Going Through Hell (and Outsmarting the Devil)

What is hell? Is it a physical place that we go to in order to receive punishment? Or is it, perhaps, a human experience that our ancestors have tried to explain by using metaphors of terrifying worlds of torture? Many people these days would argue against the existence of a physical ‘hell realm’ where we suffer eternal damnation under the reign of the Devil, thinking that it’s nothing more than a myth to keep people in line. While others firmly believe that, in the afterlife, we will face the gates of hell, if we behave badly on Earth.

But no matter where we end up after we die; the metaphor of hell can be an opportunity to deal with these innate characteristics of the human experience, like physical pain, loneliness, exclusion, and other physical circumstances. This video explores the concept of hell, the differences between the ‘inner hell’ and the hell as ‘place’ in the afterlife, and how we can get through hell by outsmarting the Devil.

The realms of Hell

Hell. What is it? And what does it look like? So far, humanity has come up with countless descriptions of hell; the idea of a place of suffering and torture that appears in several religions and mythologies. The Hebrew Bible describes a location where the dead go, called Sheol, which we could translate as ‘underworld’, and is described as dark and secluded. Some interpretations of Sheol state that it’s a place of punishment for the wicked.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes hell as a definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed, and those who descend in hell suffer the punishments of “eternal fire”. This idea of hell as a place of fire probably comes from the word Gehenna, which refers to a valley outside the old city of Jerusalem where the kings of Judah sacrificed their children in a burning heap.

Gehenna is also related to the Islamic concept of hell called Jahannam, which is a place divided into seven layers filled with fire, boiling water, fallen angels, and countless different torments to punish the sinners, hypocrites, non-believers and other enemies of Islam. In Buddhism, we see a somewhat comparable idea of hell, describing different ‘hell realms’ called Narakas that can be categorized as either hot or cold. For example, Arbuda is one of the cold Narakas, which appears to us as a dark stormy frozen plain where the inhabitants walk around naked, suffering from blisters on their bodies because of the cold.

Another form of hell we can find in Greek mythology, namely, in the story of Sisyphus who was condemned by the Gods to push a rock uphill for eternity. But we can also find modern ideas of hell in popular culture. An example of this we’ll find in the series Black Mirror. The episode Black Museum tells a story about a comatose woman named Carrie whose consciousness is downloaded into a toy monkey, so she can still be with her child.

Unfortunately, the child is quickly bored by the toy monkey. Moreover, this technology turns out to be illegal, so the maker, Rolo, is fired, and takes the monkey with him and puts it in a museum for visitors to see, which puts Carrie (who’s fully aware) in solitary confinement of indefinite duration within a computer chip.

Hell on earth

Now, a question we could ask in regards to those who believe in hell as a ‘place’ where we go to after we die, is the following: is reality not bad enough? In other words: why do many people need the threat of ‘suffering hereafter’ to keep their behavior in check? Why is the prospect of punishment in the afterlife so necessary, when it’s apparent that there’s plenty of suffering in this world, and in this life, as well? It’s probably because ‘hell on earth, as we could call it, and the road into this hell on earth, is much more subtle than this in-your-face image of an icy cold or fiery-hot wasteland, ruled by evil forces, where there’s nothing but torture and misery. 

But all these different forms of hell that we’ve previously described, all these places, from the dark frozen plane of Arbuda, to the lonely imprisonment in a toy monkey, have something in common: something that we can find here, on earth, as well, which is pain. As a Buddhist monk, Ajahn Sona boldly states: “hell is pain.” When we look at our experiences on earth, we cannot deny that pain is an inherent part of existence. Therefore, hell is part of life. Unfortunately, a significant amount of people experience tremendous pain in their lifetime, and we could say that they reside in hell on earth. 

But there’s something curious about human suffering, which is that not so much the circumstances decide the degree of suffering, but the way our minds process the circumstances. Buddhism, for example, has a strong case for the idea that hell is experienced on Earth. Even though Buddhists are divided about the fact whether or not the hell realms truly exist, they’d agree that humans will experience pain in this realm, when they don’t follow the right path. Similarly, Stoic philosophy supports the idea that vice leads to misery, while virtue leads to happiness. Thus, we could say that the ‘Stoic inferno’ is a life of vice and that one reaps the fruits of unethical behavior in this life.

In Buddhism as well as Stoicism, the right path involves a right mindset: seeing the reality of life, accepting it rather than fighting it, and the realization that suffering depends on the mind, and how we perceive things. “All experiences are preceded by mind,,” the Buddha stated, meaning that hell cannot exist without the mind creating it. Like beauty, hell is in the eye of the beholder. That explains why some people enjoy circumstances, that others might view as horrible. And that’s why someone who enjoys taking ice baths, might actually like being in the Buddhist hell realm of Arbuda, and someone who’s fully enlightened would be able to endure being stuck in a toy monkey for an indefinite amount of time.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should engage in unwholesome behavior, and create our hell deliberately. Quite the opposite. It means that we create light in the darkness that already surrounds us, by making the best out of terrible circumstances in this life and beyond, including eternal damnation. This is the key, not only to conquer a personal hell but also to outsmart the Devil, so to speak, if we do end up in the abyss of eternal fire.

Outsmarting the Devil

Albert Camus was concerned with Sysiphus’ tragic faith and makes us aware that the human condition isn’t very different from his soul-crushing task. As we’re part of a meaningless existence that we didn’t choose to be in, it’s not uncommon that we try to escape this misery by killing ourselves; even if it’s just ‘philosophically’. But in the face of an indifferent universe, there is something that lies in our power, which is the freedom to enjoy whatever misery we find ourselves in. According to Camus, we must imagine Sysiphus happy.

The hell of Sysiphus is quite comparable to the Christian idea of eternal damnation. Imagine that, after we die, we are indeed condemned to everlasting slavery under the yoke of lucifer, and that our only prospect is roaming around in the sweltering pits. Every day we’re getting tortured, thrown into a pool of lava, our eyes poked out by enormous chickens, and eaten alive by rats and demons. At least we don’t have to worry about death, because dead is what we already are. Thus, the mutilation of our bodies has become meaningless and not something to be feared.

Moreover, the hedonic treadmill works in reverse as well, meaning that regardless of the circumstances, humans have the tendency to adapt to a relatively stable level of happiness. This kind of takes away the power of this idea that certain circumstances will lead to continuous suffering, as ongoing pain is something we, eventually, get used to. And, especially when there’s no hope for change in eternity, we might as well fully enjoy the cards we’re dealt with.

So, a method for outsmarting the Devil, metaphorically or not, is to rebel against him by laughing at his attempts to make us suffer, enjoying the tortures he puts us through, and wishing for nothing else than being thrown into a pit and pierced by spikes, all day, every day, while maintaining our equanimity like Epicurus, who died a slow painful death caused by a bladder stone, and described the last day of his life, while suffering from immense pain, as “a happy day”.

Thus, Epicurus shows that the same recipe works for hell on earth as well. With the right mindset, we can find joy in even the worst of places if change or escape are no options. It’s a bit like the character Meursault in Albert Camus’ novel the Stranger, who decides to fully enjoy the indifference of the world, which makes the last moments before his execution bittersweet. If our minds can flip the script on Earth, they can do it anywhere; in heaven, in hell, on Mars, it doesn’t matter. Pain cannot exist without pleasure, and in darkness, there’s always an opportunity for light.

We outsmart the Devil by turning Hell into Paradise.

Thank you for watching.