"The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven."
Every religion has its own take on what happens when you die, but what if they were all
right? An increasingly popular trope in fantasy novels is the idea that whatever you expect to happen when you die is pretty much what you get - effectively, Your Mind Makes It Real
So if you believe that your soul will remain chained to the karmic wheel
and you'll be reincarnated
as a cow, then that's what will happen. If you believe you'll sit at the right hand of God
and sing hosannahs, that's what will happen. If you believe there is nothing after death, then all you'll find is nothing
. If you believe that you'll become
nothing after death, then that's just what you'll do or not do rather
. If you believe in Fire and Brimstone Hell
, but don't see yourself as worthy of escaping it, then down you go. Of course, it means generally good but unduly guilt-ridden people will go to Hell
, while people that spend their lives picketing funerals will go to Heaven
, but nobody said it was fair
Modern theologians and Christian apologists reject Fire and Brimstone Hell
as the prime reason why atheists denounce God as a corrupt tyrannical dictator
. During the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, they proposed a new idea: Eternal Separation
. They proposed the the idea that while God
(or other supernatural judge) does send souls who have rejected him to a place far away from him, the only "inherent and eternal" punishment in this place is its complete, total and most of all voluntary
separation from God. No fire, no brimstone, no demons with pitchforks, no Ironic Hell
hilarity is actually ordained by the powers that be. However, one's own remorse, spite or depression inevitably makes the place into something similar to what we usually think of as Hell. Hell is not a literal place of eternal fire and brimstone
, but a metaphor for a psychological state of mind suffering from angst, remorse, pessimism and depression. The mind is its own place, can make a Heaven out of Hell or a Hell out of Heaven.
If you are a Pessimist
, then you would expect the worst out of everything
, and if you expect the worst out of everything, then you would think that you are in an inescapable Hell
and therefore succumb to Absolute Despair
. If you made a depressing suicidal tragic
life full of regrets and unwanted memories, then the replay of these memories would Mind Rape
you to Absolute Despair Event Horizon
, and you would become a Pessimist with low self-esteem.
Your pessimism would then generate an isolated Pocket Dimension
within an impenetrable Absolute Terror Field
or Witch Barrier
that isolates yourself from the hope and light of God, other souls, or the virtues they represent, for all of eternity or until you somehow manage to tear away your self-inflicted torment and break free
This can be done as a way to explain away the logical contradiction between an all forgiving God and Hell existing, as Hell is nothing more than what a person inflicts upon themselves, which God can't stop without taking away their Free Will. God can technically be all forgiving and the Fallen can come back to Heaven if they want to. This is demonstrated by the Parable of the Prodigal Son
courtesy of Jesus
himself. The Fallen left God thinking that it is "Better to Reign in Hell than serve in Heaven
," but eventually realized the futility of their ways, and God is more than happy to accept them back and forgive them. Adherents of Universal Reconciliation
take this further and say that Eternal Separation isn't eternal. If God is all forgiving, and you asked for forgiveness, then God is more than happy to forgive you and the eternal separation won't last. Only the Fallen's own pride and hatred are the very factors that keep them from doing just that, delaying their salvation. For this reason, univeralism is incompatiable with self-inflicted damnation, for if the person believes they will cease to exist
, they can never be reconciled, for there is no one there to forgive
A literal version of this trope can result from Reality Warping Is Not a Toy
, when a Reality Warper
consciously or subconsciously creates their own hell.
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Anime and Manga
- In Hell Girl, each person's vision of hell is what hell looks like to them when Ai Enma comes to take them away.
- The movie Night on the Galactic Railroad deals with a vision of the afterlife which seems at least partly based on where people believe they should go. One of the protagonists has a ticket to "the one True Heaven" (which isn't reached until the very end of the film). However, earlier in the film, a bunch of Christian Titanic victims arrive on the train, which lets them off at "the Southern Cross", a pious - and apparently ersatz - "Christian" version of heaven filled with robed figures making their way towards a giant, glowing cross.
- Almost everyone in Revolutionary Girl Utena for being too involved in their own troubles to do the one thing which can actually save them, but especially Anthy until the end of the series.
- The third option in Skyhigh.
- The ultimate fate of Younger Toguro, Noble Demon villain in YuYu Hakusho, is practically a Tear Jerker due to this: As his crimes were the result of extenuating circumstances, Koenma tells him he's eligible for a less severe punishment. Toguro, however, has far too heavy a conscience to accept, and instead demands to be sent to a specific part of Hell - one that he knows will be ten thousand years of unspeakable pain, followed by Cessation of Existence. The last time he's ever seen in the series, he's walking through the door leading to it.
- An interesting twist in Hell's Angels. The story is set in Hell, but it is later mentioned that souls' ultimate destiny is Reincarnation, and Hell (and possibly Heaven too) only exist because Abel's grudge of being killed by Cain extended to all of humanity. He created the afterlife and forced people to believe in it by means of philosophy and religion. Those who felt guilty in life went straight to Hell. The main character comes to Hell with her mortal body by accident (?) and puts a stop to all this.
- In Shaman King souls merge with the Great Spirit when they die, moving into various "communities" within it. What community you end up in depends on your personality. Chocolove ends up in a realm of suffering due to his unresolved guilt over his previous murders.
- In a Sufi parable a king once meets a dervish (a wandering monk) and asks him about where he's been to. "To Hell," - answers the dervish, - "I needed to light my smoke pipe, so I decided to go and ask them for some fire." "So," - says the king, - "any luck?" "Nope," - answers the dervish, - "they didn't have any. They said everybody brings their own."
- As the quote at the top of the page suggests, Satan in Paradise Lost is suffering from one of these. While Hell is described as an actual location, eternally immersed in fire, Satan shrugs this off, proclaiming "'Tis better to reign in hell than serve in Heaven!" while preaching Enlightenment ideas such as Democracy, Antimonarchism and Egalitarianism. However, people apparently didn't realize that Satan was only trying to fool himself, especially with his hubristic desire to rule alone contradicting the egalitarian rhetoric he had spoken earlier. The self inflicted part comes later when he sees the Earth, and how beautiful it is, and wishes he could undo his rebellion, because he sees that he has been deluding himself. However, his immense pride remains his fatal flaw, as he is incapable to accept that he is wrong, and decides that if he must suffer Hell for his pride, then so should others.
- Older Than Print: Though the rest of the Inferno delights in Ironic Hell, Dante demonstrates how Satan, at the center of Hell in its deepest circle, is in the worst self-inflicted Hell of all: his six wings flap constantly, freezing the lake around him and leaving him stuck fast in the ice. Why does he keep flapping his wings? Because he wants to return to Heaven. Where did the water of the frozen lake come from? They are Satan's tears, as he is weeping; wishing he could undo his betrayal.
- The Night's Dawn Trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton.
- The Discworld books exploit and subvert this concept in all kinds of ways, including (in Interesting Times) a part-time barbarian qualifying for a Valhalla equivalent because he sort of half-believed in his colleagues' beliefs, and a man who did not believe in ghosts being pursued through the afterlife by his victims because they believe in him.
- Many who hit the afterlife are confronted with a long desert to cross; their eternal reward is on the other side. This mentally stuns a few; they end up sitting in the sand, tormented. Unless they're golems, in which case they may consider standing around in the desert with no more duties to perform to be Heaven; when a golem is blown to pieces in Going Postal, having an absence of tasks was eternal reward enough.
- In Small Gods Brutha the Prophet is the only one who sees the way out of this. When he dies and Death tells him judgment awaits him on the end of the desert, he says "Which end?" In response, Death grins.
- Discworld is actually almost a subversion of this trope. Since you only go to Hell if you really, deeply believe you deserve you go to Hell, Hell is mostly populated by rather nice people — because nobody who is genuinely, unapologetically evil (such as sociopaths) would believe that he deserves to be punished for all eternity. Although thankfully the torments of Hell are pretty harmless a lot of the time, because people don't actually have to feel pain unless they're really trying to. Also the demons are mostly Affably Evil.
- It's also stated that because you must think you belong in hell to go there, you cannot go if you aren't even aware there is such a place; "This is why it's vitally important to shoot missionaries on sight."
- On the other hand, nihilists (some of which can be genuinely evil) suffer greatly after death in Discworld. If you don't believe anything, then you don't know where you belong, so you have to wait until you figure it out... and if you don't figure it out, then you'll be waiting a very long time...
- And The Discworld Companion clarifies that the soul goes where it thinks it belongs "shorn of all self-deception" note .
- Death himself seems often bound to deliver people to the afterlife they believe in... but either he or the cosmic rules are not above giving their own interpetation in case of an evildoer thinking this gives him a Get out of jail-free card. See for example the fate of Mr Pin.
- Stephen King's short story "That Feeling You Can Only Say What It Is In French" implies that the main character is in Purgatory because she has refused to acknowledge, let alone resolve, the guilt she feels over aborting her only child.
- In the SF novel Waiting For The Galactic Bus, aliens accidentally cause the evolution of humanity and then have to deal with their spirits when they die. One opens up Heaven, AKA "Topside", and the other runs Hell, "Below Stairs." Everyone who turns up Below Stairs seems to expect torture, so he provides it, but the EXIT signs are brightly lit and the rest of the place is a pretty decent place to live.
Ironically, this also pops up in Topside: A Palestinian soldier killed by Israeli snipers turned up demanding his 72 virgins. He gets them* ... ends up bored after about an hour and breaks down in tears of despair. After a discussion with the Sufficiently Advanced Aliens who built the place, he mentions his love of baking and is given a much happier afterlife as the guardian spirit of a bakery.
- In The Master and Margarita, the theory that everyone gets what they believe is listed by Woland (Satan) among possible afterlife theories. It is unclear from the novel if this theory is always true; it is shown, however, that the afterlife does exist, but Woland ensures that one atheistic character gets exactly what he believed in: nothing.
The outcome may be based on deeds. It is explicitly stated that Margarita gets her eternal peaceful being with Master away from everything for her love. Neither Master nor Margarita believed in that outcome, called not deserving the Light, but deserving the peace. One can argue, though, that the lack of belief on their part was an important part of not deserving the Light. Behemoth the Cat also had the afterlife fate that he didn't expect.
- Piers Anthony's Incarnations of Immortality:
- On a Pale Horse (about the incarnation of Death) features this for atheists. The main character (essentially the Grim Reaper) meets a blind atheist who has committed suicide and is slowly dying. Despite Death explaining that his job is to take souls to Heaven or Hell (and suicide is a big sin...), the atheist doesn't believe in an afterlife. When he dies, Death tries to take his soul, but it disintegrates.
Similarly, it's implied that the people who believe in one of the non-Abrahamic religions (such as Hinduism) end up in their religion's afterlife (or equivalent); only people who believe that Hell exists can end up there, but what you believe you deserve has little or no effect on your afterlife.
- Later, in For Love of Evil it's revealed that Satan (the Incarnation of Evil)'s primary power is a sham: he can't really obliterate demons or confine souls to a particular part of Hell, unless they believe he can. Only a handful of people, most of them former Incarnations, know the secret (which he has to learn to keep the job), largely because revealing the deception would create chaos.
- Robert A. Heinlein's Job: A Comedy of Justice has a variant, in that whatever belief structure you believe in is the one you get to experience the afterlife for. So if you're Christian, you'll get heaven/hell/purgatory, if you're Hindu you'll get reincarnated. The Christian main character finds this out the hard way when he dies and goes to heaven but his wife is not there. So he assumes she's in hell, and only when he's trapped in hell does anyone explain this to him. She's in Valhalla, and since he didn't believe in Valhalla, he can't get there.
- Heinlein did this before, in the short story Elsewhen in which he flatly stated that no human being has the capacity to believe in their own death, so when a person dies, they get whatever afterlife they expect they will find. If they were very religious, they go to a form of heaven where they subsist with God, etc. But nobody ever ceases to exist because it's impossible to believe in annihilation.
- In C. S. Lewis' novel The Great Divorce, Hell is just a drab city separated from God. It's not just miserable, it's boring. Interestingly, the damned are permitted to leave Hell and enter Heaven at any time, but unless they give up the sins for which they were damned they find Heaven just as miserable - specifically, the chief "problem" of Heaven for the Hell dwellers is that without being remade they are insufficiently "real", and real grass and trees and rocks go right through you in a very painful way - and eventually choose to go back to Hell.
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, in the end, "Thy will be done." All that are in Hell choose it.
- In Kelley Armstrong's novel Haunted, Eve meets Lizzie Borden (long story) in a literal self-inflicted hell. Lizzie punishes herself by murdering illusions of her parents over and over for eternity.
Her cheek twitched, eyes filling with genuine guilt and remorse, the kind Amanda Sullivan couldn't imagine, much less feel.
"So this is your punishment, then," I said, my voice softer.
"Punishment?" A confused glance my way. "This is what I deserve."
"A hell of her own making," Kristof murmured. I looked up at him. "I think this is her own doing," he said. "She's created her own hell, and trapped herself in it. No need for anyone to punish her. She does it herself."
- The short story Other People by Neil Gaiman had a twist on this - his torment was literally self-inflicted: due to the fluid nature of time in Hell, the demon torturing him is himself after enduring millennia of torture. As the worst part of the torture is being forced to understand every negative thought and action of his life and their consequences, it seems both aspects are part of his penance.
- Isaac Asimov's short story "The Last Trump" has everyone resurrected on Earth while everything else — buildings, clothing, machinery, possessions — crumbles and all the landscape flattens out, to leave the damned with nothing but each other and their own thoughts for eternity.
- Harry Potter's Voldemort, as J. K. Rowling indicates that he's stuck as a mutilated, dismembered soul (because of the way he used murder to split his soul) in a sort of limbo. He has, in effect, created his own hell. His only recourse to leave and heal himself is to show genuine remorse, suggesting this is not necessarily a permanent state.
- In Ted Chiang's "Hell is the Absence of God", Hell is Exactly What It Says on the Tin — it doesn't contain any torments; it's just an eternity of being cut off from God's attention. For non-religious people who don't really care about God, it's a bigger deal that they don't get to spend eternity with any of their loved ones who went to Heaven.
- At the start of And Another Thing, Arthur, Ford, Trillian and Random have, from their own perspectives, spent several decades in a personal Heaven courtesy of the Guide Mk II. Arthur relaxes on a beach with all the tea he wants. Ford spends time at a resort where he has all the parties, gargle blasters and sex he wants while his health and chin steadily improve. Random unites Earth and is elected President of the Galaxy. Trillian gets to become the most respected journalist in the galaxy, but it ends up being Hell for her.
- An unusually literal (though non-religious) variant occurs in Greg Egan's Permutation City, where many people have been uploaded into a sort of "virtual afterlife" which they can design to their own liking. One character is shown to have quite deliberately created a hell that consists of forcing himself to endlessly relive the event for which he's punishing himself.
- The metaphysical Seth books by Jane Roberts purport to have been dictated by a spiritual being. They state that for some people, the Afterlife BEGINS with an indistinguishable-from-reality ILLUSION. A soul may experience what they BELIEVE they will experience, whether some form of Heaven, Hell, or whatever. Eventually, the individual will find their way, or be led by others, to the TRUE Afterlife.
- In the world of the Coldfire Trilogy, belief shapes reality. Hell only exists because the priests told their followers that it did. That is the precise reason why the founder of the religion deliberately did not have any mention of Hell in his original writings: To make it not exist. When the religion he created turned against him, he made a Deal with the Devil (which involved sacrificing his wife, two of his children, and his humanity) to escape the hell his former followers created for him.
- A slightly less literal form of this was also a plot point in the second book. Tarrant made a deal for immortality in no small part because he was curious to see if his centuries-long experiment to create God would work or not. It did, but due to the deal he made for immortality, he can never look upon Him. And he can never repent, because he can never truly be sorry that he got to know the truth rather than dying ignorant. So a metaphorical as well as a literal Self-Inflicted Hell.
- In L. Jagi Lamplighter's Prospero Regained, Hell is this.
- Invoked, and magnificently denied, in The Greatest Torment, by The false Swedenborg, written at (1873) - to know how was the Real Swedenborg, go to Other:
Live Action TV
- Star Trek: Voyager. When B'Elanna Torres wakes up on the Barge of the Dead she says that Klingon hell is a myth. The ferryman replies that if she truly believed that, she wouldn't be here.
- A version of this is implied in Supernatural. So far, the only people we know of ending up in Hell are people who choose to go there by making a Deal with the Devil. And, while they do face horrendous torments at the hands of demons, all (or at least most) demons were originally damned souls as well, who were psychologically broken by the constant torture until they agreed to become torturers as well. The true torment of Hell doesn't seem to be the place itself, but rather the people you're forced to spend eternity with.
- Having been in Hell himself for 40 years 10 of those as one of the torturers, you'd think Dean would know how people end up there, and he tells two people in different episodes that they're going to Hell (a woman who's killed someone and an armed robber) — neither of them had made deals. (Specifically in "99 problems" and in "Appointment in Samarra", so this seems to be Jossed]).
- This idea gives the title for a Farscape episode, though the implication seems to be that these afterlives are more positive than hellish.
Nurse: If... we die, will I be with my daughter?
Stark: Different beliefs, different destinations... I cannot tell before the end.
- In The Collector, a robotocist tries to evade death and eternal damnation by putting her mind in an immortal robot body. But the robot malfunctions and is incapable of movement, but is still fully conscious. The devil pays the electricity bills for the next millennium and congratulates her for being his first client to literally devise their own personal hell.
- Xena and Gabrielle were sent to their own version of Hell, a land called Illusia. It even featured Gabrielle being sacrificed and Xena being crucified (two things that happened in canon). The episode has a lot of Christian iconography as well, and not just the cross. Turns out it's all set up by Xena's dead son, who wanted the two to get past the whole "your daughter, whom I wanted you to kill 'cause I thought she was the God of Evil's Dark Messiah, really was that bad and killed my son" thing.
- We later find him in an unfavorable part of The Underworld, trapped in a stone forced to watch scenes from the world of the living. Turns out he chose that fate himself even though he was eligible for the Elysian Fields. He considered that to be more of a Lotus-Eater Machine, and would rather watch the real world even he couldn't interact with it.
- The Twilight Zone had several of these: The Masks, Nick of Time, A Nice Place to Visit and possibly Time Enough at Last...come to think of it, practically the entire series would fall under this one.
- Old World of Darkness:
- In Demon The Fallen, Hell only serves as a prison for the angels who rebelled against God (human souls have their own misfortunes, chronicled in Wraith The Oblivion). Hell has no obvious tortures; it is, in fact, sensationless. The fallen angels, however, were so driven by rage and pain that they turned and lashed out, both at each other and any human souls that drifted too near; thus they provided their own punishments.
- As for Wraith, there are several "hells," based on the beliefs of their inhabitants, but the only people there are those who think they deserve to be there or made deals with dark spirits. They mostly serve as macabre tourist attractions for more savvy wraiths and other supernaturals. Note that the heavens aren't much better and are run like cults. Most people who die — and wraiths who finish their business without being Obliviated — will Transcend instead. What that entails is entirely unknown.
- In New World of Darkness, Mage: The Awakening features the Supernal Realm of Pandaemonium, associated with the Arcana of Mind and Space and appearing very much like a Fire and Brimstone Hell. Why? Well, Space bends at the limits of the Realm, meaning that the inhabitants are stuck within and without much besides their own thoughts. Which inevitably turn towards the more negative impulses... and take solid form.
- Ravenloft tends to feature a mix between this and Ironic Hell, as it is often the very personality of the Darklord that makes their situation insufferable.
- In the world of In Nomine, by Steve Jackson Games, a mortal only goes to Hell if they achieve their Fate, the darkest, most selfish possibility for their existence. And it truly has to be self-inflicted — if a demon (or an angel!) pushes them too hard in that direction, it doesn't count and the soul escapes.
- Afterlife was basically a Simulation Game where you built the afterlife (both Heaven and Hell) and had to maintain it; whether or not people came there was dependent on what they believed, which you could tweak by, for example, inspiring prophets in the mortal world. A tip: Your income rate depends on the death rate depends on the population. Go rack up some lust.
- Oracle Of Tao has one of these, both of Heaven and Hell. Hell is an empty desolate waste, resembling Yomi, the Japanese equivalent. Heaven appears as a Fluffy Cloud Heaven, at first, but it turns out that both are based on the hero's conception of the fate she deserves. Her final destination is a sort of Mundane Afterlife resembling her living existence.
- Silent Hill:
- Although not technically Hell, the town of works on this principle; if its victims can free themselves of their guilt, they can leave unharmed. Otherwise, they are stranded in the nightmarish town.
- In Silent Hill 2, it's made clear that the baddies are only visible to certain people visiting there, and take on forms that represent their hidden guilts. This is seemingly inconsistent with the other games, however; in the original, for example, it's clearly Alessa's vision of Silent Hill that's imposed on everyone else there, while in 3, the effect spreads beyond the original town, the source of the effect being Claudia. Except for Silent Hill 2, though, the other games all take place during occult summoning rituals, so the town's state in the second game could be interpreted as the way the town usually works during a "down time" of no demonic summonings.
- According to the "Book of Lost Memories", an information book for the series, the appearance of the otherworld in the first game caused the power of the town to increase, which is when it started calling to those who had darkness in their hearts.
- People get pulled into each other's dark worlds. In the first Harry is pulled into Alessa's dark world and while the majority of Silent Hill 2 takes place in James' we also get to see a glimpse of what Angela's is like and one of the monsters in the game (Abstract Daddy/Doormen) is Angela's creation while the rest of them are James'.
- City of Villains features this in one story arc: you're tasked with rescuing the soul of a singer who made a Deal with the Devil for his success. His soul turns out to have been within him all along, tortured by his knowledge of his undeserving nature - in the form of demonic hecklers. As he croons light jazz of his plight for all eternity.
- Also applies to players of video games as well. For instance, someone who uses only the most powerful weapons and tactics throughout the game might complain about how the game is too repetitive. Or a Stop Having Fun Guy who uses every glitch and exploit ever discovered in the game to beat the 20-hour campaign in under 5 minutes might complain about how the game was too easy and/or short.
- Fallen London has the Seeking Mr. Eaten's name quest which is this in every sense. To even begin, you have to put your character through each of the 4 major failure conditions in the game and escape from them, then recover; 7 times each. And it gets worse; in fact, Word of God stated that the author was required to work on this quest outside company time, as it is now so damaging and with such low payoff it is no longer considered a reasonable or balanceable part of the game, and the only official company advice is not to play it.
- Hell Temple in La-Mulana, especially the original (non-remake) version, designed to be the worst experience possible for the player. Memorably reduced DeceasedCrab to anguished wailing several times.
- The Grim Reaper in The Grim Reaper Show loves to give these sort of fates to the souls he reaps, although he prefers assigning particularely cruel ones or outright inverting their desires. When he reaps the occupants of a crashed plane, he sends all the Christians to burn in Hell for eternity, the Jews to rot in their graves until the Messianic Age (at which point they'll party it up with God for all time), the Hindus are reincarnated (one comes back as a gnat, another as David Hasselhoff's son, and a third one as a left testicle), the one Satanist is sent to Heaven, and another guy invented his own religion with its own afterlife (the Floating Island of Mandango, where there is no jealousy or boredom, and everyone lives a life of steaming hot sex and wine drinking for the rest of eternity). The single agnostic on the flight gets to choose, and opts for the floating island the last guy had.
- Captain Estar Goes to Heaven by Winston Rowntree contains probably the most heartbreaking example ever conceived in how it concludes.
- In the Gargoyles episode "Shadows of the Past," Goliath, Angela, Elisa, and Bronx return to the site of Castle Wyvern, where the massacre of Goliath's clan took place. Throughout the episode, Goliath is hearing the voices of the Captain and Hakon, and thinks he may be going crazy. Eventually, we realize that the ghosts of Hakon and the Captain were trapped there because of their hatred for Goliath (combined with some magic phlebotinum). In the end, though, the Captain realizes that he was really hating himself for betraying Goliath, saves his life, and is freed from his prison. Hakon, meanwhile, is trapped with "no one left to hate."
- The 18th century philosopher, theologian, and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg claimed to have made several spirit journeys to heaven. While everyone eventually goes to heaven, he said he had also seen caves where people who were truly unwilling to accept their beliefs in life were wrong spend all eternity in frustration.