The Universal Notebook: Go to hell?

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Our human desire for justice naturally leads us to want to see the virtuous rewarded and the evil punished. That doesn’t often happen in this world, ergo, heaven and hell. 

Who goes where depends on who and what you believe, of course. There are plenty of people I would metaphorically consign to the pits of hell, but my guess is that no one actually goes anywhere. The kingdom of God is within us.

Edgar Allen BeemBut, hey, what do I know?

According to a 2015 Pew survey, 72 percent of Americans believe in heaven but only 58 percent believe in hell. When it comes to religions, the figures are all over the board.

Christians break down 85/70 on heaven and hell. So I’m clearly in the Christian minority. The only world religion that embraces heaven and hell more enthusiastically than Christianity is Islam (89/76). Only a minority of Jews (40/22), Buddhists (47/32), and Hindus (48/28) endorse the concepts. I probably should be a Buddhist.

There is a broad range of opinions about the moralistic afterlife, however, even among Christians. Evangelicals (88/82), historically Black (93/82), and Mormons (95/62) are the most pro-heaven/hell. 

One of the least hellish denominations is the Jehovah’s Witnesses (50/7). Jehovah’s Witnesses generally do not believe in hell. They believe that 144,000 anointed souls will live and rule in heaven, which is like saying that, in a world of close to 8 billion people, only people who live in Syracuse will be going to heaven. 

The rest of the JW flock will inherit an earthly paradise purged of famine, war, and disease. And all the rest of us just go nowhere. So maybe I am a JW in spite of myself.

Roman Catholics (85/63) have historically been very big on heaven and hell; witness the elaborate system of grave sins the Roman Catholic Church has developed. The list is extensive, running from murder, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide to blasphemy, idolatry, sodomy, and adultery. 

You can use the Bible to argue just about anything of course, but Jesus Christ himself had very little to say about heaven and hell. Jesus taught that those who love God and love their neighbors as themselves will inherit the kingdom of God, but he didn’t say what or where that might be.

When Jesus does refer to hell, the word he uses is “Gehenna,” which is not a supernatural place of eternal punishment and damnation but a valley outside Jerusalem regarded by the Jews as a god-forsaken place. 

Back in the 1990s, the Catholic Church seemed to douse the flames of hell when Pope John Paul II preached that “Hell is not a punishment imposed externally by God, but the condition resulting from attitudes and actions which people adopt in this life.”

And the Jesuit magazine La Civilta Cattolica argued that hell “is not a place,” but rather “a state of being in which a person suffers from the deprivation of God.” I can buy that.

But how wide do the rings of this self-imposed hell go? We could probably all agree that Adolf Hitler, the SS, and all those who worked in the concentration camps belong in hell, but does that mean all Nazis are damned? Anyone who knew and did nothing? And what about neo-Nazis? Are they in a hell of their own making, too?

We’d probably all be better off if we focused less on the afterlife and worked a little harder to improve this life, the only life we really know, or may ever know.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.

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