A few weeks back, a COVID denying right-wing Fauci bashing radio host died from the very virus he claimed was a hoax. Of course, the Twitterverse took no time in expressing its glee.
“Thinning the herd!”
“Get Wrecked. Good riddance.”
“One down, many more Darwin award contenders to go.”
“Read this yesterday & I still don’t care……Anti vaxxers get exactly what they deserve.”
“Thank you COVID for finally getting the right people!”
“I’ve come to a point where I’m okay with that.”
“God punished him.”
As I read these snippets, I began to wonder where I’d heard similar sentiments before. Oh yes, from good God-fearing Christian folk. Turns out many of them think the Lord’s plan for salvation involves casting atheists, sodomites and various other reprobates into the fires of Hell where they will be tortured for all eternity. And boy, do they love glorying from the pulpits about some poor slob getting spit roasted on Satan’s never-ending rotisserie. I’m sure they love spewing that stuff on Twitter too. Strange though, because eternal punishment doesn’t jibe with the good and merciful schtick the Almighty’s PR machine’s been cranking out for millennia. In fact, the concept of endless perdition is chock full logical and theological holes you could drive a truck through. And, since I like playing advocatus diaboli, let’s examine a few of them, shall we?
First off, let’s say you get into heaven, but your child ends up in hell. At some point, after you’ve had enough of drinking from chocolate rivers, dancing on rainbows, playing with unicorns and rapping with Einstein, you’re going to notice Junior didn’t make it up there with you. He’s down there. And he’s screaming like he’s on fire! That kind of shit could seriously pop your eternal bliss bubble. I mean, this is the little boy you once held in your arms, the tyke whose delightful smile once filled you with joy. Okay, so he turned out to be a serial killer – but how can you possibly be cool with listening to his screams while waiting in the queue for the All You Can Eat Epicurean Buffet? That’d ruin my appetite. Luckily, theologians have devised creative solutions over the centuries to allow the blessed to keep enjoying Paradise while their babies burn.
The first is the Divine Lobotomy. In order to spare you bemoaning your child’s suffering in Hades, God will make you forget you ever had a child. Out of sight out of mind, right? Small problem with that, though. If you’re a parent like me, you know how intertwined your child’s existence is with your own. Therefore, removing all memory of them would diminish you – making you less of a person in heaven than you were on earth. And no matter how merciful His intentions, if God needs to hide, fudge or obfuscate reality in order to allow you to enjoy heavenly bliss then He is lying. And if God lies then He cannot be- as the world’s major faiths define him – Goodness and Truth Itself and therefore cannot be God. He’d be somebody else. Maybe a super powerful but nonetheless created being like Q from Star Trek. And he was an asshole.
Another harebrained scheme to keep you tripping the light fantastic in Heaven is to have God take your horror over Junior’s tortures and turn it into joy. One example of this nifty bit of psycho-theological legerdemain can be found in writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, the “Angelic Doctor” of the Catholic Church. “The blessed,” in Heaven, Aquinas wrote, “Will rejoice in the punishment of the wicked.” You, however, are probably more familiar with its popularized rendering, “The blessed shall delight at the sight of the damned.” That’s right. You’ll celebrate your kid getting microwaved in hell! Of course, there’s more to Aquinas’s thought than that, but ask yourself – if it was your child getting flambeed tableside for Satan’s dessert, then rejoicing in his pain, for any reason, would be the very definition of sadism. I don’t know about you, but most people aren’t comfortable comparing Yahweh to the Marquis De Sade.
Besides, are the blessed in heaven really going to act like a bunch of tourists visiting a hellish version of the Grand Canyon? Peering over the edge and cheering while watching people they might have known and loved scream in perpetual agony? I mean, will they be selling refreshments? Helicopter tours? Souvenirs? “I SAW HELL AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS LOUSY T-SHIRT?” That doesn’t sound like heaven at all – more like a gladiator pit if you ask me. And besides, we’ve got enough people on earth delighting in people’s misfortune as it is. Just look at Twitter. Then again, God could just hide Hell from our view. You know, tuck Hades out of sight like a run-down housing project in order to allow The Elect to keep sipping their margaritas in blissful ignorance while lounging at the Pearly Gated Community pool. (I hear the cabanas there are to die for!) But now were back to the whole God is a liar thing again. And some angelic wag would probably make an argument that the damned are an oppressed class anyway. Who knew God wasn’t Woke?
Yes, I know I’m being a tad provocative here, but in all seriousness, the concept of a good and loving God allowing souls to suffer eternal torture for their sins creates such a mass of contractions that theologians have spent centuries trying to quell the cognitive dissonance it creates. It’s like trying to put a square peg in a round hole. it cannot be done. No matter what answer they come up with it’s always, at least or me, intellectually and logically unsatisfying. Of course, this is when somebody starts yelling, “The Bible says this! Holy Tradition says that!” Since I’m not a Scripture scholar, I’ll leave what Jesus said about Hell (Who never used the word once by the way) to the New Testament academics. And Holy Tradition? I’m all for tradition, but not when it asks me to believe in something morally repugnant. I mean, there are parts of the Bible that’s says it’s okay to own slaves. Hopefully that “tradition” won’t be making a comeback soon. And let’s face it, the idea of eternal hell is barbaric.
The author who best showed the moral repugnance of never ending hell was Fyodor Dostoevsky in his novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In the book, the troubled character of Ivan asks his friend Aloysha a penetrating question: “Let’s assume,” he said. ‘That you were called upon to build the edifice of human destiny so that men would finally be happy and would find peace and tranquility. If you knew that, in order to attain this, you would have to torture just one single creature, let’s say (an innocent) little girl…would you agree to do it? Tell me and don’t lie!”
“No, I would not,” Alyosha said softly.
“And do you find acceptable the idea that those for whom you are building that edifice should gratefully receive a happiness that rests on the blood of a tortured child and, having received it, should continue to enjoy it eternally?”
“No, I do not find that acceptable,” Alyosha said
In his book, That All Shall Be Saved, the theologian David Bentley Hart really ups Dostoevsky’s ante. Instead of having Ivan’s innocent little girl suffer to bring about eternal bliss, Hart replaces her with Adolf Hitler, who, to be sure, was a mendacious, twisted and evil asshole. Sounds better, right? If anyone deserves to be chewed in Satan’s fiery mouth like an eternal Gobstopper, it’s the Führer. Screw him! Okay, Hart says, not unsympathetic to the moral revulsion Adolph engenders. But think about it. Even if Hitler is the only person in Hell – no matter how much we think he deserves it – and he’s paying the price for everybody else’s sins, that would make him humanity’s redeemer, its savior – our Christ. And Hart says he’s sure no one is comfortable with that idea. But the logic works whether there’s only one person in Hell or billions. So, ask yourself, will heaven be worth it if the whole salvific shebang requires some people to suffer for all eternity?
Or, maybe, like that those Twitterers above, you’re “okay with that.” Could be you delight in the dammed – or antivaxxers’ – suffering because you think they’re “getting what deserve.” God punished him. Or maybe you’ve self-lobotomized yourself to forgot all about them lest they burst your socially media cocooned bliss bubble. Who knows? And if you believe sinners will burn unmourned and forgotten in an eternal lake of fire, then that spiritual brutality just makes it easier for you to write off a whole bunch of people you don’t like, agree with or who make you uncomfortable here on earth: antivaxers, gun nuts, LGBTQ persons, blacks, Muslims, immigrants, Maga-hat wearing Trumpers, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Communists, Democrats, Millennial hipsters, Republicans, Asians, Latinos, guys who hang plastic ball sacks on their pick-up trucks, vegans, hunters, people with tattoos, evangelicals and – gasp – bad tippers. All this divisiveness and hatred creates a real hell on Twitter – and on earth. So, it’s no wonder flawed and bickering humans project their grievances, self-righteousness, sadism and neuroses onto what they think should be God’s will.
Lest you think I occupy some exalted perch of sanctity, trust me, I’m no better than those snarky Twitterati types who delighted in that man’s death. When I heard the tyrannical owner at my first restaurant job had died, I joyfully quipped that I wanted to know where he was buried so I could piss on his grave. Considering how this minor league megalomaniac used to routinely vilify Jews, gays, people of color, mentally torture waiters, threaten undocumented workers with deportation, and insist on us calling him Padrón, I didn’t give my callousness a second thought. That his youngest son was only a teen when he died was beside the point. That bastard deserved to go unmourned. Then something happened to change my mind.
Several months ago, I was diagnosed with a potentially lethal medical problem. (Remember that “complicated reason” I referred to in my last post?) I prefer to keep the particulars of my illness private but, suffice to say, it was something that could prematurely hasten my exit from this plane of existence. Very scary. So, after a battery of tests, scans and consultations, I underwent major surgery to fix the problem. And, as I was taking my mandated post-surgical walks through the wards, I saw people in much worse shape than me who were suffering immensely. But I didn’t see people who deserved it because they smoked, drank, did drugs, overate or failed to take care of themselves in general. All I saw was scared people wondering what would become of them. Hobbling with my IV past the young and old struggling to survive – some delirious with pain and despair – I realized something. None of us deserve this. While I’m sure some of them did dumb things to put themselves in danger, any desire I had to judge faded away. As a good friend told me during the worst of my post diagnosis anxiety, “We all end up in the same place eventually.” And, in my solidarity with those patients’ fear and pain, I realized deep in my bones that I was one of them – just another sinner floundering around this vale of tears.
But long before my diagnosis, as you can read in this blog, I was coming around to an idea that’s not exactly orthodox church thinking, even though it can be found in the writings of some of the most influential writers of Christen antiquity – there is no such thing as eternal hell. Because as Bentley Hart wrote, “If God is the good creator of all, he must also be the savior of all, without fail.” Why create everything from nothing if He, being omniscient, knew some of those souls he’d summoned into existence would never have a chance? Cruel, no? Therefore, the only way the “Good God” thing works is if He saves everyone. There are numerous examples in New Testament which back up this idea– the parable of the Prodigal Son being the most famous – but biblical hermeneutics aside – it was my illness that truly made me abandon eternal hell.
We live on this earth for what, eighty years if we’re lucky? When you compare that short span to the infinite vastness of eternity, getting punished in perpetuity for something you did in the briefest flicker of earthly time would be like sentencing a child to death for stealing a candy bar. The punishment does not fit the crime. You see, throughout history, hellfire hasn’t just been reserved for über wicked people like Stalin, Pol Pot and Hitler but, as Hart writes, “[For] all sorts of lesser miscreants: the profligate, the wanton, the unbaptized, the unbelieving, the unelect . . . the unlucky.” If this is true, then salvation is all about the survival of the fittest – or holiest. I refuse to believe that not only on theological grounds, but aesthetic ones as well. As Hart bellicosely opined, believing in eternal hell is just in bad taste.
Of course, the most common argument against this idea of “universal salvation” is, if everyone is going to receive a get out of jail free card, then why should anyone try being good on earth? You could rape, murder and steal to your heart’s content without ever having to fear Divine Wrath. Shouldn’t a bad person get what they deserve? But how do you define “person?” There is no such thing as being a person in isolation. “We are as others have made us.” Beyond the formative sphere of family, friends and immediate relations, all human beings are molded by society, culture and language – all human constructs – which, when you examine history, are interrelated on countless levels.
Every human being who has ever lived has, in ways great and small, been affected their relationship with every other human bring. At the risk of sounding cliché, we are all connected. And if we are all responsible for how each of us has turned out, God cannot save some and not others. For God, to quote Michael Connelly’s detective Harry Bosch, “Everybody counts or nobody counts.” And if God is going to save everyone, then one good turn deserves another – something Jesus’s enjoined in his Great Commandment – “Love one another as I have loved you.” It works both ways. We must take care of each other because we are all in this together. That’s why you can’t do whatever you want.
Of course, people do what they want all the time with scant regard for others. Where is divine justice if God’s going to forgive everyone? Good question, but I never said I didn’t believe in Hell, did I? Hell is very, very real.It is a place of profound selfishness, ignorance, and disconnection which, if you’re honest with yourself, you know you’ve glimpsed occasionally in your heart; that piece of you that feels cut off from the rest of the human race. It is a place of immense suffering and pain. And, yes, if you’ve been a real shit on earth, that may be where you end up – but not forever.
I’m quite sure my reservation in hell has already been made and, when I get off the Stygian elevator, I’ll have to see all the shitty things I’ve done, not because God’s punishing me, but because I will be forced to examine my life in the light of God’s perfect and unchanging Goodness. I’m sure it’ll smart a bit but, after some crying and gnashing of teeth, I’ll finally realize that my greatest desire is for what is truly “Good” and then, and only then, will I become the person I was always meant to be. But what about Adolph? Him too? Yep. It might take eons of time, but luckily for him, God is infinite. He can wait until the last black hole evaporates -and beyond- until Hitler gets with the program and can order that margarita in Elysium. Perhaps God’s infinitude is also His mercy and his justice.
Rest assured; I know that many people will be offended by the idea of Hitler in heaven and in no way should my bit of theological exposition be seen as excusing the monstrous evils of the Third Reich – but I think the idea of eternal hell is fatally flawed. Be that as it may, people are very attached to the idea of sinners getting torched and are loathe to give it up – probably because it’s been such a useful cudgel for keeping the faithful scared shitless and paying up. But there’s another reason why we like hell so much – something Madison Avenue knows all too well – the cachet of exclusivity. Just look at hot nightclubs where only select and beautiful people are allowed in. If you started letting fat dads like me under the velvet ropes, then the place would lose its aura of desirability and turn into a Chucky Cheese. And human beings love being in the “in” crowd because, as Oscar Levant once quipped, “It’s not enough to succeed – others must fail.” Remember how those inoculated Twitter folks gloried in the “big fail” of the unvaccinated? All that polarization, intolerance, ignorance, and cruelty you see on social media are Satan’s little trolls. (Along with the Russians and the Chinese.) But when it comes to salvation, thinking you must succeed where others fail turns the soteriological drama into a cosmic version of The Apprentice (You’re fired, loser!) – with lovely prizes for the winners and dreadful consequences for the losers. That turns Heaven into a place where every soul is just out for itself, which, as Bentley Hart devastatingly points out, “Is the precisely the ethos of Hell.”
Yes, you should get vaccinated, wear masks and follow social distancing rules because we’re all in this pandemic together. And I also get angry that vaccine resisters, mask protestors and crazy politicians and preachers are helping spread the virus. I don’t want my kid going back to virtual learning because some people can’t get with the program. I don’t want people to perish when they didn’t have to. But snickering at anti-vaxxers when they croak from COVID, saying they deserved it, accomplishes nothing. If anything, it makes them more entrenched in their delusional thinking. They may be laboring under bad misinformation, defective thinking, willful ignorance, political or ideological tribalism and pride, but can you really say they deserve death? Would you be willing to tell them that as they lay terrified on their deathbeds? Would you tell their children, “When you don’t believe in science this is the result?” Probably not. When you’re face to face with true suffering, that’s just in bad taste. We might be among the inoculated virtuous but, whether we like to admit it or not, we’ve all been guilty of doing other stupid, selfish and hurtful things. We all labor under delusions and illogical passions – what used to quaintly be called sin. You’d like your failings forgiven, wouldn’t you? Then why are we so loathe to forgive others – even to the point of rejoicing in their misfortune?
I don’t think God is interested in people getting their just desserts. In Buddhism, there’s a wonderful story of bodhavistas refusing to enter Nirvana until they can help every last bit of creation across the finish line. In the Quran, God, says, “My mercy embraces everything.” And when you read the New Testament, it becomes apparent that God doesn’t want to punish mankind – He wants to rescue it. By believing in Eternal Hell, however, we are placing limits on God’s love – and I’m quite sure that’s a contest we’ll lose. That’s because God’s nightclub is always open, transcending the velvet ropes we place around it. Infinite Goodness is His biggest draw, trumping trendy fads – whether they be cultural or theological – every time. He’s simply irresistible. We are doomed to be happy. So, when we’re tempted to “delight in the suffering of the damned,” whether it’s in church or on Twitter, it might be good to remember that we’re all just clueless sinners hurtling towards the same place.
Save me a margarita.