Hell? No.

Apparently, some people are going to hell. Not you, of course. Or me. Or anyone else we know personally.

At least I've never been to a funeral where the preacher said: "I know this is a sad time for some of you, but this guy was a cad and bounder, and he owes me $20. We might as well admit that, right now, he"s burning like a Fourth of July sparkler."

We don"t know much about hell, but we assume that it's uncomfortable. Not uncomfortable in the sense of Why can"t my airline seat recline a little farther" No, I"m talking about uncomfortable in the sense of Youch! I accidentally touched ahot skillet with my entire bare body!

Which raises a question in my mind. Who deserves such intense punishment? The way I figure it, you have to fit a lot of wickedness into your earthly existence in order to deserve having your buns in the toaster for six kajillion years. Maybe if you committed every sin you saw on HBO, you would come close. But who has that kind of stamina? Even Mick Jagger is starting to slow down now that he needs an afternoon nap and frequent potty breaks.

The Bible doesn"t have much to say about hell, mostly speaking as if the dead don"t go anywhere until the resurrection. So our pictures of hell have had to depend on heavy metal album covers. We also get a few ideas from an Italian poet named Dante. Dante lived 700 years ago, about the time that the shopping carts at my Wal-Mart were built.

Realizing that much about hell was left to the imagination, Dante decided that his imagination was just the one for the job. He came up with a hell that has nine different areas. Sort of like Disney World, except the admission is much cheaper, and instead of Tomorrowland, hell has Slothfulland and the Sowers of Discord Hotel.

Corrupt politicians float in a river of burbling tar, and there is a desert of flaming sand. Sometimes the wicked aren"t sure if they died or if they just woke up in West Texas.

Anyway, Dante has ensured that among the many great contributions the Italians have made to world culture is a horrific wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night screaming-for-Mommy picture of hell. In my mind, that"s not as important a contribution as marinara sauce, but that"s only a personal opinion.

I think Dante was trying to be an evangelist. Maybe he thought that if he told the unsaved that they were going to be put headfirst in holes in rocks, with flames burning on the soles of their feet, they might be a little quicker to come down the aisle when the organ started playing "Just As I Am."

He meant well, but there was an unintentional side effect. He made God into a terrorist. He puts God in the position of saying, "Love Me, or I will chase you down with flaming car bombs for the rest of eternity."

Which is ridiculous. If you want to know who thinks up the most creative ways to punish humans, it's not God. It's other people. It was a human being who conceived the darkly twisted idea of burning enemies at the stake. It was also a human who came up with high-heeled shoes.

The Bible describes the fire of the judgment as the burning away of stubble before planting a new crop (Malachi 4:1). That doesn't sound like an eternal torturefest to me. So don"t blame God for the wax museum house of horrors that is advertised as hell. It's not the place that God prepared for you. Or for me. Or for anyone we know.

Kim Peckham is often compared to the author George Bernard Shaw--both are bipedal mammals and both are vegetarians. Shaw once speculated that "Hell is full of musical amateurs."

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