History of Hell

It is time for another discussion of some idea. Today’s topic will be the afterlife realms, specifically focusing on Hell.

Christianity in its modern form was heavily influenced over the centuries by contact with other religious systems, ever changing from the views of the Early Church. The concept of Hell is one of these changes, and one that has made a major impact on how Christianity is perceived and exercised today.

Most cultures that have a well developed religion have some concept of what happens to the spirit after death. In the majority of cases, all of the dead go to the same place; in some cases the spirits might be divided in that location between the “good” and the “bad”. In rarer cases, the dead go to different locations depending on life actions.

Early Judaism had NO concept of Hell. It was not until contact with the Hellenistic cultures that a belief in the afterlife was developed. It is not even mentioned in the Hebrew bible until the Book of Daniel, written in 164 BCE. Even today, Judaism does not have a fully developed idea of the afterlife, and Hell is one of the items often cited by rabbis to say that Christianity is not an evolution of Judaism, but rather an entirely new religion.

If you were to peruse a bible from the first few centuries of Christianity, you will NEVER find the word Hell in it. You would find the Greek words Hades or Tartarus, or the Hebrew word Gehenna. The extreme emphasis placed on eternal suffering in everlasting torment would have seemed very odd to the Early Church, whose ideas revolved around the message of hope delivered by Jesus, and a preoccupation with helping their brethren and fellow mankind.

So where did Hell come from? Hel was the name of the Norse goddess who ruled over the land of the dead, also named Hel. Modern scholars often call this place Helheim now to differentiate the two. Hel was simply the place that the dead went to who did not get to go to Valhalla or Folkvangr. It was not seen as a land of torment.

At the same time, the idea of an epic struggle between God and the Devil was a corruption of the idea of Ragnarok, a period of future events full of natural disasters, ending in a great battle, after which the peaceful gods will rule and the world will be repopulated by two human survivors; thus starting the cycle over again. The Book of Revelations was not officially added to bible for 400 years, and the earliest versions even excluded it from the Apocrypha. The Early Christians would have laughed at the idea of such an struggle, saying that God would have simply swatted the Devil, and that would have been it.

Like much of modern Christianity, such as Easter, Christmas, the locations of churches over ancient temples, etc., Hell is another adaption of the old into the new.


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