A friend was reading my blog the other day, and was surprised that I had made a reference to wanting someone to burn in hell. she knows I don't believe in hell, and I guess was rather taken aback (I don't think she was as surprised that I can be that vengeful, sadly)
"The Afterlife" also came up, interestingly, when we took our first day school rockclimbing at vertical endeavors, and a young woman working there asked me about our "church" - They kept assuming our group was a birthday party and we kept saying, "no, actually, we're a sunday school". This young woman goes to a local christian college and was very interested in my belief system. I kept waiting for her to get rabidly evangelical, but she was actually quite respectful, if somewhat bemused.
I don't know if I ever believed in heaven or hell, (maybe a bit more in heaven) as a child. I think I have somehow always understood them as metaphors - as simple ways of saying something that's hard to say, or simply as comforting stories. (well, heaven anyway). And, yet, in their way, they're very real to me as that. As real as the green eyed monster (who is pretty real to me!) or my guardian angel, or liberty as a big green lady in new york harbor - a bit realer I guess, though not literally true.
I know I was never afraid of being on fire for the rest of eternity - that's just too darn weird.
I explained to this young rock climbing helper that I have a slightly more "real" myth about the afterlife, and one that is less so, but perhaps more satisfying. - I used to want to believe in reincarnation, though I could never buy that I, in my entirety, unsed to "be" cleopatra (or anyone else in particular) in her entirety. It does make sense to me, however, that as we rot and our atoms are dispersed again out into the universe, bits of our "soul" are part of them - or they were at least part of it, and so perhaps we do have memories - like body memory - from other lives. It's more a way of thinking about the cycle of life than a belief system, but it does make me happier than a simple "we rot" (or as one of my students gleefully proclaimed when I brought it up on the way home, "the worms eat you!")
but, in thinking about this woman that I can't forgive, and all the people in the world for whom it is so hard not to want some sort of "comeuppance" - I created a story for myself that says that when we die (or sometime around then) we finally have a full understanding of what we did in life - who we hurt, who we helped - a full, deep, whole understanding. For someone who has hurt a lot of people that would be hell, for someone who lived in great love that might be heaven - but either way it's a part of a process, the pain is part of a healing, not just a retribution, but a cleansing. (I also was raised to believe, and do, pretty much, that people who are generally hurtful are already in their own personal hell - I don't know many who seem like they're really having fun to me, but I didn't say that part)
But, this young woman asked me how both stories could be true - how do you go through this painful, healing process (or happy, celebratory process, I guess) if you're busy dispersing into the universe to be other things?
I was baffled, because obviously neither one is REALLY what happens - clearly none of us knows, but my guess is, well, we rot. Then she asked me how I could bear not to know, which struck me as odd because of course, I don't believe that she knows, she's just decided to believe something. I guess you just get used to it.
My friend said she actually grew up believing hell was an actual place where actual people were suffering, so she can't switch to using it as a metaphor, or a myth - it's real or it isn't (and now she believes it isn't). I can't imagine the terror of believing that. No wonder some people are so obnoxiously evangelical. Trying to imagine what it would be like to believe scares me. It makes me incredibly sad that small children are burdened with that sort of horror. Especially because it seems empirically so very unlikely to be the truth of things.
I can imagine it a little, I guess. There are lots of things that I believe that other people around me don't seem to. That nonhuman animals have rights too (and therefore there are huge atrocities taking place in this country on a daily, nay, hourly, basis), that genetic engineering is a very dangerous sort of blasphemy (there I go again - against what? against, I suppose, the way things - including human bodies - work in this reality of ours), that living beings matter infinitely more than making money (people individually seem to believe this - at least those I meet, but the socieyt in which I live seems to take it as anaethma) - so I know the chicken little feeling all too well (though I don't know the story of chicken little well enough to know if he was right in the end)