Does this look like Heaven to you? Actually it looks like the game Oblivion (which is the Elder Scrolls word for Hell), and is replete with demons, undead, monsters and criminals. Despite this, I bought a brand new computer in 2006 just to play it, and still occasionally enjoy it. This does not speak well for my soul, I suspect. Well, it may still improve. The soul, I mean.
“The path to Heaven passes through Hell. The sinner thinks this is Heaven, and stops.” That’s what the free thought in my head said this morning. I suspect it is only true in a poetic sense, but then again this is probably the case with nearly all references to Hell.
Depictions of Hell, from the time of Dante onward (and even earlier in the Far East) have had an amazing appeal to human curiosity, perhaps because so many of us have at some point suspected that we might end up there eventually. Â In any case, I think these depictions are symbolic at best, even when made by the religious. And religious people are not the only ones who go into detail about this: A couple of my favorite fantasy writers in years past dedicated many chapters to the location. It is also a staple of cartoon drawings.
In fantasy, Hell is a terrible place and it seems highly unlikely that anyone would sign up for it voluntarily. But in real life, many people love hellish things.
To take an example that does not embarrass me personally, think of the people who comment on political blogs and online newspaper. Â There can be little doubt that they really immerse themselves in anger, grudges, hate, suspicion and paranoia. And sometimes you can see the same people returning over and over to bathe in the lake of fire and lie down with the poisonous worms. Â They can’t help themselves abstain from this suffering any more than a drunkard can abstain from strong drink.
These are examples of people who suffer voluntarily, perhaps foolishly thinking that they suffer for some greater good, although they end up simply tormenting each other and inflaming their own sense of victimhood.
These noble excuses rarely applies to those who are drawn into the Hell of Lust. To the saintly observer (not me, unfortunately) they appear similar to earthworms wriggling in mud. Their relentless fornication is simply gross. (And indeed there are many fetishes in this part of life that are just plain disgusting even to the average person. Just not to those who share them.)
A different case is excess and its consequence. Most of us learned during childhood that eating too much sweets caused a tummy ache, and during our youth we learned that staying up too late caused a very unpleasant tiredness the next day. Many adults have found that drinking to excess causes a headache, and that’s before you face the consequences of the things you actually did while drunk, which can vary from embarrassment to prison and diseases. Â Despite knowing this in our brain, the temptation remains. Most debt problems also fall in this category. As such it may be said that entire nations go to Hell, financially. Widespread suffering follows.
To move on to the least obvious, there is the relationship of the perpetrator and the victim. In this world, the rapist may feel that he is in heaven while his victim is in hell. The thief may be similarly elated to abscond with your valuables, not thinking about your loss and the feeling of your home being violated, your security compromised. There are many such “pairs” where one feels a surge of satisfaction while another experiences a much deeper pain.
But in the spirit world, there is no such distinction. Â Just as the pleasure and pain of carnal excess was separated by time, so the pleasure and pain of crime were separated by space: I am in my body and you in yours. But time and space collapse in the spirit world, and the murderer stabs himself. This is not actually something that only happens after death (in fact, I have no memory of ever being dead) but happens subconsciously in this life already. Â Empathy is hardwired in humans (search for “mirror neurons” for more information on this). To resist it you need to amputate yourself psychologically, and your subconscious will not be fooled. It will give you hell already in this life. Crime is not a well documented source of happiness, to put it mildly.
In Buddhism it is taught that there are three Poisons of the Mind that lead people to Hell: Anger, Greed and Folly. Â Here is my personal interpretation of this: Anger represents the animal mind that is overcome with passion. Greed represents the human longing for the eternal and infinite, gone terribly wrong by being redirected to material things. Folly is the insane notion that we are separate from others and that only I am real, the others are “non-player characters”, props that are placed on the scene where I alone act out my life. The three Poisons, then, permeate body and soul and intellect, causing them to malfunction. While this condition lasts, the more we strive for pleasure, the deeper we sink into suffering. Â What we think to be Heaven turns out to be Hell.
But in this life at least, it is possible to wake up and realize that my suffering is trying to tell me something, that I have gone astray. Whether this awakening is possibly in the afterlife, is still hotly debated. Why wait? (Well, Â except because I want to play just 5 minutes more…)