Skip to main content
Select Source:

Heaven and Hell


Aspects of heaven and hell cross religious traditions. Paradise can be a city, a palace, a court, a garden, a vision of God, a mystical diagram, or an ineffable concept. Physical, indeed sexual, terms and images express the soul's union with God. In Hell, fires, dragons, serpents, stench, cacophony, torturers, and their paraphernalia abound. Christian, Islamic, Zoroastrian, and Japanese sources test souls on a sword-edged bridge to paradise over a fiery stream or feculent abyss, the voracious hell. Unbelievers fall to torment below. Many voyagers observe these worlds: Enoch, Wiraz, Muhammad, Paul, Dante, and various bodhisattvas throughout time. Overlapping with religious images are the secular hells of war, poverty, and disease and their inverted counterparts in bliss, the paradises of resorts, wealth, luxury, and sexual pleasure. Transcending these, most religions insist that heaven and hellor their approximate counterpartsare out of all proportion to our experience of time, joy, distress, or understanding. Analysis can only approximate their positions. Furthermore, each religion produced many schools of thought, and no one position stands for all.

No postmortem fate is possible without the notion that some aspect of the person survives death. That inner core, the heart, soul, spirit, or atman, is sometimes perceived first as one's self-knowledge; sometimes in the experience of ghosts, the personalities of the dead. The term "porous death" refers to an idea of death in which the dead return to haunt the living and the living may visit the dead, for example, in dreams or visions. By contrast, "neutral death" refers to an idea in which the living banish all the dead, whether good or evil, to a distant enclosure that is neither heaven nor hell. The ancient Babylonian land of the dead (Arallu ), the Jewish Sheol (the Grave), and the Greek Hades (particularly in Homer) are morally neutral.

In "moral death," reward follows a good life; punishment, an evil one. Moral death has two main varieties, cyclical and linear. In some linear systems, retribution is eternal; in others, destruction awaits the wicked. In the cyclical concept, postmortem pleasure and pain vary over eons as the person awaits promotion or demotion in eventual rebirths. (Cultures that oppose spirit to flesh call this process reincarnation.) Both linear and cyclical concepts of moral death are of great antiquity and emerge first in Egypt and India, respectively.


In ancient Egypt, texts inscribed on the inner walls of the pyramids and coffins or on papyrus scrolls like the Book of the Dead, which began to circulate in the sixteenth century b.c.e., make the dead testify to their own moral character. One image weighs the heart against a standard of justice. A monster devours those who flunk. Images from the Book of Gates (c. 1320 b.c.e.) show the fate of those who oppose the sun god, Re, as he plumbs the underworld at night and ascends at dawn each day. These enemies of rebirth and of Osiris, the god who is its symbol, are dispatched into ovens and destroyednot punished forever. The god's friends move beyond judgment to the same occupations they had when alive: cultivating fields, reaping bounteous harvests. These contrasting fates presuppose a distinction between good and evil.


The prophet Zoroaster (Zarathustra) understood the cosmos as divided in enduring conflict between good and evil, truth and the lie, darkness and light (but not body and soul or spirit and flesh). After nine thousand years, a purging cataclysm separates the opposing forces and subordinates evil to good. At this time, the eternal community of good prevails in light and annihilates the community of the lie. The Book of the Righteous Wiraz fixes the Cinvat Bridge between hell and heaven. Only the saved can cross it. The morally neutral inhabit the heavens of the sun, moon, and stars. Above them paradisaical gardens of perpetual radiance welcome the faithful. Beneath the bridge, condemned by their own deeds, which appear dramatically before them personified as aggressive hags, the wicked endure graphically described tortures. They beg for the nine thousand years to end. When it does, their punishment proves temporary.


Other consequences of moral difference emerged in India. Early on, in the Rig Veda, Yama, the first man to die, now a god, rules the dead from "the highest heaven" (10:14). The soul or self (atman) carries with it the moral qualities and blemishes of all its lives. Determined by its own actions (karma), it moves through cycles (samsara) of births, deaths, and rebirths, making all life the result of one's past lives. Life in the world becomes a temporary hell (or purgatory) that creates a yearning for release (moksha ). In the Hinduism closest to the Upanishads, release occurs only when one understands the unity of the self or soul and the cosmos. Then the individual soul transcends itself and becomes its true atman as it blends in glory into the unity of the cosmos and attains Brahman. Brahman is Hinduism's highest reality, but it is not synonymous with the heavens, which are below, part of changeable samsara.

Later, after Hinduism adopted a savior figure active in multiple forms, or avatars, the Bhagavad Gita distinguished among the dead persons, who become either like gods or like demons. "The fate of a god is release (moksha ); the fate of a demon is bondage." For the arrogant there is a downward spiral of re-birth into successive wombs of demons. "[This] is how men of evil karma fall down into hells." The Markandeya Purana characterizes seven hells administered by Yama, each with its own name: The Terrible Hell, the Great Terrible, Cutting-off, Unsupported, Sword-leaf-forest, and the Hot-pot hells. The re-born progress through lives as "worms, insects, moths, beasts of prey, mosquitoes elephants, trees, untouchable women, finally up through the castes as Servant, Commoner, Warrior, Priest." Meritorious people enjoy celestial garlands, gems, singing, dancing, nymphs, rebirth into royal and noble families, "the very best pleasures." Yet there is a "great misery even in heaven" at the thought of a fall, since the heavens are also subject to samsara (chapters 1012). Only moksha is perfect release.


Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, modified the Hindu tradition he inherited. The two religions share a belief that karma determines each life and assigns a series of experiences that can include various heavens or hells or rebirth as humans. Though even in Hinduism "atman" and "self" are not synonymous, the Buddha repudiated any association between them as a misguided psychological crutch that might multiply illicit cravings for property, offspring, or fame and so impede the emptiness required for nirvana. The goal instead is detachment from all desire. The human being is not an individual but a variable combination of five aspects of personhood: form, sensations, perceptions, volitions, and consciousness. Since emptiness alone attains nirvana, those addicted to a self are reborn. The "Wheel of Life" charts the fates of persons reborn into any of six realms as humans, gods, titans, animals, ghosts, and denizens of hell. Even the realms of light, residences of the gods, like the Hindu heavens, are painful, since they are less than nirvana, that is, they still participate in samsara. As Edward Conze paraphrases "Nanda the Fair," attributed to Ashvaghosha: "The sojourn in Paradise is only temporary, and the day must come when the deities fall to earth and wail in deep distress."

Mahayana (or Great Vehicle) Buddhism proposed four heavenly Buddhas in their own paradises at the cardinal points of the compass surrounding the historic Buddha in the center. Mystical diagrams called mandalas chart this cosmos. Each Buddha takes an active role in saving his devotees. Helpful in this effort and mitigating the distinction between the cycle of rebirths and salvation are the bodhisattvas, saintly creatures so charitable as to refuse enlightenment for themselves until they have helped all sentient beings from the six realms. Their concern for the dead may reflect very ancient Chinese cults in which care for graves and offerings for ancestors were central to piety. Later, in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Yama instructs the recently deceased as he judges them by the image of their souls in the Mirror of Karma. "Apart from one's own hallucinations, in reality there are no such things existing outside oneself as Lord of Death, or god, or demon." One's inner life is all.

Ancient Greek Religion

Aspects of moral death entered Greek religion from Persia and Egypt. Legends of Pythagoras in the underworld and the Eleusinian mysteries bring this change. The distinction between swamps for outsiders and Elysium for initiates of the mysteries parallels a shift from Homer's neutral Hades to Plato's punitive Tartarus. In the Myth of Er, which concludes Plato's Republic, heaven preserves the righteous from further reincarnations, and Tartarus imprisons "the incurable" forever. The majority are reincarnated. In his version of moral death, therefore, Plato combined linear and cyclical time. In mythology, heroes the gods engendered with humans could, by apotheosis, attain eternal life among the Olympians. Like Hercules, they become constellations in the physical heavens.

Etruscans and Romans

Archaeological evidence from before Roman dominance preserves Etruscan tombs modeled on homes, an indigenous tradition projecting earthly existence into the afterlife. Roman popular religion preserves not the dwelling, but the familial tie. The divine manes (parents and ancestors) rewarded piety (respect for family, divinities, and the state) with active inter-cession and a "better option" among the dead. Despite its formal state cult based on the Olympian pantheon, Roman religion had no central authority, hence no orthodoxy. Virgil incorporates a Platonic system in Book VI of the Aeneid, but only literati knew this cyclical, moral afterlife. Worship of the emperor was a small part of this complex whole, though it gained heaven for Christian martyrs executed for spurning it.


Moral death entered the Hebrew Bible gradually and late. Judaism's neutral otherworld (Sheol) draws the scorn of Job, because the wicked and the just "lie down alike in the dust" (21:26). Jeremiah begins to distinguish a separate fate for those who worshipped false gods. In Ge-hinnom (Gehenna), a ravine outside Jerusalem, he says, the dead lie unburied, their bones exposed to the sun and the stars whom they wrongly worshipped (7:308:2, 19:7). Their evil loyalties should determine their evil fates, which should never end. Isaiah (14:15) imagines the wicked king of Babylon not merely in Sheol, but reviled in the depths of the Pit. Psalm 73 identifies moral categories: the false dispatched "far from thee" and the loyal "near God." These images of place follow from the idea of paradise as the Garden of Eden, where God set Adam and Eve, but from which he banished them. Return to gan eden, which Christians would call "the Earthly Paradise," is physical yet also beyond time: an eternally blissful state. The most recent book of the Hebrew Bible articulates moral death clearly. Daniel (12:2) proclaims resurrection and assignment either to "everlasting life" or "everlasting contempt."

Postbiblical Judaism offered great latitude on these matters. Though all pray for "a portion in the world to come," the Talmudic sages left open the questions of how God renders judgment, where his justice parts from his mercy, and how long sinners remain in Gehenna. The tenth-century Sa adia Gaon argues for eternal reward and punishment. Around 1200, Moses Maimonides regarded these as childish ideas that students should outgrow. In contrast to tolerance concerning the otherworld, the Talmud and subsequent speculation insist on the resurrection of the flesh.


The New Testament of the Christian Bible promises the faithful eternal life. The blessed inherit "the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (Matt. 25:34) or "the marriage supper of the Lamb" (Rev. 19:9), a kingdom of light, host to "armies upon white horses, clothed in fine linen" (Rev. 19:14). It is also a court that renders judgment on the physically resurrected dead, where the elect are witnesses (Rev. 20, passim). Paul proclaims a collective view: a God who in the end will be "all in all" or everything to everyone (1 Cor. 15:28). "The Kingdom of God," by far the most frequent name for heaven in the Bible, Luke declares, is entos humōn, "within you" or "among you," depending on the translation. "Heaven," therefore, covers a physical place where the divine King holds court, a communal bond, and an internal condition. For the wicked, the Christian Scriptures threaten those who neglect the helpless with "everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matt. 25:41) and "the lake of fire and brimstone, where [the wicked] shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever" (Rev. 20:10). Unbelievers are "condemned already" (John 3:18).

Christians debated whether hell is eternal. Origen of Alexandria (185?254?) opposed eternal punishment: divine action must be curative. Souls expiate their sins through repeated reincarnations. Restoration (apokatastasis ) makes the end like the beginning, evoking Paul's phrase "all in all." Though condemned twice by Justinian, this tradition remains influential in Eastern Christianity. Rejecting Origen's cycles of reincarnation, Augustine (354430) defended a hell that, because it afflicts the body physically, causes the spirit "fruitless repentance." Despite his opinion that hell wracks flesh, Augustine considered the reprobates' severest torment to be exile from God. Conversely, heaven is eternal life in God's presence, the communion of the elect, true peace, and endless bliss.

A late-fourth-century apocryphal vision, the Apocalypse of Saint Paul, relates Paul's visit "up to the third heaven" (2 Cor. 12:23). There he tours the Land of Promise. He sees the four rivers of paradise running with milk, honey, wine, and oil. He meets major figures from the Hebrew Bible: the patriarchs, Moses, Lot, Job, Noah, David, the prophets, and finally the Virgin Mary. Twelve walls surround Christ's golden city. In hell he sees rivers of fire, demons slashing victims' entrails, stonings, worm infestations, hangings, dismemberments, carcasses roasted on spits, and inmates gnawing their own bodies. In the center of this chaos is a covered well within which the punishments are seven times harsher. Seeing these, Paul sighs; Jesus hears. Christ visits this pit, chastises the inmates, then grants them amnesty every Sunday. For all its gore, this text aspires to mitigate hell.

Building on the idea of exile and its associated alienation, allegorical and psychological interpretations multiplied. Though he describes many gruesome physical torments in the Inferno, Dante identifies hell's essence while describing souls encased in flames: "Each one swathes himself in that which makes him burn" (26.48). The reformer Martin Luther put the afterlife in a psychological context, too, when he declared in 1517, "Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven appear to differ as despair, almost despair, and peace of mind differ." Of his own spiritual rebirth he said, "I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates."

If faith is the way to heaven, hell begins even before death, when the faithless soul endures isolation and disorientation. As Luther put it, "Everyone carries his own hell with him wherever he is." Though earlier theology anticipates the statement, Calvin appears the first (1534) to say "Hell is not a place but a condition." In 1999, Pope John Paul II declared heaven "complete intimacy with the Father," partnership "in his heavenly glorification," the "blessed community of all who are perfectly incorporated into Christ." Hell he called "the ultimate consequence of sin itself, which turns against the person who committed it." This definition of hell emphasizes the alienating, self-reflexive character of freely chosen exclusion, whereas heaven embraces a longed-for community wholly dedicated to the divine. Invoking the scriptural letter, Evangelicals resist allegorical interpretations.


The Koran abounds in references to "the Fire," "the Burning," and "the Gardens beneath which rivers flow." Beyond the Koran, many hadith (sayings) and other, later records of oral traditions develop Islamic eschatology. The account of Muhammad's Ascension, which retraces the Prophet's progress from hell to paradise, resembles Asian and European accounts in organization and vividness. In the late eighth century, the Sufi mystic Rabi ah of Basra claimed that neither fear of hell nor hope for heaven befit the pious soul: "O God! if I worship Thee in fear of Hell, burn me in Hell; and if I worship Thee in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise; but if I worship Thee for Thine own sake, withhold not Thine everlasting beauty!"

See also Buddhism ; Christianity ; Death ; Death and Afterlife, Islamic Understanding of ; Heaven and Hell (Asian Focus) ; Hinduism ; Immortality and the Afterlife ; Judaism ; Platonism .


Bernstein, Alan E. The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Conze, Edward, ed. Buddhist Scriptures. London: Penguin, 1959.

Eliade, Mircea. A History of Religious Ideas. 3 vols. Translated by Willard R. Trask. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 19781985.

Gardiner, Eileen, ed. Visions of Heaven and Hell before Dante. New York: Italica Press, 1989.

King, Charles. "The Living and the Dead: Ancient Roman Conceptions of the Afterlife." Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1998.

McDannell, Colleen, and Bernhard Lang. Heaven: A History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988.

O'Flaherty, Wendy Doniger, ed., with Daniel Gold, David Haberman, and David Shulman. Textual Sources for the Study of Hinduism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. A History of Heaven: The Singing Silence. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Smith, Jane Idleman, and Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad. The Islamic Understanding of Death and Resurrection. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981.

Wright, J. Edward. The Early History of Heaven. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Zaleski, Carol. Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Alan E. Bernstein

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Heaven and Hell." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 10 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Heaven and Hell." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (December 10, 2017).

"Heaven and Hell." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved December 10, 2017 from

Heaven and Hell (Asian Focus)


The ideas on heaven and hell are closely associated with human imagination about the afterlife in Asian civilizations. The images of heaven and hell, however, vary greatly in different regions such as in the southern, central, and eastern parts of the Asian continent, and they have changed significantly throughout history. There is no such thing as a unique Asian mind or a collective Asian concept of heaven and hell, and therefore we should not simplify or twist the historical evidence available to us in order to create a clear statement of the Asian idea of heaven and hell for the convenience of a Western audience. Instead, we should examine the two related concepts in their original historical and regional contexts and focus on both textual and material evidence to discuss the compositions and historical changes of heaven and hell in Asian cultures.


Mainly as an ideal place for the afterlife, heaven was described as a mysterious island in the ocean or a palace on the top of mountain or a multilayered structure in the sky. In different regions and times, people have different ideas about the location and appearance of heaven.

South Asia.

Various heavens, seven in total and one above the other, are recorded in the Pali literature, some of the earliest written information on heaven preserved in South Asia. Thirty-three heavens, again one above the other, are also described in ancient Sanskrit texts. These ideas about heaven were adopted in the sixth century b.c.e. by the historical Buddha, who, in turn, developed a more systematic and elaborate vision of heaven that we see in the surviving Buddhist scriptures. From the Buddhist perspective, the most important heaven is Sukhavati or the Western Paradise, the land of bliss. The master of the Western Paradise is Buddha Amitabha and the residents of the land are all holy beings. At the opposite location is the Eastern Paradise of Buddha Bhaisajya-guru or the Healing Buddha. This horizontal placement of the Western and Eastern Paradises is supplemented by a vertical structure consisting of thirty-three heavens in the sky. Beautiful and comfortable, all Buddhist heavens are occupied by holy beings such as the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and are ready to accept the reborn souls of the virtuous Buddhist devotees. In early Buddhist iconography, heaven is depicted as a part of the narrative representation of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha's (the historical Buddha, c. 563483 b.c.e.) life; it is shown as a small house located on the top of a pagoda-like ladder. The Tushita Heaven of Bodhisattva Maitreya is also depicted as a frame-like house. The number of pictorial representations of heaven in ancient Indian Buddhist art, however, seems to be very small. The scarcity and simplicity of heaven images in ancient Indian art suggest that the motif of paradise in India was far less popular than in East Asian countries.

East Asia.

Before the introduction of Buddhism into China around the first century c.e., heaven and paradise were considered two different concepts. Heaven is up in the sky, and from there deceased ancestors provide legitimacy to the living rulers or send mythical signs celebrating or criticizing the rulers' behavior. Paradise is a livable place located either in the Eastern Sea or on the top of the Kunlun Mountains in the west. In the early thoughts of Daoism, an indigenous religion that began in China at almost the same time as Buddhism in South Asia, the islands of immortality float in the sea in the east. The lucky ones might obtain elixirs from the immortals on the islands and live forever. The most influential local paradise before the introduction of Buddhism is the paradise of the Queen Mother of the West, located on the top of the Kunlun Mountains in the remote west of China. The islands of immortality in the Eastern Sea and the Queen Mother's paradise on the Kunlun Mountains in the west also form a horizontal orientation. During the Qin-Han period (third century b.c.e. to third century c.e.), heaven (or the sky) and paradise (place for the afterlife) are shown in totally different visual forms: the former is perceived as an astronomical entity and depicted as a star map, and the latter is understood as a place and depicted as a remote mount where the deceased could meet the Queen Mother. When Buddhist ideas of heaven-paradise entered China in the first century c.e., they provided a great stimulation to the Chinese imagination regarding the afterlife and fundamentally changed the vision of heaven throughout East Asia. Thousands of pictures of the Buddhist paradise were created in medieval China and Japan to serve as aids in visualization by religious practitioners and to satisfy the need of ordinary devotees to accumulate merits and prepare for the future entrance into paradise. The most popular visual pattern of Buddhist paradise in East Asia consists of four basic elements: the holy icons of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas, the palatial buildings in which devotees could imagine themselves living, large water ponds in which devotees could imagine themselves being reborn, and musicians and dancers who could entertain the devotees. In most cases, the visual details are created according to local and contemporary customs and somehow reflect the historical conditions of that time. The local visions of Buddhist paradise created in various regions in Asia can certainly help us understand the diversity of heaven images and provide us with critical evidence to understand the histories and cultures of Asia.


While Buddhist heaven is designed for the holy beings and prepared for the virtuous devotees who will live pure and happy lives there upon their deaths, a painful underground hell is imagined as a place to imprison the souls of those who do not behave well in their lifetime. Heaven and hell, therefore, form a system of reward and punishment according to religious and social disciplines. In addition to its primary function as a place for punishment, hell is also one of the six states of existence (e.g., gods, men, monsters, hell, hungry ghosts, and animals). The six states of existence are interchangeable through the process of rebirth, and no state is permanent. The six states of existence are also described as six paths of rebirth and visually represented as a wheel, which is divided into six radiating panels in Buddhist art. Ten courts of justice, supervised by the ten kings of hell, are set up on the way to hell to clarify the sinners' specific evil deeds and to decide the level or type of punishment. The most evil sinner is sent to Avici, the deepest and most painful section of hell. The tortures in hell include hot and cold treatments such as being thrown into fire, dipped into boiling oil, drinking hot liquid copper, or staying in a frozen cave of ice. In some local versions, a specific means of punishment is created to target a certain crime. An old woman who badmouths a neighbor, for instance, might be punished by having her tongue cut off by an executioner in hell as we can see in stone carvings at Dazu, Sichuan province, in southwestern China.


Heaven and hell are not only religious ideas but also philosophical, social, and political concepts in Asia. The visual forms of heaven and hell are mostly local products with identifiable regional features and could be better understood in local historical context.

See also Buddhism ; Death ; Death and Afterlife, Islamic Understanding of ; Heaven and Hell ; Immortality and the Afterlife ; Religion: East and Southeast Asia .


Gómez, O. Luis, trans. The Land of Bliss: The Paradise of the Buddha of Measureless Light. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1996.

Law, Bimala C. Heaven and Hell in Buddhist Perspective. Reprint, Varanasi, India: Bhartiya Publishing House, reprint, 1973.

Loewe, Michael. Ways to Paradise: The Chinese Quest for Immortality. London and Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1979.

Qiang, Ning. Art, Religion, and Politics in Medieval China: The Dunhuang Cave of the Zhai Family. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2004.

Soothill, William Edward, and Lewis Hodous, comps. A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms. Reprint, Taiwan: Buddha-Light Publishing House, 1979.

Teiser, Stephen F. The Ghost Festival in Medieval China. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.

. The Scripture on the Ten Kings and the Making of Purgatory in Medieval Chinese Buddhism. Honululu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994.

Wu, Hung, and Ning Qiang. "Paradise Images in Early Chinese Art." In The Flowering of a Foreign Faith: New Studies in Chinese Buddhist Art, edited by Janet Baker, 5467. New Delhi: Marg Publication, 1998.

Ning Qiang

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Heaven and Hell (Asian Focus)." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 10 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Heaven and Hell (Asian Focus)." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (December 10, 2017).

"Heaven and Hell (Asian Focus)." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved December 10, 2017 from