and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column
April #1

Holy Week inspires thoughts of heaven and hell
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thursday, April 5, 2007

When I read recent news items about Pope Benedict resurrecting hell, so to speak, I assumed that he was referring to the hell of my Catholic childhood.

Sister Pancratia was telling her third-grade class about one appearance of "Our Lady of Fatima" during which the Mother of God opened the earth and showed the three chosen children the sinners in hell, blackened and shrieking in pain and despair as they were tossed about in the flames by terrifying demons. That is the description that the older girl, Lucia, used in writing about the experience from her convent.

But Sister Pancratia embellished this with her own descriptive abilities, telling us to imagine burning over and over for all eternity: Have you ever been burned by a match, children? Well, imagine that pain a million times over, your skin turning to ash and then growing back, forever and ever.... and so on.

That night at the dinner table I shared the description of hell with my parents, who marched up to the Catholic grade school the next day and told the principal that these horror stories would stop or they'd be missing some tuition. I think I remember this entire event more as a result of my parents' uncharacteristic rebellion, than because of any real fear of hell.

They then reassured me that only very bad, grown-up people went to hell. I think this was before the modern church concept of hell being a state of separation from God, not an actual place with real fire, took hold.

Eventually my own rebelliousness kicked in and I questioned how a soul could burn, not having a body with skin. But I continued to believe in the punishment concept, relying on it more as I grew up and heard equally terrifying stories about evil men and their deeds.

I wanted to know if these bad people would be punished someday. I still do. I suspect that is the reason that some variation on the concept of hell is included in many major religions: Partly as a way to control behavior, but partly to satisfy a common human need for justice.

One of the first phrases we say and mean as children is, "It's not fair!" We want people who hurt us punished; so if Joey pinches us or steals our lunch money, well, someday he'll burn in hell. As we get older, it becomes a common response to even a verbal assault: "Go to hell!" (This is not to say that some people aren't into compassion and forgiveness instead; I just don't relate to them.)

I eventually rejected the "eternal" part of eternal damnation. I'd accepted that we are God's children, made in God's image, and knew that I would never punish my own child for all eternity; figuring that since I couldn't enjoy heaven if my children were in hell, neither could God. Note the combination of belief and logic, often at war through my 12 years of Catholic school.

In college I discovered a wonderful Buddhist compromise: the concept of karma. A loving father would give us another chance, let us come back in the position of the people we had harmed, so we could know how it felt, repent and achieve salvation. This, I'm quite sure, is the premise of the TV series "Lost" and one reason I still watch it; everyone is getting punished, improved, redeemed.

So with the karma thing figured out to my satisfaction, I went on with my life and pretty much forgot about hellfire and brimstone - until last week when Pope Benedict was accused of telling some Italian parishioners that this is real.

The Times of London quotes him as saying that "if people fail to admit blame and promise to sin no more," they risk "eternal damnation - the inferno."

My dictionary definition of "inferno" is "a place or position of torment;" it doesn't mention fire.

The psychological torment of separation from God and from goodness for all eternity, the modern church's description of hell, still fits the Pope's warning - as well as the description of the dread prison of Azkaban in the fourth Harry Potter book. (The latter sounds pretty horrible, and I'm sure my parents would join me in discouraging my grandchildren from reading the book until long after third grade!)

The grandchildren's father, my son, wasn't taught about the fires of hell. Somehow he became a good person without fearing eternal punishment.

The latest scientific theory argues that we are genetically programmed to be good to at least our own family and tribe - those humans who share our genes. People who kill their parents and children are sick aberrations.

Many people of various religions are trying to expand these genetic survival instincts to cover the entire human race.

I do my part by honoring the good things about some religions to which I do not belong. So I am celebrating Holy Week myself. Ate kosher farfel and mushroom stuffing at Passover while listening to my "Prince of Egypt" CD; will buy a resurrection lily and play Andrea Bocelli's recording of sacred arias on Easter Sunday. In between I'll watch "Lost" and hope that my enemies will get a second chance to shape up on some karmic island, while I enjoy their struggle from heaven.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her column appears weekly in the Salem News and Eagle Tribune, and often in the Newburyport Times, Gloucester Times, and Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Providence (RI) Journal and other newspapers.