Heaven and Damnation – We Choose What We Desire – Hell is not what you may think
What is hell? A lake of fire? Demons sticking people with pitchforks? No. Hell is the state of not being in heaven. If perfect happiness comes only through alignment with God, then failure to achieve that alignment must result in unhappiness, an unhappiness that the sinner inflicts on himself. Dante’s Inferno illustrates this point well. The poor souls in the Inferno are, in large part, pursuing the same obsessions that they pursued in life. They may be chasing wealth, sex, food, power or whatever else they focused their attention on in this world. What all of those things have in common is a state of constant wanting. Those who lust after money, power, or sexual gratification in preference to more virtuous goals never feel that they have gotten enough. Indeed, often the more they get the greater the wanting becomes, feeding their own obsession. Their very success in feeding their desires increases the misery of wanting, until they are sucked down into a whirlpool of their own cycle of wanting. It is by choosing this course that they condemn themselves, and the fire that consumes them is the flame of their own ever-burning desire. Understanding this is the key to understanding the true concept of sin, and in distinguishing between sin, crime, and nonsense.
In considering this point it may be helpful to examine your own experience with material desires and virtuous desires. Imagine that you have just received an increase in wealth or power. Imagine further that you are experiencing the initial dose of pleasure that flows from that. How (honestly!) will you feel on observing that some acquaintance has gotten more wealth or power than you did? Will that increase your pleasure, giving you a warm feeling from knowing that he has gotten something good, or will the knowledge instead take a bit of the shine off of your own pleasure? Does it make your new wealth or power seem a bit less than it seemed before? Do you wish that you had gotten more?
Now imagine that you have done some virtuous act in a good cause. You have done the right thing for the right reason – not to win the admiration of your friends, but just because it is the right thing to do to advance the cause. You feel good about it. Now an acquaintance performs an even more difficult virtuous act for the same cause. Do you feel jealous, or do you experience a warm feeling because other right thinking people are helping to advance the cause? If your motives have been pure, there is no basis for jealousy. The joy of virtue is only enhanced by observing virtue in others. Indeed, you would likely feel disappointed if others failed to make the same effort to advance the cause. Would you feel the same sort of disappointment if others (excluding friends) failed to match you in wealth and power?
Similarly, imagine a guy (I will not place you, virtuous reader, in the place of such a person) who is pleased that some good-looking female has agreed to go out on a date with him, and that this pleasure stems from vanity (“wait until they see who I’m with!”) rather than from affection. Is that pleasure likely to be increased or decreased upon observing some other guy with an even more attractive date? Now imagine instead that you are out with someone you love, and who loves you in return. If you observe another couple in love, will that reduce your pleasure, or help to remind you of your own happy state and enhance your joy? Virtuous pleasure feeds itself. It flows largely from the pleasure that virtue gives to others, and increases as the joy of all increases. Material pleasure is jealous. It is material craving, not material pleasure, that feeds on itself.
Hell then, like heaven, is a state of the soul. Damnation is not a punishment inflicted by God. It is the natural and inevitable outcome of the way the damned have chosen to mold their own desires. They feel no pleasure in virtue, for they have become so obsessed by their cravings that their souls have become blind to the inherent pleasures of goodness. Instead, they crave things that can never satisfy, carving a hole in their souls that cannot be filled. Given the way these creatures have shaped their own souls, how would they respond if they were transported into heaven? Set among the blissful millions with the instruction to be happy in their own virtue and that of those about them, in their alignment with the goodness of God, would they feel the thrill of divine bliss? No. They would immediately be bored and would want to go back down to hell so that they could continue chasing their desires. They are deprived of heaven because they have shaped themselves in such a way that heaven offers them no joy. Given the choice – and in fact they have been given the choice – they’d rather be in hell. Their torments are not punishments, but rather are the very substance of their craving souls. Like the criminal discussed in an earlier installment, they would feel the torment of insatiable desire even if their every material wish were granted. They have placed themselves beyond salvation.
Going back to our earlier question, then, why does God permit people to do this to themselves? Because in order to achieve the bliss of heaven, people must have the free will to choose to do good. Otherwise, they will be like a computer that has been programmed to follow a set of instructions and then “label your condition upon finishing the task as ‘satisfaction'”; it will comply, but the result will be meaningless. In order to have free will, people must also have the real ability to choose not to do good. They can receive various guides towards making the right choice. They may have a natural good feeling when they choose wisely on earth and a feeling of dissatisfaction or the prickings of conscience when they choose badly. Parents and friends and church members and books may give them good advice. They may see examples of people who make themselves miserable chasing material desires. Their own logical thoughts may demonstrate to them that if they have enough money to live comfortably and still spend their lives trying to grab more, then something must be wrong with their value system. Yet, despite all the guidance and help and grace, they have – and must have – the ability to choose poorly, and a rather surprising number of people do. In doing so they condemn themselves, and what they condemn themselves to is the pursuit of those wants that they themselves have established as the goal of their desires. God weeps at their choice, but cannot do more to help them without destroying the very possibility of virtue. Those who instead choose wisely, who set virtue as their goal and learn to take pleasure in virtue for its own sake, just as inevitably create their own spiritual heaven independent of the material world.
It may seem disingenuous to say that the damned choose their fate. Who would choose hell over heaven? Yet, you have only to look about you to see the answer in practice. Heavenly bliss and hellish damnation are not reserved for the afterlife. We are given a full opportunity to taste of them in our ordinary lives. We see many examples of people who have chosen a destructive cycle of wanting. Crack-addicted mothers who engage in prostitution in front of their doomed children in order to feed their habit are living a life that most of us can recognize as hell on earth, and yet they commonly fail to seek social services designed to rescue them from that life. Young stars who get rich too quickly commonly spend their wealth on drugs, divorce lawyers, and psychiatrists. In marriage after marriage, people choose to throw away the gift of love because they feel that they want something that they are not getting, instead of building their love to a level where it overwhelms such wants. Aren’t these people choosing the torments of insatiable wanting?
We see other people who have found happiness despite profound poverty or lack of material opportunities. It often seems like there are many more people living lives of misery than there are living happy lives, but research statistics indicate that this is an illusion. It is always somewhat amazing when a person who has all of the material things in life manages to be miserable, yet we can intuitively understand how a good person can manage to be happy under humble circumstances. Therefore, the great and miserable are much reported and discussed, while the humble but happy live out quiet lives, receiving less notice than they should. They are the ones who have found the road to heaven, and we would all do well to note and follow their course.
I must comment on another possibility, something that does not fit within the usual definition of sin, though at least Catholics point it out in the context of suicide being a mortal sin. A person may not be preoccupied with greed, lust, vanity, wrath etc., but may instead fall into utter despair of a sort that prevents them from experiencing the joy of virtue. I would propose that suicide may not be equivalent to sin in some circumstances where it is rational given the alternatives. In the case of a person tempted to suicide because of despair, however, while it is not sin in the sense of being bad, it is mortally tragic in the sense of cutting off learning to feel joy in virtue. This circumstance further demonstrates that God has no interest in punishing people for a sickness of the soul – we know that God desperately wants to help innocents suffering in despair. Still, those in despair need to find the power within them to reach out for that love and gift. They have it within them – God grants it to all. If they can focus their mind in true prayer they can find it. Such cases are particularly difficult, though, and that is part of my motivation in writing this series and my book. We need to flood the world with love, with good examples, with people who have moved beyond the mistake of self-righteous condemnation and on to God’s message of reaching out to their fellow creatures and letting them know that they are loved and valued. We need to help all children to realize that they have value and merit no matter what other people think of them. We need to help them to see God’s simple plan of loving others and feeling good about it, and to recognize early on how to respond when they see problems in their thinking leading to their unhappiness, to turn guilt into thoughts and actions that put them back on the path to joy. This can be a very tough task, but it is extraordinarily important, and it is much easier if we start out with a sensible view of what it is all about.
Now that we have identified our desired destination, and the destination we want to avoid, how do we navigate in the right direction? The articles that follow are intended to help in this task.
Again, popular culture is full of examples of people’s self-destruction by chasing the wrong ends. This demonstrates our intuitive sense of this truth, as well a people’s puzzling but common failure to change course and save themselves.
Citizen Kane illustrates the perils of obsession with wealth and power. At the end, Kane yearns for the pre-wealth innocence of his childhood.
Treasure of the Sierra Madre is the classic tale of the destructive power of greed
The Perks of Being a Wallflower speaks to addressing hurt and despair by focusing on friendship and love.