Seven Hells: An Incomplete Survey of the Afterlife

The Last Judgment by Frederico Zuccaro and Giorgio Vasari (©Corbis)

What are we to make of Hell?

If language is the operating system for the human mind, then we might consider religion a data-management program we install to provide us a certain view of reality. But just as your latest Adobe install may tack on an undesired antivirus program, religion often comes paired with a problematic theology of Hell.

Scare tactics and supernatural revenge fantasies aside, what does it all really accomplish? What sort of faith vitally needs a nether realm of endless rape and torture?

In this article I'd like to look at seven different ways we've come to view Hell. This is by no means a full exploration of Hell theology, but rather a brief overview featuring terrifying works of art. For more, I recommend the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on the topic and Alice K. Turner's "The History of Hell."

In the end, I hope you'll ask yourself which of the following views works best in your mind -- or if Hell seems an outdated and barbaric belief all together.

Literal Hell
The Damned in Hell by Luca Signorelli. (©Corbis)

This is a great place to begin because it lines up with the pop-cultural, Western notion of Hell. We're talking never-ending physical and psychological torture in a world of flesh and fire. Demons will probably attend to your every torment and no matter how much you repent your evil life, there's absolutely no escape.

Like many versions of Hell, this one creates plot holes. If God is just and fair, then why would he/she create a place like this to begin with? Or, failing that, why would he/she allow it to exist?

You can also really go down the rabbit hole about the transitional nature of a given individual. Are you punishing old-man me? Little-boy me? I've been both of them, right? After awhile, aren't you just punishing the person I'm reduced to after extended torture?

Hey, at least it makes for great art.

Psychological Hell
Detail of The Gates of Hell by Auguste Rodin (©Corbis)

Instead of being physically tormented at the behest (or at least permission) of a sadistic God, this view takes a far more metaphorical approach to fire and brimstone. Roughly, the idea is that as creatures of God, we are naturally drawn to be a part of God. Hell is a state of permanent separation from out creator and so it's pure torment and longing. We realize how much we screwed up by not staying in better touch.

In other words, expect eternal withdrawals from a drug you didn't even realize you were hopelessly addicted to.

Mild Psychological Hell
Detail from American Street Scene by Irving Norman

This concept is much the same as the last, only it cuts more to the heart of human misery in the real world. We keep doing the things that make us miserable and while we consider quitting our vices and bettering ourselves, we never actually do it.

So in this version of Hell, the damned suffer the pain of separation from God, but in other ways they might even be enjoying themselves. Imagine the "fun" guy at the party who happens to be a complete, miserable bastard. That's the idea here. You can repent anytime and claim your seat in Heaven, but we all know you're never going to actually do it.

Self-inflicted Hell
Dante and Virgil Encounter Lucifer in Hell by Henry John Stock (©Corbis)

Freewill often plays a big role in theological discourse, so of course it pops up in arguments over the problems of Hell. This vision of the Inferno kind of amounts to a legal loophole by which God remains the good guy and not the architect (or at least the landlord) of eternal suffering.

Hell is endless, Hell is painful and there's no escape from it -- but, legally, you put yourself there by choosing the life you lived. This vision of Hell bleeds over rather easily into others, but it defines the afterlife as the final stage in the free-willed development of a psychic entity. We just happen to spend out formative years fully fleshed.

Temporary Hell
Altarpiece of the Holy Sepulcher: Descent Into Limbo (©Corbis)

Christian Universalists believe that God is all-loving, all-powerful and ultimately way too nice to let folks suffer in Hell for all eternity. Plus, you can throw in some metaphysics about how we're all sort of pieces of God and therefore inseparable from him/her in the long run.

But that doesn't mean evildoers are off the hook. There may not any ignum eternum on the menu, but there's still ignum enough to burn away your sins. Only then do you get to rejoin the divine in the afterlife.

So this Hell functions as a sort of cleansing purgatory.

Eastern Hell
Detail from the Ceiling Paintings of Kerta Gosa (©Corbis)

The Hells of Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto and other Asian myth cycles are rich and intoxicating. But in brief, let us remember that reincarnation involves far more than generic rebirth into humans or animals. The Wheel of Life includes a number of realms -- and they range from the Hellish Nakaras to the Heavenly domain of the Devas.

Some beliefs throw in additional subdivisions of torment in the afterlife, but the general idea is that every soul may pass through numerous Hellish, human, animal and divine lives before finally finding liberation from the endless cycle of rebirth. It's this escape, not Heaven, that serves as the ultimate goal.

In some variations, you'll encounter a sort of dead-end Hell, a place where the worst of the worst may end up with no hope of escape and rebirth to a better realm. In these cases, we're back to a self-inflicted vs. literal quandary. Are they locked away forever because they're so debased, or do the depths of their debasement prevent them from ascending?

I leave such questions to more enlightened souls.

Charon Caronte Fresco by Pedro Roviale (SuperStock/Getty)

You might well wonder why a merciful God wouldn't simply destroy a soul rather than plop it in some vile realm of torture, hate and madness? In asking such a question, you've wandered right into Annihilationism, the Christian theological notion that souls are not inherently immortal. This leaves God the freedom to grant immortality to the saved souls and to simply punch "delete" on all the rest.

So in this, Hell is either a process by which a human soul is destroyed or the instantaneous act of destroying it. It's rather the opposite of a universalist's temporary Hell, but still far more merciful than the old everlasting fire model.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.