I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
In Hell and Damnation, bestselling author Marq de Villiers takes readers on a journey into the strange richness of the human imaginings of hell, deep into time and across many faiths, back into early Egypt and the 5,000-year-old Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh. This urbane, funny, and deeply researched guide ventures well beyond the Nine Circles of Dante's Hell and the many medieval Christian visions into the hellish descriptions in Islam, Buddhism, Jewish legend, Japanese traditions, and more.
My enjoyment of this book probably suffered from the fact that I finally got it through my library during the summer months. Some subjects don’t lend themselves to summertime reading and Hell and damnation are two of those subjects. Nevertheless, it was an interesting read (especially since I’m reading Terry Goodkind’s Stone of Tears at the same time and it seems that he was reading the section on the tortures of Hell to provide the plot for his novel.)
It is remarkable how several religions have come up with the same kinds of ideas about the afterlife. The Buddhists have lots of different hells for lots of different sins, but they are pretty much self-service establishments--no one is overseeing your punishment. Christianity and Islam don’t much trust sinner to administer their own penalties and have awarded that role to Satan otherwise known as the Devil.
The history of Hell and the Devil are also fascinating, as scholars sort out how many of those details are cribbed from the Ancient Greeks & Romans, not to mention the Caananites who rivaled the early Jews. Most of the details which have come to be accepted by fundamentalists seem to come from literature external to the Bible, which I am willing to bet that not many of them realize.
Strangely, humans don’t seem to have much imagination when it comes to Heaven, as witnessed by the final chapter of the book. The descriptions of life and activities in Heaven are quite lacklustre verging on downright boring.
An interesting partner to a book that I recently read, Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead, about saintly relics. Both books are written with scholarly interest, although both authors display a sense of humour towards their subjects.