The following piece appeared as a Guardian ‘Comment is Free’ article on 8th December 2013.
Last week, an unnamed Vatican source close to former Pope Benedict XVI was quoted as saying: “His idea of hell would be to be sent on a one-week management training seminar.”
Hang on—that's not the ill-informed impression of hell that I've gained over the years. Where is the red chap with the forked tail and the trident? Where are the flames and brimstone? Where are the tormented souls hanging upside-down in chains?
I suppose the ex-pontiff should know better than most. He had a professional interest, so to speak. But I have to say his idea of hell didn't strike me as particularly, well, hellish. Talk about damp squibs. This theological revelation (no pun intended) must be the biggest religious disappointment since the world failed to end last December.
I've been on more than my fair share of management training seminars. Most of them were pretty tedious. But if the worst punishment God is prepared to dish out for a lifetime's sins is to spend a week on a problem solving course, drinking cups of tea tainted with UHT milk, making notes with crappy free ballpoint pens, bring it on! To think I could have been taking the Lord's name in vain (Deut. 5:11), stealing (Deut. 5:19), and coveting my neighbour's ass (Deut. 5:21) all these years, had I not refrained from so doing in the mistaken belief that hell involved a furnace of fire and a wailing and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 13:42). I feel like a complete idiot.
According to Dante, hell comprises nine concentric circles. I'm no theologian but to remain consistent with the latest ex-papal theory, the first circle, limbo, must represent some sort of training registration area. I'm not sure what the second circle, lust, equates to—by the sounds of it, I've been going to the wrong sort of seminars. The third circle, gluttony, clearly represents the finger-buffet. It all starts to make sense.
To be honest, I was always a bit sceptical about the whole “depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” malarkey. (Matt. 25:41) Anyone who knows anything about the second law of thermodynamics knows that an everlasting fire is physically impossible. It's an entropy thing; the heat death of the universe, and all that. In reformulating the Vatican's theory of hell, Pope Benedict seems to have been attempting to bring religious dogma in line with the most important law in science. I can't say I blame him. In the wise words of Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington: “If your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.”
But what about all that hellish eternal torment? Granted, the data protection seminar I attended seemed to drag on forever. The structured interviews course was patronising, bordering on infuriating—I had “an attitude problem” apparently. Yet somehow I managed to get through them. In reality, the worst thing that can happen to you on a management training seminar is to have to take the rest of the class through your group's asinine brainstorming results. It's hardly being consigned to a “part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone” (Rev. 21:8), but it certainly isn't fun.
On reflection—and I never thought I'd say this—I'm beginning to think that ex-Pope Benedict might have a point. The biblical descriptions of hell, such as they are, simply don't stand up to scrutiny. They need modernising.
I used to think management training seminars were purgatory. It turns out I was wrong: they were hell.
“…wonderful. Science and history and geography and evolution and culture all tangled up in musings while walking about the moors around Hebden Bridge.”—PZ Myers
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