Conversation piece
 
"Do you believe in hell?" said the little man in the pub.

I took my time emptying my glass while I considered the question.

"No," I said at length, and left just enough of a pause to allow his face to fall a little. "Not in the sense that I think it exists in reality. As a concept, though, I'd have to ask which one you mean."

"There are more than one?"

"Well, there's the Biblical hell, to start with, which is fairly straightforward. If you've lived a bad life, done bad things, you are punished with agony and torment for ever. Nobody really believes in that, and I can understand why. It's ridiculously draconian, and was obviously invented by someone who didn't believe in it either. Or there's the classical Tartarus, where, if I remember rightly, you get a thousand years of punishment and then get a chance to try again--"

"According to Plato," the little man said.

"And then," I went on, signalling to the lady behind the bar, "there's the hell known in popular culture. You know, the one that's pretty much an eternal cocktail party featuring all the best people, not really suffering at all, the one that's so much more fun than boring old heaven. The hell everyone says they want to go to, because it sounds smart, and cool, and daring to say that. The fact that if hell existed, as such, all those cool people would be rather too busy getting their entrails pulled out and roasted in front of their eyes to make witty remarks, seems to escape them. It rather irritates me, actually. I don't mind the classical, conventional hell, stupid and illogical though it is, but I find the pose of wickedness rather pathetic."

"You would rather people were punished for their evil deeds?" he said, as my drink arrived and I took a sip.

"Not at all. I don't see the point of it. After death, punishment can do no possible good. Even if Plato was right, and we all get to go round again, you have to drink the water of Lethe first and forget all about it. Nobody ever gets born thinking 'My goodness, that thousand years in Tartarus was awful, I must remember not to shag little boys this time round.' What's the point?"

"So what do you think should happen to the soul after death?"

"I think everyone should get a rest. A time for contemplation, free from the bodily needs and desires, the mental quirks and lesions, that prompted our actions in life. I think, under those circumstances, we would be quite incapable of *not* punishing ourselves. Shame. Guilt. Self-loathing. Seeing our lives, all the things we did, all the things we got wrong, honestly and square-on for the first time...that would be hell for me, I don't know about anyone else."

"And then?"

"I don't know. I can't imagine ever wanting to try living again myself, but maybe after a thousand years or so the soul would heal. People who had nothing to reproach themselves with, of course, they'd be in and out like otters in a pool. But then there would be so many good people around and so few bad people, the world would be a far better place than it evidently is."

"Or maybe there aren't good people and bad people," the little man said gently. "Maybe people are all good, and just make mistakes sometimes. You're already assuming that people who live bad lives are basically good, otherwise they'd never be ashamed or guilty of what they did. The period of contemplation would be wasted."

"I suppose I am assuming the ground state of the human spirit is good," I said. "But then, I always have."

"I know," the little man said kindly, as I drained my glass. "And you don't understand why the living might *want* to think of their enemies burning in everlasting torment."

"I think that's just as bad as whatever the others did to make them feel that way," I said, "but I understand it's human. Hurt spreads, and propagates more. But hurt is of this world. If we come from somewhere where there is no hurt, and go back there after we're done here, then yes, I think under everything this world does to us, we're all basically good."

"Even--" He named a few names. I had to think for a moment, but then I nodded.

"Even them," he said. "Everything bad about them can be traced back to something that happened to them in this world; the way they were born, the way they grew up, something they never learned, something they learned too early. Maybe something in the brain got wired up wrong, or maybe they just had one really bad day. Badness is imposed; goodness emerges. That's what I believe."

"It's a good belief," he said. "You might be wrong, though."

"I might," I said. "But then, what would be the point of anything?" I stood up. "Well, it's been nice talking to you," I said, "but I must be going."

"I'll come with you," he said.

"There's no need--"

"Once you get through that door," he said, "you'll see there is a need. Because you were almost right. About heaven and hell. They are the same place. There's just one thing that makes the difference between them, and it's not what kind of life you lived. Everyone, you see," he paused a moment, struggling into his coat, "everyone sees the bad they did in life, far more clearly than the good. Everyone feels the shame and the guilt, and if they weren't dead already it would kill them. Everyone gets that punishment. There's only one thing that can help you get through it."

"What's that?" My mouth was suddenly dry as I glanced at the door, and quickly away.

He smiled. "Someone to talk to."