By Marybeth Clark
How do freethinkers “deal with the enigma of eternity,” asked Tim Haering in a recent letter to the editor (May 25 Tribune).
My first response was akin to that of Mark Twain: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”
Then, I realized Mr. Haering’s question deserved a more thoughtful answer. Because about 16 percent of the population consider themselves non-believers or freethinkers, and by definition are freed from hierarchal authority, I consulted the Internet to learn what others have to say. I discovered more than 5 million websites expounding on what happens when we die – most concentrating on religious concepts of heaven and hell.
In the beginning
Since our earliest endeavors on earth, human cultures have devised stories to explain the great mysteries of life: birth, our purpose and death. If those stories are by peoples long ago (Sumerians, Babylonians) or are by societies unlike our own (Yoruba, Aztecs, Ainu), we label them myths; but if they somehow relate in time or space to our own culture (Jews, Christians, Buddhists) we deem them truth.
For many freethinkers, “truth” lies in a figurative/metaphorical compilation of those stories and their values. There are recurring values that appear in nearly all myths – love, honesty, humility, tolerance and kindness. To assure adherence to these values, many cultures devised rewards and punishments, i.e. heaven and hell.
More interest in hell than heaven
Interestingly, conveyors of culture seem to have been much more enamored with hell than with heaven, as there are far greater volumes of literature/visual art on the former. Many of our modern images of hell as a physical place of burning fires or freezing cold, darkness, physical agony of wayward souls, with devils or demons who torment the damned have evolved from works such as that of 14th century Italian poet Aligheri Dante. In his allegorical “Divine Comedy: Inferno,” he devises nine concentric circles of hell leading to the earth’s frozen center, where Satan awaits. Each circle represents a specific sin with an appropriate punishment meted out to the sinners. For example, in the eighth circle we find corrupt politicians/lawyers who are immersed in a lake of boiling pitch representing the sticky fingers and dark secrets of their corrupt deals.
Visual depictions are burned into our psyches thanks to the many Renaissance artists who, like Hieronymus Bosch in “Garden of Earthly Delight” feature tortured, writhing, bodies struggling against demons amid raging flames.
No reprieve from Christian hell
Religious doctrine appears to be of two kinds:
- Those that view hell as a temporary abode for the dead where they learn, rest and in some cases reincarnate (Buddhism, Confucianism, Judaism, Islam)
- Those that are punitive and eternal with no hope of redemption (Christianity)
The majority of U.S. citizens subscribe to a Judeo-Christian tradition. So let me narrow this to those two. Jewish scripture actually says very little about what happens after death. Jews prefer to emphasize the value of living a meaningful life, while concentrating on justice, truth, kindness, humility and learning. They believe it is through the memories we’ve created in others during our lifetime that we assure our life after death.
Superstition not for freethinkers
Those are the precepts that many freethinkers accept. Supernatural promises of an everlasting life, no matter how attractive, are not enticing. First, we don’t accept the supernatural, and, second, life is precious, in part, because of its transience – it is finite.
Which brings us to the Christians, the only group that I know of that is totally unforgiving of the one sin that will land you directly and forever in their hell – to blaspheme the Holy Spirit. Likewise, there is only one issue that matters when determining admittance into heaven, according to the New Testament – did you accept Jesus Christ as your god and savior. Thus whatever you did in life (murder, rape, steal, lie, cheat) does not matter. As long as you repent your misdeeds and profess belief in Jesus as God, you get a pass through the pearly gates.
For freethinkers this scenario stretches credulity beyond the breaking point. It means that great contributors to humankind such as Jefferson, Einstein, Gandhi and perhaps Mother Theresa (who more than once expressed her doubts) would have to endure the torments of a fiery hell forever, while a Hitler, Rasputin, Pol Pot and Stalin might be enjoying eternal bliss because at the last minute they repented their sins and accepted Jesus. Imagine being a 6-year-old victim of a child rapist only to arrive in heaven and learn you must spend eternity with the perpetrator because you both believed in Jesus.
I realize that whenever one tries to catalog something as esoteric as life-after-death beliefs there will be millions of differences and exceptions both for believers and for non-believers. So Mr. Haering, speaking for myself alone, I am quite comfortable with the belief that when I die I shall return to whence I came. And I shall try my darnedest to live honorably and well in the meantime.