A Brief History Of Heaven & Hell

March 4, 2020 Category: Religion

“I don’t believe in an afterlife. So I don’t have to spend my whole life fearing hell, or fearing heaven even more. For whatever the tortures of hell, I think the boredom of heaven would be even worse.”
–Isaac Asimov

Two Ultimate Destinations?

Much of what we make of heaven and hell exists in our own minds.  As Milton famously put it in his anti-monarchical parable, “Paradise Lost” (c. 1666): “The mind is its own universe, and in itself can make a heaven of hell; a hell of heaven.”

Lurking in each of us are both angels and demons.  Alexander Solzhenitsyn noted this when he said that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”  Herman Hesse addressed these antagonistic aspects of the soul–struggling with one another for primacy–in “Steppenwolf”.  The same theme was used by Goethe in “Faust” and by Dostoyevski in “Crime and Punishment”.  Such thinkers recognized that there are the powers of heaven and hell within every one of us.  Even as the branches of a great tree stretch up toward the beautiful sky above, its roots reach down toward the dark netherworld below.

It is also worth noting that each human life is a mixture of heaven and hell…which is simply to say: some combination of serendipity and tragedy, eudaemonia and malady, rapture and suffering, euphoria and melancholia, miracle and tribulation, bliss and despair…and everything in between.

But enough of languishing and flourishing in THIS life.  What of these mythical places, which purportedly exist in a hypothetical hereafter?  What determines our fate?  What are we to think of good fortune vs. bad fortune?  Do we have a destiny?  Is it within our control to choose it?

Heaven and hell present a stark dichotomy.  As pragmatic creatures, these two beguiling archetypes constitute the ultimate cosmic carrot and stick.  As meaning-making machines, they afford us way to get our bearings, and stave off existential vertigo.  They are reference points that help orient us in (what is otherwise) a bewildering world.

So it should come as no surprise that they make prominent appearances in most theological musings.  The trick–it seems–is to play on people’s anxieties while keeping their hopes up.  In other words: Engender a chronic trepidation about dire consequences while fueling an eager anticipation of a glorious comeuppance.  After all, everyone fancies a day of reckoning–some point in the not-too-distant future when EVERYONE–finally, at long last–gets what’s coming to them.

Just deserts will make it all worthwhile in the end.  And the cosmic impresario will ensure this occurs.

Manipulating people by fear (that is: engineering neurosis) and/or false hope can be quite effective.  So using both–in concert–can’t help but yield an extremely potent cocktail of motivation.  This pre-packaged weltanschauung imbues the lives of the common-folk with a sense of purpose / direction (which is simply to say: it gives their lives meaning).  Heaven provides an enticing hereafter to die (and even kill) for…furnished, as it is, with a smorgasbord of inducements: a romp with bodacious virgins, a sumptuous feast, all the milk and honey one could ever want, a chance to see grandma again, etc.  Once people are convinced of such things, they will hew to the daffiest of guidelines in anticipation of some sort of fantastic pay-off…whether during “this” life or in the “next”.

Thus heaven and hell constitute a stupendously effective incentivize structure.  For people are both running away from one thing AND running toward another.  Why?  Because the former is horrible and the latter is wonderful.  Hence: In the theological repertoire of most cultures, we encounter the prospect of heaven and hell as prospective destinations…in a pending hereafter.  Such a binary cosmogony serves as the quintessential template for those who seek to control people en mass.

Over the ages, rulers have learned a simple lesson: Get people to believe such drastic consequences, and they’ll be putty in your hands.  Offer your audience the prospects of some other-worldly paradise (and a way to evade damnation), and you can get them to do LITERALLY ANYTHING–even kill themselves.

We all like to think that the righteous will eventually be rewarded for their laudable conduct and the un-righteous will eventually be punished for their iniquity; so the appeal of being judged at the end of life (and sent to an appropriate place in an after-death “life”) holds tremendous appeal.  The theme is ubiquitous, and has played a role in cosmologies since time immemorial.

Demagogues ALWAYS make the same promise: Everyone will eventually get what’s coming to them.  Just do as I say, and everything will turn out for the best.  The routine is a familiar one: Convince everyone that they are in a dire existential predicament, then offer a way out.  Putting a longed-for utopia at the end of the path is a nice, added touch.  Just make sure nobody can verify that it actually exists.

The ancient Egyptians understood this, the ancient Persians understood this, the ancient Greeks understood this, the Romans understood this, the early Catholic clerics understood this, and the immediate successors (caliphs) to Mohammed of Mecca understood this too.  They ALL employed the same gimmick: a provocative cosmology–conveyed via a compelling narrative.

Simply fashion the conditions for alternate afterlife destinations, insert them into a compelling narrative, and people will be putty in your hands.

With their eyes on the prize in the hereafter, people will earnestly participate in the game.  For, insofar as our time in THIS world (i.e. the world) is treated as a test, THIS life (i.e. LIFE) is nothing more than a staging area.  We’re “on deck”, as it were, for the REAL SHOW…which will begin just after our heart stops beating and all brain activity ceases.

What are the rules of the game?  Each religion has its own rules; but the basic idea is always the same: curry favor with a cosmic game-master to earn reward and evade punishment.  If he is pleased, he will grant you admission into a very good place.  If he is displeased, though, he will consign you to a very bad place.  Everything one does is to placate a master that yearns for validation even as he is eager for retribution. 

WHO IS this master?  Well, that depends.  In the Torah and Koran, he is–essentially–a petulant child with superpowers.  In the Gospels and Pauline letters, he is a magnanimous super-being that merely wants to be acknowledged by his subjects (though he is quick to condemn when not appeased).

The Koran is especially clear on this matter.  People who are consigned to perdition (i.e. non-Muslims) are referred to as those on god’s “left hand” (56:9/41, 69:25, and 90:19); while those who have secured admission to heaven are on god’s “right hand”. {23}  The records for the damned are kept in “sijjeen” (per 83:7); while the list of the “good” people is kept in “illiyyun” (per 83:18).  In other words, there is a cosmic “naughty and nice” list–kept by the Abrahamic deity–to keep track of who’s going to go where.  68:16 also tells us that god will keep track of the condemned by branding them on the nose. {24}

In any case, everything one does in life is to mollify a temperamental deity who is determined to either reward or punish creatures of his own creation…according to a scheme he laid out for them.  Life, then, is all about currying favor with this commandant-in-the-sky.  Doing good is to secure one’s place in an afterlife paradise…and thus avoid perdition.

The upshot of this, of course, is self-absorption at best (as everyone is trying to save their own hide); a rational to persecute others at worst (as everyone feels obliged to “do god’t work” here on Earth).

But shall we really believe that the fundamental architecture of the cosmos is dualistic?  Throughout history, there has been a consistent penchant for this Manichean worldview: all things conceived in terms of salvation vs. damnation.  The ancient Egyptians posited their own version of these divergent destinations: “Aaru” (the sun-shiny field of reeds) and “Duat” (the dreary underworld) respectively.  Judgement of souls was typically done by the ruler of the underworld–as with the Sumerian “Eresh-ki-gal”.  In ancient Egypt, the task of judging the “ka” [soul] was handled by “Osiris”, a process presided over by Anubis, according to the principle of “Maat”: the Justice / Harmony of the Natural Order.

For the ancient Greeks, the destinations were the serene “Elysium” (Elysian Fields) and the horrific cavern of the damned: “Tartaros”.  (Meanwhile, the most exalted souls would be ushered onto the “Isles of the Blessed”.)  For the ancient Norse, the destinations were the Edenic “Folk-vang[r]” (Freyja’s meadow) and the dark, frigid netherworld of myst: “Nifl-heim[r]”. {11}

Zoroastrianism uses another idiom for the two possible destinations in the afterlife: the House of Song (signifying the state of harmony achieved by good souls) and the House of Lies (signifying the state of discordance of bad souls).  Manichaeism would later adopt the Realm of Light vs. Realm of Darkness motif–replete with both its Syriac and Pahlavi vernacular.

Meanwhile, a limbo is often posited.  Indeed, the venue for the afterlife was not necessarily good or bad (neither reward nor punishment); it was just the neutral place that the souls of ALL people ended up after death.  The Egyptian version was the aforementioned underworld known as “Duat”.  A dozen other notable examples:

  • The Sumerian (then Akkadian; Assyrian / Babylonian) version was an underworld known as “Ir-kallu” / “Ir-Kalla” [“Great Below”] (alternately “Arallu” / “Arali”).
  • The Greek version was an underworld known as “Hades” (alternately the “Asphodel Meadows”).
  • The Vedic version was “Antara-bhava”.
  • The later Hindu version was “Patala[m]”; with a hall of judgement known as “Kalichi”.
  • The Chinese version was “Di-yu”.
  • The Tibetan version was “Bardo”.
  • The Zoroastrian (Persian) version was a celestial trestle known as the “Chinvat Bridge”.
  • The Judaic version was an underworld known as “Sheol”.
  • The Roman Catholic version was “Purgatorium”
  • The Shinto (Japanese) version was “Kakuriyo”.
  • The Inuit version was “Adlivun”.
  • And the Islamic version is “Araf” (replete with a barrier: “Barzakh”).

In each case, a netherworld serves as a holding-place for the dead.  It is a place that is neither Edenic nor hellish; as the conjectured destination had neither positive nor negative connotations.  It simply answered the pressing question: What happens to us after we die?

Once one posits an eternal soul that exists independently of the brain, the question naturally arises: Where does it go in the advent of corporeal death?  This leads to further queries (nay, quandaries): Are there consequences in the hereafter for how one conducts oneself during one’s “worldly” life?

Some explanations are more appealing than others.  We all long for JUSTICE…not just for ourselves, but for EVERYONE.  And an impending “Judgement Day” ensures a final settling of accounts.  It is the day of reckoning that we all hope will eventually occur.  But a day of reckoning is pointless without consequences AFTERWARD.  A moment-of-truth is gratifying only if there are repercussions for the winners and losers (as they are dubbed in the Koran).  Believing such a moment-of-truth is eventually coming–FOR EVERYONE–provides consolation for those of us who find ourselves exasperated by a flagrantly unjust world.

But a NEUTRAL place is not useful when it comes to inducements and deterrents (i.e. ways to CONTROL people).  If people are to be moved, there must be CLEAR CONSEQUENCES.  So when the Sumerians fancied the possibility of an afterlife paradise to which the worthy could go…IF they played their cards right…there had to be an alternative. Hence “Kur[nugia]”: a dark netherworld to which the souls of the unworthy were banished after death (latter rendered “Ganzer” / “Ganzir” in Akkadian / Assyrian).  Life, then, was about clamoring for admission into a desirable afterlife, thereby avoiding a dire fate in an awful place.

When we think about things in terms of incentives, we think of carrots and sticks.  When we think about just deserts, we think of reward and punishment.  Map this to cosmogony, and we have their ultimate instantiation: heaven and hell.  Those of the Christian and Islamic traditions were not especially creative with their portrayals of these two alternate destinations in the afterlife.  As Carl Sagan noted, for those in the West, “heaven is placid and fluffy; and hell is like the inside of a volcano.”  As we’ll see, the high-octane anthropomorphism underlying such superannuated concoctions betrays the puerility of the simple minds that devised them.

The Koran’s florid description of “Jannah” and its lurid description of “Jahannam” is so hokey as to be comic.  Such maudlin depictions were intended for those of a primitive era.  But the narrative was COMPELLING, so it worked.

Life, then, was about ensuring a course to one of two possible destinations in an alleged life after death.  This binary eschatology makes no sense when we consider that good-ness–whether conceived as probity or as piety–exists on a vast spectrum of degrees.  For it entails that a discrete line exists at some point on the continuum that determines salvations vs. damnation.  In other words, people who are barely on one side of that threshold are assigned the same fate as as those who are close to the respective pole.

Even more inequitably, those who are barely to one side of the threshold are given one extreme fate while those directly next to them, barely to the other side, are given the other extreme fate.  Permanently.  In other words: The all-or-nothing consignment fails to reflect the gradations of good-ness that really exist.  Nevertheless, the narrative serves a DIDACTIC purpose, as it allows for the easy-to-digest Manichean worldview.  Carving of the world into a simplistic “good vs. evil” schema is SATISFYING.

Another thing to consider: Tribalism thrives off of an adversarial mentality.  The tribalistic mindset is predicated on the assumption that having a foe gives us a reason to live (that is: something meaningful to LIVE FOR, and thus something to fight against).  Accordingly, we can simply associate THE OTHER with “evil” and ourselves with righteousness.  In doing so, the world suddenly seems to make sense.  All that happens is suddenly explicable in simple terms.  Everything–even the most confounding occurrences–can be understood in terms of these clear-cut categorizations.   It’s all part of the grand scheme–a scheme in which WE star as the good guys; and outsiders must, ipso facto, be the bad guys.  God has a grand plan; and this is all part of it.  If it doesn’t make sense, then we’re just too obtuse to understand.

Anyway, it all comes to a head on the Last Day; so everything else is protracted, arduous prelude to that glorious existential climax.

The treatment of two alternate destinations in Abrahamic lore dates back to Judaic cosmogony.  Each place even has angelic CHANCELLORS: “Metatron” for heaven and “Adra-Melech” for hell.  The latter was based on the Canaanite (spec. Ammonite / Phoenician) god, Moloch.

In assessing the wisdom of this system of bifurcated destinies, another question arises: If the “chosen” are relegated to a gated community in the sky…while everyone else is consigned to endless torture in a fiery dungeon…how can the former live with themselves.  That is: How in heaven’s name can those basking in the lavish accommodations of a celestial luxury resort enjoy themselves knowing that the rest of mankind (BILLIONS of humans, including many friends and relatives) is enduring unimaginable agony…24-7…in perpetuity?

Needless to say, for anyone with a conscience, such an “akhira” (life in a hereafter) would not be heavenly; it would be emotional anguish.  (Alas, it seems there will be no more human solidarity in Jannah than there is here on Earth.)  Nevertheless, True Believers proceed as if a decent person can be perfectly fine with this arrangement.

Tellingly, the Koranic depictions of the two alternate destinations in “akhira” reflect the particular environment in which the text was composed.  That is to say, the graphic imagery is clearly geared to an audience of primitive desert-dwellers.  This is illustrated by certain features of the afterlife destinations (encapsulated by passages like 4:13-14):

  • On the one hand, there is a lush garden with flowing streams…replete with shade, a bountiful supply of milk and honey, and–of course–a coterie of nubile youth (young girls and boys) at one’s beckon call, for coitus at one’s pleasure.  In other words, it is an OASIS…on steroids…with on-demand sex and an all-you-can-eat buffet.
  • On the other hand, there is a place where thirsty souls are forced to drink boiling water…while begging the residents of heaven, in vain, to douse them with the latter’s abundant supply of cool water.  Instead of rivers of milk and honey, there are cauldrons of molten copper.  And instead of lounging comfortably on couches / thrones, people shackled and chained.  Oh, and they are being perpetually burned alive in a never-ending fire.

Behold the most extreme depictions of desirable vs. undesirable–composed in terms with which Bedouins from the Dark Ages were familiar.

But that’s the “catch”.  Had the authors lived in rain-forests or in arctic tundras, the imagery would certainly have been very different.  A Siberian vision of Paradise would most likely have incorporated saunas–rather than shaded pavilions–into its design.  Indeed, denizens of arctic climes would not have craved shade as a sanctuary; they would have craved a warm hearth.

This is all relatively straight-forward.  If the Koran had come from the Nordic region, its heaven would probably have involved a well-heated abode.  If the authors of the Koran had lived in the Amazon, the vision of heaven would probably have been some majestic, open meadow (Elysian Fields?) replete with ample shelter from torrential downpours.  Most likely, ANY man’s heaven would have involved lots of delectable food…along with on-demand sex with beautiful women. 

Lo and behold: Fetching concubines and sumptuous feasts are the primary features of many afterlife paradises contrived since time immemorial.  The Koran’s descriptions are hardly novel.  Upon surveying the myriad of versions, we discover that they are all variations on the same leitmotif–be it the Norse Valhalla or Orwell’s “Sugarcandy Mountain”.

The idea of a “hell” (qua worst imaginable place) naturally varies with one’s environs DURING life.  We all dread fire–as burning is extremely painful.  It is especially natural that religions born in hot climes (e.g. deserts of the Middle East) made this worst imaginable place gruelingly HOT.  So it went with Christianity and Islam.  But what of conceptions of such a place in Nordic regions?  Unsurprisingly, when freezing is one’s biggest nemesis IN life, the worst place in the afterlife would be unbearably frigid.  So it went with “Hel-heim”: the hell for dishonored Vikings–for whom fire represented RELIEF (i.e. refuge from the cold).  In Inuit mythology, “Adlivun” is an underworld described as a frozen wasteland.

Buddhists split the difference, making half of their hells (“Narak[a]s”) excruciatingly hot and the other half excruciatingly cold (replete with an assortment of torments).  The original term of this dreary venue is “Niraya” (from the Sanskrit, via Pali). {13}

Meanwhile, Vikings posited a foggy underworld (“Nifl-hel”; “Nifl-heim[r]”) as an afterlife destination for the dishonored–which makes sense, since fog is one of the most dreaded phenomena of sea-farers.  In ancient Chinese mythology, the ghastly “Diyu” is comprised of a macabre repertoire of medieval torture inflicted upon the damned.  The Aztec “Mictlan” was populated by ferocious jaguars and ominous mountains.  The Hindu “Yamapura” / “Kalichi” and the ancient Japanese “Yomi” are dreary underworlds characterized by unremitting darkness.

When it comes to positing hell, the point is to come up with a situation that is as terrifying (and agonizing) as possible…according to what the target audience conceives to be their most dreaded thing IN LIFE.

Such relativistic caricature goes for the scenario for ULTIMATE REWARD as well: What is the BEST possible situation one can fathom?  Whatever that might be, let’s call that “heaven”.  For those in arctic climes, that might involve a place where one can be warmed by a fire…just as for those in hot deserts, that might involve shaded pavilions.  Lo and behold, that is exactly what we find.

Surely, any MEDIEVAL depiction of hell would have involved some kind of MEDIEVAL torture.  That’s why there’s no electrocution in “Jahannam” (though, presumably, the Creator of the Universe had been aware of electricity–and its ability to impose agonizing shock–even in the 7th century).  Meanwhile–as we’d expect–the desert-dwelling story-tellers of the Middle East conceived of hell as extremely hot (fire everywhere) while the Norse conceived of hell as extremely cold (made of ice). {11}

There are other features that might elicit amusement from those with modern sensibilities.  According to the Koran, both heaven and hell have GATES. {15}  Why the need for gates?  Security, perhaps?  To keep certain people IN (hell) and OUT (of heaven)?  Does the astral realm need ramparts?  If a condemned soul were to breach the gates of hell, where, exactly, would he go?  Is hell an actual PLACE?  How does any of this make sense? 

As it turns out, the notion of gates was nothing new.  In Sumerian mythology, the entrance to the netherworld had seven gates–through which a soul needed to pass.  (“Neti” was the gatekeeper.)  And recall that there are GUARDS. {19}  Is this ALSO merely figurative?  Were it not for the sentinels at the entrance to heaven, could unauthorized souls GET IN?  How?  Where would they come from?  How would they get there? 

Recall that the Koran tells us that hell has (seven) gates.  But then again, 101:9 tells us that hell is a bottomless pit–referred to as “Hawiyah”.  Why, then, does it need gates?  Or walls?  Or chains with shackles?  (In most interpretations, rather than hell BEING an abyss, hell HAS WITHIN IT an abyss.)  Is there really a concern about the damned ESCAPING from hell?

The conclusion is inescapable: In the Koran, heaven and hell are treated as a literal places.

What, then, are we to think of the architecture of these celestial venues?  According to the Koran, heaven and hell actually NEIGHBOR each other (ref. 57:13); and are, indeed, separated by a wall.  A FIGURATIVE wall?  Is this all mere symbolism?  This seems unlikely once we take into account the nature of the descriptions.

It stands to reason that the layout of these places would involve WALLS.  Yet in 7:44-53, the denizens of the two destinations have a (somewhat demented) conversation with each other–replete with an M.C. {10}  Even if taken metaphorically, the proposal is rather silly.  (For the matter of taking the text allegorically vs. literally, see Appendix 3.)  It seems that even celestial venues are subject to the same logistical considerations (what with partitions, acoustics, etc.) as earthly venues.

Thus we have what is essentially a crude screenplay, replete with bugaboos (conveyed via the kind of contrived set-pieces familiar to anyone who’s seen a campy horror movie) and enticements (conveyed in terms reminiscent of any adolescent boy’s latest wet dream).  Film at 11.

Are such caricatures really supposed to help us fashion a spiritual dimension to our lives?  Taken as parable, does this somehow inform us spiritually?  Why the emphasis on physical pleasure and pain?  Shall spirituality really occur within an incentive structure governed by a choice between the macabre and the salacious?  Shall we be motivated by an aversion to agony and an affinity for prurience?

And one can’t help but wonder: Why the lurid details of hellfire and the oddly-specific descriptions of the emoluments in Paradise?

Yet for many, such maudlin artifice is largely beside the point.  Artificial or not, it is the belief in (amazing) carrots and (horrific) sticks that compels people to behave in a certain way (according to some sacred code, whatever it might happen to be).  Whether it is the pursuit of a celestial luxury resort or the evasion of a subterranean, torture chamber, the effect is the same: the dictation of conduct.  For once people are convinced that there is a certain (possible) destination “at the end of the line”, they will structure their lives accordingly.

The entire scheme may be sophomoric in conception (from the lascivious to the macabre), yet it is its simplistic design that makes it so appealing to so many.  While it is all rather disturbing to those of us who deign to be genuinely spiritual, it is irresistible to anyone who is existentially disoriented and searching in desperation for something to hold onto. {14}

The Koranic scheme of incentives and disincentives is especially risible; but–regardless of the culture or the branding–it’s all a matter of strategic fabrication.  Undeterred by the puerility of the narrative, True Believers will conduct themselves in whatever seems necessary to secure the (alleged) rewards and avoid the (alleged) punishments that god holds in store for them.

We might contrast this rigamarole to the treatment of the hereafter in the Baha’i Faith (itself a derivative of Islam), in which traditional descriptions of hell and heaven are considered entirely symbolic of spiritual conditions.  (Heaven = closeness to god; hell = remoteness from god).  As it so happens, this is similar to the conceptions found in both liberal Judaic and Christian brands of religiosity.

Indeed, level-headed Christians and Muslims embrace this (eminently reasonable) treatment of heaven and hell, yet tend not to admit that–in doing so–they are eschewing the “original intent” of their holy books.

Instead of ridiculously menacing, the more sensible Muslims find the Koranic depiction of hell simply ridiculous.  By the same token: Instead of alluring, they find the Koranic depiction of heaven simply ridiculous.  The same goes for sensible Christians vis a vis the phantasmagorical musings in the Book of Revelation.

Yet bereft of its cosmic carrots and sticks, the “rapture” vs. “fire and brimstone” narrative falls flat.  Indeed, if the telos were merely communion with the divine (presumably, in some way a function of probity), then not only is this eschatology rendered utterly superfluous; secular (non-dogma-based) spirituality ends up making perfect sense.  In other words: Without a raison d’être, this crude dogmatic edifice collapses…and one is left with: Be a good person (no neurosis, no delusion required).

In the final analysis, we find that–after we’ve put away our fanciful speculations about where this is all may be going–a more estimable teleological perspective comes into focus: It’s not about what becomes of us; it’s about what we become.

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