To hell with Hell

Pope Francis was quoted last week saying there is no Hell. 

Beautiful, or blasphemous?

Bad souls “are not punished,” the pope told an atheist Italian journalist. “Those who do not repent and cannot therefore be forgiven disappear. There is no hell, there is the disappearance of sinful souls.”

Whatever that means. Poof, sinful souls just vanish? They’re off the hook? No eternal rotisserie of mortal flesh and soul? Is Dante discredited? Did my heavy metal records lie? 

The Vatican quickly denied Francis uttered such sacrilege, rebuking the whole conversation, which happened to be between a writer who has historically put words into the papal pie hole. Perhaps the unscrupulous scribe will get a taste of the writhing pits himself. (Or maybe he’ll just disappear. Poof!)

“Had the pope been speaking as the vicar of Christ on earth, he would be contradicting 2,000 years of Catholic doctrine, rooted in the teachings of Christ himself,” writes unreconstructed right-winger Pat Buchanan. “It would be rank heresy.”

APP-033018-POPEI sincerely doubt the pope declared there is no Hell. But I wish he did. Why? Because, I humbly offer: There is no Hell. (Now it’s my turn in Beelzebub’s barbecue. Pass the sunscreen, SPF 50,000.)

The proof is paltry. Yet maybe there is a Hell of the sort Dante depicted in his “Inferno” with such wondrous, gruesome gusto. If so, then there should be a Heaven, too, and I really can’t go that far. All dogs go to Heaven, it’s said. True that. People? I think not, for a panoply of reasons. For one, they’re stinkers. 

Dante limned Nine Circles of Hell for sinners: First Circle (Limbo); Second (Lust); Third (Gluttony); Fourth (Greed); Fifth (Wrath); Sixth (Heresy); Seventh (Violence); Eighth (Fraud); Ninth (Treachery). 

He ticked most of the boxes, though he could be more specific (treachery?). And a little more lenient (gluttony?). And where are rape and murder? Do they fall under the violence rubric? He should have added a Tenth Circle for man buns. I’m afraid Dante’s prioritizing is scattershot.

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Trying to figure with certitude if Hell exists is a fool’s errand. Unless, I suppose, you listen to an evangelical site I tripped and fell upon, chipping a tooth. It talks about people who have had “hellish near-death experiences in which the individual descends into a hellish location — an otherworldly place so frightening, desolate and horrible that it changed their lives instantly” and put them on a path to Christ. 

I shudder. With my luck, if I have a near-death experience, I’ll land at a Celine Dion concert. I’ll return, eyes bulging, screaming the Lord’s name.

But that’s not possible, because I don’t buy any of it. Belief in Heaven or Hell goes hand in hand with belief in the mythological overlords of those domains, God and Satan. They’re like cartoon characters to me, figments of desperate human imagination, magically supervising our collective conscience from an airbrushed ether. 

And Jesus? Well, I’m certain he was an actual historical figure, a masterful personality and a brilliant and wildly charismatic rabbi. He was executed on a Roman cross, for no one’s sins. He never rose from the dead. He was the son of mortals — mom, no virgin — not of gods. He was human, not divine. And he was just one of countless so-called messiahs of his time. But he got the most press. He had an amazing agent.

Queasily, as I type all this, I keep thinking (or am I praying?): I really hope the pope actually said there is no Hell. If not, I’m probably cooked.

Bunnies and the Bible — wrestling with Easter’s confused impulses

As a lapsed Catholic and ironclad agnostic (and probable atheist), Easter means nothing to me. Not literally, not symbolically, not allegorically, not chocolate bunny-y.

It’s but another Sunday that happens to roll around, like a brightly-dyed egg, in the flush of springtime, solemn yet gay, prayerful yet festive, scripture-dry, yet sweet as a gooey, chewy (ew-y) marshmallow Peeps.

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Palm Sunday doesn’t rock my boat. Good Friday — today — isn’t always so “good.” (Crucifixion, anyone?) Sometimes, like this one, it’s just all right. (All Right Friday — What would Jesus do?) It’s a little rainy, and my head hurts.

I’m not offended by the crass commodification of Easter — or, even more egregious, the wholesale whoring off of Christmas. White bunnies, yellow chicks, rainbow jelly beans, baskets stuffed with plastic grass, chocolate everything and those infernal Peeps (seriously, WWJD?) — what does any of this have to do with humankind’s purported savior rising from the dead and sealing the deal?

Nothing, of course. It’s a smoke screen to bamboozle children to get into the spirit, whether that’s the Holy Spirit or the spirit of a plush rabbit named Flopsy.

But can these tenets reconcile and exist side-by-side? Can one believe wholly in the Holy while worshipping at the altar of Cadbury? I found some excellent artwork that argues both sides. Behold:

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The bunny and the beatific one make strange bedfellows. Shoo, egg-monger! And whatever those kids are wearing is certainly blasphemous. 
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A real sport, Jesus blesses the secular trappings of Easter. His favorite: Reese’s eggs.

Am I going to hell for this? Could be. Maybe. Whatever. Pass the Peeps. You should see what they do in the microwave.

Curiosity killed the Catholic

I’m always on the lookout for a little religious illumination, be it the rattling Scientology documentary “Going Clear” to actually inviting a pair of Mormon elders to my home for an eye-crossing lesson in radical historical revisionism. (They were very nice young men, for the record, natty in ties and pressed white shirts. A wee deluded.)

Right now I’m returning to some tried-and-true texts: the four Gospels and Acts in the New Testament, along with “The Historical Figure of Jesus” by E.P. Sanders.

This hidebound agnostic isn’t going reborn, hasn’t “found” anything and anyway isn’t searching for religious enlightenment, a Damascus moment. I’m a minor history buff (literally: it was my college minor) and armchair theologian, which means I sit in an armchair and read about religion with skepticism and a giant cigar.

The cigar’s a jape, but I’m fascinated by ideas of mass worship, divinity, mysticism and the spread of religion through the ages. Seeking “truth” isn’t the object — I don’t believe it resides in a religious text — but merely intellectual stimulation.

(And I have gotten out of the armchair: I was raised Catholic — baptized, Sunday school, weekly Mass, teenage apostasy, the works. In 2000 I made a solo trip to Israel to, among other things, get immersed in monotheism firsthand. It altered none of my thinking on the matter, except to solidify preconceptions about faith and fanaticism.)

Curiosity killed the Catholic. The more religion I ingest, the warier I become. I thirst for facts, historical actualities, not myths or homilies or inspired conjecture. I want the relative power of knowledge, not the affirmation of faith.

What strikes me is how, outside of the academy, intellectual ballast is so often at odds with religion. Example: A good friend in college prided herself on her devout Christianity, chided me for everyday blasphemies, went to church weekly and praised Christ. But she never read the Bible and everything she knew about the religion was received wisdom, blind faith from the church and her parents. Once, when I described to her what Jesus probably looked like, she said, and I quote, “Didn’t he have those beautiful blue eyes?” Yes, and a brushed swoop of sandy-blond hair.

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Would the real Jesus please stand up?

Maybe Jesus did look like Barry Manilow. But I care more about a historically accurate account of what he said and did. I especially want to know how he turned water into wine, a miracle that could save me bundles at Liquor Locker. No one seems to have a complete grasp on the actual Jesus. Even the Catholic Bible I’m reading is strewn with footnotes that cast troubling shadows over the “gospel truth.” Despite my reading, I’m still a grappling student. I’ll get back to you when the heavens crack open.