The death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat raises an interesting and significant question: Is it morally and theologically acceptable to hope anyone goes to hell?
That was my first reaction to the death of the godfather of modern terrorism. But I recognize that many people, including many who share my moral assessment of Arafat, might reject such a reaction, let alone publicly express it. But there is a good case to be made for hoping that Yasser Arafat now finds himself in hell.
In order to do so, three issues need to be addressed:
First, is there a hell? Can rational people believe in such a thing?
Second, if there is a hell, does Arafat merit going there? And can any of us mortals judge a person worthy of hell?
Third, if there is a hell, is it acceptable to hope someone who we believe merits it goes there?
First, is there a hell?
Among those who pride themselves in being what is deemed sophisticated in our time, the notion of hell is either absurd, immoral or both. It is also identified with Christians, especially conservative Christians, and, therefore, the sophisticated feel particularly compelled to reject the concept.
Yet the belief that those who commit evil are punished after death is hardly restricted to Christianity. One of the Thirteen Principles of the Jewish Faith as laid down by the codifier of Jewish law, Maimonides (1135-1204), is that God rewards the good and punishes the bad.
One, therefore, need not be a conservative Christian to believe in some form of hell for the evil. All one need be is a rational believer in a just God. For if there is a just God, it is inconceivable that those who do evil and those who do good have identical fates. A just God must care about justice, and since there is little justice in this world, there has to be in the next. And belief in the next world is also not confined to Christianity. As the Encyclopedia Judaica, the greatest contemporary compilation of Jewish scholarship (edited largely by non-religious Jews) notes in the first sentence under the heading "Afterlife," "Judaism has always believed in an afterlife."
The second question is easily answered. Much of humanity has been adversely affected by modern-day terror. The lives of millions -- virtually all Palestinians and Israelis, for example -- have been terribly affected by Arafat. And there are hundreds of thousands of people whose lives have been destroyed or shattered by him. At the same time, other than a few sycophants enriched by some of the billions of dollars he embezzled from the Palestinians, no one has had a better life because Yasser Arafat lived.
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