The Serial Killers You’ll Meet In Heaven

I probably have the worst job when it comes to making small talk with people. I teach religion courses at Leeward Community College and UH-Manoa, but I don’t want people I’ve just met to know this. It will often make for a long, uncomfortable conversation otherwise.

All too often, however, I have to contact a company for help with home, yard or auto repair. I try to avoid working with businesses that use a fish symbol in its advertisement because I dread the five words: “So, what do you do?”

Sometimes I have no choice but to respond, especially when getting contract work estimates. Here are the first five questions a work estimator asked me after finding out I was a religion professor:

“Do you tell your students that Christ is the only way?”

“Really?” “Don’t you know what the Bible says?”

“Aren’t you worried about misleading your students and sending them to hell?”

“What makes you think hell has better music?”

When one thinks about it, what is so great about heaven? I don’t need 72 virgins and I don’t know how to play the harp. I’d be bored. I suppose it depends on the concept of heaven.

When I asked the question “Why go to heaven?” the work estimator told me to imagine the happiest time in my life. “Multiply that by a million and you get close to what heaven is like.” Nice. But some of the people dearest to me won’t be there (or so I’m told) because they had the unfortunate luck to be born in the wrong culture and raised in the wrong religion as a result. This makes me sad.

Now multiply that by a million and see how happy one can be. What is more, those who had a faith conversion before their deaths, such as serial rapists and killers like Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy, get eternal life in heaven by the sheer luck of being born and raised in the United States where Christianity is the dominant religion. Think of spending eternity with Jeff and Ted. Now times that by a million. No thanks.

This is what French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre must have had in mind when he said hell is other people.

I would rather spend eternity with decent people of any faith or of no faith at all, than with religiously converted killers and rapists. I’m guessing their victims might feel similarly.

The concept of an eternal afterlife in heaven is not found in the earliest books of the Bible (the Torah or Pentateuch). It was incorporated into the scriptural tradition many centuries later. In the earliest biblical traditions, the emphasis was on this world. Rewards and punishments were meted out here. The Quran echoes this too (surah 29:27). For example, the eternal covenant God made with Abraham did not include a promise of eternity in heaven, but the promise of land and children — in this world. This explains the strong emphasis on producing children in stories of the Bible, e.g., Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel. From this perspective, eternal life meant living through one’s children. (More specifically through one’s sons, since they carried on the name. This explains the tradition of naming boys “Junior.” There is no “Junior Girl.”)

This version of an eternal life — where God rewards decent and faithful people with the promise of a prosperous family who will carry on after the parents are gone — is preferable to me than the one inhabited by serial killers and rapists who converted to avoid hell, or by bigots and racists who are rewarded with heavenly bliss simply because they confessed faith in God, despite their hateful views.

There is a nice story of the difference between heaven and hell that I first heard in the Buddhist tradition, but is found in several other religious traditions too. In hell, there is wonderful food and drink spread out lavishly across a table, but those suffering in hell are starving because they can’t eat. Why not? In hell, people have no elbows so they are unable to bring the food or drink to their mouths. In heaven, by contrast, there is also a table with food and drink, and the people there also don’t have elbows. But they are perfectly happy and well fed. They feed each other.

I also offered another interpretation of heaven I like based on a Jewish tradition. In heaven, we sit in a large classroom and listen to a lecture and take notes for all eternity. For my students, this may seem more like hell than heaven, but the difference is this: the one giving the lecture is not a sexy, 5-foot-7, 180-pound, 50-year-old Japanese-American male. It’s God. What is more, we get to ask God any and all questions, and we will receive all the answers.

But the contract estimator would have none of this and — despite my attempts to end the conversation — proceeded to torment me with his point of view for the next 45 minutes. Sartre was right. It is at those times I wish I had a job that made people uncomfortable or a little self-conscious about opening their mouths. At those times I wish I were a dentist instead.