Sunday, December 18, 2011

Taking the Christ out of Christopher

Is Christopher Hitchens in hell? Hitchens, who died on December 15th of this year, is known mostly for his atheism (though there is so much more to him than this), and this question was emailed to me by several people in response to his passing.

To answer it I have to first define hell. Hell, for me, is a figment of the imaginations of people who delight in the torture of other people who believe differently than they do, and who lack the capacity to achieve this in this life. True, belief in hell can go hand in hand with people who do have the capacity to torture others in this life (the Inquisition and modern Iran are but two examples), but for most people in the United States today torture is limited to the government and God. Anyone else who tries it is liable to be arrested and jailed.

So is Christopher Hitchens in hell? Since hell is imaginary, and since many people will imagine hell will imagine him in it, one might say he is in hell. But to one like myself whose desire to kill people is limited to fantasy assassinations of people who do actual evil to actual beings, no, Christopher Hitchens isn’t in hell.

Of course he isn’t in heaven either. Both locales seem fictional to me. So where is he? Well, he has been doing a lot of cameo appearances on network and cable news shows, but basically I believe that when we die we return to the source from which we come. To use the Hindu ocean/wave analogy, the wave that was Christopher Hitchens has returned to the ocean that is all waves. The ocean continues waving, but never again at Christopher Hitchens.

What really interests me about hell isn’t who is in it, but the people who imagine others are in it. No one who believes in hell ever imagines that he or she is going to end up there. Jean-Paul Sartre once said, “Hell is other people.” I would say,  “Hell is for other people.”

When I ask people who believe in hell why they believe in hell, they blame it on God. If it were up to them, they tell me, everyone would find salvation and no one would go to hell to be tortured for all eternity, but it isn’t up to them; it’s a God thing. But all we know about God is what we imagine about God, so saying “it’s a God thing” is simply a way of not admitting our own complicity in hell and damnation.

There is something in the human psyche that delights in the torture of our enemies. Since there is also something in the human psyche that keeps most of us from actually doing so, we imagine a god and a hell where torture can happen without implicating us in it.

All I ask of those who believe Christopher Hitchens is burning in hell is that you say this with glee and not a faux sadness. If you believe in eternal torture at least have the courage of your fantasies, and rejoice when it happens.


Karen said...

Thank you, Rabbi Rami! Another great blog.

Heather Reed Writes said...

I so enjoy reading your blog. On this matter, we both agree. Thank you!