Dante and Virgil in Hell
Dante and Virgil in Hell by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) via Wikipedia

Hell is believed to be the abode of evil spirits, and a nasty place of temporary or eternal punishment for departed souls.

In Western religions, especially Christianity, hell is typically defined as the freely chosen absence of God’s presence.

Historically, most religions exhibit some conception of hell. Wikipedia suggests the following general distinction:

Religions with a linear divine history often depict hells as endless. Religions with a cyclic history often depict a hell as an intermediary period between incarnations

The ancient Hittites believed that unresolved violations and quarrels were carried over into a netherworld where the recently deceased would be tormented by a spirit until a settlement was reached, at which point the deceased would proceed to the land of the dead.

Judaism believes that the dead go to Sheol, a shadowy underworld outlined in the Old Testament (OT). This was followed by the OT notion of Gehenna, a place or punishment for wicked souls.

Christian theologians generally define hell as a deprivation of God’s presence, the horrific and eternal outcome of a conscious choice to follow one’s own will instead of God’s.

Islam posits a fiery hell called Jahannam, from the Judaic Gehenna, which may be permanent or temporary.

Seven Hells as depicted in Jain Cosmology. Pic...
Seven Hells as depicted in Jain Cosmology. Picture taken from 1613 CE cloth painting from Jain temple in Gujarat via Wikipedia

Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism portray multiple hells, varying in degrees of horror and misery. But, as indicated above, these hells aren’t permanent. They are temporary places of punishment and purification in a long journey involving reincarnation (or some variation of reincarnation).

Many traditional Christians regard this Hindu and Buddhist view of hell as a kind of cosmic ‘detention center’ as essentially misguided. Critics of reincarnation theory say that it gives seekers a presumptuous and, perhaps, reckless sense of overconfidence.

Because reincarnation theory indicates that hell is only temporary, its critics say that believers in reincarnation might do whatever they want and wrongly believe that it doesn’t matter, that they’ll still get to heaven anyway.

Some Christians, however, believe in the idea of universal salvation where even the most hardened sinners are eventually saved. This approach is much closer to the Hindu and Buddhist view.

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¹ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hell

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