Saturday, March 11, 2006

Now serving number 55...



I really love the concepts of Heaven and Hell, as probably many people do. So orderly, so reassuring: like pile A or pile B, you're sorted into the great cosmic in and out boxes at the end of your run. But like any kind of faith-based concepts, best not to examine with a microscope.

For instance, I often get to wondering if Heaven is overcrowded. If it is, you can be sure Hell is a festering cesspool without elbow room; CBGB's on a Saturday night with much less chic, slightly charcoaled people, no good music, and zero drugs.

Hundreds of millions of people believe in Heaven. If such a place exists, of those people probably 80 percent actually qualify for a pass. So even if souls are tiny little orbs or floaty balls like we saw in Poltergeist, that's still a lot of things crammed into finite space. Assuming Heaven is finite. No religion's really clear on those details, and Jesus only said there are many rooms in His Father's mansion. But what size is the mansion? Something Trump like, or the Maharishi's Massachussetts white compound on the hill? To me, a mansion is something larger than 2500 square feet. But back in Jesus' day, everyone lived in these little mud holes in the wall, one modest room with a dirt floor. So what was a mansion to Him?

No matter how big any mansion we could envision, it's still not big enough for all good eternal souls to find reasonable breathing space.

My brother's ex-wife was a Pentacostal Baptist who often told me all sorts of interesting things about Heaven. First, that I wouldn't be going there, and neither would my parents, because we weren't "Born Again." I argued that God would be more benevolent. He'd hardly act like a pedantic third-world dictator: "Who cares if you did good. Get outta here, infidel!" But really, who knows? Nobody.

She assured me I was wrong.

"Unless you accept Jesus and are born again, you'll go to Hell."

"Even if I do the very best I can to not do bad things?"

"Yes, even then."

"So, say, Mother Theresa...all that work in Calcutta, all those children she helped, but she's going to----"

"Yep. If she's not born again, she's not getting into Heaven."


This strikes me as very unfair.

I asked her if the converse is true: if a murderer or pedophile would get into heaven, just as long as he was "born again." She confirmed this was the case. Again, very unfair. Why would God be as rigid as my third grade gym teacher, tossing kids onto kickball teams without much thought on their specific strengths and weaknesses?

This, she claimed, was the meaning of free will. That because of free will, we could give ourselves over to God at any time and He would erase our sins.

But that smacks of God as Geico: Driving record? Who cares. Just switch over today and you're in!

So where was the incentive to do good, if one would or would not ascend to Heaven based on such capricious reasons?

To me, goodness is innately human. You don't behave a certain way simply to get into Heaven or avoid Hell. If that were the only motivating factor behind ethical living, all atheists would be gang bangers. Surely if a person behaved as well as they could but didn't give the born again pledge, God would take this into consideration and not act like an arbitrary bouncer.

Some people say there's no such thing as a selfless act. That people do things either for their perceived glory on earth (either to get something in return, or to "feel good" about themselves). But I disagree, completely. Having seen people do things for one another that will get them absolutely nothing except a great deal of frustration - both in the doing and in how they feel about themselves afterwards - the argument smacks of cynicism.

Children seem to have an innate understanding of when they do something wrong or right - whether they're seen or not. For example, when we were six, my friend and I decided that wild blueberries should be smeared all over her neighbor's aluminum siding. Sort of artistic. The way I imagine Farrah Fawcett looked at painting her body and then tossing herself on canvas: it seemed like a good idea at the time.

We weren't thinking about the fact it was daylight and anyone, including my parents, could look out their window and see us. But, no matter. Halfway through, I felt just terrible and stopped smearing. The bright purple looked shockingly lovely on stark, virginal white. It was artistic. It was also wrong as wrong could be, and somehow, I knew it. This knowledge made me feel awful inside, like I was shrinking.

We did get caught, too. But that didn't matter as much as how I felt for the three hours between the act and having my dad lecture me at dinner.

So it strikes me as funny to consider the theory that people would be compelled to do good only because it would get them into Heaven. And then find out they get a free pass no matter what they do, as long as they parrot a well-chosen acceptance speech in church one day.


But for a minute, assuming it's true explains a great deal about the extreme Born Again Christians I've encountered in life and online. For one, they don't have any trouble saying some of the most hateful things to people who disagree with them, and telling us how we're headed straight to Hell, because of our beliefs, our sexual activities, our liberalism and generally any belief that doesn't square with them. It's totally rude, too. There's no sweetness or softly spoken kind words. Apparently, accepting Jesus into your heart also allows a whole lotta hate to flow outward, unencumbered and unchallenged. They're still going to Heaven. What's a torrent of demeaning invective when you're rounding third and headed for home already?

They're also quite happy about Jesus returning to the earth, and ASAP. While you or I might faint dead away or lose control of our bodily functions if Jesus in all His glory happened to descend from the split-open heavens and land on our weedy front lawn, Born Again Christians talk about this with the same kind of calm certainty usually used while paying this month's phone bill.

They want Him to come, and the sooner the better. Don't believe it? Go to www.raptureready.com and take a gander at the forums. They're prepared for the basics. Now it's just a matter of discerning whether or not all children go to Heaven even if they're too young to give voice to their acceptance of Jesus. Or whether the latest outbreak of fighting between Palestine and Israel puts their Rapture Ready Index over Armageddon quota.



Among my sister-in-law's other interesting theories, she believes the Rapture will lift the right people up into Heaven and the rest of us will be sitting there, in the middle of ordering our steaks medium rare, wondering where the hell the waitress went when she gets sucked up into the air, sans shoes. Yes, without shoes. Apparently you get your clothes and whatever you're wearing when it's time, but millions of people will be leaving their Jimmy Choos behind for we devilish folks to snag.

She also believes that there's food in Heaven. I don't mean like exotic, amazing, incredible dishes -- but regular food, like cold-cuts and Wonder Bread. And get this: it never goes bad. The sandwich you accidently dropped behind the couch six months ago will materialize in Heaven, absent the mold and cat hair - bread, mayo and meat as fresh as the day it was built.

For some reason, I have trouble with this concept as well. Why would souls need food? How would it be smelled, or tasted? Where would it go? If there are bathrooms in Heaven, are they unisex, like angels are?

That brings me back to the question of space. With bathrooms, and food, we're talking serious celestial overpopulation. Even if it's true we're all getting more corrupt, that's still gonna be problematic. Will there be orderly lines, or will it be more like a Who concert, every soul for itself suddenly let loose through the gates?

Maybe they'll use those number machines that were once so popular in bakeries, grocery stores and the unemployment line. You know, with those flashing red letters that change as each person is served. St. Peter might call out the number, if it happens to be missed, like a host at some fancy restaurant. "Number 25, your Heaven space is ready now. Now serving Number 25. NUMBER 25???"

Of course, since the only rules I follow are the Commandments, a hodgepodge of minor infractions (Honor thy Father and Mother) along with some misdemeanors (Keep the Sabbath Holy) and downright felonies (Do not kill) that make it virtually impossible for someone not to break atleast one once in awhile, I'll probably never get a number.

Maybe for the best. Chances are I'd be downstairs smoking, just like in life.
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