A recently deceased man discovers hell is not at all as he expected.
Satan was waiting for me in the car, hip waders on, a fishing hat, covered with hooks and colorful lures, perched on the dashboard.
It was a beautiful morning, pre-dawn, three levels down by Dante's count. I'd slept well, despite this being my second week in Hell, and I was looking forward to a great day on the water with my new friend and mentor.
I settled in the passenger seat as he popped an eight-track in the car stereo - Bob Seger's Fire Lake. We howled with laughter - I love this guy's sense of humor.
We drove for nearly an hour before backing the trailer down a concrete launch ramp, setting the little tin boat free as the sun crested over a nearby mountain ridge. Satan stood waist deep in the water, guiding the boat as I piloted the car. After launching, I parked in a nearby clearing and grabbed the supplies from the trunk; I'd made sandwiches, he brought the beer.
The fish weren't biting yet, but the views were spectacular, and the talk quickly turned to afterlife philosophy. Admittedly, I drove the conversation there - I had an insatiable need to address too many questions.
I started with a simple one, why was Hell nothing like the stories I'd heard throughout my life?
He laughed. He has this funny, infectious laugh, a cross between a snicker and a giggle, but with deep Santa-like overtones. "How should it be?" He asked, his belly jiggling.
I pondered for a few minutes as the boat drifted into lily pads and tall grasses, slowing us to a halt. "I assumed there'd be more torture, more wailing and gnashing of teeth, so to speak.
He smiled and looked down, shaking his head slowly from side to side, "Propaganda my son."
"Seriously?" It had to be more than that. "You've got a public relations problem?"
"Have you ever heard of Cartesian Dualism?" Satan raised an eyebrow, apparently changing the subject.
I accessed my memory, straining. "The case for the separation of the body and mind as two distinct entities? One entity capable of surviving the other?" I scrambled to recall my entire week of college philosophy class before I transferred to recreational weed consumption.
"Very good." Satan grinned. "But our atheist friends don't buy that argument. They believe the body and mind are one and the same, everything dying at death. They also happen to be quite wrong about the matter." He sipped his beer.
"I gathered that," I said sarcastically. "So, the religious folks were right all along?"
"Well, they're certainly quick to tell you about Heaven, aren't they?" He seemed annoyed, "Your soul ascends, your body decays, but it's cool because you get spiffy new angelic body in paradise, right? No suffering or aging, blah, blah, blah."
I contemplated his sarcasm, making sure I didn't irritate him with my reply. "I guess it depends on the specific dogma but ya, something like that."
"So," the prince of darkness continued, "if the body, flesh and blood, don't go to Heaven, why would they go to Hell?"
"Ok, I follow you so far," I said, as ten more questions leapt to mind.
"There are no bodies down here to torture my boy. There's no physical pain to inflict."
"Alright," I said, with a challenging tone. "What about mental torture, mind games, nightmares, psychosis, psychological abuse? Far worse than physical torture, right?"
Smiling, he placed his fishing pole on the floor of the tin boat and grabbed another beer from the cooler. "The funny thing about psychological abuse is it only takes a short time for the human mind to become accustomed to it, even expect it." He cracked the beer-tab startling a small bird floating near the boat. "Oops, poor thing," he said, watching it fly away in panic. "A person would become numb to it, accept it, even become complacent and bored with it. Now, imagine stretching this out to eternity? It would simply be the norm, a basic part of daily life, routine."
"I've never really thought of it that way," I said. "So, what exactly do we do here, what's the point?"
"You don't like fishing?" Satan said with surprise.
"No, no, it's not that, just wondering what the difference is between here and up there."
"Oh, well that's a very different question, my friend." He swallowed half of the beer in one gulp. "It's a question of levels, much like the circles our boy Dante envisioned. Except the levels stretch from the depths of Hell to the highest parts of Heaven, a bit like a department store in a city center; one escalator after another."
"I see." I kinda did. "Murderers on the bottom, saints are at the top?"
"Oh no, no, no, my young friend, not at all. First off, murderers, as you call them, or sinners, or nasty people, are simply labels from your material world, means nothing down here. Murderers can exist at high levels while you'll find tons of saints down here." He began to belly laugh again, which made me chuckle nervously.
"So the rankings come from?" I felt lost again.
"A long time ago, the thing you call God and myself were all that existed, all there was. No souls existed, just the two of us, very boring."
"Ohhhhh," I said triumphantly, "I get it, like a Yin and Yang thing, positive and negative?"
"No," he said stern-faced, "not like a Yin and Yang thing, nothing like that at all. We were equals, still are. Equals in every way." Satan paused then added, "after a rather flamboyant experiment with matter, we found ourselves with a whole bunch of real estate in which to play. So we tried a few chemistry experiments." He made broad sweeping movements with his hands like a cosmic puppet master. "Your planet, Earth, took forever to cool down, but after eons of chucking microbe-laden rocks at it, we were finally blessed with a bunch of animals to watch, freakin hilarious some of them. Alas, none of them became self-aware, until you lot came along. At that point, it was quickly evident your minds would soon transcend your bodies, and you'd need a place to go. Our place."
I was completely engrossed, oblivious to everything, even the fish nibbling at my line.
"We decided to divvy up the arriving souls, housing them on twelve levels, not nine like old Dante, six up, six down. We figured we'd have plenty of company over time, so we agreed to split up, leave each other alone to create our preferred realms." He raised his arms and gestured all around. The sun was brilliant, glistening across the pristine lake and nearby river mouth.
I was still following him, albeit a little confused. "Ok, so why am I down here and not up there?"
"You, my friend, are quite smart."
"Thank you," I said, still puzzled.
"No," he chuckled. "That's why you're here; you're smart. Not Einstein smart," he pointed downward with an index finger, "but pretty good."
"Wait, so you're telling me the smarter the person, the lower they go in Hell?"
"Precisely! Now you're getting it, my lad." He finished the beer and picked up his rod.
I stared in astonishment. "Wait, so incredibly stupid people go to Heaven, to the highest levels?"
"That makes no sense." I was feeling cheated.
"Of course it does my boy. You see, the guy up there, as you think of him, or Norman as I call him, has a bit of an ego." Satan threw his head back and laughed at the inside joke. He took several minutes to compose himself. "You see, Norman didn't want company, peers, conversation, no, no, he needed followers. People who'd do what he said and believe what they're told. No questions asked."
"And you?" I asked.
"Me? Well, I couldn't handle the thought of a bunch of mindless toadies following me around for eternity. I needed a challenge, people to argue with, to debate, perhaps a few of them might win on occasion." He smiled benevolently, reaching for a net to collect a small bass he'd reeled in.
"So I'm not being punished?" I asked.
"Oh Heavens no." He blurted out. "You'll enjoy it here, lots of wonderful souls to hang with. Is that what they say now, hang with?"
"Yes." I smiled.
"You'll learn a great deal, and over an eternity, become as smart as me. Simple statistics really, eternity's a long time. How could you not learn it all?"
"I see, but if God..."
"Norman." Satan corrected.
"Sorry, if Norman's not challenged, not learning anything, surrounded by incompetent sheep, doesn't it create an imbalance?"
"My, my, perhaps level three's too high for you, my boy. It's true, there's an imbalance of knowledge, but the higher levels have a much larger population. Thirty to one ratio, last time we took a census. You get the idea, armies of heaven, yadda yadda. Kinda balances out in the end, you see?"
We docked the boat in the early afternoon and sat on the hood of the car, drinking the last tepid beers. I watched at him with newfound respect and a little pity. "Any regrets?"
"Ahh regrets, of course, dear lad, we all have regrets. It would be nice to have a larger population down here, especially in the lower levels; gets a little lonely sometimes and a tad frustrating without peers. Just one friggin musician might be nice too."
"Well, there's always new arrivals, right?" I said with confidence, pointing a thumb at my chest comically.
"True, but thirty to one, my boy, thirty to one."
I frowned. "I'm sure as time passes the ratio will flip," I said reassuringly. "Religion can't last forever."
"Perhaps so," he sighed, "but religion's only a construct of the human mind; human nature's the real issue. It's about sheep, my son." He shook his head. "No, I'm afraid it'll be slim pickings for quite a while."
I finished my beer, tossing the can in the cooler, a perfect shot with no bounce. "This was fun."
Satan squeezed my shoulder firmly like my father used to do. "Come on. I'll drop you home to get some rest. We have an early tee time tomorrow."