Hell is here on Earth. Just casual attention to current events and the terror of history tends to support that notion. The concept also factored into a rather memorable episode of This American Life titled "Heretics," in which Reverend Carlton Pearson renounced the notion of Hell all together. Because Hell is here.
It's also the stuff of late-antiquity Gnosticism. First, imagine an ideal universe ruled by an all-powerful creator deity -- and don't get too attached to that universe because that's not the one we get to live in.
Because next imagine an angelic being named Sophia. In admiration of the all-mighty creator deity, she attempts to imitate its creation -- and things don't go all that well. Instead she brings into being a a lesser, flawed deity and a second, imperfect material universe. And yes, this would be the universe we occupy: where a flawed god that thinks itself absolute rules over a a flawed world.
And so in this world view we live in a Hellish mockery of what the universe should be. But since Sophia, the mother of this foolish shadow god, is made of purer stuff, there's still something of the first, ideal universe in all of us. And so Sophia works through the guise of various female reincarnations throughout time to establish a secret knowledge or gnosis that will allow a certain few of us to eventually escape this Hell and rise up to the primary universe from which we're descended.
It all makes for a rather inventive work-around for the theological Problem of Hell and the Problem of Evil:
Q: How can a just god permit Hell to exist? A: Because the Demiurge is not a just god, only its twisted shadow.
Q: Why do bad things happen to good people? A: Because this ride is out of order. And always has been.
Robert Lamb is a senior writer and podcaster at HowStuffWorks, where he co-hosts Stuff to Blow Your Mind with Julie Douglas. He has a love for monsters, an aversion to slugs and a hankering for electronic music.