Heaven and Hell

views updated Jun 11 2018


HEAVEN AND HELL . As symbolic expressions found in various religious traditions, heaven and hell suggest polar components of a religious vision: a state of bliss and/or an abode of deity or sacred reality on the one hand, and a state of spiritual impoverishment and/or an abode of evil or demonic spirits on the other. As a spatial referent, Heaven is generally considered to be "above," informed by the human experience of the sky as the expansive space or dome encompassing the earth and also including the sun, moon, and stars. Just as Heaven is "above" the earth, so then is deity "higher" than the human or earthly plane for those traditions in which Heaven is viewed as the abode of deity. On the contrary, Hell is generally regarded as a realm "below," a meaning reflected in the derivation of the English hell from the Old English, helan, with a root meaning of "hide," "cover," or "conceal." Thus, Heaven is often symbolized by light or brightness as a realm of bliss, whereas Hell is characterized as dark or shadowy, a realm of anguish and suffering.


The worldview of the ancient Hebrews, as reflected in the Hebrew scriptures, distinguished between the world above, the "heavens" (shamayin ), as the dwelling place of Yahveh, and the earth, the two comprising the universe of God's creation. The creation narrative of Genesis 13 portrays the heavens and the earth as the whole of God's creation. Under the earth was She'ol; the ambiguous term she'ol was used at times to refer to the grave or tomb itself and at other times to indicate an obscure land of shadows, the realm of the dead. Existence there was understood in largely negative terms, since in She'ol the "spirit" or "breath of life" (rua ) through which human beings were endowed by God with life was thought to have departed. Prior to the Babylonian exile of 597 bce, the dead were not thought of as having an existence in which individual identity was preserved beyond life on earth but rather were conceived as a faceless collective existing in a joyless realm.

With the rise of Judaism in the period following the fifth century bce, the Jewish understanding of heaven as an ideal relationship of the righteous with God was informed both by intercultural influences and by continuing efforts to unfold the meaning and import of the covenant relationship between the community and God. For example, life after death had been clearly and definitively envisioned by the Zoroastrians of Persia as involving a judgment of individuals at death: the righteous were destined to enjoy forever the presence of God in a realm of unending light, while the unrighteous were condemned to a torturous hell. The Greeks, both in religions such as the Orphic cults and in the thought of major philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, stressed the immortality of the soul. By the second century bce, both the resurrection of the dead and an event of final judgment were affirmed in some circles of Jewish thought. Heaven came to be regarded as the destiny of the righteous, those in vital covenant relationship with God. Multiple heavens (seven or ten) are mentioned in Jewish apocryphal literature and in teachings preserved in the rabbinical tradition. Paradise, a state of spiritual fulfillment in which the covenantal righteous enjoy an ideal relationship with God, is variously referred to as the third of seven or the seventh of ten heavens. Messianic expectations, which developed in the centuries immediately before and following the dawning of the common era, were often associated with affirmations of the resurrection of the dead and a final judgment, with the righteous destined for a heavenly paradise. In association with these developments, a place of punishment, Gehenna, was thought to await the unrighteous after death, though the period of punishment was limited in accordance with the degree of seriousness of one's transgressions.

Traditional Judaism views the final destiny of humans in terms of the three doctrines of recompense, immortality, and resurrection. Informed by the demand of conscience that virtue be rewarded and wickedness punished, the tradition holds that even if one does not encounter equity during the earthly life, it will nonetheless be met with afterward. The interpretation of the actual form of immortality, however, is permitted wide latitude in the tradition, with deathlessness envisaged as preserving individual identity and awareness (with the attending literal images of Paradise and Gehenna) or, alternatively, as a state that is impersonal and without consciousness. Similarly, resurrection has been understood as a climactic event physically reanimating the dead and including the final judgment of bliss or damnation and also as an eternal event through which the corporeality of the resurrected is transfigured into a pure spirituality.


The cardinal import of heaven and hell as components of the Christian religious vision is clearly evident in the New Testament portrayal of the completion of God's redemptive activity consummated in the manifestation of a new heaven and a new earth (Rv. 21). Not only is heaven envisioned in early Christianity as the fulfilling state of bliss and reconciled relationship with God of which the followers of Jesus are assured, but it is also the abode of the divine, where Jesus dwelled before his earthly life and to which he proceeded following his death and resurrection. Essential to the Christian confidence in a heavenly life after death in which the total uniqueness of human personality is preserved is the concomitant affirmation that God will make possible the resurrection of the dead. This belief is to be distinguished from the Greek notion (especially of Plato and Aristotle) of the immortality of the soul understood as rationality. The reality of hell as the arena presided over by Satan and his angels and as the destiny of the "cursed" was assumed by early Christians and frequently appears in the New Testament writings (e.g., Mt. 25:146). This teaching has been taken literally by many Christian thinkers through the centuries, though alternative views have occasionally been expressed. Origen (third century bce), for example, understood hell to involve not the eternal punishment of the cursed, but punishment of such duration as was necessary to provide for the restoration of all to the presence of God.

In Roman Catholic Christianity hell is deemed to be a state of unending punishment for the unrepentant who die without the grace of God as transmitted through the sacraments. This state is characterized both by absence from God's presence (poena damni ) and by the suffering of fire and other tortures (poena sensus ). The Roman Catholic concept of purgatory, defined by the councils of Florence (1439) and Trent (15451563), envisions an intermediate state after death during which there is opportunity for the expiation of venial sins and compensatory punishment for mortal sins, thus providing for the ultimate restoration of fellowship with God. This teaching, likely informed by the Jewish notion of Gehenna and the Greek notion of the realm of Hades, is correlative with rituals for the dead (prayers, oblations) intended to assure their full expiation. Salvation is understood in the Roman Catholic tradition to be a process, begun in earthly life and continuing in life beyond death, through which there will ultimately be a realization of the "beatific vision," a heavenly state of full and unqualified awareness of the presence of God, a state of spiritual perfection that cannot be attained during the earthly pilgrimage. The significance and import of the Christian teaching about heaven and hell has nowhere been given more powerful aesthetic and imaginative expression than in Dante's masterful poem the Commedia (completed 1321). Eastern Orthodox Christianity, in sharing the teaching that hell is a destiny of eternal fire and punishment awaiting the cursed and unredeemed following the Last Judgment and that heaven is the ultimate destiny of the redeemed, has placed focal emphasis on the resurrection of Jesus as assuring the resurrection of the faithful.

Protestant Christianity, though generally lacking the teaching on purgatory or intermediate states, has retained the traditional Christian teachings respecting heaven and hell, while reinterpreting theological understandings of grace and faith as they are pertinent to salvation. With the dominance of the scientific worldview in the modern era and the theories proferred by the psychological and social sciences, literal and spatial interpretations of heaven and hell have been found untenable by some Protestant thinkers. In terms of theological argument, it is contended that it is contradictory to posit hell as eternal punishment while affirming God as one who is loving and merciful and wills all to be saved and forever seeks the lost. Karl Barth (18861968), for example, rejected the entire notion of eternal damnation, and instead maintained that the central message of the church is the election of all of humanity in Jesus Christ. Heaven and hell have been reinterpreted by such thinkers as indicative of qualities of life that are conducive to or detract from the realization of the full potential of persons or, alternatively, as symbols that underscore the fundamental character of the decision of faith, in which the whole of the individual is at stake, and the freedom of that decision, through which one may choose to reject God's presence or seek a full union extending beyond the confines of the earthly life.


In the Qurʾān and the traditions of Islam are manifold descriptions of Heaven and Hell that are expressive of the centrality of judgment as an aspect of Muslim religious anthropology. Perfect justice, one of the attributes of God, will be disclosed at the Last Judgment following resurrection. God's judgment will be pronounced on the basis of an expansive record of each person's deeds. Overriding the demerits of every believer's evil deeds will be the support provided by the Muslim confession subscribed to from the heart ("There is no god but God, and Muammad is his prophet.") That judgment in turn will be followed by the entrance of the believers into Heaven and the relegation of the infidels to Hell. In a manner reminiscent of the Zoroastrian Chinvat Bridge, each person will proceed across the bridge of al-Aaraf following the judgment. This will be a felicitous crossing for the true Muslim but a travesty for the infidel, whose fall from the bridge into the pits of Hell is assured. In accordance with the will of God, Muammad will, however, recover some who fall. The portrayals of Paradise in the Qurʾān and the traditions are graphically idyllic, in no way lacking the enjoyment of sensuous pleasures and bountiful surroundings:

This is a Remembrance; and for the godfearing is a fair resort, Gardens of Eden, whereof the gates are open to them, wherein they recline, and wherein they call for fruits abundant, and sweet potions, and with them maidens restraining their glances of equal age. This is what you were promised for the Day of Reckoning; this is Our provision, unto which there is no end. (sūrah 38:5054)

Interpreters of the Muslim tradition such as al-Ghazali (d. 1111) have called attention to the accompanying spiritual components of heavenly existence, viewing all other of the manifold pleasures of Paradise to be overshadowed by the ecstatic awareness of being with God. Equally graphic are the Qurʾanic descriptions of punishment and torture in Gehenna, as indicated in the following passage:

All this; but for the insolent awaits an ill resort,
Gehenna, wherein they are roastedan evil cradling!
All this; so let them taste itboiling water and pus, and other torments of the like kind coupled together. (sūrah 38:5558)

Traditional Islam adheres to a conviction that the sufferings in Hell will be unending, though there are suggestions of a purgatorial realm from which, after a time, Muslims in need of purificatory restitution to the ummah (the Muslim community) will be recovered. Both Heaven and Hell are subdivided into seven regions in Muslim teaching, with an eighth region added to the heavenly realm of the blessed.


The religious symbolisms of heaven and hell as given expression in the religious traditions of India have a distinctive role and significance when contrasted with their multiple meanings within the contexts of the religions of West Asia and Western civilizations. The ancient Vedic literature (15001200 bce), especially the gveda (a collection of hymns associated with funereal rituals), portrays a heaven regarded as the realm of the fathers, who proceed there after death in order to be with the gods. As the practice of the funeral rite of cremation gained prominence, Agni, god of fire, was called upon to provide for the purification of the deceased. Yama, who was the first human to die and who was also the god of the dead, oversees the heavenly realm. This realm was associated with the sky and the dead were associated with the stars. Among the gods in the heavenly realm is Varua, god of the high-arched sky and a source of the order in the earthly realm. The welfare of those who have passed beyond death to heaven was associated with their participation in rituals, sacrifices, and offerings to the gods while on earth.

In heaven, the distinctiveness of personal identity is preserved, and, in close communion with the gods, those who have entered heaven enjoy the pleasures and goods they have known on earth, but in full measure. Priests and warriors were portrayed among those who enter the heavenly realm, though there was no comprehensive and systematic indexing of those who do and those who do not enjoy the goods of heaven. Though there is much ambiguity regarding human destiny in the literature of the earliest Vedas, there are suggestions that the fate of those who did not achieve a heavenly state (presumably because of a neglect of proper ritual participation, since no moral tests for entrance into heaven were suggested) is either extinction or relegation to a realm of darkness under the earth (hence, hell). In later elaborate ceremonial works, specifically the Brāhmaas composed primarily for the ritual performances of the priests, there was presented a more definitive characterization of heaven as an abode in which were experienced the joys and goodness of earthly existence, but greatly enhanced and without the limitations known before death. The quality of heavenly life was viewed as correlative with efficacious ritual performance on earth since association with the gods of sacramental ritual communion (Agni, Varua, Indra, et al.) was assured. Hell was likewise presented as a realm of retribution for ritual deficiencies.

By the era of the rise of Hinduism proper (third century bce), a quite different worldview had come to dominate the Indian scene, shaped fundamentally by the philosophical and religious ideas of the Upaniads (sixth to first centuries bce). A cyclical worldview had been given sophisticated expression. The notions of transmigration and reincarnation informed a pervasive understanding of human existence as involving, in cyclic continuity, a series of lives, deaths, and rebirths and had come to dominate a comprehensive interpretation of human existence.

Heaven and hell came to be viewed not as a vision of ultimate fulfillment or destiny, but as intermediate states intermittent with a series of earthly existences in a cycle of births and deaths (sasāra ). One's karman (Pali, kamma ), the reservoir of the consequences of thoughts, words, and deeds cumulative over the entire series of one's existences, determines the nature of the soul's passage from one earthly existence to another through one of the several levels of heaven or hell, which are thus intermediate states of varying degrees of suffering or relative bliss. In traditional Hindu cosmology, three realms (loka s)heaven, the earth, and a netherworld (sky)are supplemented by a vision of fourteen additional realms, seven of which rise above the earth ("heavens") and seven of which (or, in some instances, multiples of seven, such as twenty-one) are below the earth.

The goal of the continuing human pilgrimage was liberation and release (moka ) from the suffering associated with attachment to the samsaric cycle to the unqualified enjoyment and ultimate fulfillment of the bliss of nirvāa. Nirvāa, which is held to be resistant to definition but is accessible to experience, has been variously envisioned as the union of the soul (ātman ) with the ultimate divine reality, brahman (Śakara, eighth to ninth century ce, and the school of Advaita Vedānta), or as an unqualified communion of the soul with God (Rāmānuja, eleventh to twelfth century ce, and the school of Viitadvaita). Such fulfillment was to be achieved by the spiritual discipline of one of the pathways (mārga s, yoga s), or some combination thereof, of traditional Hinduism: jñānayoga (liberating wisdom), karmayoga (actions), rājāyoga (contemplative discipline), or bhakti (loving devotion, adoration of God, pūjā ).

The twice-born castes (brāhmaa s, katriya s, vaiśya s) had fullest access to these pathways of spiritual practice, especially the first three pathways mentioned. The bhakti movements in Hinduism stressed a mode of religious life that involved devotional and ritual practices in which adoration was centered on one of the gods of Hinduism, primarily Śiva or Viu, or one of their avatāra s (incarnations) or consorts. The rich corpus of Hindu religious literature provided an abundant resource for the edification and inspiration of bhakti devotees. The Bhagavadgītā (Song of the Blessed Lord; c. first century ce), a portion of the expansive epic Mahābhārata, portrays Ka (an avatāra of Viu, the "preserver") as worthy of a devotee's total devotion, while stressing the ideal of responsible yet disinterested action in the world. Some scholars hold that the importance of the Bhagavadgītā lies in part in its recognition of the legitimacy of bhakti as a pathway to liberation alongside of jñāna-, karma-, and rājāyoga. The other great Indian epic, the Rāmāyaa (c. fourth century bce, with the first and last of seven chapters presumed to be later additions), portrays Rāma as another avatāra of Viu worthy of devotional adoration, the accomplished practice of which results in intermediate stays in one of the heavens until the perfection of the practice leads to the perfect bliss of unqualified and unendingly blissful adoration of and communion with God (nirvāa ).


With the Hindu tradition Buddhism shares a cyclical view of history and of individual existence. The world of time and space and history, the realm of samsaric cycles, is transitory and constantly in flux. Heaven and hell are seen as parts of that transitory world, as intermediate and temporary states between one earthly existence and another. Death is thus but a transition from one earthly existence through an intermediate level of one of the heavens or hells to rebirth in yet another earthly existence. The attachment of beings to the samsaric cycle, often referred to as the "wheel of existence" and characterized by dukha (suffering, unsatisfactoriness), is caused by tā (clinging, grasping, desiring) conditioned by ignorance (avidyā ) of the Dharma, or the truth of the Middle Path as taught by the Buddha. Though tā, in the early Buddhism of India and the later Theravāda of Southeast Asia, is the ultimate cause of rebirth, one's karman determines the type and level of rebirth. In this tradition, only the enlightened ones, the arhat s, are free from the cycle of rebirths to enjoy the equanimity and the bliss of nirvāa.

The temporary aggregation of the components of ordinary experience (the skandha s: form, sensation, perception, dispositions and volitions, and consciousness, including self-consciousness) that prompt the presumption of separate person or self is dissipated at death following the experience of liberation (moka ). Short of enlightenment, there is no surcease of the continuous round of rebirths. The having-been-ness of one life, with its repository of karman, leads to the coming-into-being of another life in another realm, though it is denied that any ātman, soul or self, as a separate entity transmigrates (known as the Buddhist teaching of anātman ). Rebirth may occur in any one of the various heavens or hells, and one may be reborn as an animal, again as a human being, or in the preta realm, the realm of ghosts.

There is no one completely systematic account of the various hells in the Pali canon, the corpus of Theravāda texts known as the Tipiaka. Generally, the realm of kāmaloka, of the lower universe of sensuality, includes the various hells and the six lower heavens. The Pali Abhidhamma Piaka reports eight "hot" hells below the earth, each involving differing forms of suffering by which the consequences of bad kamma are consumed. In addition, there are sixteen minor hells attached to each of these hells. The duration of a passage through any one of these hells is not definitively established, each being correlative with the measure of the evil kamma to be consumed. Other Hīnayāna canons preserve more systematic and detailed cosmologies.

The structure of the heavenly realms in Buddhism draws upon non-Buddhist and Hindu sources, though they are reinterpreted within the Buddhist context. The six heavens of the sensual realm of kāmaloka are inhabited by the kings and gods who manifest their power through various forms of sensual experience. Included in this group is the Tuita Heaven, from which Gautama is said to have come upon entering his last earthly existence in which he experienced enlightenment, as well as the bodhisattva s of exemplary compassion and saving power.

The Buddhist heavens of the other two realms, rūpaloka (the world of form) and arūpaloka (the formless world, often referred to as the world of mind or consciousness), are accessible only by those accomplished in the practice of the discipline of meditation and spiritual endeavors. The heavens of rūpaloka are material and are inhabited by the gods who are free from sensual yearnings. They are variously numbered in different lists, in some texts enumerated as thirteen while in other texts listed as being from sixteen to eighteen, distributed in four different groups correlative with four dhyāna s (modes of meditation). The heavens of arūpaloka are likewise structured in four groups, each characterized by stages or levels of meditative attainment. For Buddhism, life in the heavenly realms is not free from involvement in the conditioned existence of samsaric cycles. The ultimate goal of enlightenment and fulfillment transcends even the highest of the heavens.

The bodhisattva motif of Mahāyāna Buddhism qualifies the ideas of both heavens and hells in the Buddhism of the "large vehicle." The bodhisattva s, moved by compassion for all beings involved in suffering (dukha ), are beings who have taken a vow not to enter nirvāa until all sentient beings can do so. They are able to manifest themselves through diverse forms and beings and in any of the realms in which there are suffering beings, even into the depths of the lowest hell, to share their merit with all who are in need of liberation and enlightenment.

In no movement of the Buddhist traditions is this emphasis on the saving power of bodhisattva s and Buddha figures more vividly expressed than in the Pure Land schools of China, Korea, and Japan. Central to this popular Buddhist movement is the figure of Amitābha (Chin., O-mi-t'o-fo; Jpn., Amida), a Buddha who has gained inexhaustible merit through countless ages of Buddhist practice and who, as a consequence, possesses infinite saving power dedicated to the salvation of all. This Lord of the Western Paradise responds beneficiently to all who invoke his name, assuring them of both protection in earthly life and passage at death to the Land of the Western Paradise, whence their full enlightenment and entry into nirvāa is assured.

The quest for immortality had developed in Chinese religious Daoism; and with its associated belief in heavens, it made for fruitful interaction with Chinese Buddhism of the Pure Land. A notable figure who did much to extend the influence of Pure Land Buddhism in China was Tanluan (c. 488c. 554) who had turned to this form of Buddhism after an extended Daoist search for the elixir of immortality. All mortals, he held, could be assured of salvation by faith in Amitābha, given expression through the recitation of his name, thus relying on his saving power.

The dominant Pure Land schools of Japan, the Jōdoshū, founded by Hōnen (d. 1212), and the Shinshū, formed by followers of a disciple of Hōnen, Shinran (d. 1263), attest to the wide appeal of this form of Buddhism, with its inviting vision of the Western Paradise. Pure Land texts, especially Saddharmapuarīka (Jpn., Hokekyō ) and the Sukhā-vatīvyūha, contain graphic and imaginative descriptions of the Western Paradise: a bountiful land without pain or suffering; abounding in pleasure and beautiful natural surroundings, with flowing rivers and lotus-filled lakes, permeated by pleasant music, adorned by exquisite gems, and where neither a notion of nor a word for hell is to be found.

Chinese Traditions

The aspiration to achieve harmony in society that has characterized all of Chinese religion and philosophy has given to Chinese understandings of heaven a unique aspect. Rooted in the most ancient traditions of China, the worship of Heaven as well as the ruler of Heaven, Shangdi, is evident as early as the Shang dynasty (15321027 bce). During the period of the Zhou dynasty (1027256 bce) the worship of Heaven, Tian, was regarded as essential for the maintenance of harmony between Heaven and earth. It is in the Confucian tradition, which formatively shaped the essential character of Chinese civilization through many centuries of relative stability, that a sophisticated articulation is found of the nature and place of Heaven.

Although Confucius's teachings and the Confucian tradition advocated the quest for harmony in human affairs, especially through the five relationships (ruler-subject, father-son, husband-wife, elder brother-younger brother, and friend-friend), as the way to perfect harmony in the cosmos, there is no doubt that basic presumptions regarding Heaven provided an ontological ground for the moral teachings to be manifest in the perfection of the junzi (sage, ideal gentleman). The focus was placed on human affairs; human beings should begin by seeking harmony in the relationships that immediately address them. Yet the underlying conviction was that if harmony is achieved in human affairs, harmony with Heaven will be assured. Thus, the full practice of li (tradition, propriety) informed by ren (human beings in relationship with each other) in the spirit of shu (reciprocity) along with the honoring of xiao (filial piety) will manifest the kind of de (perfect moral virtue and power) that is the ideal of the junzi. This is, for Confucianism, the way (tao ) of Heaven in human affairs, and the very nature and structure of the cosmos as determined by Heaven is such that all will be well if ruler and subject both revere and follow (i.e., practice) this way. Thus, though it appears that the thought of Confucianism can most accurately be characterized as primarily a social ethic, there are nonetheless cosmic and ontological dimensions grounded in its notion of Heaven. The will of heaven (tianzhi) is the primary reality and the ultimate basis of Confucian thought. Whatever happens that is not the direct responsibility of human beings is attributed to the will of Heaven.

Unrestrained speculation about the nature of Heaven was not characteristic of Confucian thought, as evidenced in the texts of the Four Books, that is, the Lunyu (Analects), the Daxue (Great Learning), the Zhong yong (Doctrine of the Mean), and the Mengzi (Book of Mencius). In certain passages it does seem to be presumed that Heaven is an impersonal force underlying the cosmos, the ultimate source of order and morality. Yet in other passages Heaven is presumed to have the capacity to understand the plight and situation of human beings, indicating a seemingly personal dimension to heaven.

Though Confucian thought was not inclined to speculate about Heaven as a destiny awaiting human beings beyond death, its emphasis on the centrality of the family afforded a natural sympathy with ritual practices of ancestral reverence. Propriety in honoring the ancestors, whose spirits survived death and whose welfare was reciprocally related to that of living persons, became an essential component of li. As indicated earlier, both Buddhists who presided over masses for the dead and religious Daoists in China subscribed to a cosmology that included levels of heavens above and hells below the earth.

Japanese Traditions

There are, in indigenous traditions of Japan, concepts analogous to those of heaven and hell in other religions. The oldest traditions recorded in the Nihongi and the Kojiki contained only nascent suggestions concerning the possibility of life beyond death, though this itself was associated with the grave. Following the sixth century, Chinese and Buddhist influences contributed to further development of religion in Japan. References are made to a realm beneath, one term for which was Yomi (literally, "darkness"). Though characterized as an undesirable realm from which beings threaten the welfare of the living, it is not clear that it is a repository of the dead. Gods dwell there, but they represent negative powers of death and disease. Later Yomi came to be conceived as a realm of punishment. More definite in later Japanese texts are the notions about a realm analogous to heaven, Ame. This is the dwelling place of the gods, and notable persons are thought to proceed there after death. Ame is a bounteous realm above the earth, made attractive by the presence of trees, flowers, and streams; its beauty is beyond anything known on earth. The importance Ame came to have is underscored by the tradition that Amaterasu, the sun goddess, visited there as well as Izanagi after his failure to recover his wife, Izanami. Japanese Buddhism shared as well the normative Mahāyāna visions of various levels of heaven and hell as intermediate states.

See Also

Ancestors; Cosmology; Judgment of the Dead; Paradise; Resurrection; Underworld.


Asin Palacios, D. Miguel. Islam and the Divine Comedy. London, 1936. Comparative analysis of Dante's Commedia and Muammad's journey and ascension.

Baillie, J. B. And the Life Everlasting. London, 1936. An examination of the Christian notion of immortality by a discerning scholar of that tradition.

Blacker, Carmen, and Michael Loese, eds. Ancient Cosmologies. London, 1975. Cosmological structures of a variety of traditions, including Jewish, Chinese, Islamic, and Greek.

Brandon, S. G. F. Man and His Destiny in the Great Religions. Manchester, 1962. This publication of the Wilde Lectures in Natural and Comparative Religion presents an overview of visions of human destiny in major religious traditions through historical and comparative analysis.

Ch'en, Kenneth. Buddhism: The Light of Asia. New York, 1968. A valuable summary interpretation of the Buddhist tradition in interaction with the various cultures of Asia, proceeding country by country.

de Bary, Wm. Theodore, ed. The Unfolding of Neo-Confucianism. New York, 1975. A good collection of essays portraying the religious aspects of neo-Confucianism in distinction from its purely moral and social functions.

Eberhard, Wolfram. Guilt and Sin in Traditional China. Berkeley, 1967. Morality as well as concepts of heaven and hell are examined in the context of popular religious movements in China.

Eliade, Mircea. The Myth of the Eternal Return, or Cosmos and History. Princeton, 1971. A comparative analysis of cyclical and linear concepts of time in history and their consequence for understanding human meaning and destiny.

Hick, John. Death and Eternal Life. London, 1976. An examination of responses to the question of what happens after death, based primarily Western sources.

Kitagawa, Joseph M. Religion in Japanese History. New York, 1966. The most complete and authoritative recent account of the religions of Japan, portraying their development and history.

MacCulloch, J. A., et al. "Blest, Abode of the." In Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 2. Edinburgh, 1909. A still valuable, though dated, collection of essays presenting images of human fulfillment in a comprehensive examination of a variety of traditions, primarily ancient and classical.

Parrinder, Geoffrey. The Indestructible Soul. London, 1973. An analysis of the structures of human existence as presented in Indian thought, including focal discussion of life after death.

Reynolds, Frank E., and Earle H. Waugh, eds. Religious Encounters with Death. University Park, Pa., 1977. A collection of essays, contributed by a number of specialists, that analyze the import and significance of the myths, ceremonies, and conceptions associated with death in a variety of traditions.

Seltzer, Robert M. Jewish People, Jewish Thought. New York, 1980. A general and comprehensive survey of Jewish experience, focusing on intellectual history from ancient to contemporary times.

Smith, Jane I., and Yvonne Haddad. The Islamic Understanding of Death and Resurrection. Albany, N.Y., 1981. A descriptive analysis of the basis elements of Muslim understanding of the judgment and destiny of individuals.

Zimmer, Heinrich. Philosophies of India. New York, 1956. A comprehensive and illuminating treatment of the classical thought-systems of India.

New Sources

Almond, Philip C. Heaven and Hell in Enlightenment England. New York, 1994.

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

Butler, Jonathan M. Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling: Heaven and Hell in American Revivalism. Chicago Studies in the History of American Religion 3. Brooklyn, 1991.

Emerson, Jan Swango, and Hugh Feiss. Imaging Heaven in the Middle Ages. New York, 2000.

Eno, Robert. The Confucian Creation of Heaven: Philosophy and the Defense of Ritual Mastery. Albany, 1990.

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

Kvanvig, Jonathan L. The Problem of Hell. New York, 1993.

Wright, J. Edward. The Early History of Heaven. New York, 2000.

Linda M. Tober (1987)

F. Stanley Lusby (1987)

Revised Bibliography

Heaven and Hell

views updated May 08 2018


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 Puranacharacterizes 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

Heaven and Hell (Asian Focus)

views updated May 23 2018


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