Hell No, We Won’t Go!


Picture by Brandon Geurts
I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I can see the appeal of it, because I’m kind of afraid of no longer existing. I think it’s what’s going to happen, and I won’t care afterwards, but it bothers me on a visceral level. I recently did a Twitter poll on whether a bad afterlife or cessation of existence would be worse, and by far more people chose the former. But I’ve heard of several concepts for the world of the dead where it’s not really a reward or punishment, just incredibly dull and boring: the Jewish Sheol, the Greek Plains of Asphodel, the Norse Hel.

Was that supposed to be better than just no longer existing at all? And some concepts have people more or less going on with their day-to-day lives after death, only in a supernatural realm. The afterlife bringing eternal reward or punishment seems to be a later idea, but is very prominent in both modern religion and popular culture.

Jesus spoke of Hell as a place of constantly burning fire, going along with the rabbinical idea of Gehenna, named after a valley near Jerusalem associated with human sacrifice that is thought to have later become a garbage dump, and metaphorically where the dead are punished for their sins. Whether people are tormented in Hell forever or just until they die is somewhat ambiguous, though. The image of Hell that developed, thanks largely to Dante’s guided tour, takes a lot from the Greek Tartarus, which itself was thought of as a pit of monsters before it became a place of punishment for dead humans.

Most of these torments, or at least the famous ones, are more psychological than physical in nature, although there’s often still a physical component. Tantalus, for instance, wouldn’t have been so distraught at being denied food or drink if he no longer felt hunger or thirst.

Certainly, the association of Hell with fire and brimstone implies souls can still feel pain and discomfort, but I guess it could just be there as decoration. Regardless of how physical or literal it is, however, it’s always seen as really bad. Along those lines, I was thinking of stories about people being banned from Hell, usually by some personal slight toward Satan. At least, there’s the Stingy Jack legend, and a few others are mentioned here.

One of the most prominent appears to be the comic character Lobo, who caused so much chaos in both places to be barred from them.

I remember learning that Peer Gynt was banned from both, but he was going to be melted down into a button, which fits more with cessation of existence.

Of course, Satan having veto power doesn’t really fit with the depictions given by Dante or John Milton, but folklore tends to take these things a lot less seriously. An article I just read credits Charles Gounod’s 1859 opera version of Faust for a goofier image of the Devil, but I’m pretty sure stories of everyday people being able to trick Satan without a whole lot of trouble, as Stingy Jack does, predate that.

Would there be any reason why being in Hell would be preferable to either wandering forever or just no longer existing? Is it because you’d still have a home and a purpose, even though that purpose is being tortured? Because you can still think back on good times in life? Or would that just make it worse?

This entry was posted in Christianity, Comics, Fairy Tales, Greek Mythology, Humor, Judaism, Mythology, Norse, Philosophy, Religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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