In my childhood there were a lot of people who filled my head with nonsense about places they made up called heaven and hell. This stuff was all used to manipulate me and others through fear into doing what they wanted; from my point of view, there was not a trace of humanity or love in the whole mess.
Nor, I believe, was there a grain of truth; at any rate, it is impossible to know if there was any literal truth. As for allegorical truth, or whether these nonsensical myths represented any true understanding about human nature, I believe they represent a warped, narrow, undeveloped, incomplete, unhealthy, and childish understanding - and they helped to perpetuate this sick and twisted view of human nature.
Perhaps we could have new set of beliefs, full of understanding and love and rich with the warmth and greatness and compassion for ourselves and our fellow humans and our fellow animals. I believe that the seed of this joy and compassion lives in every one of us, and that different myths could help us bring love and joy alive and propagate it among our families and friends.
I have a vision of a different kind of heaven and hell.
I am walking through a vast throng of people, of all shapes and sizes. The throng is seething with life, and the vibrancy of humanity and human emotions fills the air. It is somehow electric, filled with the tension of anticipation, and yet peaceful, and restful, more calming, and fulfilling than any place I have ever known.
People are shouting, and laughing, and calling to one another, and rushing to embrace one another as though seeing loved ones long lost, and crying and hugging one another. Others are sitting quietly together, and talking, some holding one another, some rocking, like a mother and a beloved child.
As I walk through this throng, I come upon a man who is small in stature, but who radiates a kind of massively powerful compassion; being in his presence fills me with a depth of feeling, a sense of strength and a knowing of all the deepest pain in the world, and I have the sense that this man has known the greatest of evils, the deepest of pains, and that he has somehow experienced all of that and has exerienced forgiveness as well, and that it is his job here in heaven to pass that experience, and that forgiveness on.
Suddenly I recognize this man. "Adolf Hitler!" I cry. "What are you doing here in heaven?" I am stunned. How can this be?
He gazes upon me with compassion, and in his eyes there is a hint of great sadness past, and of great warmth. "It is well that you ask," he says. "From the look of you, you know of the great evils which I caused in the world. So much pain, so much suffering and death..."
But he is interrupted by a horrifying screach. The crowd parts, and a woman stands before him. She is old, and crippled; she walks with a limp, and one arm is withered, and there are numbers tatooed on her forearm. But worst of all is the look upon her face, a look that tells of years of suffering and humiliation, of rape, and pain, and violation, and the deepest grief suffered at the hands of this man.
"You monster!" she cries. "You murdered my family, my son, my father and mother; you butchered my husband before my very eyes! And look! Look what you did to me!" And she screams about how she was crippled, and raped, and brutalized by the Nazi soldiers of Hitler, and the misery of the remaining years of her long life. Her screaming, her rage, goes on and on.
I look at Hitler, and I see him taking all this in, hearing and absorbing every word, tears streaming down his face, feeling the anguish of this woman in every fiber of his soul. As she cries, he cries. As she rages, he rages. As she relives the humiliation and pain, he does too, deeply, fully, completely.
Suddenly I realize that both of them are feeling these feelings as they never did on earth. This woman kept these feelings bottled up inside her all her life; never was she able to express them, relive them, purge herself of them as she is now. And sure enough, after a time, it seems as though there is less energy in her screaming, and it is as though the pain and anguish and sadness is somehow being drained from her, as she expresses it into the face of the one who caused it to her.
Suddenly she knows it, too. She stops talking, an almost suprised look on her face, and then she takes in Hitler, really takes him in, sees the tears streaming down his face, remembers the pain and rage reflected there.
"Oh my God!" she says. "How awful it must have been for you. What kind of outrages did you suffer, to compel you to do these things to us?" And then it hits her. "What was your childhood like? How they must have abused you! What a horrible life you must have had!" And it is clear that now that the pain is gone from her, so that she can see the pain he had, and grieve with him.
Hitler is openly crying now, tears streaming down his face, anguish coming from his very soul. He reaches out his hands to the woman, and she steps up to him, eyes still shining with tears, but filled with something else, something new; perhaps the light of compassion, and a lightness from the lifting of the burden of years of unexpressed anger and grief. She puts her arms around this small man, and he embraces her too, and together they cry, sobbing deeply, from the soul.
The crowd around watches quietly, respectfully, caught up in the drama. The little man and the crippled woman sob for a long time, and then gradually it stops. They step back from one another, and, holding hands, smile into one anothers' eyes. It is as though a collective sigh comes from the crowd, and a little rustling and shuffling can be heard.
"Welcome to heaven," says Adolf Hitler.
The woman smiles, and bows to him, and moves on, deeper into the crowd. And it seems as though her limp is gone, her arm no longer withered, and I cannot see the numbers tatooed on her arm any more.
Hitler turns to me. "Pardon me," he says. "I was going to explain why I am here. I surmise you are new to heaven, and perhaps have not yet learned what heaven is all about."
"Not at all," I said. "On the contrary, you have already explained it most eloquently."
I pause for a moment, and then express the thought that is foremost in my mind. "I am honored to share eternity with you, Mr. Hitler."
He laughs. "Call me Adolf," he says, a twinkle in his eye, and he shakes my hand, and moves on. Around me, the shouting and laughter have resumed.
One day, to satisfy my own curiousity, I asked if there was a hell. After all, there were so many people in heaven, I wondered if there were any that had gone anywhere else.
"Why, yes there is," said someone. "Do you want to see it?"
I shuddered with horror, and she hastened to add, "Oh, you needn't stay there. You can visit just as long or short as you like."
And so I soon found myself on the shores of the Lake of Fire. At first I was so terrified to be there, that all I could see was flames, and I could feel the heat of them on my face, and I thought I could hear the tortured screams of the damned faintly over the roar of the fire.
But after a while I calmed down, and I realized that really the place was pretty empty, and maybe a little on the dry side, but there wasn't much in the way of flames, just a few little campfire-sized fires flickering around the edges and maybe a small bonfire or two in the distance.
I looked around for someone to ask about this, and to find out if there was another part of hell where all the damned were suffering, but there didn't seem to be any people around. Then, faintly, off in the distance, I heard a voice. The voice seemed to be preaching, and quoting scriptures, and every now and then there was a solid thump, as if someone were pounding a fist upon a book for emphasis.
I walked toward the voice, and as I turned the corner around a smoldering cactus, I saw a tall, slender man in a black robe and pilgrim hat walking slowly along, holding a Bible, and preaching to no one in particular. The hem of his robe dragged on some burning grass, and started smoldering, and he reached down and beat on it with his hands, muttering something that sounded quite unpious under his breath.
"Hello," I said. "Can you tell me about this place?"
He straightened up and looked me right in the eye. "Repent, sinner, and be saved from the fires of hell and damnation!" he said in a voice like rolling thunder.
"Ah, excuse me, but I already am saved. I came here from heaven, just to look around and see for myself what hell is like."
"Oh, damn, another one," he said. "Well, I can't say I'm surprised; that's about all we get down here, the perversely curious tourist once every millineum or so. Sometimes I wonder if we'll ever get a real sinner."
"You mean there are no great throngs of the damned, screaming and writhing in pain, trying forever to escape the horrible tortures of hell?"
He looked at me curiously for a moment, as though at a child who had asked if Santa Claus really existed. "No, I'm afraid not. I guess I have to admit that we mostly made that up."
"We?" I said. "Who is 'we'? And what do you mean, 'made that up'?"
He sighed and sat down on a rock. The edge of his robe started smoldering again, and he whacked it a few times with his Bible. I could hear him distinctly, swearing under his breath.
"Well, it seems that there were a number of us who for one reason or another liked the idea of a heaven and a hell. There was a nice symmetry to it, you see. And, besides, it seemed like an effective way to manipulate people; if we told them they'd go to hell if they were bad, but go to heaven if they were good, and then told them what was bad and what was good, well, we could pretty well get them to do whatever we wanted. And it worked pretty well for a long time, don't you think?"
"But once they get to heaven they're no longer fooled."
"That's right," he said, sighing deeply. "We've lost them all to that great orgy of emotion in the sky." But I could see a wistful look on his face; I don't think his heart was really in ridiculing heaven.
"But then why are you here, and why is there a hell at all?"
"Well, maybe it's just that those of us who were rather more deeply attached to the notion have a hard time letting go of it. And so we keep it burning here, kind of a monument to the monstrosity of the whole notion, I suppose. Seems kind of silly now, doesn't it? And we can't even muster a real conflagration, only these pitiful little smolderings."
He sighed again. "There's just not much sentiment for a real good old-fashioned hell in the universe these days." And he took on a faintly martyred look, as though he were a man deeply appreciative of the things of the past, in the midst of a new generation who has no reverence for the finest of the ancient relics and customs.
I made a move as if to go, and he looked up at me. "Well," he said, "I suppose you'll be getting on back to heaven, now, eh?"
"Yes," I said.
"Well, if you meet any sinners, send 'em my way." He looked at me hopelessly, and I had a feeling we both knew I wouldn't be sending him any sinners.
"Will do," I said in what I hoped was a cheerful tone, and got out of there fast.