Herpes, Harry, and Hellfire

Mysteries for the soul who couldn't beat the rap.

Srila Hridayananda Dasa Goswami

An incurable viral infection called genital herpes, transmitted through sex, has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. The August 2 edition of Time reported, "Spurred on by two decades of sexual permissiveness, the disease has cut swiftly through the ranks of the sexually active. . . . An estimated 20 million Americans now have genital herpes, with as many as half a million new cases expected this year, according to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. . . . Those remarkable numbers are altering sexual rites in America, changing courtship patterns, sending thousands of sufferers spinning into months of depression and self-exile, and delivering a numbing blow to the one-night stand. The herpes counter-revolution may be ushering a reluctant, grudging chastity back into fashion."

Pornography merchant Al Goldstein said, "It may be there is a God in heaven carving out His pound of flesh for all our joys."

But Rabbi Harold Kushner of Temple Israel in Natick, Massachusetts, might have a different explanation. In his best-selling book When Bad Things Happen To Good People, he argues that we should blame neither God nor ourselves for our sufferings, because God, though basically good, is not omnipotent. Since there is no all-powerful God who can prevent the innocent from suffering or punish the sinful, we shouldn't feel angry at God or guilty when we or our loved ones suffer. As a result of his book, Rabbi Kushner is in great demand for counseling and consoling the grief-stricken.

Naturally, Rabbi Kushner's heretical view has provoked a wave of protest from many traditional Jewish and Christian theologians, who reassert the omnipotence of God. "I believe the biblical God is a God who is all-good and all-powerful," says Daniel Bloesch, professor of theology at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Iowa. "In and of Himself, He is in control. The ultimate explanation of evil is a mystery."(Emphasis mine.)

Considering these different viewpoints, how should traumatized herpes victims be counseled? Are they being punished by an omnipotent God? Are they random victims of forces of nature beyond the control of a well-meaning but limited God? Is there no God or spirit at all, and are they thus hapless witnesses to mere chemical reactions? The last view, atheistic and reductionistic, is unacceptable to most Americans. Even in Russia, where the brutal machinery of the Soviet government has sought to crush religion, faith in God and the need to worship Him are resurging. Certainly God-fearing America cannot existentially explain itself, much less comfort itself, with a cold, purely physical world view that seeks to kill God and the soul.

The problem boils down to the old nemesis of the true believer: "the problem of evil." If God is both good and all-powerful, why do the innocent suffer? Why do young children, for example, suffer crippling diseases and the horrors of war? Are we to accept Dr. Bloesch's view that the ultimate explanation or evil is a mystery? Thank God, we are not.

In fact, the mystery of why evil exists is solved as soon as we accept God's own statement in the Bhagavad-gita that the soul exists eternally, both before and after our present bodily experience. Of course, that the soul is eternal implies reincarnation, an idea that for America's Jews and Christians has an aura of weird, almost voodooish mysticism alien to the solemn rites and dogmas of all sane and God-fearing people. But denying the soul's previous and future lives chisels away at the very foundation of belief in the soul by imposing upon spirit the material properties of creation and destruction.

Material things, which are created, can certainly be destroyed. But the soul is a spiritual entity, a transcendental being; he was never born and will never die. He comes into the material body just as a man comes within the confines of a room or a shirt, and he leaves the body with his transcendental properties intact. The concept of the creation of the soul conjures up the idea that the soul did not previously exist. And this idea pollutes the real understanding of an ever-existing spiritual entity. Having learned that we, the soul, once did not exist, we naturally fear that we may again not exist. Thus Western civilization plunges blindly into material progress, hoping to reinforce bodily existence itself rather than discover a spiritual life beyond the confines of the material body.

Where Western theology has spoken of an undying soul, it generally also speaks of an everlasting hell, with no possibility of respite. Seizing upon the obvious contradiction between the idea of an all-merciful God and a God who damns you forever, modern man has rejected the entire concept of divine punishment.

Thus modern humanistic man, arrogantly denying the existence of a God who could or would punish him, sees himself as the ultimate reality. He tries to prove this proud vision by pointing out that innocent persons, such as children and the pious, also suffer. Obviously, God would not punish the innocent. Therefore suffering is not some kind of punishment meted out by God upon sinners but rather the blind interaction of molecules, or it is caused by unknown forces that are inscrutable and thus irrelevant to our immediate attempt to enjoy ourselves.

Beyond this proud humanistic bluff is a simple truth: We are eternal servants of God who have rebelled against Him and are therefore suffering just punishment. We have sinned in this and previous lives, and instead of brazenly denying it and then trying to emasculate God to neatly fit together our "innocence" and our suffering, or instead of declaring life's greatest questions to be unfathomable mysteries and thus virtually killing the spirit of theological inquiry, we should admit that God is good and all-powerful and that the reason we are suffering is precisely because we have performed obnoxious acts in this and former lives.

At times our protestations of innocence are patently absurd. For example, Americans dare claim that there is no divine punishment for the gruesome massacre of hundreds of millions of innocent creatures merely for the satisfaction of our gastronomic whims. "God has put the animals here for us to eat," claim the most pious priests and rabbis.

Evil is mysterious only to those who are blinded by arrogant humanism, flagrant cruelty, and gross ignorance of the eternal soul. Artificial "counseling" for the spiritually blind so that they can rush headlong toward death with a ludicrous "inner peace" is not the solution to the problem of evil. People should be properly educated in the science of the soul and his relation to God.

Some people may consider our claim to perfect spiritual knowledge a worse and more dangerous type of arrogance than humanism. But we arrogate to ourselves no special status other than the official status reserved to the faithful mailman. We are faithfully delivering perfect knowledge spoken by the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Sri Krsna. Lord Krsna's Bhagavad-gita gives us perfect insight into our real position.

Of course we are being punished by God. Civilized human beings cannot indulge in sex like pigs and dogs and get off scot-free. Certainly God is both all-good and omnipotent, and the suffering baby is not a baby at all but an eternal soul who couldn't beat the rap.

As a child I used to watch reruns of The Little Rascals on TV. Sometimes a certain cigar-smoking midget would dress up as a baby and hide his cigar. When some doting person would approach his baby carriage, the midget would beat the person over the head, steal his purse or wallet, and hightail it down the sidewalk. Similarly, suffering babies are not babies at all but eternal souls being punished for their previous sins.

If Americans stick to their erroneous conception that the soul is created or, worse still, that the soul doesn't exist at all it will be impossible for them to understand the meaning of life. They will continue to believe that life's important questions are "mysteries," and they will continue to confront their suffering with various types of "counseling," "consolation," and so on, which are just so many useless palliatives. Let us acknowledge our eternal servitude to the omnipotent, all-good Personality of Godhead; let us recognize our long history of births and deaths through many lifetimes; and let us cut off the cycle of sin-and-punishment by practicing Krsna consciousness.