In Jewish tradition, hell is sheol, or the grave. Ask a Jew if a physical hell exists, and the rabbis won’t find it discussed in the Torah. Why, then, does hell play such a large role in Christianity and even Buddhism.
My answer is a simple one: Zoroastrianism and Greco-Roman mythology.
At one point in history, the Persian empire spread across Asia and influenced future empires, such as the Greco-Roman world in Europe and Asian countries such as India and Nepal, the area where the Buddha attained enlightenment.
Zoroastrianism contains a dualistic perspective and pre-dates Christianity. The cosmological realms of Zoroastrianism contain the loving spirit of wisdom, Ahura Mazda, and spirit’s evil counterpart, Angra Mainyu, who may be represented as the Christian Satan who tempts human beings and fights harshly against loving kindness as represented by Ahura Mazda.
This dualism exists in all religions obviously, but Zoroastrianism and Greco-Roman mythology have created these characteristics that ultimately have defined the cosmological systems of Christianity, even though most Jews do not believe in hell, including the Christian Jew Jesus Christ.
There are many websites arguing that the Book of Revelation represents a clear understanding of heaven and hell, the great Satan, and the war between goodness (God) and evil (Satan), but most credible scholars and theologians know this apocalyptic book is written after the destruction of the Jewish temple and directly engages the Roman empire. The great Satan is Rome itself, or more specifically, the emperor Nero.
Of course, Christians have taken this apocalyptic story, directed specifically to a particular historical event, and have interpolated it as the future apocalypse. It makes for a great story.
Jesus (or the other messiahs in Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism) returns to overcome the evil created on this earth and restores justice and peace for eternity.
However, we have a problem. A major problem. Human beings are the great Satan. According to Jewish tradition, the soul is pure and untainted by evil. What, then, is evil? Our selfish nature. Our free will allows our selfish nature to perform atrocities. In Buddhism, hell is a mental state for many Buddhist adherents. If it is a physical place, imagine how one feels during suffering. Do we not feel our body’s reaction to suffering. Therefore, we can certainly argue that a mental state impacts our physical body.
How can a loving God or Jesus incarnate punish human beings at all? This question drives many believers away from religion, but the larger question is one I think any God or Devil cannot cause. How can a loving human being cause so much suffering for herself and for others? That question needs a resolution, and the answer lies within that perfect, untainted soul the Jewish theologians define as the perfected state or, as some Buddhist call it, our Buddha nature!