Q: Does hell exist? If so, why, and what is it like?
In Sanskrit the word for hell is naraka, which means “pertaining to human beings.” That is telling us something, isn’t it? But since it is the Christians who are most fond of talking about hell and annoying us “heathen” with it, let us take a look at their own authentic tradition.
Hell is simply the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the New Testament Greek word hades, which means both “the unseen realm” and “the lower [under] world.” There is no connotation whatsoever of a place of fire and torment, or indeed any quality whatsoever. It is just the invisible world of disembodied spirits.
When many Greeks converted to Christianity in the fourth century after the Emperor Constantine made it the state religion, they infused a great deal of Greek ideas into the subsequently modified Christian theology. Part of that importing was the concept of Tartarus, a place at the center of the earth ruled over by Pluto. This was a place of darkness and sorrow, and sometimes even of punishment by avenging spirits. Aristotle loved the idea and insisted that it was eternal. But Judaism never knew such ignorance, and neither did authentic Christianity.
That is what is not true. But what is the truth?
All that exists is brought into manifestation by God for only one purpose: the evolution of the individual souls to enable their perfection and union with God. There is no other purpose, and no other motive for any part of creation. To enable the souls to evolve, many worlds or levels have been created, this material world being the most objective. Beyond it are worlds of increasingly subtle energies. And all the existent worlds are rungs on the ladder of evolution, reaching ever upward unto Divinity Itself.
The basis of evolution is knowledge–particularly self-knowledge. So the worlds are really mirrors in which we come to see our own face–however much we may deny or ignore it. Our whole life is a visual lecture on our own present state of development. Karma and rebirth are the two major factors in this lecture, as they determine what the lessons will be. Nothing that happens to us is ever intended to be reward or punishment. Instead, all that we experience is reaction–reaction to our past and present deeds and thoughts. And these reactions reveal to us the nature of those deeds and thoughts.
For example, we heedlessly steal from someone, causing them pain and perhaps deprivation. We, then, shall be stolen from and caused to experience the identical degree of pain and deprivation. This is not to punish us, nor even is it meant to simply deter us from repeating the error of stealing. Rather, it is intended to show us the character of our act of stealing and reveal to us why stealing is wrong. No, it is not wrong because we get slapped for it, it is wrong because it causes another to suffer. A person who abstains from wrong action out of fear of its attendant suffering is not evolving, but is simply being a conditioned animal. A truly evolving person refrains from stealing, even in time of need, because he does not want to wrong and hurt another person. This is the only right motive for honest action–or for right action of any kind. In other words, the purpose of karma is to develop the divine traits of compassion and kindness in us. It is not “rectitude” but mercy that is the intent. Which is why Jesus more than once reminded His hearers of the Divine principle: “I will have mercy, and not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13;12)
Life as a mirror
Anyhow, as I have said, our life is a mirror that shows us our evolutionary “face.” This is not easy for our egos to accept, but it is nonetheless true. If people lie about us a lot, that shows us that we have lied about people in our past lives and that the root of that lying is still inside us–even if in the present life we never lie–on the subconscious level. Therefore when people wrong us the first thing to figure out how to correct ourselves of the trait that is being responded to. This is also why the wise have said that their critics and enemies were their best friends–they were showing them the aspects of their minds that needed correction. And that is what the world does for us.
Each time our physical body dies we pass into subtler worlds for some time. Those worlds more exactly mirror us, and in those worlds we are much more insightful than we are here. In the earth plane something can happen to us that seems inexplicable. But in those worlds as the thing is happening we see what is the force and purpose behind it. So we learn better there. Further, those worlds correspond to our subconscious mind, so they reveal what is usually only subliminal for the physically embodied.
Just as our dreams reflect the thoughts and experiences of the previous day, so the astral worlds reflect the inner character of our previous earth life. If our subconscious is harmonious and positive, we will automatically pass into a harmonious and positive “world” at death. And that will be heaven. If, on the other hand, our inner mind is filled with negativity, especially such things as hatred, lust, greed, resentment, and such like, we will enter a world that vividly displays those forces to its denizens. And that will be hell.
Life as an education
Some people naturally associate with worthy and uplifting people. Others prefer to run with the rat-pack. Each will go to the worlds where that type of person is being instructed. And that is the key: instruction. Since that is necessary for our growth, we can see that it would be folly to want to deliver people from “hell,” for that would deter their growth. However miserable an academic examination may be, we would be doing no one a favor by kidnapping them from the examination place and taking them on a jaunt in the countryside. They need that exam! And we need both heaven and hell if we are to ultimately transcend the need for either of them.
So the only worthwhile prayer for the dead is a prayer for their increased understanding. That is why in the Byzantine Orthodox Church’s service for the dead, they continually sing the refrain: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, teach me Thy statutes.” For that is the purpose of whatever world the departed might be in.
I think I have somewhat indicated what hell is and what its purpose is. As far as what it is like, that is impossible to delineate, because there are many hells and many heavens, each portraying an infinite number of psychological states. In some worlds the pleasant or unpleasant qualities are more external, and in others they are mostly internal. The entire range of psychic possibility is covered by them.
The important aspect of all this is, that since it is our own inner state that determines where we go after death, we should get busy and clean our psychic house through right action, right thought, right worship, and right meditation. Then we need have no worry, but can say with Saint Paul: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing” (II Timothy 4:7,8)