion of this later notion of Gehenna is to be found in Scripture.”
This latter statement is correct. There is no suggestion in the Hebrew Scriptures of a postmortem punishment for a soul in a fiery hell. This frightening doctrine goes back to the post-Flood religions of Babylonia, not to the Bible. Christendom’s doctrine of punishment in hell originated with the early Babylonians. The Catholic idea of remedial suffering in purgatory goes back to the early Egyptian and Oriental religions. Limbo was copied from Greek mythology. Prayers and offerings for the dead were practiced by the Etruscans.
But upon what basic supposition are these doctrines of conscious punishment after death based?
a M’Clintock and Strong’s Cyclopædia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, Volume 4, page 165.
[Picture on page 5]
Crossing the Styx as described in Dante’s “Inferno”
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