Oh, Hell…

hell

by Michael Maciel

I think that much of our religious imagery comes from the very deepest parts of our biology.

What is the one thing that we share with all forms of life? Isn’t it survival? That’s as rudimentary as it gets, wouldn’t you say? It’s so deep that even our cells know it.

Living in an advanced, industrialized civilization, it’s easy to forget just how well we have mastered the survival game. We have heat in cold climates, plumbing to stave off diseases, clean water, law and order, education, healthcare…the list goes on and on.

What we don’t have is chaos, not very much of it, at least. Chaos is inimical to survival. The more chaos, the greater the chances that we will die. It stands to reason that some kind of basic order is equivalent to a virtuous (sinless) life.

I like the translation of hell as “Gehenna,” the landfill outside the walls of Jerusalem. Dumps are filled with items that are no longer useful. They no longer contribute to the common good. They are the antithesis of organization, everything piled haphazardly, destined to be burned.

Hell, in other words, is chaos—the lack of order, the lack of organization, sustainability, and viable environment. In every way, chaos undoes life.

As such, hell is more of a principle than a literal place. As a principle, it helps us to organize our lives in ways that support not only our survival but our ability to thrive. It’s a constant warning, not that we will be punished by a dictatorial deity, but that we must take seriously the precarious situation that life is, that we must always be mindful of and appreciate the good that we, as a species, have developed over time. Not that it’s all good, by any means, but it sure beats the hell out of freezing in the dark or living in a jungle without laws or agreed upon societal norms.

Wouldn’t you agree?

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