Letter: Hell in the ancient world

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The Independent Online
Sir: It is good to see Hyam Maccoby ranging so widely in his survey of the origins of the idea of Hell (letter, 24 December). In my view, however, he does not range widely enough.

He should have ventured into the second millennium BC when, the evidence from Ancient Egypt shows, belief in a fiery Hell was earnestly held. It is massively attested in both texts and iconography and is firmly linked to the doctrine of divine judgement after death. I have examined this belief in my book The Divine Verdict (Leiden, 1991), comparing the later parallel beliefs in other cultures. The priority of the Egyptian concept is beyond question.

According to the Egyptian doctrine, the damned suffer manifold and agonising tortures, but they end in annihilation. Eternal torment is not suggested. It seems that this sinister refinement was first produced by the Judaic idea of the fiery Hell of Gehenna, which was subsumed by Christianity. I accept Mr Maccoby's claim that the idea was modified in later Judaism, whereas in the Christian tradition it was unhappily magnified.

Yours faithfully,


University of Wales


30 December