A couple of weeks ago, I was riffing on God, gods and atheism. Struck a chord, apparently. To my surprise, the subsequent comments flew thick and fast. One line of discussion was the topic of life after death (so-called), linking a belief in God with the immortality of one’s soul or spirit.

Having been brought up nominally as an Anglican (i.e. Episcopalian, Catholic without a pope), I assumed that the whole point of believing in God, praying, singing hymns and all that, was to go to heaven. Or, and more to the point, to avoid eternity in hell (why bother otherwise?). Those were the choices: heaven if you were good, hell if you were bad, the sheep and the goats, Matthew 25:31-46. Sheep, right hand, inherit the kingdom. Goats, left hand, everlasting fire. (I used to worry if it was His right or my right as I looked at Him.) Whichever, you really didn’t want to piss Him off.

And after this earthly vale of tears, heaven sounded pretty good — mansions, sunlit lawns, harps (not my favorite instrument, not for eternity, anyway), picnics, grapes. Not sure about my loved ones, forever. That might pale after awhile, sorry sweetheart. Then there’s the added bonus of knowing people like Atilla, Stalin and Walter Sedge (who stole my jacket when I was eight) were suffering. For extra delight, I’d get to watch the fun from the front row: “In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned.” — Thomas Aquinas, your main man if you’re into Catholic philosophy.

Yeah, well. Even that might get old. I loved Kill Bill, but after 100-odd revenge killings, even Uma Thurman starts to look a little jaded.

But, big but, that’s the cool Christian heaven. Which was a definite improvement on the Old Testament heaven. Inasmuch as the Chosen People believed in an afterlife (and not all did: Job’s If a man shall die, shall he live again? was rhetorical, right?), it wasn’t all wine and roses. The Hebrew Sheol was dark and gloomy (the word derives from a communal grave), where the feeble souls of the living wandered around aimlessly. The ancient Greeks thought their souls ended up in Hades, “the moldering house of chill Hades,” as Hesiod put it, basically a gloomy dungeon, read your Aeneid Book 6 for details. Ditto Aralu (Babylonian afterlife), Orcus (Roman). And if all that doesn’t give you pause, Gustave Doré’s engravings for Dante’s Inferno, sample shown, might.

BTW, I’m talking personal immortality here, of course — it’s you who’s in heaven (or hell, wherever). You’re there with memories intact. (But, hopefully, with a new and improved body, if you’re in one of the good places: no more flossing—your teeth take care of themselves — no one uses words like arthritis, migraine or cancer.) Which is different from the Hindu Atman reuniting with the eternal Brahman — you lose your personality, as a dewdrop falls into the ocean. Or reincarnation — yeah, I may have been Cleopatra, but other than a couple of little bites on my chest, I have no recollection of vamping down the Nile with Richard Burton.

All of which is to say, if you’re hoping for immortality, be careful what you ask for.


UNABASHED PLUG. If you recognized the movie line from this week’s title, you may be interested in a one-evening class I’m giving through HSU/OLLI on Spaghetti Westerns on April 1, 6-8 pm at HBAC, call 826-5880 to register. The line comes from the 1968 western-to-end-all-westerns, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. Jason Robards’ character, Cheyenne, says to Jill — Claudia Cardinale, never lovelier — “You don’t understand, Jill. People like that have something inside … something to do with death.” Right before Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson get into it.


Barry Evans gave the best years of his life to civil engineering, and what thanks did he get? In his dotage, he travels, kayaks, meditates and writes for the Journal and the Humboldt Historian. He sucks at 8 Ball. Buy his Field Notes anthologies at any local bookstore. Please.