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Who Are The Chosen Ones?
As soon as you decide that there is a life after death, you are faced with the question of who gets to go.
If you are laid back enough not to care who you spend Eternity with, the question might not trouble you, much, as long as you get in.
If you are a Hindu or a religious Buddhist the problem is pretty much solved by the doctrine that everybody gets reincarnated as something, depending more or less upon how one lived one's human life. (The entry into Nirvana, or bona fide Paradise, is a tougher hurdle and reserved for souls who have not only been good, but they've been good for enough lifetimes in succession that they wouldn't be fit for ordinary mortals to associate with, anyway.)
Too many conventionally religious people, world wide, are not laid back enough to be able to avoid trying to assign their friends, relatives, enemies and casual acquaintances to one fate or another. (For Christians, Jews and Muslims -- either heaven or hell, with varying amounts of time in Purgatory for Catholics: for reincarnation theologies -- up, down or sidewise in the evolutionary scale.)
Of course, if you are not insanely megalomaniacal, you realize that your assignment isn't binding on Whatever Deities you believe in. But it helps you sort out your own life to be able to convince yourself that you know where those other people are going to go. After all, you judge, or justify, yourself in relation to them, and you use them as personal examples; shining or horrible.
The problem, here, is to decide upon the criteria. Just what is it that makes one eligible for Paradise or consigns one to eternal damnation (Or brings one back as a bodhisattva or a meal worm)?
How one treats one's fellow human beings is pretty generally agreed upon as one logical yardstick. We in the Western religions (Most of us are "in" these religions, by virtue of birth or association, whether we believe in them or not.) tend to call this yardstick "good works."
Another common criterion is the belief in the Faith and its Deities, itself.
For a lot of religions these two measurements are sufficient. My old college's motto, emblazoned across the front of the chapel, is "Deo Fisus Labora," which translates roughly as "Trust in God, and Work." That pretty much sums it up for most Baptists.
The Catholics layer in a bunch of rituals, ceremonies and sacraments and try to make everybody feel guilty for not observing them often enough, but those are all just part of believing; reminding the faithful that they do believe, and giving them a lot of comforting - or nagging - tasks to do to prove it to themselves as often as possible.
Good works are more problematical.
In the first place, what the hell is "good?"
"The road to Hell is paved with good intentions!" We all know that; but we tend to feel that the aphorism means that intentions, alone, are not enough; one must put them into practice.
Well, that is not necessarily what it means. Too many good intentions, realized, turn out to be disastrous.
Another aphorism says, "Be careful what you wish for; it may come true."
We have just emerged from a Century-long experiment in socio-economics which cruelly demonstrated the accuracy of both above aphorisms.
Alarmed by the obvious excesses and evils of a burgeoning (uncontrolled) capitalist economy in the 19th Century, a great many intelligent men and women of overwhelmingly Good Will in the 20th Century sought to mitigate the effects of runaway power and greed.
In some political systems the effort took the form of gradual socialism (too gradual for some people's taste; balanced against the preferences of those who didn't want to see it at all) without any cataclysmic rending of national fabric.
In societies with a less-developed history of democracy and respect for public debate and differences of opinion, the struggle emerged as something called World Communism.
"Left" leaning persons outside the physical sphere of World Communism's effects were left - over the decades - scrambling to explain its methods and excuse its excesses; in the face of the growing evidence that the methods were largely unjustifiable and the excesses massively criminal.
But all these good people...and most likely even the corps of apparatchiks who were doing all this reprehensible stuff...intended to make a better world; and they were doing something about it.
So what happened?
A lot of very human mistakes -- acting with incomplete data; incomplete or perfunctory analysis of probable chains of events; naiveté about human motivation: blind assessments of probable outcomes; raw misinformation: not to mention the old bugbears of self-interest, self-justification and the quest for power -- which were not figured into the original equation.
So are all of those people going to hell?
Well, if you're a hidebound Christian fundamentalist you already know the answer to that, without any evaluation of individual cases. None of those people were hidebound Christian fundamentalists - regardless of their works or intentions - so of course they are all going to burn for eternity.
If you are a bit more charitable, or a bit less militantly ignorant, you might have some trouble making a judgment. Just how responsible are individual human intelligences for the outcome of actions that they had no tools to forecast?
It's damned hard to be good, surrounded by all those other people whose definition of the word differs from yours by as much as 180 degrees; and in the face of the fact that your own definition might alter radically as the conditions around it change: As they will change.
How can one hope to do Good Works on an eternal scale when even such an incontrovertibly GOOD person as Mother Theresa may turn out - only a century or so down the line - to have contributed to the irreparable damage of our home planet through runaway overpopulation?
The contemplation of this paradox may paralyze us into avoiding Good Works, altogether.
Fundamentalist Christians, once again, have the perfect answer to the paradox. In order to be "saved" into heaven, one need only to believe, in a particular manner, and publish that belief ("witness" is the operative term) and one is in - regardless of works or intentions.
(While simplistic, it's not that simple. These people pay a lot of attention to each others' habits and activities. There are evidently a host of negative ways to witness.)
To those of us who reject superstitious metaphysics entirely (as possible), all this is moot.
None of the people in question, now dead, went anyplace but "out." None of their compatriots, living, are going anywhere else.
Works and intentions are all to be evaluated event by event on a time by time basis, given the best available information.
Once again, it's harder than "just believing, " and your efforts may turn out no less damaging to the species and/or the environment in the long run.
But at least your personal universe isn't crammed with all those damned or rewarded souls, all clamoring for justification and evaluation.
Their absence should make you absolutely light-headed.