By Edon Ademaj
In the grand scheme of life, the universe, and everything, we Homo sapiens are more comparable to ants (like it or not) than to anything beyond our tiny planet. God is beyond our grasp, heaven is difficult to get to, and we’re not quite sure just what hell is.
Fortunately enough, we’re a crafty enough species to devise delusions in helping ourselves cope with all this befuddlement. However, these delusions are a tad too creative and oxymoronic for our ant-brains in the scope of the universe and the shadowy divine. We’re just rolling with it because we fear death, we hate our human natures in spite of ourselves, and we have the insatiable need to define, classify or dissolve the impossible.
I have cultivated freethought and an acceptance of the uncertainty that is the essence of life and living, because nature and death are the only certainties. I am an unabashed agnostic unafraid of the fires of hell. Unlike nature and death, hell is an uncertainty that easily implodes with contradiction, as do a great many theological concepts.
In academia, hell is a fragile, if even present, discussion. No one likes to concede to the biblical imagery of smoldering flesh, a cacophony of agony, and the human soul in the depths of all possible indignity. In my experience, in discussing the concept of hell with theologians, I found each dismissive that this cruel dimension could be made possible by an all-loving, compassionate, and merciful god. Somehow, they come to interpret this horrible place as a manifestation of our individual hells. One has told me he believes hell is just nothingness, an empty and desolate place for the sinner to reflect. The contrast between the depravity of hell and God’s infinite mercy is an obvious lapse in consistency, and even logic, one could say. But I emphasize the word “interpret” as a subtle and far more dangerous fault of religion.
Hell and religious systems exist as a form of government over the soul, and they are devised in such a way to rule with fear, as well as with compassion. This ambivalent quality is just vague and encompassing enough to work for all who call themselves believers. But the great flaw — the divide between free and critical thinking and the antiquated concepts in religious traditions — is the encouragement of interpretation. Contemporary theologians now seek to bridge religious belief with modern times by revising and assimilating it, which seems a fantastic thing at first glance. But then one thinks, what is the purpose of a “universal” religious system when faith becomes individualized (free for interpretation) and essentially – egad! – relativistic? If religions have no value that firmly apply to all of their
followers, then they cycle back into the uncertainty it strove to dodge in the first place. And on top of that, religious ideas come with their own boundaries that perpetuate othering and reduce the human potential for compassion for fellow humans. Suddenly, fear, loathing and mortality are all at once very real and distantly dream-like as they are attributed to ambiguous abstracts having two extremely opposite effects: People are either more accepting of one another because for them, God’s an easy-going family man who does not mind homosexuality or differing religious traditions, or hell and sin are exactly what the bible says they are and God’s word is final.
I reject modern interpretation just as much as religious fundamentalism, even as interpretation demonstrates an increased level of thought, because there is a better way. Moral philosophy and ethical principles accomplish what religious traditions strive to with simplicity, logic and unity. Whereas many people can’t agree on the abstract natures of their gods or hells or holy lands, I can say with absolute certainty that most sane Christians, Muslims, Jews, Jains, nontheists, etc., would grasp the Golden Rule if explained without any theological associations. Such a law is universal and affirms empathy as the essence of understanding — it’s down-to-earth and human, and that is what we ought to be our best while we live on Earth.
Edon, 20, is from Fort Worth, Texas, and attends Texas Wesleyan University. He is unsure of his future plans, but may pursue teaching English in Reykjavík, or writing or editing for the New Yorker, or working as a freelancer in graphic design.