Death has always had a key role in almost all religions and myths. The unanswerable question on most people’s minds is “What happens after death?” Depending on your own personal beliefs and convictions, the way you live your life now will dictate your ultimate fate after death. In Greek mythology, people travel to the Underworld after passing away, where as Catholics believe that you will travel either to heaven or to hell after your death. Greek mythology and Catholicism have many similarities and differences in their own interpretations of heaven and hell.
To begin with, both ideologies have varied descriptions of their afterlives. Catholics believe in a separate heaven and hell. These two areas exist in different areas from each other and would never be found together. However, the Greeks believed that the Underworld contained the Elysian Fields, their version of heaven or paradise, as well as Tartarus, or hell. They both have separate destinations for those who were deemed evil and those who were righteous, but exactly where these different souls go, is the source of quite a few variations.
Heaven does not receive a very clear description in the bible; instead it is described as more of a feeling or a state of being. Those who go to heaven are usually described as being surrounded by love and eternal happiness. Heaven is the ultimate goal for Christians where they can become fully like God. In the Aeneid, Vergil describes Elysium as a place where few occupy happy fields. Plato describes those who have returned from heaven as describing it as a place of indescribable beauty. Both the Christians and the Greeks see heaven as a place where the worthy and the righteous proceed to after death but their purpose is not exactly the same.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there has to be a place where the sinners and the evil doers travel to as well. Christians call this destination hell, while the Greeks call it Tartarus, but they are both quite similar in areas. Images of fire and burning are related to both as is images of torture. The bible says that “…the fearful, and unbelieving…shall have their part in the lake of fire.” Tartarus also has the images of fire and torture linked to it as well, according to Vergil, Tartarus is seething with flames as well. The differences between hell and Tartarus are quite numerous however. Christians believe that hell is characterized by the absence of Gods presence and by the suffering of fire and other tortures. The Greeks believed that Tartarus was also a place where extreme torture took place but it was also described as a very concrete place containing rivers, judges, certain Gods and other people as well. Christians do not have such a detailed account of their perceived hell.
One vast difference between the Underworld and heaven and hell is the amount of time people spent in them. Christian beliefs dictate that hell is “a condition of eternal punishment for sin.” This means that if you committed a great sin you were destined to remain in the fiery depths of hell for eternity, you could never leave or escape. It was the same for heaven as well, if you were worthy you would remain there forever. Greeks believed that your time in the Underworld was limited and you did not remain there for eternity. The only exception to this was for those who did unspeakable crimes or acts of hubris, and they were tortured in various ways for eternity. For the rest of the inhabitants of the underworld remain there for one thousand years, ten times their natural life, and then, “the god calls all these in a great throng to the river Lethe, where, of course, they are made to forget so that they might begin to wish to return to bodies and see again the vault of heaven.” These souls have a chance to choose a new life, be it human or animal, and return to earth. Christians do not believe that you are reincarnated after you die, once you are in heaven or hell, that is your final destination and you will never return to earth.
Another similarity between the Underworld and heaven and hell is the idea of a place of limbo or purgatory. In ancient Greece, if someone did not receive a proper burial, their soul could be trapped in a state that is in neither heaven nor hell. Instead they must wander for one hundred years before they will be allowed onto the ferry that will transport them to their ultimate purpose. Christians also believe that souls can also become trapped in a state called limbo. Limbo is said to contain souls that did not deserve to join the beauty of heaven but also did not deserve the punishment of hell. They would be excluded from eternal happiness but were given a form of natural happiness, like that which we experience on earth. An example of a soul that could become trapped in limbo is an unbaptized infant as it would be born with original sin but would never have committed an actual sin.
A common misconception of hell, in a Christian perspective, is that it is ruled over by Satan, just like Hades rules over the Underworld. However, Satan is seen more as a tempter, who will try to tempt you to commit a sin. He is more closely linked with temptation and evil than with hell. Greeks believe that Hades and his wife Persephone rule over the Underworld but they are not associated as being demons or the devil. It is simply their job to rule over the dead in the Underworld just as Zeus rules on Olympus, or as Poseidon rules over the sea. Hades is not associated with temptation or evil, those souls that reside in Elysium are also under his rule. Christians see heaven and hell as two completely separate places, and their God would not be found down in hell.
Finally, the very idea that heaven and hell both reside in the Underworld is quite the opposite of Christian beliefs. Most Christians think of heaven as being a place up in a higher plane than that which they are on. Hell is thereby thought of as being somewhere in the depths of the earth. The two would never be referred to as lying side by side. They are also more commonly thought of as a state of being, rather that an actual place. In much of ancient Greece’s myths, certain characters go on a quest for some purpose to the Underworld and they usually arrive there through a long cave of some sort. This can mean that the Underworld lies very near the earth and is even a part of it.
Although ancient Greece’s myths and Christianity share many of the same concepts of heaven and hell, many of their ideas are quite different. They both believe that the good go to heaven and the evil go to hell, but what these places look like and what there purposes are contain many dissimilarities. While the Greek myths tend to portray the Underworld as an actual place with real structure, Christians prefer to see heaven and hell as ideas or concepts rather than a concrete place that can be found on or near earth.