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The term "hell" is derived from the North Germanic hel, meaning the realm of the dead. It is a popular expression for the place of failure of those souls who do not reach the reward of heaven with God. It is commonly thought of as place of punishment and final state of alienation from God. Hell is a common name for the dwelling place of devils and damned souls. How one conceives of hell in one's mind is reflective of one's individual religious development. Young children, in their concrete thinking, are more likely to think of hell as a physical place with red goblins walking around a world made of fire. Other, more mature thinkers are more apt to see hell in terms of symbolic concepts in relation to and comparison with life on earth and in the kingdom of heaven. Of course, one's understanding of hell is dependent upon the religious and/or spiritual traditions by which one has been influenced.
Since the earliest writings from various faith traditions, hell has always been thought of as located underground and also known as the underworld. The idea of hell is related to but not identical with Hades in nonbiblical literature such as in Greek mythology. In the Jewish sacred writings, there is no clear and consistent idea of the fate of the dead. There is a notion of the underworld or Sheol. But this is not a place of suffering or punishment. It seems to be a place of shadowy existence having neither joy nor punishment. Here the dead neither thank nor praise God. There is no communication with God in the underworld (Isaiah 38:18 and Psalms 6:6). It is clear that no one can escape from the underworld.
Writers during the period between the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament and the Christian Scriptures, or New Testament, start to make a distinction between the fate of the good and that of the bad. Now the righteous enter into rest with God while the bad will live in pain. Now the idea of the underworld is not neutral but takes on the idea of a place of punishment for the wicked.
There is also the place of Gehenna, a real place which had been used as a site of cultic human sacrifices (see 2 Kings 23:10). This term, Gehenn,a is now thought of as a place of unquenchable fire and undying worms where the bodies of those who rebelled against God are on view (Isaiah 66:24). This prospect of eternal punishment now serves as motivation to strengthen people in their earthly suffering. A place of punishment is found very frequently in the apocalyptic literature and is given many details. This place of punishment is a place of darkness, eternal fire, chains, and a range of fitting punishments.
The New Testament uses the idea of Gehenna and adds to the concept. Gehenna is used many times in the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The Pauline writings, or letters, also mention the idea of eternal punishment but without all the details found elsewhere in the New Testament. For Paul there will be eternal destruction and banishment from the face of God. There will tribulation and much distress for those who do evil.
Jesus' own "descent into hell," which is mentioned in the Apostles' Creed, should be seen as the underworld of Sheol, rather than the place of fire. The words "he descended into hell" therefore simply mean that he died and that he remained dead, at least for a short time. This is also seen as the time Christ preached to all the souls who died before his coming in order that they could now believe in him and leave Sheol.
Over the centuries, Christian churches have seen a development of the concept of hell based on the principle of retributive justice. Just as any society developed its concept of outlaws tried, judged, and punished, so too with the afterlife. There had to be a place of eternal punishment.
The most elaborate account of the idea of hell can be seen in Dante's Divine Comedy. Here hell is made up of nine circles or layers. One needs to remember this is not official Christian teaching but a literature that reflected popular opinion of its day. For Dante, the deeper one descends into hell, the greater the degree of wickedness and the more intense the punishment.
Modern Christian theological insight holds out for the possibility of hell. If people spend a lifetime denying God's call to relationship and living in a community of believers, then after the point of physical death that individual would have the choice or freedom to experience God's forgiveness and be purified from selfishness to enjoy God's presence or not. One could continue to choose isolation and be removed from the community of believers. Thus, hell is not so much punishment but isolation.
For Muslims there is also a concept of hell. Hell is a place of torment where the damned undergo suffering most often described as fire. The physical sufferings of hell are the consequences which come from the denial of God and God's will. When Muslims mention hell in conversation, they set off the idea with invocations of God's protection, for themselves and their listener. For the mere thought of hell is frightening, and its appearance in speech is seen as a dreadful omen that needs a word of prayer.