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.
Throughout modern history, even terrorists had moral boundaries. Terrorists historically attempted to avoid murdering innocent men, women and children. Arafat, however, made the murder and maiming of completely innocent men, women and children the very purpose of terror and one of his life’s major legacies.
Yasser Arafat single-handedly made nihilistic acts of cruelty routine, even respectable. Many people were horrified at the Palestinian slaughter of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. But humanity gradually became inured to Arafat-style slaughter. Palestinian and Muslim disciples targeted schoolchildren for death in the Israeli city of Ma’alot and later in the Russian city of Beslan; tortured and murdered American diplomats in Sudan; and Arafat created a society whose only exports were new forms of religious hatred and new expressions of barbarity. Thanks to him, the Palestinian name is identified among people of goodwill with barbarity just as the German name came to be associated with barbarity as a result of Hitler.
If, then, there is a just God, and Arafat was the particularly venal human being described here, the answer to the third question is obvious.
Just as any decent human being would want good people to be rewarded in whatever existence there is after this life, they would want the cruelest of people to be punished.
So, of course, I hope Yasser Arafat is in hell. It means that a just God rules the universe. If you think that is hard-hearted, consider the alternative, that one of the most corrupt and cruel human beings of the past half-century is resting in peace. Whoever isn’t bothered by that is the one with the hard heart.