French Jean Paul Sartre once defined Hell as other people. I might go him one better and define it as other people just like one’s self. The road to Hell is paved, not with good intentions, but with selfish preferences. People that choose this road usually don’t like themselves very much. Their over-abundance of self-indulgence often masks a self-detestation that deliberately seeks out pleasures that can never lead to happiness. It is as if the will were seeking out its own eternal punishment. I think it would be a painful situation to be with people like that.
On a trip to France several years ago, there was a fellow from North Carolina. He called himself Poisson, which was the French translation of his real name Fish. He was a heavy-set, jovial man who sought the validation of the other members on our tour. He was loud, boisterous and so insecure he just had to have a monopoly of the passengers’ attentions during the trip. In other words, he was just like me. People like me, usually don’t like people like me.
I must admit that his best line during the entire trip referred to a bumper sticker on his car at home that was as funny as it was true. In a veiled reference to the racial situation in America, especially the South, it read: we should have picked our own damn cotton. For two weeks we competed for the attentions and affections of our captive audience with such a strong male bravado that it started to get a little physical.
While getting off the bus one evening, he took my arm and squeezed it hard. It was his way of saying to me that he had lost our childish game. By resorting to physical intimidation, he had crossed the invisible line of dueling clowns. I could not help it if I were funnier than he was.
The thought of having to spend eternity with people like him really gave me an abject dose of humility, which I promptly drank. As I get older—I am already many years older than I thought men lived to be when I was a child—I have done a lot of thinking about Eschatology. The guide on a Circle Lines Tour around Manhattan Island mentioned General Black Jack Pershing’s warnings to his troops as they prepared to embark for Europe in 1918.
The general said that there would be only three results of their invasion of France…Heaven, Hell or Hoboken. This is Christian Eschatology in a brief nutshell. The Catholic Church adds the importance of death and judgment to the list to make up the Four Last Things. I think it is the judgment part that makes many of us terrified of dying—well at least me and maybe two or three others. I think it would be terrific if we eventually found out that God was non-judgmental.
It would even be nicer if everyone went to Heaven because God was as infinitely merciful as so many New Age Christians believe. The Church teaches that God does not condemn us to Hell. We condemn ourselves. That is a very neat package but I often wonder just how free our wills really are. I know the fallen angels, like Lucifer and the allegorical teachings of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden had an absolute understanding of right and wrong.
They fell for the universal temptation of pride and wanted to be gods themselves. Better to rule in Hell than serve a single day in heaven. But our fallen nature often stacks the decks against us because it has warped us with a perverted sense of right and wrong that can we truly understand the stakes of our behavior. Benjamin Franklin once wrote that vice knows she’s ugly. That’s why she hides her face. Sin and evil often disguise themselves in actions that seem to be a good idea at the time. Sometimes it is the drive and yearning of our passions that have gotten out of the barn because we failed to keep a strong lock on the door.
There are hormonal, social, and economic pressures that conspire to work against our souls and even our own bodies. There is also the Zeitgeist, peer pressure and the glitter of materialism that people don’t realize has an enslaving charm. In my opinion this makes it difficult for us to assume full culpability. But in the final scope of things we all are responsible for all our personal actions, despite the fact that millions of us have taken different roads in rationalizing our guilt and avoiding the true culprit in the mirror for a variety of sins from adultery, drug abuse, violence, sloth and all the other capital sins. Just how much responsibly is ours is my question.