Different views of Hell

By Paulo Coelho

Since the devil does not do talk very much about himself, men look for all sorts of references about hell.

Most religions have what is called a “place for punishment” where the immortal soul goes after committing certain crimes against society (it all seems to be a matter of society rather than the individual). Each culture also develops its particular view about this land of suffering: it can be the other bank of a river, where a three-headed dog lets no-one leave, or else the foot of a mountain that smashes souls under its weight.

For the Greek hero Prometheus, who stole the fire of the gods and gave it to man, hell was remain hanging from a cliff where a bird came every day to eat his liver. In his play “No Exit,” Jean-Paul Sartre says that hell is other people. In one of his poems, Jorge Luis Borges offers a very interesting description of what awaits us after life: eternal contemplation of a face. For certain people this would be heaven, for this face would be that of someone we love, whereas for others it would be hell to have to remain there always looking at the face of someone they hurt for no reason.

There is an interesting description in an Arab book that says that the soul, once outside the body, should walk across a bridge as narrow as a razor’s blade, with heaven on the right and on the left a series of circles that lead to darkness inside the Earth. Before crossing over the bridge (the book does not explain where it leads to), each one has to carry their virtues in their right hand and their sins in their left – the balance will make us fall to the side determined by the acts we perform on Earth.

Christianity talks of a place where one hears crying and the gnashing of teeth. Judaism refers to an interior cave with enough room for a certain number of souls – one day hell will be filled up, and then the world will come to an end. Islam speaks of the fire where we shall all burn, “unless God wills the opposite.” The “Dictionary of Religions” says that at the time of Christ some currents of Judaic thinking held that evil souls would be punished after death in a place called Geena – a name borrowed from a place near Jerusalem that used to serve as the rubbish dump for neighbouring cities. However, in Geena there exists no idea of an eternal punishment, and the maximum penalty can never be more than 365 days.

For the Hindus, hell is never a place of perpetual torment, since they believe in reincarnation of the soul after a certain time in order that sins be redeemed in the same place where they are committed – this world. Even so, there are only 21 types of places for suffering, places usually known as “the lower lands.”

The Buddhists also distinguish between the various types of punishment that the soul can face: eight hells of fire and eight completely frozen, besides a kingdom where the condemned feel neither cold nor heat, only infinite hunger and thirst.

Nothing, however, compared to the gigantic variety conceived by the Chinese. Unlike the great majority of cultures that situate hell inside the Earth – generally because of the analogy between death, burial and decomposition – for the Chinese the souls of sinners go to a mountain called the Small Iron Fence, which is surrounded by another called the Great Fence. In the space between them there are eight large hells one on top of the other and each one controlling 16 small hells which in turn control ten million hells below them.

The Chinese also consider devils to be souls that have already fulfilled their punishment, experienced pain, and are now after vengeance, trying to inflict the newly-arrived with punishments that grow worse and worse.

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