People may be enamoured of heaven, but they're fascinated by hell. And the more frightening ministers paint the place, the more people want to take a peek. The devil has a knack for being seductive.

By Google search, there are 365 million references to "hell" versus only 24.1 million for "heaven." That makes hell 15 times more popular than heaven — at least among Internet users. An AARP Magazine survey of Americans age 50 and older in 2007 revealed that 86 percent of those polled believe in heaven while only 70 percent believe in a hell. Of those, 42 percent believe it is a place, while 43 percent see it as a state of mind.

So what's it supposed to be like down there?

Traditional Christian belief centers on notions of torment and punishment for the wicked or unworthy — the Jonathan Edwards image of a spider dangling precariously over a bonfire.

The Italian poet Dante pictured hell as a deep, funnel-shaped cavity with round sides. On the sides were terraces with steep drop-offs that contained four rivers leading to the burning and bottomless pit of the devil.

Jean Paul Sarte, the existential, famously said, "Hell is other people."

Various churches have different beliefs about hell, some literal and some more symbolic.

The Rev. Tom Goldsmith of Salt Lake's First Unitarian Church said hell is not literally a place. He referred to a Unitarian belief from past ages where "hell is an absence of hope."

"We need to balance hell and hope continually," the Rev. Goldsmith said. "It (hell) is not a geographic location but a matter of one's spirit when they've lost hope or reason for living."

When a person enters this kind of hell, the danger is they can terminate their life, he said.

The Rev. Steve Goodier, pastor of Salt Lake's Christ United Methodist Church, said you'll receive a full spectrum of different answers when you ask United Methodists about hell.

"It goes from a metaphor to it's what you make it," he said. "United Methodists tend to be more metaphorical, though some churches use hell as a fear tactic. We tend not to be heavy-handed."

"You could call 10 Presbyterian ministers, and you'd probably get 10 different views of hell," the Rev. Marvin Goote, executive director of the Presbytery of Utah, told the Deseret News several years ago.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, "Hell (infernus) in theological usage is a place of punishment after death. Theologians distinguish four meanings of the term hell:

• Hell in the strict sense, or the place of punishment for the damned, be they demons or men.

• The limbo of infants (limbus parvulorum), where those who die in original sin alone, and without personal mortal sin, are confined and undergo some kind of punishment.

• The limbo of the Fathers (limbus patrum), in which the souls of the just who died before Christ awaited their admission to heaven; for in the meantime heaven was closed against them in punishment for the sin of Adam.

• Purgatory, where the just, who die in venial sin or who still owe a debt of temporal punishment for sin, are cleansed by suffering before their admission to heaven.

The Encyclopedia notes that "pool of fire," "place of torments," "abyss," "furnace of fire," "unquenchable fire," "everlasting fire," "exterior darkness" and even "storm of darkness" are other terms used for hell in the New Testament.

The Catholic encyclopedia stresses, "St. Chrysostom reminds us: 'We must not ask where hell is, but how we are to escape it."'

St. Augustine stated: "It is my opinion that the nature of hell-fire and the location of hell are known to no man unless the Holy Ghost made it known to him by a special revelation."

The Catholic Church also professes its belief in the Athanasian Creed: "They that have done good shall go into life everlasting, and they that have done evil into everlasting fire."

Catholics also believe that God sends no one to hell, they choose to go. If you believe in free will, then you must believe in hell, as the two are intertwined.

Jehovah's Witnesses have a different belief in hell than most other Christian religions:

"The Bible hell ... is the common grave of mankind where good people as well as bad ones go," The Watchtower Web site states.

"Since the dead have no conscious existence, hell cannot be a fiery place of torment where the wicked suffer after death."

Witnesses believe this hell will also be emptied in the future (Revelation 20:3).

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe in at least "three senses of hell," according to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism:

1. The condition of misery which may attend a person in mortality from disobedience to divine law.

2. The miserable, but temporary, state in the world of spirits as some await the resurrection.

3. The permanent habitation of the Sons of Perdition, who suffer the second spiritual death (by denying the Holy Ghost) and who remain in hell even after the resurrection.

The Prophet Joseph Smith gave this description of hell, as recorded in the Encyclopedia:

"A man is his own tormenter and his own condemner. Hence the saying: They shall go into the lake that burns with fire and brimstone. The torment of disappointment in the mind of man is as exquisite as a lake burning with fire and brimstone."

Doctrine and Covenants 76:84 says of the lowest kingdom, the telestial, "These are they who are thrust down to hell."

The ultimate hell, according to President Joseph Fielding Smith in "Answers of Gospel Questions," is: "where those who once knew the truth and had the testimony of it and then turned away and blasphemed the name of Jesus Christ (as Sons of Perdition), will go."

The one religions absolute on the subject appears to be that hell — literal or metaphorical — is not a place any sane person would choose to go.


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