Tao Living

Heaven and Hell

by Derek Lin

March 2000

Once upon a time, a man with a certain military bearing approached the Zen master Hakuin and asked: "Master, do Heaven and Hell actually exist?"

The master wanted to answer in the affirmative, but knew that this would give the man a false impression. In all likelihood the man operated under the mundane paradigm that Heaven and Hell exist as places for souls in the afterlife. The master knew what he must do to break through that false preconception.

"What is your occupation?" He asked.

"I'm a general." This explained the military bearing about him.

The master burst out laughing. "What idiot would ask you to command an army? You look more like a butcher to me!"

This enraged the general. With a roar he drew his sword. He could cut down this defenseless old man in an instant.

"Here lie the gates of Hell," said the master. These simple words stopped the powerful general dead in his tracks.

Realization flooded in. The general sudden understood that the master had risked his life in order to teach him a great truth in the most effective way imaginable.

"Forgive me, master, for what I was about to do." He felt all at once gratitude, amazement, and shame.

"Here lie the gates of Heaven," said the master.

This is an interesting tale. It tells us that even in ancient times, the sages had already evolved their spiritual understanding to a point where they saw Heaven and Hell as states of mind rather than places.

Not everyone shared this view, of course. We have always had vivid descriptions and images of Heaven and Hell from way back. A few enlightened beings recognized these as colorful metaphors, but many took them literally. In the cosmic scale of things, it wasn't that long ago that most human beings thought Heaven was actually somewhere beyond the clouds and Hell was deep underground in some dark, cavernous setting.

Specifics varied, but the overall idea remained the same. Asgard, Valhalla, Olympus, Hades, Inferno, Purgatory… all were places one might go after the death of one's physical body.

For many thinking individuals in the modern age, the idea of Heaven and Hell as actual places has fallen by the wayside. We still enjoy tales of the afterlife every now and then, but we don’t necessarily believe that these stories correspond to reality.

At the same time, there are still many who do believe. Without too much effort one can still find people who simply won't let go of the notion that Heaven and Hell exist somewhere. Quite a few Fundamentalist Christians, among others, will readily cite passages from the Bible to "prove" that Heaven and Hell are as real as your corner grocery. George W. Bush made news last year for having expressed his belief that those who had not turned to Christ for salvation were headed for Hell.

Some time ago a group of religious extremists protested in front of a Disney store in the Midwest. You may find this surprising. Surely Disney is as unoffending as they come? What could these people possibly complain about?

As it turned out, they were demonstrating against the action figures for the Disney cartoon "Gargoyles." The main characters from this cartoon had bat-like wings, tails, horns, and fangs. To create toys in that image was equivalent to flaunting the image of demons and furthering the cause of Satan.

Disney employees received death threats and harassing overtures. The store manager was told, in a matter-of-fact manner, that he was destined to burn for all eternity. Apparently the demonstrators took the idea of Hell quite seriously.

In this age of political correctness, it is tempting to fall back to the "everyone is right in his or her own way" position. Can we not say that people like the above, who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, are just as entitled to their opinion? Is not their opinion just as valid as any other?

Perhaps, but as we look deeper we see that there are numerous logic problems with the literal interpretation. The foremost problem is that the horrors of Hell and the pleasures of Heaven are completely subjective quantities. What is horrible to some may not be so bad to others; what is wonderful or pleasurable for me may not be for you.

For instance, consider the case of a masochist. Does such an individual go to Heaven or Hell? Wouldn't Heaven for him be a place where he can sample a great variety of delicious pain? Wouldn't Hell for him be a place where he is barred from any pain whatsoever? Wouldn't this be a complete reversal of the typical conception?

Another problem, equally crippling, is the difficulty in reconciling the existence of Hell with the all-loving nature of God. If God truly loves His children, why would He subject even the most sinful ones to eternal suffering? Why not just settle for eternal imprisonment, sans grotesque torture? Isn’t rejection from Heaven and loss of freedom for all eternity punishment enough?

Look at our penal system. What do we do with our most heinous criminals nowadays? Often we are satisfied to simply keep them away from society; we feel no need to inflict pain upon them. Such was not necessarily the case back in a more barbaric age (or, admittedly, in some parts of the world today). At that particular level of humanity's development, society would not hesitate to torture prisoners, and many cruel implements were designed for just that purpose. Nor was it enough to execute a criminal; bloodthirsty sensibilities demanded death with maximum pain and terror - hence the Iron Maiden.

(Iron Maiden of Nuremberg, not Iron Maiden the heavy metal band. Used as early as 1515 AD, the device featured spikes of varying lengths on the inside of its cover. This cover closed on its victim slowly, so that the spikes would penetrate various parts of the body just enough to cause excruciating pain but not immediate death. The second shortest spikes were right at the eye balls, so the victim would lose his eyes shortly before the last spike drove through his heart, finally killing him.)

Most of us would like to believe that we as a species have outgrown this hideous phase. Today we treat even the worst of the worst criminals in a humane way. If we must put one to death, we do so as quickly and as painlessly as possible.

Compared to our human-created system, doesn't a literal Hell featuring the most horrible punishment imaginable seem savage and primitive by comparison? If God is infinitely greater than human beings in every way, wouldn't His mercy and compassion surpass ours as well? If even puny human beings, imperfect and born full of sin, can rise above treating the wicked in a cruel way, then why shouldn't God, the paragon of perfection?

When we look at it in this light, we quickly come to the conclusion that if God is truly the embodiment of love and compassion, then He would never allow the existence of Hell as a place where sinners burn forever. It seems more likely then, that Hell is a concept invented by human beings for the specific purpose of invoking fear in other human beings. The inhumane and barbaric nature of Hell is simply a reflection of the character of its mythmakers.

The key to this realization lies in thinking it through. People who still adhere to the old school are those who have not bothered to mentally pursue all the ramifications and implications of their belief.

When you do think it through, you cast aside the shackles of ignorance and savagery, and see the inevitable truth. Heaven and Hell exist within every one of us. That's the only way it can be. At any time we have the potential to experience either extreme or any point in between. We are not elevated to Heaven or cast down into Hell after we die; we transport ourselves there, and even though most of us don't realize it, we have the ability to arrive or depart at will.

Forget about all this eternal torment, everlasting pain nonsense. We are mature souls and evolved spirits who no longer need to be kept in line with scary stories. We do not need morality dictated to us and enforced with threats of punishment; our own morality springs from within, driven by our natural desire to seek harmony, love, and oneness. This being the case, our own conscience, higher selves, karmic lessons, and spiritual masters govern us in fundamental ways far more effective than fear ever can.

The sages were right about Heaven and Hell. Again we see how their ancient wisdom can still be miles ahead of - and sometimes even anticipate - our "modern" beliefs.