Are We In Hell?
I am sure most everyone reading this is familiar with the story of Tantalus, from which we derive the word “tantalize”. However, my argument will fall flat if someone DOESN’T know it, so I will briefly explain. Tantalus made the gods of ancient Greece mad and as a punishment he was sent to Tartarus, the deepest part of the underworld, where he was made to stand in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low hanging branches. Every time Tantalus tried to drink, the water would recede and leave him parched, and every time he tried to eat the fruit, the branches of the tree would rise just out of his grasp. For eternity, he was sentenced to be deprived of any nourishment.
The gods of ancient Greece were not to be trifled with.
But are we modern humans so different? Of course, I assume that most people who bother to read this are like me and will have the security of knowing where their next meal will come from and will have a roof over their head, which gives us a huge leg up over many millions who lack such good fortune.
But, I believe we all universally lack a different type of sustenance, which would be the peace of mind in knowing for sure what happens after we die.
For some, the angst of this question is alleviated by a religion, but I have never believed that the religious are wholeheartedly sold on whatever version of the after life their doctrines elicit. The precepts of religion are so simplistic they are childish: act THIS way and you will get something good after death, act THAT way and you will be subjected to punishment. I have to believe that any adherent to a faith who is capable of independent thought has on occasion said “What if this is all bullshit?”. Given the myriad problems created by religions, I just can’t believe that doubt isn’t intertwined with faith, no matter how outwardly pious a person is .
This thought process was brilliantly explained in the fantastic essay “Salvation” by Langston Hughes. Hughes relates that as a youngster, his Auntie Reed brought him to her church for a big revival. At the end of the revival, there was a special meeting for children in order to “bring the lambs into the fold”. Hughes, along with many other children, were ushered up to the front of the church “ to bring the lambs into the fold”. Hughes was ebullient because his Auntie told him that when you were saved you would see a light and feel a change inside! So, Hughes waited as the other children around him one by one professed to see the light and feel the change. Those children were celebrated by the faithful and glorified for their indoctrination into the community. But Hughes kept waiting, and waiting because he saw and felt nothing. After a prolonged period of abstaining, Hughes “…decided that maybe to save further trouble, I’d better lie too, and say that Jesus had come, and get up and be saved” . Later that evening, Hughes cried in his bed, because he realized that the only salvation he had attained was salvation in the eyes of his peers and elders. His dishonesty earned him admittance into a society that pressured him into conforming in order to be accepted, but it had nothing to do with Jesus and, in fact, Hughes says at the end of the essay “ … didn’t believe there was a Jesus anymore”.
I personally believe all religious adherents are like Hughes, it’s just that the safety of being around others who “believe” what they believe somehow makes the promises of eternal life more palatable despite their illogical nature.
So, for me religion can’t answer the question of whether there is or isn’t an after life. The presence of likeminded people doesn’t negate a lack of logic or proof.
But, perhaps the roots of my religious training as a boy ( I was Catholic) has tainted my outlook on the concept of hell.
Could there be any greater torment than knowing that one day our lives will end? If people were capable of thinking after death, wouldn’t someone who lived a brief life, for whatever reason, be enraged that they didn’t get longer? By the same token, if someone lived a long, happy life, wouldn’t they be overwhelmed with grief at having to leave it? Excluding those so hopelessly depressed that they turn to suicide, perhaps we are all in Tantalus’s shoes in that we are given a life knowing it will end without knowing when or how. We also don’t get to know if death is simply the end.
So, maybe we are already in hell. Maybe, we were not up to par in some other life, and this is our chance not to fuck it up again.
Some of you reading this may be thinking that this is an absurd idea, but I say it is no more absurd than any other contemplation of eternity.
If we are in hell, I love my version of it, which, paradoxically will make it that much harder to leave it.