I just read that the sun could, in theory, explode at any moment. That does it! I’m buying a smoke detector. — Steve Martin
Most religions promise an afterlife in Hell if you don’t behave. Or, to be more precise, most people believe in religions that make that threat. I’m agnostic, but the sheer size of this population of believers gives me the sweats. What if, somehow, they’re right?
A friend, obsessed with fear over this possibility, solved the problem by becoming a Born-Again Christian. He now attends church regularly, hoping he’ll earn, thereby, exemption from the Fiery Pit. I worried that his transformation would turn him into a goody two-shoes, but he remained cheerfully foul-mouthed and gluttonous, which frankly was a big relief to me.
Pascal wagered that, if he attended church and it turned out there was no afterlife, then all he’d lost was a bunch of Sunday mornings, but, if the church were right, then he’d saved himself from an eternity of torment. My Born-Again friend made, essentially, the same bet.
But I couldn’t. For one thing, which religion should I bet on? There are tens of thousands of them, and most are happy to threaten you with damnation unless you toe their line. Even if you limit the discussion to the four biggest faiths — Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism — you only have a one-in-four chance of picking the correct belief. If you include every Protestant denomination (and there are over thirty thousand), the odds that you’ll guess right become absolutely miniscule. What if you pick Southern Baptist and the right answer turns out to be Lutheran Missouri Synod? You’re screwed.
The other problem is boredom. Unlike Pascal, I found church services to be excruciatingly dull. Back in Sunday School, I’d keep looking at the clock on the wall, hoping it was making progress, but I swear that the minute hand would, now and then, creep backward. I talked my parents into letting me out of most churchly duties, and spent subsequent Sundays building radios and programming computers and doing chemistry experiments. (Yes, one time I blew up the bathroom.) In college I avoided arts and letters and gravitated to the really demanding stuff, earning a Bachelor of Science and then two PhDs, one in genetics and one in microbiology. I can’t stand the tedium of routines, so I was constantly shuffling the deck, starting up new labs and new lines of research, browbeating grad students and doctoral candidates into doing the boring work. I became wealthy and well known, though I confess some of it was gained off the backs of others. My colleagues generally considered me arrogant and difficult … and, in all honesty, I can’t argue with that judgment. Just don’t bore me!
I noticed a goodly number of fellow scientists attending church. The same folks who disdained claims of ESP and telepathy would spend Sunday mornings communicating with their God remotely through prayer. The irony of that never failed to amuse me, but the number of scientists who professed faith unsettled me. If even they think there’s an afterlife to worry about, shouldn’t I as well?
I decided I was probably doomed to end up in Hell, so I figured I ought to take precautions. First, I signed up for one of those weekend retreats where they teach you how to walk on hot coals. Since childhood, I always romped around in bare feet whenever possible, so my souls got pretty tough. Even so, the coal walk was frightening at first, until I realized I could do it with ease. I kept getting back in line to walk it again until one of the counselors pulled me aside and admonished me. But by then I’d had enough practice to feel as if I’d been properly introduced to the concept. (It’s somewhat like the notion that you should spend a little time at a firing range, so at least you know how to handle a gun if the baddies start shooting at you.)
Next, I made the rounds of houses of worship. I visited cathedrals, temples, synagogues, mosques, thumbing through brochures near the entrances, attending services here and there, buttonholing pastors and priests, hoping I could refine my understanding of Hell. I didn’t make much progress, but at the churches I did get to hear some very nice organ concerts.
One Sunday, as I stepped away from an elegant old Gothic church, a short, stout man scurried up to me and whispered nervously, “Mister! I got somethin’ ya want.” He spoke in an accent I couldn’t quite place. Brooklyn? New Orleans? (I always got those confused.) He glanced down at a shopping bag he was holding, then back up at me.
I looked at the bag. He pulled it open. Inside, gleaming dully, was some sort of block, about the size and shape of a brick, but smooth with rounded edges. It shone dimly silver, then gold, then blue, then silver again, as the nervous man shifted his grasp on the bag. I asked, “What is it?”
He said, “It’s an air conditioner for Hell. –Wait! Don’t leave! Let me explain! I’m serious. You won’t regret it.”
I stared at him in disbelief. Evidently he was a scam artist, waiting for some idiot to wander, dazed, out of a church service and into his larcenous hands. Still, how could he have known I’d been looking for something — anything — that might protect me from the unearthly fires that awaited me? “Okay, but make it quick.”
He nodded his head briskly and sort of jogged in place for a moment in his excitement. Then he glanced around, grabbed me by the arm, and pulled me aside, away from the exiting parishioners. “It’s simple,” he said. “You buy this from me–“
“Buy it?!? Oh, please.” I began to walk away.
He grabbed my arm again. “Wait! Lemme finish! You have to buy it, or it won’t work. You have to give up something to get it. And I assure ya, it’s worth it! Guaranteed to keep ya cool and comfy in the Afterlife.”
I had to admit he was playing on my biggest fear. I was intrigued. “Just how does it work?”
“All ya gotta do is hold on to it, and wherever ya go after ya die, it’ll regulate the temperature so you’re comfy.”
“How much does it cost?”
“Two hundred dollars.”
“Okay, okay! For you, one hundred. But don’t tell anybody! I don’t wanna get in trouble.” He licked his lips, again jogged in place, and waited impatiently for my decision.
I grinned. “This is worth it just for the entertainment value. Here,” and I produced my wallet and fished out five twenties. “It’s a deal.” I couldn’t help laughing as I handed over the cash: either I was the biggest sucker on the planet or this was my lucky day. At least I was no more foolish than those scientists who said prayers.
The little man smiled. “You’ll be glad ya made this choice, mister!” Gently he pulled out the gleaming block. “Here. Take it.” I held it in my hands, turning it over, weighing it. It didn’t seem heavy. But it looked unlike anything I’d ever seen. I couldn’t tell what it was made of.
I held it aloft in salute. “Well, thanks,” I said, and turned to go.
Yet again he grabbed my arm. “Wait! There’s one more thing!”
“Now what?” I asked, exasperated.
“You must not let go of it when ya die! Whatever ya do, make sure you’re holdin’ onto it when the time comes. Otherwise it won’t go with ya into the Afterlife.”
I frowned. “That complicates things! Do I have to carry it around with me for the rest of my life, in case I might die at any time?”
He looked confused. “Uh … I don’t know … I just know you gotta be touchin’ it at the moment ya die. Just make sure. Got it?”
I sighed. “Understood.”
“Good!” He grinned and jogged in place a moment. “Okay, mister, best of luck! Gotta go!” He whirled and dashed away.
I glanced down at the block and then said, “Wait! There’s one more–” but he had already disappeared.
Thereafter, I always made a point of keeping the block with me. I carried it everywhere in my briefcase, and at night I slept with it, putting one hand on it at all times, in case I popped a hose or something and failed to wake up.
The years passed, and at one point I began to feel lethargic, so I visited the doctor. His diagnosis was grave: apparently I’d fallen prey to an illness with a very poor prognosis. My insurance would cover any procedure, no matter how expensive, but there wasn’t much anyone could do for me. I began to settle my affairs.
Finally, as the weakness overwhelmed me, I was admitted to the hospital. I felt gloomy, of course, but nothing prevented me from keeping a firm grip on the block. Especially now — especially when death seemed to be lurking, stalking me.
The night before the last day, as I lay in my hospital bed, swimming in and out of consciousness, I could feel the occasional pressure on my hand from someone saying goodbye, or a gentle kiss on my forehead or cheek. Sardonically, I wondered whether my relatives were there to wish me bon voyage so they could be done with me and get on with the reading of the will.
At one point I became aware of talking. “What’s this he’s holding in his hand?” … “I don’t know. Looks like some sort of toy.” … “I don’t want him rolling over on it and hurting himself. Here, give it to me.” I felt the block being pulled from my hand. No! No!! But I was too weak to resist.
I slept some, then awoke late that night to the memory of the block being taken away. With a desperate surge of energy, I managed to sit up in bed and look around. My hospital room was dark except for night lights. I could see my walker, the one I’d used before being admitted, folded up against a counter. I slid off the bed, nearly collapsing in a heap, then made my way on all fours to the walker. Slowly, weakly, I unfolded it and, somehow, managed to muscle my way up into a standing position. I shuffled the walker around the room — searching, hoping by some miracle to relocate my block. It was nowhere to be found. I was on the point of giving up when I had an idea. I shuffled over to the waste basket … and there it was, nestled at the bottom under some tissues. My block! My air conditioner for Hell! I had it again.
This time, I resolved that no one would find it, much less remove it from me. After what seemed like an hour of effort, I managed to crawl back into bed, where I rearranged the covers over me and lay back, pinning the block between my right arm and my side. I got the arm to cover most of it, then squeezed until the block slid partway beneath my rib cage. I swore an oath to myself that I wouldn’t lose it again.
The next day I lapsed into a coma. But I could see and hear, as if from above, everything in the room. One of my ex-wives sat next to my bed, holding my left hand, weeping. Thanks, honey! I thought. You were the best of the bunch, and I’m sorry for how I treated you. I’ve left you a little something in the will. Meanwhile, a couple of my grown children sat in a corner, arguing about the estate. Yep, I was right: most people wanted me dead sooner than later, even my own kids. Maybe I deserved Hell after all.
A white light appeared suddenly in the middle of my viewpoint, expanding until it obliterated the little hospital scene. I felt drawn irresistibly toward that light! It seemed to pull on me, up, up, like a tractor beam, until I emerged into a gleaming, glowing realm of irresistible beauty, a floating world that seemed to go on forever. In the center was a man in a beard and robe; I moved toward him. His eyes were angry. I asked, “Where am I?” but all he did was point downward, intoning, “You are unworthy!!” I looked where he pointed; all I could see was darkness.
Now it was the darkness that pulled on me, dragging me down, down, until I glimpsed a red glow ahead. The glow burgeoned until it spread all around me, a roiling, flaming, smoking redness. I zoomed downward toward a pale-red lake that glowed and steamed. I splashed into it, then bobbed to the surface. Around me I heard agonizing screams. I looked: over there, a man floated on the lake, burning, his skin seared off to reveal bones, then the skin reforming and burning off again, over and over. The man howled in pain; smoke issued from his mouth and nostrils and eye sockets. Horrified, I tried to swim away, but it was like wading through molassas. This must be a pocket of molten lava, I thought, terrified. Yet I don’t feel any pain! I was dumfounded. The lava felt lukewarm, like the waters off Hawaii.
Then I remembered: the block! I looked down and saw it, exactly where I’d left it while in my hospital bed, pinned between my upper arm and right side. The block seemed glued to me, and I could only move my arm from the elbow. But the block was still with me. The little man had been right all along! The block really did keep me from burning up.
I kept swimming until my feet touched shore. I scrambled up and out of the lake. The ground was made of burning coals. Now, these I knew how to negotiate! I walked across the dark, barren, smoldering landscape, unafraid. Then it dawned on me that, without my little block, these relentless coals would already have burned through anyone’s footpads, no matter how thick. My coal-walk practice, back at the retreat, wouldn’t have helped me for long. On the other hand, I did feel more confident on this surface, and confidence was what the counselors had promised. So perhaps I hadn’t wasted the money.
I certainly hadn’t wasted the expense of the little block! That was easily the best hundred bucks I’d ever spent.
I continued walking across the nightmarish plain. Here and there, I heard screaming. Sometimes I’d encounter a person writhing in agony, flesh burning and regrowing and burning again. To the first few I met, I’d ask, “Excuse me, who are you?” or “Where is this place?” Universally, they’d answer with “AAAAAAAUGHHH!! AAAAAAAUGHHH!!” Clearly, conversation wasn’t part of the deal here, so I gave up.
Then a strange creature emerged from the smoke and walked up to me. It looked somewhat like a red lizard, with a long tale, huge jaws, and clawlike feet and hands. This one carried a pitchfork — how trite! — and immediately it reached forward and attempted to remove the block from my side. Struggle as it might, though, it could not detach the block. Angry, the demonlike creature roared, swiveled, and stomped away.
I met several more demons who behaved the same way; every time, I retained the little block. Somehow I was immune from them.
I don’t know how long this lasted — maybe a week, maybe an eternity — but soon I realized there was something about Hell I’d never anticipated. Something I’d never prepared for. Something that was slowly driving me crazy.
Down here, it’s really, really, really boring! No one to talk to, nothing to do, the same dark-red scenery all the time. Dull, repetitious, drab, cloying, tedious, boring. And, remember, I hate boredom!
I’ve begun to wish I could simply get rid of the block and be incinerated forever. That would at least distract me from this stultifying, endless monotony. It makes me want to scream! I feel like I’m starting to lose it! I can’t hold on! I’m–
If only I could get rid of this damned air conditioner from off my side! But I’m stuck with it!