Wednesday, October 31, 2012


“In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself within a dark woods where the straight way was lost.” (The Divine Comedy - Inferno, Dante Alighieri c. 1308-1321)

            The word Halloween has its roots in Old English. First used in the 16th century, it denotes the eve before All Saints Day, a day when "all Saints" were venerated and honoured. Halloween itself evolved from pagan influences but "the etymology of the word is Christian." It is primarily believed to have been derived from the Celtic Samhain (Hallowmas), a Gaelic harvest festival dating back as far as the 9th and 10th century and held each year on October 31st and November 1st.  In the Christian tradition, it was believed that each year the "souls of the departed" walk the earth from death until All Saints' Day, on November 1st, when they finally reach their fate. All Hallows' Eve was the "last chance for the dead to gain vengeance on their enemies before moving onto the next world." Christians would dress up, donning masks and costumes, in an attempt to hide from these vindictive spirits.
            When I was involved with the Pentecostal Church, it was not the 'real' Christians who wore costumes on Halloween, but ignorant heathens who, whether they knew it or not, were paying homage to evil and the devil by doing so. Claiming superstition was a tool of Satan, this church (as I knew it) cast out these unclean spirits and forbade the congregation to participate in anything relating to, what my pastor called, "Helloween." At seventeen years of age, I did not miss the irony. I became more than a little curious when this righteous conviction was expressed and so I asked Reverend Hickey what the implication in this change of wording was. He explained to me that any soul bound to this earthly realm was inevitably cast into hell. Only the pious and "saved" would journey to heaven immediately upon their death. Therefore, any such representation on any person (including children), and anyone who practices this cultural worship of the devil which society calls Halloween, most certainly risks, in the end, being tossed by God into the pit and the hellfire "reserved for Satan and his minions." I had no idea when I was eight years old that I was allowing evil spirits to corrupt me through my Kato costume (Green Hornet's sidekick), increasing my chances of being sent straight to hell. I wonder had I died on that Helloween night if I would have been allowed to take my candy with me?
            Even I knew, in my limited mind, that Reverend Hickey's doctrine was not scriptural, but rather it too was cultural in its nature. He had taught in sermon himself that the dead only rise at the Last Trumpet and then face the Judgment. He had preached that in the end we all, coincidentally, will be then separated by costume, either as sheep or goats. The sheep, like lambs of God, go to heaven while the goats, with horns like the devils, go to hell. This apparent contradiction, made by this 'man of God', opened my eyes, acting like a pinnacle between the God I knew then and the hell which had suddenly started to flicker its fire at my heels. The more I questioned, the higher went the heat. I knew from my good Christian training all the talk about hell, but I never imagined the God I knew would actually create such a place, let alone send someone He professed to love to it, forever. I suppose noting my minister's conflict in ideology was a beginning for me, a pitchfork in the road, to hell if I would follow, leading to the depths of it.
            Growing up in the United Church of Canada, I just assumed that since Moses never bothered to mention hell, and neither did any of my minsters, then it must be irrelevant. Something must explain away why Jesus referred to it several times. From Milton's Paradise Lost to Dante's Divine Comedy, all the way to Rice's Memnoch the Devil or the Book of Revelation, were these literary tales not true fiction but instead a reality I had been taught to ignore? Coming face to face with this realism not only scared the hell out of me, it sent me on a journey to discover the truth about that hell. Why would a benevolent God need such a place? What about unconditional love? Was mankind's fate simply a consequence of the battle between the sons of light and the sons of darkness (good and evil)? Could I find the answers in its history, in its evolution, and in its expression or would I just end up barbecue?

“Hope not ever to see Heaven. I have come to lead you to the other shore;
into eternal darkness; into fire and into ice.”
(Inferno, Dante Alighieri)


            Throughout the history of religion, the construct called hell has evolved and changed. This tends to be reflected by the culture in which each of these developments occurred. The nature of hell, the victims of this judgment, and even the standards of admission, have all shifted and morphed over the last few millennia. Each religious tradition seems to have its own vision of the ghastly place. In Buddhist cosmology, Naraka (hell) is a place of great suffering, but not as the consequence of divine judgment, nor does it denote eternal punishment. While the Islamic understanding of hell tends to follow the Christian lead, the Qur'an reveals variations not well known in western culture. The gate(s) of hell stand defended by Maalik, an angel assigned to lead the guards of hell, known as Zabaaniyah. The Islamic hell differentiates between one level of torment and another, including Zamhareer: "the Hell of extreme coldness, of unbearable blizzards, ice, and snow."
            Most religious traditions define hell as "a place of suffering in the afterlife." Usually located beneath the Earth's outer crust, the origins of hell are as varied as its representation found in art, literature and modern media. Early Christianity seems to have been influenced by Greco-Roman thought as only "a very, very few righteous and favoured souls came to a pleasant afterlife." The rest of mankind lingered forever in "a nondescript, shadowy, relatively unpleasant afterlife." It is apparent from the lack of writings by early Christians regarding hell that they "appear not to have taken these [ideas] as literally as many do today."
            It goes without saying that the greatest influences on any theology of hell lie within the pages of the Bible. In the Old Testament, the word sheol, “the House of Dust and Darkness", is the only word which suggests anything resembling a hell. It is here that all the dead gather. Every soul, without distinction, was imprisoned in this virulent place, "where souls were left to dine only on dust and live in an unrelenting haze of ash." To the Hebrew, life was most important and anything conceptual after that was ambiguous and undeveloped. There was "a presumption of life after death," and little more. For the Old Testament writers, sheol represents "the state of the dead, the invisible world, without regard to their goodness or badness, their happiness or misery."
            The Old Testament reveals that sheol is that "place or state of the dead." Within its pages, there is no reference point for any modern doctrine of hell. There is no threat of endless punishment and "it is not revealed in the Law of Moses." Besides having to read through the book of Numbers, there is no hell anywhere in the Old Testament. When the Septuagint (Judaic scriptures translated into Greek) was completed in 132 BCE, the word sheol was rendered hades. For the early members of Christianity, "the two words were taken to mean the same thing, or at least, something close."

“Abandon hope, all ye who enter here."
(Inferno, Dante Alighieri)


            When Christianity began to expand westward around the 5th century, out of Western Europe came The Gospel of Nicodemus. Written in Latin, this medieval vision of hell shaped the consciousness of Christians exposed to its "grand early advanced vision of Hell." Of course, it found its diabolical roots in the New Testament.  Most Judeo-Christian literature and art, created post-resurrection, was inspired using scripture as a muse. Ideas on hell and damnation, based entirely on the New Testament, influenced not only theocratic but also cultural institutions, turning what was once a place of shade into a pit of brimstone, everlasting torture and hellfire. The modern mindset regarding such a hellish place is heavily influenced by this incorporation of scripturally-based expressions found in such works as Dante's Divine Comedy and Goethe's Faust.  
            The word translated as 'hell' in scripture, literally means "the grave." Only twelve of fifty-four times that the word 'hell' appears in scripture does the original mean "a place of burning." In the New Testament, there are three words translated as hell from the original Greek to English. Gehenna (γε‘εννα) refers to the "Valley of Hinnon", which was a garbage dump outside of Jerusalem. Hades ('αδης) is the Greek god of the underworld, as well as his place of residence. Tartaros (ταρταρος ) is part of hades, reserved for "those few dead who especially offended the gods during life."  In Tartaros, the damned are sentenced to eternal torment.
            Gehenna was a nasty place. Because the city used it for garbage disposal there was constant fire and consumption. "Profane sacrificial practices" had left Gehenna with a bad reputation. The people "held the place in such abomination that they cast into it all kinds of filth, and the carcasses of beasts, and the unburied bodies of criminals who had been executed." Anyone who was considered to have died in their sin, including those "without hope of salvation" (those who commit suicide), met this fiery end.  In the New Testament, Gehenna is often used "as a metaphor for the final place of punishment for the wicked after the resurrection." It is a literal reference and a descriptive, meant to cast fear and horror. It is the most common word for hell in the New Testament.
            While the god of the underworld and his domain are based in Classic Greek Mythology, the word Hades also had diverse meaning in Hellenistic literature. It was considered "a grave or tomb; the domain of the dead; the dead, collectively (e.g. one's ancestors or forefathers); or what it had originally meant, the place where dead spirits end up after dying." In the New Testament, the word hades means "a grave" or "dead end." Metaphorically speaking, it is also used to refer to "destruction"(Luke 10:15). As mentioned, early Christians, like literate Jews from the same period, used the Greek hades in translation of the Hebrew sheol. Only in the Story of Lazarus and Dives (Luke 16:19-31) was hades depicted as a place of agony.  Some would argue that "this parable reflects the intertestamental Jewish view of hades (or sheol) as containing separate divisions for the wicked and righteous." Eventually, everyone will end up in hell.
            Tartaros appears only once in the New Testament. Like Gehenna, Tartaros conjured up notions of eternal suffering (2 Peter 2:4).  It was considered "a deep, gloomy place, a pit, or an abyss used as a dungeon of torment and suffering that resides beneath the underworld." Around 400 BCE, Plato wrote about the judgment of the soul, and he believed that any resulting punishment involved being sent to Tartaros. The New Testament, however, does not use the word to denote human souls being sent there. It appears to be used in parallel with the word found in 1 Enoch, where 200 fallen angels are held. The writer of 2 Peter warns "God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell [Tartaros], putting them in chains of darkness [gloomy dungeons] to be held for judgment" (New International Version).

“And when he had put his hand on mine with a cheerful look, wherefrom I took courage, he brought me within to the secret things. Here sighs, laments, and deep wailings were resounding through the starless air; wherefore at first I wept thereat. Strange tongues, horrible utterances, words of woe, accents of anger, voices high and faint, and sounds of hands with them, were making a tumult which whirls always in that air forever dark, like the sand when the whirlwind breathes.” (Inferno, Dante Alighieri)


              Hell is the condition of separation from God. The symbolic language used in the Bible does not refer to an actual place, but rather it is a person's "state of being," a suffering brought by this deprivation from the Holy. Any modern misunderstanding of its meaning is to misconstrue the true nature of God and His relationship with mankind. If God keeps sinners in eternal fires, living forever in unending torment, then the promises He makes within scripture would remain uncompleted. Evil would prevail. The sacrifice of Jesus would be for nothing and the "new heaven and a new earth" (Revelation 21:1) anticipated by His followers would be for naught. Rather than ridding the world of sin, He would perpetuate it. It is clear, the Kingdom come will be a place without agony and sadness, where "there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4). Hell has no power, no sting.    
            In the Book of Romans (6:23), Paul reveals the "the wages of sin is death," not eternal punishment in some fiery hell-place. According to Jesus, hellfire isn't even meant for human beings, but it is "prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matthew 25:41). When a person wastes their life in sin, Jesus casts them to the garbage pit. (Mark 9:43-44). The Book of Acts contains almost 30 years of apostolic observation, starting with the Ascension. Somehow, within the text, there is no mention of hell (Gehenna). All those years of evangelising yet, "these men of God, addressing people of all characters and nations, never, under any circumstances, threaten them with the torments of Gehenna, or allude to it in the most distant manner." Then again, why would someone warn you of something when it is not relevant? If Hell is "part of divine revelation" why was this not divulged to the Gentiles and the Jews targeted for salvation in the pages of Acts?
            In the Old Testament, sin equals death. In the Book of Ezekiel (18:4), "the one who sins is the one who will die" (NIV). The dead will be "ashes under the soles" (Malachi 4:1-3) of those who are righteous and redeemed by their God. We are told in the Book of Psalms that in "a little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found" (37:10). From the beginning, in the Garden of Eden, God instructs Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If they do, they will "surely die" (Genesis 2:17). When the devil (serpent) tells Eve, “you will not surely die” (Genesis 3:4), implying life after death, he seems to, if we believe in a place of eternal punishment for wrongdoers, make God into a liar. If there is such a thing as the devil, did he make hell through nothing more than his lies?

"On every hand I saw a great plain of woe and cruel torment. Bitter tombs were scattered with flame made to glow all over, hotter than iron need be for any craft. And such dire laments issued forth as come only from those who are truly wretched, suffering and forever lost!” (Inferno, Dante Alighieri)

             The view of hell has been greatly altered and modified with the passage of time. From the days of early Christianity to modern day, it has undergone a distinct and somewhat unique metamorphosis. A few thousand years of additions here, and a few more tweaks there, and an idea such as "the grave" has been transformed, corrupted by ignorance and theory into a punishment through divine judgment and a pit of torture and fire. Like the concept of Halloween, the original idea has shifted and evolved through cultural influence, scriptural interpretation and developments in science and technology. From the beginning, man was only guessing, reaching for understanding in a world quite harsh and unforgiving. These ethereal superstitions and approximations evolved not through some form of divine revelation but through human fear and translation.
            Each religious tradition has developed their own diverse ideas regarding Hell. Each sect of Christianity, from forms of Catholicism to splinter groups in Protestantism, has conjured up their own picture of this place of hellfire. Literalists seize the idea of "conditional immortality," where "the soul dies with the body and does not live again until the resurrection," while "annihilationists" believe that "the soul is mortal unless granted eternal life, making it possible to be destroyed in Hell." Both interpretations are scripturally based, but speculation appears to have shaped these doctrines. The result seems to validate any misunderstanding regarding God's character and any of the superstitions that always seem to come from religion. These are not the only ones.
            Jehovah's Witnesses believe that the soul perishes when a person dies and that hell is "a state of non-existence." Unitarian-Universalists believe that "all human souls (and even demons) will be eventually reconciled with God and admitted to Heaven." This "universal reconciliation" is the based on the teachings of Origen Adamantius (184/185 – 253/254), an early Church Father. Swedenborgianism claims that "hell exists because evil people want it to. Mankind, not God, introduced evil to the human race." Even popular culture has shaped our misunderstanding of this question, as with television, music and especially video games and the computer. Classical art may have added to our confusion but modern technology and the Internet Age have pretty much killed the devil, turning hell into a literary villain's headquarters or an obsolete idea whose time has gone. Some even believe that this reality is hell, the place of tribulation and suffering here on earth. Unfortunately, for most, hell is still a place of doom for the sinner and the unbeliever, including all the kids collecting candy on Helloween night.
            It seems we spend our lives in descent. We forget that actual history has changed the way we see things down below us. The same place an early Christian might have imagined hell to be holds little in common with what a modern Christian understands as hell. As human beings we have developed and so too have our insights and ideas. The last two thousand years have manipulated hell from an ambiguous universal resolve to a torrent of condemnation and suffering. Karl Marx observed that "religion is the opium of the people." For me, hell is a control mechanism for the ignorant. When institutions of God start using the truth instead of fear then we will have truly evolved for the Kingdom. The truth is out there. The truth is we just don't know anything concrete about this place of the damned, no more than we do about heaven. If we continue to disregard the notion that the modern meaning of hell does not match the original, then hell will continue to be found in translation.

 “The path to paradise begins in hell.”
(Inferno, Dante Alighieri)



The History of Hell
Alice K. Turner, 2001
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt publishing