The Great One In His Unknown Realm
When I was just a little kid, I was scared of a lot of things—wasps, Vigo the Carpathian, team sports, peer pressure, aliens, Aliens, witches, faulty parking brakes, the future, getting kidnapped—but nothing scared me more than Hell. That’s why I loved the omnipotent God that watched over my every move. The faceless deity I learned about in school and at Sunday mass could see what I did, hear what I said and know what I thought. He was always right above me ready to hear any little prayer I might offer up and make sure I didn't end up in a pit of fire when I died as long as I followed the rules.
Now, when I say I loved God, I really mean I depended on his good favor. I didn't know what love was when I was a child, I just understood reward, punishment and fear, all of which were amplified by an abundance of natural empathy. God was like the boss of all parents and teachers, the rule maker for the rule makers. To the tiny red haired Catholic with asthma on the Mary Phelan Catholic Elementary School playground, every authority figure was an officer in God’s moral defense force, higher up on the ladder to my supreme being's favor and ready to report me for bad deeds.
Sitting in a red plastic chair across from one of the priests I was made to confess my sins to during the school-wide sacrament of Reconciliation. The event would take place every few months. We would be called to the gymnasium over the school PA system, walk through the halls alone, and sit in a line on a bench watching the kids who came before us quietly talk to God’s executive marketing team. When it came my turn to talk, quietly watched by my peers who waited their turn on the benches, the offenses against my parents and teachers held a heavier weight in my mouth as I apologized to a stranger. Angry thoughts, yelling, swearing—sometimes I would make up ethical crimes just to cover my bases. It would be better to do penance for a made up F-word than go to Hell. (I now realize that this line of thinking was paradoxical, as lying to a priest must surely negate any good will garnered by praying away false sins).
I think it’s common for people who grew up in the Catholic school system to have a much more vivid vision of Hell than they do of Heaven. Heaven is a vague fantasy, with clouds, a gate, angels, all your dead relatives that weren’t Nazis and 24 hour church service. There is wiggle room when you imagine the Holy Kingdom, and so you can imagine it to be a personal paradise. It’s a powerful absence. I remember once hearing my younger brother tell our mom that he couldn't wait to die so he could go to heaven to see our grandparents and play video games.
Hell, on the other hand, is a detailed place of eternal thirst, fire and torture. Even the funny depictions of the media paint the Devil’s domain as horrific. There’s a Treehouse of Horror episode of the Simpsons in which Homer is made to spend a day in Hell, and the jokes in that span of a single minute of television haunted my dreams until I was 13. At one point, Homer is bound to an apparatus that force-feeds him literally all of the donuts in the world. The punchline is that he actually succeeds happily, confounding the demon assigned to delivering his ironic punishment. The humor was lost on me though. All I could think was being filled beyond the capacity of my everlasting soul, never against worthy of forgiveness if I died between one swear word and the next scheduled school gymnasium confession.
I didn’t die, though. I survived long enough to reject the church that threatened my soul for silly things like coveting goats and eventually came to embrace the void that will one day devour us all. Now, on the other side of fearing God’s retribution and the well defined Hell that he wielded with such menace, I realize that the vagueness of Heaven and it's King is WAY SCARIER.
It’s a very simple intellectual bridge to cross, and once you do it all sort of clicks together into a trans-dimensional, many-tentacled portrait of cosmic terror. We know that all human fears lead back to the unknown, and when comparing the good and the bad endings of a Christian life it turns out one is extremely well known. One has different strata and a well censused demographic; it has entire epic poems describing it and incredibly detailed paintings. The other is bright, but you left your eyes on Earth, locked behind a gate beyond which no one has returned to tell the tale; it is Heaven and it is as unhuman as a life without sin.