History of religion

Who still believes in hell today?

(Published in Grail World 12/99)

Hell and the devil belong together in the common understanding. Who (like the majority today, including theologians) no longer believes in the devil, there will probably be no hell for him either. In issue 11, GrailWelt editor Siegfried HAGL investigated the question of whether the idea of an “adversary of God” *) is really just folklore; this time it's about the so-called "underworld". Because: who still believes in hell today ...?

Surprisingly, the belief in hell is much older than that in an adversary of God, in Lucifer the devil. The most diverse ancient peoples tell of the dead journey into the underworld: Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Persians, Indians, Etruscans, Greeks, Romans, Teutons, Africans, Indians ...

"... the descent to Avernus is easy,
Night and day the gate of gloomy Pluto is open,
But to redirect the step to the air of the sky
It is performance and burden ... "
Virgil (70-19 BC), Aeneid VI, 126

“All interpreting is of no use: The idea of eternal damnation, which had visibly developed in Judaism in the last two centuries before Christian ... has its firm place both in the teaching of Jesus ... as in the writings of the apostles ... In this respect, the dogma is on solid ground, if it speaks of the existence of hell ... and of the eternity of its punishments. "
Cardinal J. Ratzinger, 1977.

"Hell: Biblical word for the place of the eternal (cf. Mt 25:41). damnation (also Sheol or Gehenna); takes up the ideas of an underworld as it corresponded to the old oriental worldview. God doesn't want hell; man prepares it for himself when he consciously and explicitly rejects what God wants to give him.
From the Catholic Catechism "Outline of Faith", 2nd edition 1984.

Reports from the underworld

These ancient peoples tell of a dark, subterranean place. To get there, the secluded must cross a river, either with the help of a bridge or through the services of a ferryman. In the prehistoric times of civilizations, the idea presumably prevailed that all dead have the same whereabouts, and that the afterlife is equally gloomy and desolate for everyone. No special punishment for the "bad guys" or a reward for the "good guys" was taught. The fate of all departed was sad: They wander around like shadows and long for the light of the sun.

With the advancing cultural development, the ideas about life after death also became more differentiated. For example, in Egypt from the middle of the 3rd millennium BC. of a sophisticated picture of the “journey of the soul”, which is explained in ancient Egyptian tombs and in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The departed must give an account of his deeds in the hereafter - his heart is weighed. Bad people have to fear multiple torments from demonic monsters. One can assume that these Egyptian images of hell had a great influence on Jewish, Greek and Christian ideas.

An expanded idea of the afterlife emerged in Iran in the first millennium BC. Accordingly, at death the soul detaches itself from the body. She has the capacity to suffer and awareness. A sinful soul is cast down into hell. There they await all kinds of torments - depending on the severity of their transgressions - which, however, do not last forever, but serve to purify them so that they can be resurrected on the day of the Last Judgment. Then everything wrong, including hell, will be destroyed.

Hinduism and Buddhism connected such thoughts with the doctrine of reincarnation: According to his deeds, man on earth or in the hereafter must in the Relationships that he has acquired through his behavior. An incarnation on earth can be just as much a hell as staying in the dark levels of the underworld, which are imaginatively described.

Greek and Roman poets and philosophers also thought about hell.
Plato (427-347 B.C.) believed in an otherworldly judgment that sends condemned souls to Tartarus, but the noble to the "islands of the blessed." Plato thus helped shape traditional notions of hell.
Other philosophers such as Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) and Cicero (106-43 B.C.) rejected hell altogether.
Lucretius (97-55 B.C.) was a decidedly "modern" judge. He accused religions of having invented these tales of hell that fuel our fear, while "most often it was religion itself that produced despicable and criminal acts."
The best known is the description of the torments of Tartarus that Virgil (70-19 BC) gives in the Aeneid. But Virgil's hell is not eternal either. When the souls are purified, a stay in the Elysium awaits them, and a thousand years later, after having drunk oblivion from the River Lethe, they will be reborn in another body.

Jewish-early Christian ideas

In the last centuries before the Common Era, the idea of hell as an otherworldly place of punishment spread. Even the old Jewish culture was not spared from these currents. According to the Old Testament, the punishment of the wicked should take place either already during earth life, or only at a judgment “at the end of days” (Dan. 12,13).

During Christ's lifetime there were three important currents within Judaism:
* The Sadducees, to which influential aristocrats and priests belonged, knew neither a survival after death nor a resurrection.
* The Pharisee believed in a resurrection, judgment and punishment in the afterlife. According to Flavius Josephus, they even taught reincarnation:
“They believe that souls are immortal, that they will be judged, rewarded or punished in another world, depending on whether they were virtuous or vicious in this world. They believe that some will remain forever trapped in this other life and that others will return to this earth. "
* The third important group was the Essenesthat are not mentioned in the New Testament. John the Baptist is said to have been an Essenes, and Jesus probably had contacts with Essenes who were named after Flavius Josephus "Believe that souls are created to be immortal in pursuit of the good and to turn away from evil, that the good are made even better in this life by the hope of a bliss after death, and that the wicked who believe to be able to hide their bad deeds in this life, to be punished by eternal torment in the other world. "

Corresponding teachings can also be found in the New Testament, from which the later popular beliefs of hell and resurrection can be derived (e.g. in Mark. 9,43-48, Matth. 8,12 / 10,28 / 11,23 / 23, 15 / 25,46, Luk. 12,4 / 16,19-31, Joh. 15,6, Rev. 14,10 / 19,20 / 21.8 etc.).

Fear of damnation

As time progresses, the images of hell become clearer and more detailed.
In the first centuries after Christ, the church fathers begin to deal with hell, and the first reports of the "Christ's Descent into Hell" which greatly impressed early Christians.
In the 6th century the Church begins to formulate an official doctrine about hell, and from the 4th century hell appears even in Christian creeds. Even in our time, one can find in the Catholic Creed ("Descended into the realm of death") suspect the former conviction of Christ's descent into hell. The fear of hell becomes an essential drive for monks, believers and converts to believe in Jesus and to live according to his word. For example, the rule of the order of Benedict of Nursia (480-547) requires "To fear the day of judgment and tremble before hell".

Illustrations of the theological systems provide numerous visions that medieval people believed in their authenticity. Either the dead return from the afterlife and report on their experiences, or visionaries look at the dark levels of the damned. It is a long chain of such visions that certainly do not begin with the Egyptians, continue with the Greeks (Homer and Hesiod), the Romans (Virgil) and Dante's “Divine Comedy” and the visions of Theresa of Avila (1515-1582) reach into our time. (E.g. Garabandal, 1961).

This creates an increasingly sophisticated picture of hell, purgatory and damnation. Preachers seize these illustrations and frighten their devout listeners. Corresponding representations are piling up in the visual arts.

One can get the impression that it seemed to medieval clergymen that the best way to salvation was to instill in their hearers a panic fear of the punishments in the afterlife; and this "ecclesiastical middle age" extends far into modern times.
A prominent example of a modern horror preacher is provided by the "Curé of Ars" (Jean-Marie Vianney, 1786-1859), canonized in 1925, who struggled with the devil all his life and believed in damning most of humanity.

Islamic images of hell

Unlike the Bible, which is reluctant to give details about hell, the Koran goes into it in detail and specifically. It seems as if Mohammed resorted to the strongly developed hell mythology of the Near East and adopted Egyptian, Semitic, Jewish and Christian elements.

The result was a “popular hell” that is described so concretely that it doesn't seem too difficult to believe in it. Even if the richly pictorial language of the Koran leaves some things open, there is less speculation among Muslims about "Gehenna" than among Christians about "Hell".

Islam also has a Last Judgment. The souls are confronted with their register of sins, which is weighed on the scales of righteousness. Then they have to cross the Sirât bridge, thin as a hair and sharp as a sword, which stretches across hell. The wicked are thrust and fall by demons, while the elect, guided by angels, get across easily.

However, there is still room for speculation in Islam. As with Christians, the waiting period between death and the Last Judgment has raised questions. It does not seem certain whether the wicked - as most Muslims believe - are subjected to torments immediately after their death, which should, however, be less severe than the definitive infernal torments after the Last Judgment. It is also not clear whether hell - as with Christians - is eternal. Since Allah is all-good and merciful, in Islam even the damned may still hope.

The new time

For a millennium and a half, the existence of hell was hardly questioned in the West.
What the Church Fathers began to do in the first centuries after Christ - to develop a theology of hell - was continued by medieval scholastics.
From the 12th century onward, hell becomes fully integrated into Christian doctrine. No longer oscillating between folklore and theological speculation, it becomes - accepted by all classes - an indispensable pillar of the worldview. The doubters are rare, or declared heretics, like the Cathars, who denied the existence of hell**).
It was only in the modern era that the "infernal teachings" were seriously questioned. The churches had to allow themselves to be disrespectfully criticized and were ultimately forced to quietly abandon traditional doctrines.

Today, silence spreads over what was once a central theme of Christian preaching, and words like "purgatory," "hell," and "damnation" are deleted from official church pronouncements.
In the newer Catholic Catechism, the word "hell" just appears in a small-print note of five lines. The phrase "outside the church no salvation" still remains, but one wonders about its meaning in the age of ecumenism, when the pope visits a synagogue, Protestant baptism is recognized by the Catholic Church, and Christian and Buddhist monks meditate together. In any case, empty churches can no longer be filled with the "fear of hell.

*) See. “The devil, that's just folklore”. 
**) The Cathars allegedly denied hell on the following grounds: Since the world was created by Lucifer, it would be absurd to believe that he would have created a place of torment for himself and his helpers ... The Cathars therefore had a Gnostic view of the world, hence the visible one World was not created by the good God, but by his adversary, the Demiurge (= Lucifer?). However, little that is reliable is known of the Cathar religion.
(1) Flavius Josephus: "Antiquitates Judaicae," Book XVIII.
(2) Georges Minois: "Die Hölle," Diederichs, Munich, 1994.
(3) "Grundriss des Glaubens," Catholic Catechism, Kösel, Munich, 1980.