Friday, August 22, 2003


This story has got me thinking about Hell.

Abu Bakar Bashir, the Indonesian Muslim cleric accused of leading the terrorist group blamed for the Bali bombings, broke down in tears yesterday and warned judges at his treason trial that they would "go to hell" if they convicted him.

[brief digression from Ed: I have never had a problem with men crying, but tears of self-pity from anyone, especially a man, who has gotten caught doing something as monstrous as this, and is suddenly overcome by how cruel the nasty old world is to him, is spectacularly contemptible. End of digression.]

The concept of physical Hell has been given something of a new lease on life with the higher profile of Islamic fundamentalism. The Bible gives us only tiny glimpses of what a physical Hell looks like, mostly at the end of the Book of Revelations, which even the most extreme fundamentalist Christians are forced to admit is all metaphor/allegory anyway.

The Koran, on the other hand, simply revels in the elaborate tortures to be given to the unfaithful in the next world, giving copious detail about what is in store for unbelievers in the next world. And, since the whole premise of Islamic fundamentalism is that every word in the Koran is literally true, we are left with the disturbing thought that hundreds of millions of people are cheerfully anticipating that everyone who doesn’t think like them will be the victims at a kind of eternal torture party, with nary a safety word in sight:

Even today, I think, most Muslims still consider these tortures as metaphorical representations of the pain of separation from God. But for the fundamentalists, it's an article of faith that people who disagree with them deserve to have boiling water poured in their faces, over and over, until eternity. And that is scary.

Even at my most unquestioning when I was a kid, the concept of a physical Hell bothered me. I understand the concept of segregation—like Robert Schuller says, I don’t want to bunk next to Hitler in the next world—but the eternal vindictiveness puzzles me. What is to be gained from torturing someone else into infinity? What’s the point?

I've been rereading the Sandman series by Neil Gaiman, and today I went through the wonderful "Season of Mists" story arc. This is the story where Lucifer tires of ruling Hell and turns over the keys to the title character, who must then choose between all of the different contending god pantheons who want to rule Hell in Lucifer’s absence. And who ends up surprising everyone by choosing to turn it over to a group of unfallen angels so that Hell can be ruled directly by Heaven.

The story ends as the angels gently instruct the demons who are there flaying the damned, that the eternal torment they are inflicting on their victims is not for the purposes of punishment, but rather for the victims’ own good. Nothing will change, but now, the angels tell themselves, the torture has a purpose.

The flames of Hell, Remiel muses, have become refining fires, burning away the dross, leaving purity and repentance and good. Remiel hears the screams, and it smiles.

Gaiman’s point here, smothered in his usual mordant irony, is the fundamental absurdity of the idea of a physical Hell. Eternal torment has no purpose, and any attempt to create one only makes the concept more and more ridiculous.

And I’ve always felt that way, even after September 11th, when I in fact wished that there was a physical Hell. I never thought that God was vindictive that way. The afterlife, I have always thought, was for whatever little spark of the divine, the decent, the kind, resides in all of us. For the rest—for the irredeemable few, the murderers, the child molesters—God simply gives them the eternal nonexistence they crave.

Or we can just agree with Sartre that Hell is other people. I find myself nodding my head at that one from time to time.

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