Saturday, February 21, 2009

Heaven and Hell

One of the lame things about admitting to yourself that most of what we consider "supernatural" is a lie is that you can no longer count on the afterlife to effect justice on those who deserve it. In other words, Hitler didn't go to hell, he just shot himself in a bunker and that was it. No matter how much horrible shit he did, his life simply ended and he ceased to be. Of course those last few minutes before he shot himself must have been grueling, but they were no where near what the man deserved.

I bring this up because I was eating dinner today and the woman whose house I'm staying in said that she hoped the C.E.O. of Massey (basically the Exxon Mobil of coal companies) would burn in Hell, if there was a hell. She's somewhere between an Atheist and an Agnostic, as I found out after we all watched Religulous together a few months ago. That comment got me thinking about justice, especially since I myself had made a similar comment about Bernie Madoff just the other day. Upon hearing about the way Madoff's massive pyramid scheme had bankrupted several major charities, I exclaimed: "That man is gonna burn..."

At the time, I justified it to myself by thinking that I had meant in a secular sense. That is, he's gonna get burned in court, or he's gonna burn in jail, or something like that. Truth is, that is not what I meant at all! During and immediately previous to uttering that sentence, I temporarily believed in postmortem punishment. So here's the problem: belief in punishment after death makes us go soft on people that need to be punished here and now, in the real world. If we, as a people, really believe that bad people will go to hell when they die, it becomes more acceptable to allow them to continue behaving badly.

The issue is similar to an argument that Bush II continually made throughout his presidency: that future historians would judge in ways that we cannot in the present. The argument allowed him to do "unpopular" (read: immoral) things while claiming that he could not be punished or even admonished in the present. By passing his own punishment into the future, he avoided it in the present.

Despite the obvious absurdity of this argument, we make similar pronouncements all the time. When we talk about how bad people will "get whats coming to them" without helping the process along, we engage in the type of magical thinking that allows bad people to continue to do bad things. The truth is, mass murderers, moutaintop removing CEOs, and really terrible presidents are not going to hell. Which makes it all the more important that we make sure they "get whats coming to them" while they are still kickin'.

To end on a lighter note, here's what I found when I googled bush's historian arguments: