America's Most Critical Journal (since 1999)



Going to Hell

12 March 2017

hellI have traveled to numerous exotic places, including the foothills of the Himalayas, the Arctic, and the Antarctic. These places, needless to say, are all on the surface of the earth. As a space scientist I have also fantasized about going into outer space, but the closest I have been to fulfilling it was a simulated trip to a comet in Disneyland.

The journey that I describe here is of an entirely different dimension. It is not only outside the earth’s surface, it is also outside our familiar space-time fabric; it is my highly unanticipated journey to Hell with a brief stopover just outside the gateway to heaven.

The prelude to this unplanned journey was the following. After a refreshing afternoon walk in a small nearby park, I lay down on my conformable sofa with an excellent book on recent developments in neuroscience, an area that has greatly interested me lately. Clearly the intellectual simulation of the interesting subject matter was insufficient to overcome the recuperative needs of my aging brain and the comfort provided by the sofa, that I had fallen asleep. Presumably I had also peacefully died in my sleep, because the next thing I remember was standing in one of many long lines outside a row of magnificent gates that shimmered with an unusual translucent glow, which I instantly recognized as the “Pearly Gates” to heaven. Floating leisurely, inside and above these gates among gleaming white clouds, were what appeared to be angels. They came in all shapes and sizes and looked like humans, except that they were uniformly dressed in long white robes and sported bird-like wings.

As a physicist, it was clear to me that these wings (which had either silver or gold feathers, indicating a class distinction even in heaven) and which had a span no longer than the angels’ arms, served no aerodynamic purpose. If heaven had earth-like gravity and comparable atmospheric conditions, an adult angel weighing 150 pounds would need a wingspan of around 40 feet and a huge breast bone and pectoral muscles to enable it to fly. In that case the angel would look quite grotesque. The observation that this was not the case is simply due to the fact that there is no gravity in heaven. This follows from the recognition that, gravity (as occurred to Albert Einstein a century ago) arises from the curvature of natural space-time, and heaven lies outside the fabric of this space-time, as it is claimed to be supernatural. Thus angels’ wings seemed essentially ornamental and only distinguished angels from their mortal earthbound counterparts.

While I could not help thinking about angels’ wingspans, the general theory of relativity and heaven’s gravity, my line was moving forward slowly but steadily and I had to concentrate on the imminent life-and-death (or more correctly life-and-afterlife) problem that I was about to face; being that, while on earth, I was an ardent “non-believer” in all things supernatural. This included the divine and the “afterlife,” be it eternal life in some heaven or hell, or rebirth into another life. My own point of view was closer to the Buddhist concept of “Nirvana” (nothingness), except that, unlike in traditional Buddhism, where one has to recycle through numerous lives to attain this “final” state, I presumed that everyone attained nirvana when they died. In other words our life on earth was both our first and our last. This conclusion is generally not a desirable one. Eternity in paradise would certainly be more appealing to most people. However my conclusion was the only rational one that I could reach with all the available scientific information, particularly of the brain and the mind.

Eventually I reached the top of my line and encountered an angel sitting inside a glass booth. This angel, a young female, was perusing a computer screen, showing that heaven too had progressed beyond clay tablets to modern-day technology. She gave me a quick glance, returned to the computer screen and soon after casually announced that I, Asoka Mendis, was denied entry to heaven and would have to go to hell. This was not entirely unexpected, yet it was painful to hear, considering the enormity of the consequences. Following the initial shock, I collected myself and began disputing the decision. At this point the angel informed me that I was arguing with the wrong person, since the decision that appeared on her computer screen was made by a higher authority and should I wish to appeal it, I needed to join another line, which she pointed out to me.

Having joined this line, which was even longer and more slow-moving than the previous one, and after waiting, with great trepidation, for what seemed like eternity, I came face to face with the “Guardian of the Pearly Gates” whom I instantly recognized (from drawings I had seen in Catholic churches) as Saint Peter. With his flowing white robe, luxuriant white beard, and prominent Semitic features, he could have easily passed for a present-day Middle Eastern mullah, excepting that he wore no turban. He had a stern demeanor and seemed none too pleased to see me.

Knowing that I would have a very limited time to appeal the decision denying my admission to heaven, I pointed out that, while I did not belong to any organized religion while on earth, I did, by and large, lead a virtuous life, following the “golden rule” of “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you” which was central to Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. Saint Peter interrupted me, saying that he was quite aware of everything I had done, while on earth, and that I had even lived according to most of the Ten Commandments, despite being a nonbeliever. However I had broken the all-important first commandment, of believing in the one true God, which was an absolutely essential condition for gaining entry into heaven. I countered by stating that I had not arrived at my position of disbelief in God lightly; I realized it would indeed be a great comfort to believe, as many people do, that there is an almighty God, to whom one could appeal to in times of distress. But I had, after much thought, come around to the view that reason, supported by observational verification, was the most reliable way of acquiring knowledge. I went on to tell Saint Peter that I had used this approach very successfully in my professional career as a scientist, and I had also applied it to other spheres of my life. Along the way I had come to the conclusion that there was no need for a supernatural God to explain such fundamental questions as the origin of the earth, life on earth, or the origin of the universe (or multiverse, if you please). The same was true of the moral code by which we live.

While Saint Peter listened to me intently, it was clear that he was becoming increasingly impatient. Eventually he told me that, while reason has its place, it is not reason but unquestioning faith that leads one to the most important decision of all, namely the acceptance of God, and there I had undoubtedly failed. He further informed me that God was most merciful and that was the reason why there were even murderers and rapists floating around in heaven. Despite their horrific deeds these people were true believers, and when they repented their sins and prayed to God for forgiveness, it was readily granted.

Clutching at my last straw, I informed Saint Peter that I had now seen the error of my own ways, while on earth and would like to ask almighty God for his forgiveness. Saint Peter seemed to be almost bemused by my request. With the manner of an exacerbated teacher addressing a dimwitted student, he repeated that it was unquestioning faith, without the need for supporting evidence, that was required by God, whereas I, who had relentlessly depended on reason while alive, was even now using reason, because I had posthumously seen undeniable evidence for the existence of heaven and, therefore God. He concluded with the dismissive remark that faith is the only way to heaven and reason is the sure way to hell, as I would presently see.

•      •      •

Hardly had Saint Peter finished talking, I felt as if the ground had opened up under me and that I had been instantly transported to the netherworld, as Saint Peter had promised. I was, therefore, extremely surprised by what I saw. I had expected to be met by Satan or one of his assistants, and I had some idea what he would look like from drawings I had seen in churches and books. Instead, I found myself inside a palatial office, rather like the Oval Office in the White House, where a person who looked very human was sitting behind a large desk.

I was standing, frozen, in a state of bewilderment, at the place I had materialized. The person beckoned me to approach him, and as I did so, he got up from his comfortable looking chair, walked towards me with his right arm outstretched, shook my hand vigorously, and said “I am Satan, welcome to my domain,” and indicated that I take the seat across from him at his desk. Like Saint Peter, Satan too was dressed in a flowing white robe, but he looked younger, with a well trimmed black beard, and was much more cordial. Noticing my astonishment at his appearance, he informed me that, while he had the power to change his appearance and even become invisible at will, this was how he looked and dressed when he was the powerful angel, Lucifer, and he preferred that appearance when he was in his office.

He proceeded to inform me that God had become increasingly authoritarian, and that no one, including the powerful archangels, always at His side dared to question Him. They had in fact turned into sycophants, applauding His every thought and action and thereby reinforcing His contention that unquestioning belief in Him and His views was paramount, while reason and knowledge, which could lead one astray, were to be discouraged. He (Satan) alone dared question this contention, which drove God to a fury and resulted in his being cast out of heaven to the netherworld, now commonly referred to as Hell. He pointed out that in banishing him, together with numerous other like-minded angels, from heaven God had made a serious mistake, because, once out of heaven, they were outside God’s jurisdiction. He (Satan) was now the undisputed ruler of Hell, and was free to do whatever he wanted there, whether God approved of it or not. He stated that he would never forgive God for banishing him from heaven, and that he took every opportunity to subvert God’s will, to the extent that he could.

He related, with great relish, his first and most daring, act of subversion, when he slipped into the Garden of Eden, disguised as a serpent, and tempted Adam and Eve to taste the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, which God had forbidden them to eat, although, curiously, God himself had planted this tree in the Garden of Eden. Unable to punish the true perpetrator of this act, he had gone into a towering rage and punished, not only Adam and Eve, with the hapless Eve receiving the brunt of His ire, but also all of womankind, who had nothing to do with it. Satan claimed that it was this action of his that had saved the day for reason, because reason is the basic tool that is used to process knowledge, which in turn generates new knowledge. He went on to say that, unlike in heaven where faith is paramount, and unlike on earth where faith and reason are in competition, here in hell it was reason that ruled.

I had remained in a high state of trepidation ever since I stood outside the Pearly Gates since, after all, I was fighting for my eternal “afterlife” My trepidation reached its peak when Saint Peter pronounced the dreaded decision that I was being sent to hell. However, my visit to hell had so far been anticlimactic, starting with the cordial reception I received from a very human-looking Satan. What I was hearing from him, now, was music to my ears; while he was expressing his strong displeasure with God, he was coming down squarely on the side of reason.

Feeling that this was an appropriate time to break my silence, and addressing the ruler of the netherworld respectfully as “Your Excellency” (having received permission to speak), I started by expressing profound gratitude on behalf of myself and all of humanity for the courageous role he had played in enabling the acquisition of knowledge and the exercise of reason. Encouraged by his smile of acknowledgment, I told him that it was my conviction that it was the scientific method of using reason together with observational verification that had led the world to its present state of intellectual and technological progress, while blind faith, encouraged by organized religion, had continued to hinder this progress throughout human history. I went on to state that my doubts about the existence of a supernatural God had started early when I could not reconcile His two salient attributes, namely omnipotence and benevolence, with the presence of wide-scale suffering on earth. I had to conclude that either such an entity did not exist, or if He did, He could possess at most only one of these attributes. I had assumed the first option as the more likely one. Now that I have good reason to believe that God does exist, I am forced to accept the latter option. Satan interrupted me and stated that while my reasoning was sound, I should not exclude the possibility that god lacked both attributes. He then went on to say, with obvious relish, that God may also not be omnipresent and omniscient (all-knowing) as claimed, because God clearly did not know where on earth he (Satan) was and what he was up to, when he was gleefully subverting God’s cherished design for humanity by tempting Adam and Eve to disobey God in his own newly planted garden, right under his divine nose!

Finally he came to what I was anxiously waiting to hear, namely what he had in mind for me. He came to it in a roundabout way. He reminded me how unreasonably God had treated him merely for daring to question Him. Now God was sending me to him, merely because I had doubted His existence, and was expecting him (Satan) to punish me for that. How absurd is that? he asked rhetorically, and before I could say anything, he proceeded to inform me with a conspiratorial smile, that contrary to God’s will, he was going to treat me as a friend and make my life in hell very comfortable.

With a deep sigh of relief, I began to thank him profusely for his kindness. Even before I could finish, he beckoned me to stand, walked across to me, and surprised me with a vigorous “high-five” which almost caused me to topple over.

•      •      •

Following this highly exuberant welcome to the netherworld I followed Satan to a table located in an alcove of his palatial office, and sat down to a sumptuous meal off opulent snacks, washed down with several glasses of exquisite wines. After the nerve-wracking, emotional roller coaster I had been riding, ever since appearing at the Pearly Gates, I was not too hungry, but I sure did appreciate the wine.

During the meal, Satan, who was sipping one martini after another, became ever more effusive and described what was in store for me. He began by telling me that I was not the only skeptic that he had welcomed to hell. Indeed, there was a large and rapidly growing region in hell called the “District of Reason,” reserved for skeptics where I would be living and where his own residence (where we presently were) was located. He informed me that this district was the home to many of the greatest minds the world had produced throughout the ages, including Galileo, Darwin, Einstein, Freud, and Russell. He stated, with great pride, that there was no place in heaven or on earth with an average IQ comparable to that in this district in hell.

He was also gratified by the fact that this district was home to the greatest library anywhere in creation. Besides innumerable books in numerous languages written throughout history, it also had all the books that were proscribed or burned by the Church. Furthermore it harbored all the books of the greatest library of antiquity; the one at Alexandria, which was burned to the ground by a crazed religious mob around 400 AD, heralding in the “dark ages.” He was also very pleased to have as the curator of this priceless collection none other than the last director of the Alexandria library, Hypatia, who herself was brutally murdered by another such mob.

I told Satan that I was a bibliophile and would surely be spending a good part of eternity in this library and that I would be honored to meet Hypatia, who was undoubtedly the greatest woman mathematician and philosopher of antiquity.

Satan then informed me that this library was not too far from my assigned residence, which was on “Free-Thinkers’ Lane” off “Skeptics Boulevard.” He further informed me that near my residence was a well frequented park, named after him, where the most popular spot was the “Speakers’ Corner,” rather like that in Hyde Park in London. Anytime you are there, he said, you are likely to hear the latest thoughts of thinkers and humorists such as Voltaire, Mark Twain, Bernard Shaw, Ambrose Bierce, Gore Vidal, and perhaps the most vocal of all, Bertrand Russell.

Satan told me that Russell continues his penchant for social reform even in hell. Ever since he arrived in 1970 he has been after him to abolish torture, which Russell claims is nothing but the continuation of what was conducted by bigoted religious zealots throughout history. When he asked Russell, what he should do instead, Russell recommended that he use higher education to rehabilitate the miscreants. Just to get Russell off his back, Satan had agreed to a pilot program with Russell himself teaching a course in Symbolic Logic, using the monumental treatise, Principia Mathematica, that he had co-authored. He went on to say that Russell has been teaching this course for over four decades to the same group of students and has complained about their glacial progress, all the while redoubling his efforts and extending classroom time. What he does not know, said Satan, with a devilish grin, is that these students, consisting largely of crooked politicians and other con-men, were specially selected because they suffered from extreme math anxiety. He further confided that Russell was also unaware that his students have been petitioning Satan, with ever increasing desperation, to have them removed from this dreaded class and sent back to their original torture chambers; they claim that even by the standards of hell, Russell’s class constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment.” “Now Russell is happy and so am I,” he chuckled.

Handing me what looked like a sleek iPhone, he said that it had all the information necessary for me to get around the District of Reason, in a very user-friendly form. It already had my name and address on the screen. It also showed my present location (namely, Number One Lucifer Circle) and the route from there to my destination. Satan reassured me that I could easily find my way using the public tram system, but he needed to stretch his legs after a long session in his office, and so he would walk me to the nearby tram stop.

As we stepped out of his residence into what seemed like a typical summer evening, with his well maintained garden in full bloom, I had expected it to be perceptibly warmer than his presumably air-conditioned office, this after all being hell. However, the temperature was essentially unchanged and I also experienced a refreshing light breeze. Apparently reading my mind, Satan informed me that this would be the temperature I would experience at all times, everywhere in the District of Reason, because the entire district, rather than individual buildings, was fully air conditioned. He went on to tell me that the current method used to air condition the District of Reason was based on the ingenious idea of the nineteenth-century mathematical physicist, James Clerk Maxwell, who conjured up microscopic devils (now commonly referred to as Maxwell’s demons) to segregate slow-moving (”cool”) air molecules from fast-moving (“hot”) air molecules within a prescribed region, thereby cooling it. When I expressed my incredulity by pointing out that Maxwell’s demons had no physical reality, but were merely figments of Maxwell’s imagination in his whimsical “thought experiment” to demonstrate how the Second Law of Thermodynamics (dealing with entropy) could be violated, at least, in principle, Satan countered with the admonition that what is merely imaginary in the so-called natural world (that earth-bound scientists deal with) can become reality in the supernatural realm of hell. He claimed that he employed a huge army of these tiny demons, who worked in shifts, around the clock, to keep the ever expanding District of Reason comfortable for its inhabitants. A bonus provided by the work of these demons, added Satan with obvious satisfaction, was that, while keeping the District of Reason cool, it simultaneously increased the already high temperatures of the surrounding districts (where criminals lived), to highly uncomfortable levels.

He then informed me that there was no natural flow of time in hell since it did not spin about an axis like the earth. However, because the 24-hour circadian rhythm seemed to remain hardwired into the human brain, even posthumously, a twelve-hour day night cycle was artificially created, in the District of Reason, using another huge army of micro-demons capable of bioluminescence, like some deep-ocean fish and fireflies on earth, the only difference between the two cases being that these micro-demons were programmed to a twelve-hour on/off cycle; hence the need for the 24-hour clock that was included in the device I received. He also said that the earth’s calendar was adopted in the District of Reason to help in the organization of social activities, and that I should pay an early visit to the Office of Information, located near the central library in Thinkers’ Square, to get acquainted with these activities. He told me that on my way to my residence I would see numerous theaters, cinemas, restaurants, museums and parks, and took obvious pride in letting me know that everything in hell (food, transport, entertainment) was absolutely free. What we practice in the District of Reason, he said, is tax-free, work-free socialism, where one also has complete freedom of thought and speech, but not democracy. However no one has, yet, complained about that, he said with a chuckle.

By this time the tram car had come to a halt at our stop, and so I took my leave, having thanked Satan, once again, for his kindness and generous hospitality and receiving in turn his good wishes for my eternal stay in the District of Reason. I found a seat next to a friendly gentleman, who on learning that this was my first day in hell, pointed out the important landmarks along the way, as our tram car moved briskly and smoothly along Skeptics Boulevard. The most striking sight, of course, was the colossal central library, which was not too far from our path. Soon after, the tram car stopped close to the intersection with Free-Thinkers’ Lane, and following the directions of my friendly fellow commuter, I readily found my apartment complex and was shown to my spacious third-floor unit by its cordial manager, who introduced himself as Lucein, and who presumably was perhaps one of those three million “fallen angels” banished from heaven together with their leader, Satan.

After this journey, which was as emotionally stressful as it was incredible, I was very tired. So, after a soothing hot shower, I got into a loose-fitting robe hanging in my closet, collapsed into a very inviting bed and fell asleep almost instantly.

•      •      •

The next thing that I remember was being shaken out of a deep slumber by my wife, who announced that my siesta had lasted longer than usual, and that it was time for our usual cocktail before dinner. As is usually the case, when you are awakened in the middle of a very realistic dream, for a split second you are in a state of confused suspension between the dream world and the real one, and it was certainly the case here.

Subsequently, as I was sitting with my wife in our patio, sipping a glass of my favorite wine while enjoying a glorious sunset, my mind kept returning to this weird dream, when I had an interesting thought. This had to do with what has come to be known as Pascal’s Wager, after the seventeenth-century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal. Unlike all the rational arguments offered for God’s existence by various Christian apologists, which I find unconvincing, the line of reasoning, based on probability and decision theory, offered by Pascal, not for the existence of God, but rather for the belief in Him, whether He exists or not, as a wise strategy, is compelling. In its simplest form (leaving probability out of the picture), the wager can be posed in the following way. Either God exists, or He does not, and either you are a believer in His existence, or you are not. There are only four possibilities; they are, (1) you are a believer and God exists, (2) you are a believer and God does not exist, (3) you are a nonbeliever and God does not exist, and (4) you are nonbeliever and God exists. If (1) is the case, congratulations; you have hit the jackpot of eternal life in heaven. If (2) is the case, no big deal; you merely wasted some time going to church and praying. In the case of (3), congratulations for being right, but there is no other reward. If (4) is the case, you will spend eternity in hell. Hence the reason for Pascal’s apparently wise advice.

There is however a problem here. Pascal assumed the religious description of hell as a place where you would be subject to horrendous tortures, merely because you did not believe in God. What if this assumption is wrong, and that nonbelievers, who are clearly not welcome in heaven, would be cordially welcomed to hell and made comfortable there, by a very rational Satan, for all the reasons that appeared in my dream. In that case Pascal’s Wager is not the strategically correct one for a nonbeliever. On the contrary, the opposite, which is non-belief, would be the right decision. Modesty does not allow me to call this Mendis’ Wager, but it does stand Pascal’s Wager on its head!

This realization gave me a great deal of comfort, for if I am wrong about God’s non-existence, the “punishment” that he would mete out to me is exactly what I desire; which is to experience the unique intellectual climate in hell, in the company of all the thinkers that I greatly admire, in a comfortable district dedicated to reason rather than floating around aimlessly in heaven for eternity. I experienced an urge to propose a toast to my new friend, Satan, but I refrained in case my wife would think that I had finally gone over the edge!

Asoka MendisAsoka Mendis is an Emeritus Professor of Space Physics at the University of California, San Diego. This is his first effort at writing a short story and he hopes that it is not his last!