Archive for Saturday, August 24, 2002

Interpretations, visions vary on afterlife for sinners

August 24, 2002

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Moussa Elbayoumy believes in hell, and it's nowhere that you  or your soul  would want to go.

"In the Koran, the word is 'jahanam' Â that translates into hell. There are a lot of visual descriptions in the Koran. It's basically a place where there's a lot of different physical, mental and spiritual punishment," said Elbayoumy, a Muslim who lives in Lawrence.

"It's described as fire that no one has ever felt anything like before, it's described as anything you eat or drink feels like you are drinking hot fire. Someplace where the punishment doesn't stop  visually, it's a symbolic picture of the fires of hell melting someone's skin, only to grow new skin and it starts burning again."

This vision of an afterlife, reserved for those who do not fulfill God's commandments, isn't something he thinks about much.

Elbayoumy, administrative director of cardiovascular services at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Topeka, regards hell as a real place, though.

"I'm actually more motivated by the desire for what's good and the nice rewards of doing the right thing. But I still believe it's there," he said.

Elbayoumy, who came to the United States from Egypt 21 years ago, is one of millions of faithful people around the world whose religions have a concept of hell, in one form or another.

And, like Elbayoumy, many religious people profess a belief in a realm of tortuous punishment for sinners  though their particular interpretations of it may vary.

How do other faiths picture an afterlife for those who have fallen short of the spiritual mark?

Evil choices

Readers have to look hard to find a description of hell in the Hebrew Scriptures, according to Rabbi Scott White, spiritual leader of the Lawrence Jewish Community Center, 917 Highland Drive.

"The closest you have is Gehenna, which is Hebrew for an actual place  the Valley Hinom near the Old City in Jerusalem. It's one of the valleys leading up to the Temple Mount," said White, a Conservative-ordained rabbi.

"That was the place, according to the Bible, where the cult of Moloch used to practice child sacrifice in very ancient times. It was a Canaanite tribe, and Moloch was one of their gods. That's why Gehenna was associated with hell, because of what was going on there. It was the most heinous immorality imaginable."

Do Jews believe in hell?

"Not in the Christian manner. It's kind of deliberately nebulous. We try to concentrate much more on the life we're living now, and we ask ourselves, 'What are the consequences of our behavior for this world?'"

Nor do most Jews conceive of a demon.

"The fact that Satan is a character in the Book of Job  you can't adduce that there is actually a devil. We would say that the cumulative effect of a series of evil choices could end up with something devilish. Choosing evil rather than good spins a web that ultimately ends up creating a phenomenon like the Nazis," White said.

The Rev. Paul Gray has a few ideas  but no doubts  about an afterlife in hell.

"The Bible uses words like 'lake of fire' and 'flames.' I do get a real sense that it's a place where people are separated from God or anything good," said Gray, senior pastor of Heartland Community Church, 619 Vt.

"Eternal, solitary confinement with no light or people around, and you're able to think about the choices you've made. In my opinion, that's what hell will be like."

Gray, an evangelical Christian, believes that everything in the Bible is the inspired word of God.

"The Bible talks about hell and the devil, Jesus talks about hell and the devil. You have the choice whether to believe the Bible is true or not, and I believe it's true," he said.

Gray doesn't preach about hell that often.

"I don't talk about it as much as I should. It's not a popular topic. But hell is a real place, and real people go there for a real long time. I use that phrase a lot."

Bad karma

Faiths in the East imagine not just one hell, but many.

"In most Hindu and Buddhist traditions, they envision a variety of hells, but they are not permanent. If one's deeds were evil enough  and different Hindus and Buddhists would define that differently  then there are a number of hells one would be temporarily born in to sort of work out one's karma," said Robert Minor, a professor of religious studies at Kansas University.

These hells are places of torture, which are described in very graphic terms.

"You sort of work out your bad karma, then you'll be reborn back in this human life again, where you have this chance to correct your deeds," said Minor, who specializes in South Asian religions.

Many Buddhists in the West, though, take no position on whether there really is a hell.

"I'm totally agnostic on this stuff, whether these things actually exist. I have no opinion on rebirth  I'm open to it. This is sort of peripheral to how Westerners perceive Buddhism," said Judy Roitman, guiding teacher at the Kansas Zen Center, 1423 N.Y.

"My attitude is basically that it's this life that counts."

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