Those questions are strongly related to ideological, historical roots or beginnings. Before I continue I must make it clear that I personally don’t believe in a literal heaven, hell or transitional stages in-between. However, this does not necessitate that we believe them to be “literal places” to make the inquiry to the question relevant to our lives. What we do find is, from an historical context, the evolution of hell is clearly defined and more closely relates to a "state of being," a "frame of mind," a "whatsoever a man thinketh in his heart" kind of thing.
The intention of this piece is not to convince anyone to believe or disbelieve in a hell. However, to be able to intelligently discuss a thing it is vital to know something of that things inception. Even the Bible, which most people in the Occident use as a basis for their own particular belief in hell, was not created in a vacuum. The authors and characters of the Holy Writ all brought to the table their concept of hell that was prevalent in their day.
When one looks at hell's beginnings and how it evolved from generation to generation it is quite fascinating. What is more interesting is that those interested can go back to a time when hell wasn't even a factor in the course of human events. In what follows some may be shocked to find that the very founding father of the Jewish faith, Abraham, did not know of, believe in, or would have conceived of such a place of torment as an eternal hell.
The idea of hell has its beginning in the annals of time and over the centuries it has evolved into this magnificent foreboding dwelling place that literally millions of people have come to accept and fear today.
Provided for your intellectual and spiritual quest is an outline of hell's origins followed by some interesting and, hopefully, helpful reference material for those who wish to really study the subject in greater detail for themselves.
[NOTE: All dates used in the outline are BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era)]
Pre-Biblical/Pre-History - ? - 1800 BCE From the first days of humanity to Abraham .
In this period of human history the concept of The "Myth of Eternal Return - The Miracle of Continuous Rising was born. It was fostered by humanity's daily witness of the rising and falling of the Sun and the waning and waxing of the Moon . From those men developed measurements of monthly and yearly cycles. By observation it was determined that humanity was ruled by a cycle of organic birth, death and rebirth .
Over time, when men allowed themselves to organize into groups leaders were created and from that the concept of the need for sacrifice to appease the gods. The Sacrifice of God-Kings ritual was instituted and from this the ideology of The Eternal Journey of the River of Life was formulated. Men began to have a sense of something existing beyond the physical life, at least for their kings. It would be some time before this eternal existence would be seen as something all humans shared in. By the time of the first civilizations in Sumer and Egypt the Sumerian God-King annual and seasonal sacrifices were instituted and shortly after that the Egyptian Pharaoh God-King entombments began. It was during this early period in human civilized life that archeological evidence has pointed to the idea that all men, from Pharaoh to common slave had a part in an afterlife. However, except for the God-Kings that life after death was still quite vague. The rudimentary concept of an afterlife can be seen in the ritual known as The Feeding of the Entombed Dead. An example of this is found in Deuteronomy (Devarim) 26:1.
The Early Biblical Period - The Tribe, 1800 - 1250 BCE - Abraham to Joshua saw the rise of the Family Tomb or Cave [Genesis (Bereshit) 25:8; 35:29; 49:29-31,33; Numbers (B'Midbar) 27:13]. In this early Biblical period throughout the middle and near east death meant one thing; the entrance into the ancestral realm of the family tomb so that upon departing from this world he (or she) would be "gathered to his people."
In the Pre-Exilic Period or the time of nation-building in Israel, 1250 - 586 BCE from Joshua to the Babylonian Exile new and different ideas about the afterlife began to slowly develop. These changes did not take place immediately but in successive increments over the next 700 years or so and were brought about by many factors, mostly the result of the incorporation of ideas and practices of those outside the tribes of Israel. It is during this period that The Tribe has been replaced by The Nation causing a paradigm shift in the political-social-religious consciousness of that nation. This shift greatly affected the views of death and what takes place in the afterlife.
It is during this long period of history that the concept of Sheol is born [Genesis (Bereshit) 42:38]- Isaiah (Yeshayahu) 5:15; 14:11; Psalm (Tehillim) 141:7]. Sheol was borrowed from the Mesopotamian - ARALU - a place of the dead - located beneath the earth. Job's description of Sheol found in Job (Eyov) 10:21-22 is identical to the Babylonian kur-nu-gr-a (land of no return). Job lived in that part of Mesopotamia known as the city of Uz located in current day Iraq.
The Post-Exilic Period - To Scatter & Re-Gather, 587 - 200 BCE extends from the Babylonian Exile to the Maccabean Revolt against the intrusion of Greco-Syrian invasion and influence in Israel. The loss of the two southern kingdoms of Judah and Benjamin (Y'huda, Benyamin) to Babylonian captivity put a sword through the heart of the Jewish Nation that it hasn't fully recovered from to this very day. The nation was no more, its central focus, the Temple of Solomon, was rubble. A new shift in the thinking among the people and the prophets began to take place. With this shift Sheol slowly takes on new responsibilities in successive stages.
Sheol's new role is The Realm of Retribution. It has evolved into more than just the grave below the ground. It has developed into a place of chastisement for Israel's enemies [Isaiah (Yeshayahu) 14:9, 15; Ezekiel (Chizkiyahu) 32:18 2] and eventually the place where individual responsiblity and retribution are worked out after physical death [Jeremiah (Yirmeyahu) 31:20-30; Ezekiel (Chizkiyahu) 18:4,20].
During the Post Biblical and Pre-Christian Period, roughly 200 BCE to 2 CE the Greek influence throughout the middle and near east was inclusive. There was no one in the West and Middle East that escaped this Hellenistic intrusion. The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha are the Hellenized Jewish writings of this period. It is these writings, along with the teachings of the later Essenes, Sadducees and Pharisees that have impacted, greater than any other factor, the newly developing concepts of hell that would be fully entrenched by 30 CE (the time of Jesus and his disciples). It is from this period that the idea developed that Sheol was divided into two distinct sections - A side for the wicked dead called Gehenna (Gehinnom); and a side for the righteous dead called Gan Eden - Garden of Eden (a.k.a. Abraham's Bosom). Gehenna and Sheol were used interchangebly in the early apocryphal period, however by the end of this period Sheol had all but disappeared. Traditions about Gehenna evolved and eventually took on mythical proportions in later Rabbinic and Kabbalistic writings. Over time it developed into a place of torment, filled with ravenous wolves, unquenchable flame and thirst, maggots, cancor worms and a continuous darkness of sleepless agony. By the historical time of the man named Jesus this was the predominant view held by most religious Jews.
The one difference that has developed since then between the Jewish, Christian and Moslem concept of hell is this:
In Jewish tradition, while hell is an eternal state, it is not the eternal habitation for the individual. The predominate view held in pre-Rabbinic and Rabbinic Judaism is that Gehenna, or hell, is not just punitive in nature but its primary purpose is to serve as a place of purgation, atonement, and purification. According to the Talmud in Midrash Pesikta Rabbati 53:2, "after going down to Gehenna and receiving the punishment due him, the sinner is forgiven from all his iniquities, and like an arrow from the bow is flung from Gehenna." Then according to Exodus Rabbah 7:4 the soul having been sufficiently purified is able to enter the beautiful realm of Gan Eden. These were the common views held by most religious Jews and Christian Jews until approximately 135 CE. There was always division between the two groups, but at that time a great division occurred aided by the final Roman destruction of the Simon Bar Kochba revolt. Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity went their very separate and divergent ways.
With the massive influx of non-Jewish thought coming into the Christian Church by the 4th century CE, Messianic Jewish thought and influence died out and was completely replaced by St. Augustine's theology as reflected in his famous (some may call it infamous) eschatological work entitled "City of God." His concept of hell as an eternal place of suffering, as well as, all his other themes have influenced Western Christian thought to this very day. This idea of hell finally reached its zenith in the 13th century CE when the famous poet Dante, in his literary masterpiece "Divine Comedy" mapped out in a very picturesque graphic display the images of hell. What few realize is just how great these two works of antiquity have colored their concept of hell.
Hell as it has come to be known today evolved slowly over the last 10,000 years. It originally was nothing more than a burial place or family tomb for a nomadic tribal peoples that was totally devoid of any concepts of judgment, retribution and was amoral in its view. It then developed into a place for the nation's dead, evolving later as a place of retribution for the nation's enemies. This eventually led to a place of retribution for all individuals. Eventually for the Jews it became the place of retribution, purgation, atonement and purification. A place to leave for the joys of Gan Eden. For the Christian and Moslem it became a place for the unbelieving throng and infidel to be tortured for all eternity with unimaginable torments.
The following is a list of references (some were quoted from in the above text) that I hope you will find helpful in your own study of this intriguing subject.
The Tenach - Written Scripture, The Talmud & Midrash - The Oral Scripture, The Jewish New Testament - Translated by David H. Stern, Jewish Views of the Afterlife - by Simcha Paull Raphael, Dante's Divine Comedy, City of God - by St. Augustine , Oriental Mythology, The Masks of God - by Joseph Campbell, The Language of Judaism - by Simon Glustrom , The Book of Jewish Wisdom, The Talmud of the Well Considered Life - Jacob Neuser & Naom M.M. Neuser