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
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
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
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.