This is the Place

Published on 2022, Apr 12

I want to talk about death and what it means to be alive.

I promised myself that whenever I started writing a Twitter thread and it told me I couldn’t add to it anymore, I’d come here instead. This is the first such promise.

As you’ve probably learned by now, I am raised Catholic and while I am uncertain how devoutly I practice the faith, I certainly do use its dogmas as the origin point for most, if not all, of my approach to the social structures of human spirituality.

You likely also know that my father had his first cancer when I was a child, and passed away from a brain cancer three years ago. Additionally, my last grandparent died from COVID-19 in the pandemic’s first arrival to the Americas. If you didn’t and are somehow reading this now, well, you do now! So I’ve been thinking about mortality a lot.

In particular, a work that really spoke to my mother and me about it was NBC’s “The Good Place” (2016—2020). We both found a great deal of peace and satisfaction with its conclusion, because it spoke to something we were both seeking: that the end of existence can be a blessing, both for the departed and the witnesses who remain.

But enough about my personal journey after the abrupt destruction of any kind of peer relationship with my dad, let’s talk about church!

Another thing I really enjoyed about “The Good Place” was its fairly direct statement that, under contemporary Christian theology, heaven is a worse environment than hell. Now granted, the show never actually shows us “the bad place” in its pre-show condition, only the revised concept that forms the basis of the first season. So it’s entirely possible that the allusions and descriptions employed are underselling the actual torture for comedic effect on daytime television, but the heaven that we are shown is an equally pulled-punches condemnation of the two pillars of Christian heavenly doctrine, present across the full spectrum of Church history and fracture, but especially prominent in American Evangelism: paralyzed angels, and incessant mindless bliss.

I’m reminded of a few constructed arguments that I’ve seen about Christian hell. I’ll start by paraphrasing something I cannot remember well enough to cite:

Hell cannot be joyless, for if the pain is constant, then there is joy that it remains constant and can be endured; yet if the pain varies, then every moment of relief is a joy. The pain cannot increase in eternity, for the distinction between each successive increase must dwindle, or the pain must eventually grow to a meaningless infinity.

Incidentally, pre-Renaissance theology is by far my favorite origin of mathematical concepts of countable and uncountable infinities as well as esoteric items such as Graham’s number or the [Ackermann function][ackermann].

I am of course not asserting that Aquinas and his peers developed theories of infinite calculi, only that “what if number were big” is a question as old as thought and shows up across countless disciplines.

as well as this absolute classic from online:

Woman: Is this hell?

Man: In what sense?

Woman: The present moment is both eternal and painful.

Man: In hell, there is relief in our utter helplessness. Here, our actions have consequences for both ourselves and others.

Woman: Truly, it is worse.

and this dialogue from “M*A*S*H” (1972—1983) (S5 E20 “The General’s Practitioner”):

Burns: Well, everybody knows, ‘war is Hell’.

Hunnicutt: Remember, you heard it hear last.

Hawkeye: War isn’t Hell. War is war, and Hell is Hell. And of the two, war is a lot worse.

Father Mulcahy: How do you figure that, Hawkeye?

Hawkeye: Easy, Father. Tell me, who goes to Hell?

Father Mulcahy: Um, sinners, I believe.

Hawkeye: Exactly. There are no innocent bystanders in Hell, but war is chock full of them – little kids, cripples, old ladies. In fact, except for a few of the brass, almost everybody involved is an innocent bystander.

These are, of course, all statements built with a specific agenda against prevailing cultural norms about the afterlife, rather than a more nuanced philosophical exploration into the nature of afterlives, but they serve as a reflection of the dogmatic ideas that exist in our society.

The most well-known Catholic folklore about early Christian afterlife is Alighieri’s Divina Comedia, which attempts to portray the three realms of Catholic doctrine in a human-approachable way. However, precisely because of the fact that Christian mythology insists that the divine is infinite in an unhuman way, this is essentially impossible to do without compromising either the portrayal or the mythology. Comedia chooses to do both: Inferno focuses on the human aspect at the expense of the divine, while Paradiso loses a great deal of its humanity by trying to stay true to the established Catholic canon.

Purgatorio, I found, blended the two aspects quite well. It was my favorite book of the three and the concept of Purgatory is the main reason I still remain Catholic. We’ll come back to this.

In hell, we are taught (vaguely: Scripture itself actually does not detail any specifics of any afterlife, and only speaks in terms that are understood to be metaphorical and refer to things that are pleasurable and painful in the Levant) that the wicked are punished until the Second Coming, and in heaven, the virtuous delight in the direct presence of God. Notably, both heaven and hell are described in pre- and early- Christian writings as very abstract, purely spiritual, realms; they only begin to materialize after the first millenium and especially the Protestant reformation and American fracturing of the churches. We’ll come back to this too.

A common throughline of the Christian heaven, beginning with the writing of the Book of Revelation about fifty years after the foundation of the Apostolic Church, is that the righteous shall persist among the angels and together with them remain eternally in God’s glory and peace. In particular, it stipulates that this is granted to worthy individuals who remain individually distinct in heaven, though once the eschaton is complete, the only experience that remains for the heavenly is eternal, unchanging, adoration of God.

As Christian theology developed and intermixed with Roman concepts to form early Catholicism, the Church Fathers determined that humanity consisted of two parts: a very human genius (the Latin word, not the English cognate) and a sliver of divine grace. We receive grace through the Sacraments, and tarnish or shed it through sins. Christ was unique in that he fully embodied both genius and grace, rather than possessing only a sliver, and it is the genius that is capable of sin but the grace that steers us away from it. As the Kingdom of Heaven is definitionally unable to contain sin, the genius is destroyed upon entry to heaven, leaving only the grace to return to God.

A consequence of this piece of theology is that we acknowledge animals as having genius, but deny that they have grace. Since genius does not enter into heaven, it follows that all non-human animals are destroyed upon death and do not exist in the afterlives. “All dogs go to heaven” is therefore in schism with Rome and its perpetuators shall not enter the divine light, etc etc.

This is where I think the Christian heaven/hell dichotomy starts to fray. We acknowledge that human souls in the afterlife must retain a sense of individual identity (otherwise the afterlife is useless to us), and we acknowledge that the finite capacity of the human mind must be extended to endure the infinity of eternal presence in whichever realm becomes home, but the central tenet of Christian theology, the very core of the Mystery of Faith that distinguishes all dogmatic Christianity from other religions, is that humanity is an admixture of both the infinity of God and the finity of Creation. To remove either is to destroy humanity: the loss of God’s grace renders us only animal, and the loss of Created mortality renders us only angel. Angels are not human and cannot comprehend humanity.

The dead do not become angels, because angels are shards of the divine. The dead remain a shadow of their human selves, but free of the trappings of humanity. This is a contradiction that must either falsify itself or the environment in which it exists. But a finite human identity ultimately cannot exist in an infinite realm without being destroyed or halted.

Coming back to Paradiso, heaven is presented as a realm where human souls remember their former existence, but their time now is spent in perfect harmony and adoration with God. Alighieri, writing from well within European feudalism, casts heaven in the same structure. He writes from the perspective of the human choir that while different people are able to receive different (countable!) levels of harmony with God, all have their respective fullness of grace and are individually content.

Even in heaven, there remains a hierarchy of status, as unclimbable as the worldly counterpart, but now with ambition replaced with satisfaction and contentment. Furthermore, the hosts regard Alighieri’s presence as a trifling intrusion, an aberration into their otherwise fixed and ordered existence in orbit of God. They have no remaining agency or will, only a fading sense of identity through memory.

The Christian theology of angels, shown especially in the Luciferian doctrines, holds that to be an angel is to be enslaved. Angels, like the dead described above, have identity but no will, and exist only as particular aspects of God. In fact, American Evangelism pushes further here: a foundational tenet of this Christianity is that free will exercised in contradiction to God is fundamentally Evil. This was Lucifer’s sin, then Eve’s and Adam’s, and now all of ours. The Luciferian doctrines of all Christian thought, but especially emphatic in American Evangelism, state that independent agency is a power reserved only to God the Creator – not to God the Envoy, Jesus Christ, not to God the Messenger, the Holy Spirit, not to the angels – usurped by Lucifer, and stolen by humanity.

The right and proper role of all beings other than God, in an ideal Christian ordering of the world, is to “freely choose” to exercise agency only in exacting accordance with God. Deviation from this path results in damnation, but a choice under this threat is not a choice at all, it is simply a different lens over enslavement.

Sidebar: we know perfectly well that we can choose to subsume our will to somebody else’s without it being enslavement. This is a basic element of human socialization, and I am absolutely not saying collaboration or organization is antithetical to the human condition. It’s specifically the threat of damnation that removes choice and renders obedience morally unsound.

Let’s get back to the original premise of what I’m writing about. The above exposition has been to lay a foundation for what I sincerely believe is a core problem with Christian theology about the afterlives:

Heaven cannot reward a human being, nor can hell torment one, for infinity without destroying either the human or itself. Heaven necessarily becomes hellish by depriving the human of agency and experience, while hell necessarily becomes heavenly by its variety and removal of obligation and consequence. Furthermore, because the human mind cannot comprehend infinities*, the mind must either cease to be human or the moments must cease to matter, and everything fades into one eternal moment.

The afterlife necessarily includes a second death.

The reason I mentioned Ackermann’s function earlier is that while we can assert that God is infinite and the afterlives are eternal, the human mind operates on ratios. The observed difference between 1 and 2 is far greater than the observed difference between 100 and 101. As numbers grow linearly, the distinction between them approaches zero logarithmically. In order to maintain distinction between successive numbers, the numbers themselves have to grow supra-linearly, chasing the Ackermann function, just to keep the intervals increasing.

There are hierarchies of infinities. It follows that no matter how infinite theology holds God is, a continuously growing function will eventually become larger than God. If that is impossible, because God is axiomatically all-encompassing, then the function must eventually cease. The infinity ends.

This is one of the things “The Good Place” recognizes well. The human experience eventually becomes full. Existence past fulness ceases to be a reward, and becomes a punishment. The final reward available to a human mind is its own destruction. We are destroyed before our time in the body, so we must hope for a second destruction, at our own discretion, in the soul.

So if heaven is hell, and hell isn’t heaven, what remains? As a Catholic, we have a third realm: purgatory. Purgatory is a unique feature of Catholic theology; Protestants consider the source book (2 Macabees) to be apocryphal, and I don’t know enough about Jewish beliefs in the afterlife to speak on their position. But it’s a remarkable piece of theology to me and one that “The Good Place” also reaches: the true purpose of punishment is not revenge, but instruction. The purpose of the Bad Place becomes improvement, so that the souls within are eventually worthy of paradise: the removal of the punishment, the provision of delights, and eventually, the final death.

Purgatory in the Catholic canon exists as a countable infinity: it is a selection of punishments meted out for each unforgiven sin, and through the soul’s endurance of punishment and correction of behavior and belief, the soul eventually exits purgatory and enters into heaven. The soul enters with the full knowledge that the torment will end: a blessing. The soul knows that the torment follows rules, and is not arbitrary: a blessing. Purgatory works because those within it have a crucial thing that neither heaven nor hell allow: hope.

Hope is a uniquely human ideal, and it’s something that can only exist in the mortal, human, world. Purgatory retains that human characteristic, because it is by design separate from God but not wholly closed to God. It is the idealization of our existence on earth, and the only afterlife of the Catholic canon that is actually tolerable to human existence.

To use Mike Schur’s terms, there can be no true Good Place or Bad Place. The divine punishments and blessings that can actually apply to a human being are to provide the resources of infinity to the constraints of mortality, not to tear a finite being into infinite motes.

Heaven and hell cannot be pulled out of the human condition. They are with us always, and we build them.

We cannot know if there is an eternal afterlife beyond us, but we can follow the goal of the myth anyway. We can walk through purgatory here. We can build paradise here. And eventually, we die here.

This is the Bad Place.

This is the Good Place.

This is the Place.