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.
open/close all folders
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 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 his comic book Swamp Thing, Alan Moore explained (decreed?) that the afterlife of the DC universe depends entirely on what the dead expect will happen, be it Heaven, Hell or reincarnation. It is also possible to trap an innocent in Hell by convincing them that you have the power to do so. This concept has been used in other DC and Vertigo comics, such as Hellblazer, Lucifer and The Sandman. However, it's also been ignored on occasion due to story requirements or editorial lapses.
Phil Foglio's '90s Revival of Stanley and His Monster plays with this when Stanley is forced to storm the gates of hell to rescue his friend, the Monster of the title. Stanley is an innocent little kid whose knowledge of Hell comes entirely from Saturday morning cartoons and the Monster's wildly inaccurate stories — so as soon as Stanley enters, Hell becomes cute, brightly-colored and harmless, with the demons forced to behave as if they were stupid and easily-outwitted. John Constantine clone Ambrose Bierce explains this trope (but not to Stanley, since it only works because Stanley doesn't know any better).
This idea was thrown out for Constantine, the (very loose) film adaptation of Hellblazer, and replaced with a more conventional system based on Catholicism.
This is the Hell shown in Neil Gaiman's The Sandman and its spinoff, Lucifer (though not everyone goes to Lucifer's particular Hell, so not everyone chooses their own damnation).
In Death: At Death's Door, several damned souls are people who definitely don't deserve to be in Hell, but are because they sincerely believe they deserve it. For example: one was a little boy who was beaten by his mother. While he was alive, during beatings, his mother said she hated him for being born because the pregnancy ruined her figure, so he naively thinks suffering in Hell will make her love him.
Also, while Lucifer is closing Hell he finds unique trouble in the last occupant, a guy who staked himself to a wall, refusing to leave because he needed to pay penance for the men, women, and children he slaughtered in life. Lucifer gets him to leave by saying no one remembers what he did four thousand years ago, and kicks him out.
Lucifer: "Did you not hear my proclamation, mortal? You are free."
Breschau of Livonia: "I am Breschau of Livonia. I ripped out the tongues of those who spoke against me, and cut the unborn babes from the wombs of my enemies women, that they would not become warriors to rise against me. I took my mother by force, and I strangled my sister when she would not consent to my advances. Soon my name was whispered in the night by mothers to terrify their babes into obedience, I am Breschau, who bathed in the blood of children. I am Breschau, who forced the true prophets of the lord to dance upon plates of hot iron, under which fires were burning, and I laughed as they danced. I am Breschau, and when my mistress was unfaithful to me, I cut the nose from her face and wore it about my neck. As for the woman, I had her sewn to her lover, and, skin to skin, I left them in the desert to be eaten by ravens, and I laughed as I heard them scream. I am Breschau, and this is my punishment.
Lucifer: "I don't care who you are. You have to leave."
Breschau: "No. I am Breschau of Livonia. I..."
Lucifer: "Yes, yes... you killed a lot of people who would have been long-dead anyway had you not killed them and were no doubt a truly horrible person. Breschau, no one in the mortal world remembers your name, and there is not one mortal soul in ten thousand who can even point to where Livonia used to be on a map. Now go!"
The DC Universe Purgatory is shown as a place of crushing ennui; ironically several inhabitants earned their way upwards by kicking the ass of Purgatory's guards in a slightly misguided attempt to do good.
There is also a minor form of DC Purgatory in Ragman. The evil men Ragman kill get to work off their sins by literally lending their strength to the hero and absorbing his injuries. A broken knee goes away by having some of the souls get injured knees. You work hard enough helping Ragman out/taking his owies, you get to go to Heaven.
It should be noted that most Vertigo stories are not considered canonical for the DC Universe; the recent miniseries Reign In Hell shows a version of Hell different from the above stories:
It turns out, Purgatory's actually a subsection of Hell as a whole. But... either you work out your debt and head upstairs to Heaven, or you can take Door Number Two... Hell. You can renounce salvation, leave Purgatory and go to Hell. This is actually part of a much larger question that is answered at the end, answering, exactly, what is the (rather chilling) Unspoken Principle of Purgatory:
Unspoken Principle: You can leave whenever you want.
When the hero of The Savage Dragon meets God, He claims that whatever one believes is what happens:
Dragon: You mean - if I firmly believed that I'd spend the rest of eternity making mad, passionate love to a bevy of leggy super-models - I'd get that? God: Yes.
The Chronicles Of Wormwood has a system that largely revolves around this, but some adjustments are made on a case-by-case basis. For instance, suicide bombers go to Heaven and get 72 virgins, but all 72 are babies that they have to care for for eternity. Also, the road to hell is literally paved with mimes, who go to hell regardless.
Roberta Gregory's Winging It shows the main character, Lupe, confronting a horrifically wounded Jesus on a crucifix, who later turns into Satan. Meanwhile, a small child is running toward a beatific "Deezus!" and a Latina woman is being embraced by the Virgin Mary.
In classic Strontium Dog, Hell includes a desert of the dead, overseen by the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Those who walk through it can see the city of Hate in the distance, but never get any closer. As they fall into despair, they gradually turn into skeletons and simply kneel down, facing the city they will never reach, with nothing but their thoughts for all eternity.
In the backstory of Dogma, shown in a deleted scene, Hell was originally created as a simple prison for fallen angels, but when human souls started to arrive, their guilt-ridden demands for punishment made it much, much worse.
Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey has a sequence where the title pair are sent to a corridor full of doors, each of which leads to various "own personal Hells". Such torments include Bill having to deal with his creepy grandmother, Ted being berated by the Easter Bunny for stealing some of his brother's candy as a child, and both being subjected to doing infinity push-ups by the Army colonel who wants to recruit them.
What makes it especially self-inflicted is that each punishment is behind a door, and the doors are unlocked. Apparently you can flee your punishment at any time. However, when they refuse to choose a punishment, all the punishments storm out of the doors at once. The idea seems to be that you either choose your damnation or be subjected to them all.
Lord of War: Because of the things he's done, Yuri Orlov has lost his brother, had his wife and son walk out on him, and his parents disown him. As Agent Valentine says to him:
"I would tell you go to hell... but I think you're already there."
This is part of the Twist Ending in Hellraiser: Inferno. As Pinhead explains, Joseph has built his own Hell by hurting and abusing everyone around him. He'll be stuck in an endless loop where he hunts his own dark side and has to watch his friends and family be butchered in front of him.
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 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 Companionclarifies that the soul goes where it thinks it belongs "shorn of all self-deception" note When you die the first thing you lose is your life. The second is your illusions — Pyramids.
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 a Complete Monster thinking this gives him a Get out of jail-free card. See for example the fate of Mr Pin.
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* Well, one - an ex-prostitute who volunteered for the task.... 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.
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.
It is also implied that showing true remorse would actually kill Voldemort. Given his mortal fear (no pun intended) of death, he might PREFER this fate.
Harry: What is that, Professor?
Dumbledore: Something that is beyond either of our help.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In The Order of the Stick, it is eventually revealed that Roy's father is stuck on the lowest plane of the Lawful Good afterlife, on account of his vow to not rest until Xykon was wiped out once and for all. He's trapped there because he did virtually nothing to further that goal, and instead shuffled it on to his son - who, because he did everything he could to fulfill that vow, is admitted to the higher planes of heaven in spite of his failure - and will be forced to remain there until Xykon is destroyed.
Roy's Father: "That's not fair!"
Solar: "Yes it is. And that's why you're upset."
In other words, "It's The Thought That Counts" - but the fact that Roy fully intends to walk right out the revolving door and get back to fighting Xykon probably scores him some points.
In David Hopkins' Jack, Hell punishes sinnners with this and Ironic Hell. The titular Jack in particular cannot truly repent for his sins (and earn forgiveness) as he cannot remember them; he asked for it before he died.
Jeremy: I gotta download every album that came out this year. What if I need to make like a top ten list. Paul: That's a waste of time. Jeremy: But I should enjoy this while I can, right? Soon Hell will figure out how to punish me and take the internet away. Paul: How is that enjoying, that is gonna be a month of terrible music. [Beat Panel] And they don't have to figure out how to punish us. They just let us keep doing what we were doing.
Captain Estar Goes to Heaven by [[Webcomic/Subnormality 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.
There's a joke where a man, for some reason or another, dies and goes to Hell. He's given the grand tour by Lucifer, and much to his surprise finds it to be a rather pleasant place. Then as the tour wraps up, they come upon a fire-and-brimstone lake where demons prod naked souls with pitchforks. "What is that?" the man asks. "Don't worry about it," Lucifer replies. "We built that for the Catholics/Fundamentalists/Christians/denomination of choice. They insisted on it!"
There is an "inspirational story" about the idea of a self inflicted hell. It goes as thus -
A man spoke with the Lord about heaven and hell. The Lord said to the man, "Come, I will show you hell."
They entered a room where a group of people sat around a huge pot of stew. Everyone was famished, desperate and starving. Each had a spoon strapped to their arm that reached the pot, but each spoon had a handle so much longer than their own arm that it could not be used to get the stew into their own mouths. The suffering was terrible.
"Come, now I will show you heaven," the Lord said after a while. They entered another room, identical to the first — the pot of stew, the group of people, the same long-handled spoons. But there everyone was happy and well-nourished. "I don't understand," said the man. "Why are they happy here when they were miserable in the other room and everything was the same?"
The Lord smiled, "Ah, it is simple," he said. "Here they have learned to feed each other."
There's also a version with chopsticks. Both the people in heaven and the people in hell are granted one chopstick. Those in hell are not charitable and do not trust those around them and so spend all their time trying to figure out how to eat with one and failing. Those in heaven are willing to share.
A whole subgenre of jokes among modern-day Pagans, where a Pagan dies and finds himself before Saint Peter, who promptly sends them along to the Summer Lands (the Neo-Pagan version of Heaven); along the way the Pagan meets Fundamentalists in some combination of this and Ironic Hell.
There's a joke where a man dies, and finds himself at the Pearly Gates. St. Peter asks him, "What religion are you?" and the man answers. He is directed to a room, but told to be quiet when passing by a particular other room. Several more people go through this. Finally, one person asks why they have to be quiet when passing by that particular room. St. Peter explains that, "Well, you see, that's where (insert Acceptable Religious Targets here) are, and they think they're the only ones here. We wouldn't want to spoil that for them, now would we?"
One piece of internet fiction had a variation: a mobster is killed and wakes up in a replica of his city, complete with people, and finds himself in a "Groundhog Day" Loop situation. His guide, a beautiful woman, informs him he has the freedom to do anything because the next day it resets. After hundreds of days of killing his rivals in assorted bloody ways, casual murder, rape, assault, and other assorted mayhem (including raping and torturing his guide), he realizes he's in a personal hell and wishes to escape. And then finds out the only way he can do it is to repeat the day as someone else in the city, including each of his victims each time he affected them. And then he has the realization that the only person left is his guide, who thanks him for allowing him/her to redeem him/herself, and disappears as s/he prepares to receive himself arriving.
A man dies and goes to Heaven and it is great in every possible way. Later he inquires to take a peek at Hell. What he sees confuses him: it is the same thing as Heaven but everybody is absolutely miserable. He asks, why. "They can't stop dwelling over how much better Heaven must be."
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."