A Helluva Good Story about Heaven

In which God and Jesus aren’t the heroes

A few years back a devout Catholic woman assured me that there was a sound, practical reason she held so firmly to her faith: she wanted to see her mother again in heaven. It would happen, she was sure, all in good time. But another Catholic woman I knew wasn’t so patient—she wanted to get through to folks in heaven in real time. As her mother lay dying, she whispered messages for mom to deliver to dead relatives on the other side. I wondered if this blatant opportunism would sit well with those in charge of border security.

Those who have been raised in the church are primed with stories of heaven from an early age. Sometimes skepticism erodes naïve belief, sometimes not. In my youth I developed a keen interest in astronomy, so it was obvious that heaven wasn’t “up there.” My devout mother’s response was that heaven is a “state of being,” a relationship with God. That worked for me…for a while.

But heaven as a literal place—somehow, somewhere—has staying power because humans become so heavily invested in stories. Father Andrew Greeley drove home this point in a 1994 New York Times article, Why Do Catholics Stay in the Church? Because of the Stories. The folks in the pews are rarely prodded to ask critical questions and scrutinize their beliefs. Hey, just go with the stories, which have stood the test of time. And Father Greeley related one of the best stories:

One day Jesus went on a tour of the heavenly city and noted that there were certain new residents who ought not to be there, not until they had put in a long time in purgatory and some of them only on a last-minute appeal. He stormed out to the gate where Peter was checking the day's intake…
"You've failed again, Simon Peter," said the Lord.
"What have I done now?"
"You let a lot of people in that don't belong."
"I didn't do it."
"Well, who did?"
"You won't like it."
"Tell me anyway."
"I turn them away from the front gate and then they go around to the back door and your mother lets them in!"

Who wouldn’t want this kind of heavenly mother? Who would want to give up on that kind of heaven?

But there are alternate heaven stories.

Some have been conjured by serious thinkers frustrated trying to wrap their minds around New Testament hints about eternal life. One escapee from fundamentalism, Paul Beaumont, delivers a devastating satire about heaven in his book, A Brief Eternity (2013, 273 pages). The book opens with the long-anticipated Rapture—the best way to get to heaven, I suppose—and Dan Barker wrote in the book’s Foreword that this work “deserves rapturous praise.”

We read in Paul Beaumont’s bio that he…

“…became a Christian as a thoughtful, insecure sixteen-year old. In exchange for worship and unquestioning obedience, Jesus gave him purpose, meaning and girlfriends. It seemed a good bargain at the time but, twenty-five years later, having lived all those years as a faithful servant of the Lord, Paul ended his relationship with Jesus and won back full custody of his life. There were no hard feelings on either side.”

It’s pretty clear that Beaumont has based his description of heaven on Bible texts, often those that readers pass over without giving them much thought. One tip-off that heaven may not be all it’s cracked up to be is found in Romans 6:22, in which Paul assures his readers, “… now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life.” Wait a minute: Enslaved for eternity? Christopher Hitchens saw the full implications of this and referred to heaven as a “celestial North Korean…the real fun begins after you’re dead…at least you can fucking die and leave North Korea.”

Beaumont’s title, A Brief Eternity, gives a hint about the direction of this satire: truly, who would want to be in North Korean for eternity? Since this is a novel I’ll tread carefully to avoid plot spoilers. The protagonist, Jerry, gets raptured although he shouldn’t have been—and it would be a spoiler if I told you how that happened! But lucky for us: What a great thing it is to find a non-religious skeptic wandering around heaven, puncturing theological banalities, delivering zingers.

Jerry found that he had some boning up to do—to fit in with the pious crowd that surrounded him. So he turned to the Bible, and winced at what he found. In Deuteronomy, the punishment of a “stubborn and rebellious” son was execution by stoning. Jerry thought that this book “must have been written when God was in a very bad mood…” (p. 229)

And it turns out that some among the very pious had also become disillusioned, as one of them confessed in a secret conversation with Jerry (after all, they’re in North Korea):

“…I searched the scriptures even more zealously for God, but that just made things worse. The God who is described in the Bible is a terrible Being, one that deserves our fear, but not one that any decent person could possibly worship. His behavior is despotic—the Flood isn’t the half of it—and I eventually concluded that he could command no moral authority by which to judge the human race. I stopped believing in Hell altogether and hoped that God was actually much better than he was portrayed in his biography.” (p. 149)

This, of course, underscores the incoherence of the Christian faith, since its deity is indeed a Terrible Being. Who else would have invented Hell? Much of the novel focuses on Jerry’s dilemma when he realizes that the people he loves, those whom he cherishes the most, are condemned to suffer for all eternity in “the other place.”

• “Unless they were able to have their sentences rescinded, these poor unfortunates would know no end to their suffering; a punishment visited upon them by a God whom he was required to worship for all of time. He knew for certain that such inhumanity, such callous indifference, was beyond him, and marveled that it was not also beyond Jesus or those who dwelt with the Lord in Paradise.” (p. 213)

• “Heaven cannot be Heaven for me knowing that people I love are being tortured for all eternity. It cannot be Heaven for anyone who has that knowledge.” (p. 147)

Most of humanity suffers this fate because they never got the word about the magic spell—the bit of Christian abracadabra—for winning eternal life. The apostle Paul stated it neatly in Romans 10:9, “…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Jerry also sums it up well: “The gospel is Christian short-hand for the doctrine that Jesus died so that your sins could be forgiven and you could be saved from Hell, but you have to believe it to make it work.” (p. 245)

All True Christians know this is how to get to heaven, and another character in the novel reflects on this shabby entrance requirement:

“The idea that a person’s eternal destiny could depend upon something as fragile, as accidental, as their religious beliefs, most of which were simply inherited from parents, seemed so ludicrous that only the most gullible and naïve could possibly entertain it.” (p. 93)

They also entertain—they love it, cannot get enough of it—the baffling certainty that God requires worship: Why would a perfect being crave effusive praise that goes forever? The hymn Blessed Assurance, written in 1873 by Fanny Crosby, captures this bizarre sentiment:

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine
O what a foretaste of glory divine…

This is my story, this is my song
Praising my Savior all the day long
This is my story, this is my song
Praising my Savior all the day long

But what about “all eternity long”? Jerry even gets a chance to hear Jesus on the topic:

“The bigger question is whether or not you want to spend the rest of eternity worshipping and obeying me.”
“Why do you need that?” said Jerry. “Why would anyone want it?”
“Like father, like son, I guess. I can’t help the way I am, Jerry…” (p. 269)

Even the Devil—at another point in the story—weighs in on this, bragging about the benefits of Hell: “The weather isn’t very good, I’m afraid, but on the upside you won’t have to sing those dreary sycophantic hymns that Old Man Yahweh is so obsessively fond of.” (p. 105)

The same fellow who confided his disillusionment to Jerry also admitted that fawning over God wears thin: “The emotion of worship fades away eventually, especially if you know how nasty God can be.” (p. 150)

For all the certainty that people have about heaven—eager to see mother again, trying to get message to dead relatives—the fact remains that there is no information about heaven; it ranks right up there with God as an unevidenced belief. As Father Greeley illustrates, everything we “know” derives from stories, which, I suppose has its roots in the apostle Paul’s display of imagination (2 Corinthians 12:2-4):

“I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows—was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.”

Nice try, Paul, that it’s all a big secret, “things not to be told.” Theists have been spinning tales about the afterlife endlessly—with the goal of selling a product they don’t have. That’s what keeps the vast bureaucracies going. All the more reason to savor Paul Beaumont’s dystopian view of heaven. If folks insist that heaven is real, who’s to say his vision is less authentic than what the church sells? You show me your evidence, I’ll show you mine! Trust me, Beaumont has a much better imagination.

His humor makes it a worthwhile journey, and he gives Jesus some of the best lines. Jerry had asked Jesus for a favor—and the latter is willing to oblige: “Now, what did you want me to do for you? Ask and it shall be given: Matthew chapter seven, verse seven. One of my more reckless promises, but there we are.” (p. 205)

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published in 2016 by Tellectual Press. It was re-released in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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