Speaking of heaven...

... here follows an except from my book The Little Book Of Unholy Questions. Heaven is such a commonplace idea, even cornerstone, of Christian thinking. In the opening to this section, I talk about how the concept of heaven is stolen by late Jews just before the Christian period. This evolution of ideas undercuts the notion that it can be a cornerstone of Judeo-Christian ideology. If heaven and hell did not exist in the ideology of early Jews, and it is that crucial a set of principles, if it does not exist in the early tracts of the Bible, then something needs explaining! Anyway, here goes :

121. Is there free will in heaven?

122. If there is free will in heaven, is there any suffering or evil?

123. If there is free will in heaven, and no suffering in heaven, why cannot this be made so on earth?

124. Surely my idea of heaven is very different from the next person’s idea of heaven, and so is it the case that heaven is simply God’s idea of a perfect place, or can it be perfect for everyone?

125. What is the arbitrary line that separates someone who just gets into heaven (forgiveness) from someone who just fails to get into heaven (non-forgiveness)?

126. If forgiveness is so important to you, then why not forgive everyone and entitle everyone to eternal salvation?

127. Where is heaven situated?

128. Are there different degrees of heaven depending on how good you are, or is someone who is quite good entitled to the same heaven as someone who is exceptionally good? With the whole range of moral human behaviour, it seems crazy to think that there are only two options that everyone fits into.

129. Why not bypass earth and the universe and just have one big heaven?

130. If heaven is so amazing, and Christians really believe in heaven, would it not be more sensible for Christians to embrace death, even search it out in the name of God, in order to get there as quickly as possible?

131. Rather than be sad when a baby, a child or even an adult dies, should we instead be ecstatically happy that the person will not have to suffer the vagaries of this paltry life, and will be in the greatest conceivable place for all eternity?

132. Is euthanasia not acceptable in light of the fact that the person may well get to heaven quicker?

133. Furthermore, is it not torture to keep the person alive when you could be sending them to heaven?

134. Following that, is it not logically sound to hasten the death of all people, especially babies who get a free ticket into heaven, because they will go straight to heaven and will not have a chance to sin and suffer on earth and potentially end up going to hell?

135. Is it not better to judge a person on their moral actions on earth, even if they have no faith in you, than on what they believe?

136. Put slightly differently, would you prefer a human that rejects you, but leads a really decent, charitable, ethical and fulfilled life or would you prefer a staunch believer who leads a selfish, more destructive life?

137. What, exactly, are angels?

138. Without corporeal bodies, can they feel pain?

139. Do you use heaven as a bribe to make people behave well?

140. Will I get 72 virgins like Mohammed’s guys (or maybe just a couple…)?

141. At what point of your life do you get judged to go into heaven?

142. For example, which one would get into heaven? (This one’s multiple choice, God, so it should be easy!) A) a man who does evil for 50 years in unbelief, and repents, asks for forgiveness and lives virtuously for 2 months in belief. B) a man who does virtuous good for 50 years, gives up belief and then commits evil for 2 months. C) both. D) neither.

143. If you suffered dementia for the last 5 years of your life, what would you be like in heaven?

144. In other words, in heaven are you defined arbitrarily by who you were (at any point) in your actual life?

145. On what grounds is it chosen as to at what point in your life your heavenly self represents?

146. In philosophy, boredom is seen as a lethal state in which to be, and this is why an immortal life is deemed as problematic. Death can be claimed to be an event necessary to give meaning to our lives. However, those who get to heaven are ensured an eternal existence. Without changing our mindsets, and thus constraining our natural inclinations (and free will), how could we possibly enjoy an eternity in heaven without getting bored?

147. If Hitler was truly sorry for what he did, would you forgive him and allow him into heaven?

One fruitful theme that I wanted to explore here was that heaven and the existence of free will without suffering and evil is incoherent. We are often given the free will theodicy as (at least partly) the answer to why evil exists on earth. However, if heaven can exist with free will and no evil, then this should surely be an option on earth, especially if God is as loving as he is purported to be. This very simple logical argument has devastating effects on whether you believe in heaven, in an omnipotent God or even in free will. Many theists such as Oxford theologian Richard Swinburne try to answer this by saying that life on earth is a ‘test’ for humanity, with the goal of being morally responsible, avoiding hell, and getting into heaven. The idea of punishment or reward in an afterlife becomes moot without free will, and so free will becomes the central tenet of such theology. But, as Sam Harris explains in light of this theory:

Yet if heaven must exist, if there is no doubt that heaven exists, then we know that we are being trained here on earth to exercise a free will that will not be needed in heaven, a free will the exercise of which causes immense pain to many people, but a pain that will be miraculously eased in heaven. This is nothing less than a definition of torture. (Though presumably the likes of Richard Swinburne would argue that seventy years of torture versus an infinity of heavenly bliss is a “reasonable” experiment.) Heaven is not and never has been the solution to theodicy; heaven is the very problem.

There does seem to be this promissory note that any amount of evil and suffering on earth can be balanced in an afterlife. I’m not sure that this works or even if it is properly evidenced by anything other than faith.

Another fundamental issue with the idea of heaven is the implication that we are immutable, unchanging people; that the person we are when we die is the person we have always been which is the person we will be in heaven. This is loaded with massive problems. We are changing animals. I am clearly not the same person I was before my present relationship, before I had children, ten years ago, as a student, as an adolescent, as a child and so on. If I develop Alzheimer’s now, then I would be a very different person again. Access into heaven is defined when? Because if I had Alzheimer’s and my heavenly state was defined before the point of developing the disease, then surely this should be the same approach as for a person who became evil at the end of their life or good at the end of their life. A repenting sinner should be judged on their sinning if a person who becomes terribly evil only at the end of their life is judged on this and not the majority of their faithful, good life. Of course, if the soul does not equate to our conscious minds, then what does the soul have to do with our actions, and how can our soul be judged for those actions if it is not causally responsible for them?

It is a veritable minefield of troublesome theology. And that’s given the acceptance of the idea of heaven in the first place.

As far as heaven being used as a justification for evil, vis-a-vis the Problem of Evil, always be wary when theists use this since it is not correct as a moral justification. This Compensation Theory declares that an eternity in heaven can morally justify any evil on earth. This is so common a claim, and yet its ubiquity has nothing to do with its rectitude. If I walked up to you and punched you in the face and then gave you $10,000, whilst it compensates the crime, it does not morally justify it. You cannot morally justify anything with compensation. Even if I gave you $1bn for me to punching you, and you would actually prefer to have been punched so as to have got that money, it still does not MORALLY justify it, though it overcompensates for it. As Stephen Maitzen states in his excellent paper, Atheism and the Basis of Morality:

If a perfect God exists, then any suffering that occurs is suffering that God allows to occur, since any perfect being has the power to prevent any occurrence, including any case of suffering. If perfection also rules out exploitation, as I’ve argued it does, then God allows the suffering of children only if those children ultimately benefit from the suffering. The word “from” matters here. It’s not enough if God merely compensates children for suffering he lets them endure; the suffering must be necessary (or at least optimal) for their greater good.

But if the suffering is needed, or optimal, for the child’s overall benefit, then it’s like the pain from a needle when the needle is the only (or the best) way to deliver a vaccine. If so, then we never have a duty to prevent the suffering of children; after all, we don’t think we have a moral obligation to prevent painful vaccinations when they’re beneficial. Even those who oppose childhood vaccinations wholesale do so because they think vaccines do more harm than good. We don’t think it’s truly compassionate to prevent all vaccinations just because needles hurt.

As you can see, the problems for heaven are multitudinous. I welcome any conversation on these point! Let the debate begin.