Sunday, October 20, 2013


Author's note: our regularly scheduled blog post has been replaced in our programming lineup by a special repeat broadcast of Measure of Doubt's most read and most requested column, Hell, a 666 word rumination of the topic of damnation from 2011.


A parable.

So, there ’s Gordon. In Hell. His crime? Religious dissent. On Earth, we call governments that punish religious dissenters totalitarian, but he has long since learned to let that go — eons of torture and burning tend to take your mind off of things.

Gordon is holding a tray and is in a long, long line in Hell’s Cafeteria. The air conditioning is on the fritz again, and it's hot as Hell. Over the speakers, they're playing Muzak arrangements of Barry Manilow ("Mandy", 24/7, for eternity) and they're serving fish-sticks, again, for the hundred-trillionth day in a row. As he approaches the counter Gordon notices a small sign, written in blood. His blood. "Tomorrow’s special: fish sticks." Bastards: they think of everything.

Time has no meaning here, but Gordon keeps a day-planner anyway, because he’s always been a planner sort of guy. For today, it says:

8 AM burning
9 AM drawing-and-quartering
10 AM hanging
11 AM dismemberment
12 PM lunch (poisoned)
1 PM the rack
2 PM root canal
3 PM drowning
4 PM re-runs of The Golden Girls
5 PM buried alive
6 PM beating
6:30 PM dinner (fish sticks - poisoned)

He flips forward a few pages. More of the same, although on Thursday he has an hour of cardio-kickboxing. He makes a mental note to get that changed to burning.

Gordon looks up. Ahead of and behind him, queuing with their trays, are the teeming billions of the damned. They are of every race, ethnicity, social station, and period in human history. Some are warlords, murders, rapists, and thieves; some are adulterers, some are liars, some liked the new Star Wars movies better than the old ones. But the majority are quite ordinary people who never hurt anybody. The ones from Gordon’s time lived their lives, went to school, read a few books, watched TV, cooked meals, raised their families, drove their kids to soccer practice, gave some bucks to charity, some even went to church now and again, but, wouldn’t you know it, they were improperly religious and consigned to Hellfire for eternity. There are also countless millions of truly, deeply, sincerely devout followers of literally thousands of different faiths that turned out to be false, and even devout followers of the Right Religion who were guilty of theological or liturgical misconduct.

Gordon hears different things about what the Right Religion is, about what he should have believed or how he should have behaved. Some say faith in a certain prophet alone. Some say sacraments. Some say accepting that a particular iron-age book was the final and perfect revelation. Some say that there are four truths and an eightfold noble path, and they can’t quite figure out what this eternal damnation business has to do with them. Some even say there was nothing to be done – that the game was rigged from the get-go. There are all sorts of ideas. He even heard that the correct answer was a life led in conformance to the will of the Goddess Maat, which would explain why pretty much everybody except ancient Egyptians seem well represented here. Who knows? Inwardly, Gordon shrugs. What does it matter now? There’s no reprieve. There are billions of people here who knew in their hearts that they were right and then — poof — fire, brimstone, perpetual torture, fish sticks, and Barry Manilow. Sucks to be you. Forever and ever. Amen.

Anyway, directly ahead of Gordon in line is Adolf Hitler. But Gordon has been in hell for a million trillion billion years already— that’s zero percent of his sentence, incidentally — and his memories of Earth mostly have faded. So while Hitler seems somehow familiar, especially with his postage stamp of a moustache and swastika armband, Gordon can’t quite place him. He’s about to ask him if they’ve ever met when Hitler looks over his shoulder and decides to strike up a conversation first.

"Gootentag," Hitler says. "So: what are you in for?"
"Skepticism," Gordon replies. "And you?"