Three things come to mind when I think of the discussions I've had around Heaven:
1. No two people have EVER described Heaven the same way.
This doesn't seem to bother many people. Although, I'm not sure why? Most of these people only believe one version of Heaven is true. They don't think everyone really gets to invent a new Heaven. They believe GOD MADE HEAVEN for his most faithful servants -- once. That's what that whole Jesus thing was about, right? John 3:16 and all of that?
There are many, many different ideas of what an afterlife, or Heaven, could be. Within each religion there is an orthodox position, but there's a lot of variation about what people actual think. [Again, it's as if people think they get to make it up, or something.] I don't think you'd even get similar answers if you went into any church on Sunday and asked down the front-row pew. You might get the same rote response - Perhaps something like "Being with God." or something like that. However, when it comes down to some of the other important questions, you'd get as much variation as walking down the street and asking strangers. If you asked them the harder questions, like "WHO gets to go there?" and "WHY?" you get even more interesting answers (e.g. "Is it Acts or Faith that get you into Heaven?")
Of course if you're an atheist, there's the elephant-in-the-room question: "Do you think I'm going to Hell for not believing in God?"
But the list really does go on and on and on:
- Do people who have never been exposed to the idea of Jesus/Christianity go to Heaven or Hell?
- Do the millions and millions people who lived BEFORE Jesus/Christianity go to Heaven or Hell?
- If someone we all consider to be terrible, like Hitler, was a Christian (arguably, he was, albeit a bad one!), and asked God/Jesus to forgive his sins before he died, where would he go? What about a person who was reasonably good their whole lives, but didn't believe?
- Is there sex in Heaven?
- Are dogs and cats allowed in Heaven? What about hamsters and guinea pigs? What about ants and spiders and cockroaches? (If other animals are allowed in, where does it stop?)
- What about all the dead babies? No, really... I'm not being insensitive. It's a real question. Infant mortality has been a huge problem throughout the centuries, even since Christianity began.
- How would you recognize each other? Without bodies..or brains for memory...
2. Surprisingly, a lot of people say:"I've never really thought about it that much."
In truth, I get this a lot in any kind of theological discussion, but it surprises me the most around Heaven. Theoretically, this should be the exciting thing TO think about...it's the best part! However, it seems the absurdity of the proposition may prevent many modern 21st-century adults from really basking in the joy of the Heaven idea. I think many of them avoid applying too much cognitive pressure to the concept, for fear that, like a bubble, it may burst.
3. No one has been able to reconcile the existence of Hell with the existence of Heaven.
That is to say, if there is a Hell, Heaven couldn't really be as awesome. Likewise, if there ISN'T a Hell, Heaven is where everyone goes (and where's the fun in that?!)
Some people believe they can weasel around the issue of Hell by saying Christ was sent by God to save EVERYONE, and that is what makes Christianity so special. Indeed, many people believe Christianity is a unique religion. Some will go as far as to say the only "true religion."
Clearly, I'm not one of those people...anymore.
That said, I do want to give Christianity its due. There is at least one element that is actually special about the religion, or an aspect to which it can claim some primacy in "Western Philosophy." While the concept of an afterlife is NOT new, Christianity allows Heaven to be attained by the "lower castes" of society.
Indeed, Christianity seems to have made the idea of Heaven a meritocracy, where it had been a plutocracy or autocracy. Before the rise of Christianity, a reward in the afterlife - when it was offered at all - was largely a birthright. In fact, this "equality" element of Christianity is one of the reasons it spread. Heaven was available to ALL kinds of people. Not surprisingly, this really took off in the lower and slave classes. Eventually, the elite classes. recognized they could exploit that fact. It took off in the elite classes, as well. I'm not sure how causal or incidental that connection is, but there is an interesting new claim that the Roman Empire invented Christianity as a psychological tool. (I don't think I buy it.)
Hell itself is an awful concept (by itself), and is only made more terrible by its utility. Scaring people with damnation, or the idea of Sin (and subsequently, Hell) as a social manipulation IS an ancient (and verified) trick. It is also one that is still being used. It's a powerful way to enforce psychological restrictions on those who aren't meeting the social norm. Indeed, something as innocent as writing with your left hand was - and still is, in some places - considered evil or sinful. Countless other elements of normal human nature are also demonized and ostracized by religion.
|...Population seems a little low...|
Any good parent understands that children make mistakes, and that it is their job to be the compassionate adult, and help navigate them through their mistakes. Even the legal justice system is supposed to weigh the crime and give "appropriate" punishment. Christian God, on the other hand, knows that all of His children make mistakes, but is only willing to forgive the ones that beg for his forgiveness and worship him -- in the right way. The others will be held to a mysterious standard and sent to Heaven or Hell, FOREVER, depending on how they acted (or believed) during their short lifetime.
Here's another way of looking at the relationship between God and Human, in the afterlife exchange:
God - "I want you to do very specific things, but I'm going to confuse you about which religions are correct about which things I want you to do. Worse, if you choose wrong, I'm not going to tell you that you're wrong. I'll punish you forever."
What crimes could possible be worth ETERNAL torment?
- Not believing God exists? (As God intended?)
- Not begging to be forgiven for being a flawed human? (As God intended?)
- Living my life truthfully and loving whoever I choose? (As God intended?)
If so, I'll take Hell. Happily. (As God intended?)
Contrary to the opinions of the folks at Answers in Genesis, atheists are most likely NOT wrong. Hell likely doesn't exist. But what is even more scary than Hell is the fact that some people want it to exist. That ULTIMATE justice in the next life is very appealing to some -- it is especially tantalizing if you have no means of securing justice in this life.
I forgive people. You forgive people. Why can't a perfect God forgive?
Don't tell me anything about Jesus. He's the reason we're having this conversation. The real answer is because some people can't forgive (and God is kind of like the "superego"...which is still kind of a jerk, for some people). Sure, plenty of modern theistic folks are uncomfortable with the idea of Hell (as well they should be...), and take great pains to explain it away. They say that Hell either doesn't exist in their theology, or that it really just means "separation from God"...? In a recent conversation, I described this idea of Hell as "Just not being invited the Party." It's not clear what all of that "wailing and gnashing of teeth" stuff is about, but hey...
That's is fine. If someone is willing and able to disregard some of their so-called holy text, they have the right to do. I'm not sure what good a book is if you have to do the editing yourself, but I just hope they also disregard the parts about sexism, racism, & homophobia, too. At the end of the day, you would think a religious person has to have some questions...?
The cruelty of Hell and the incredulity of Heaven, as much as anything else, should stand as evidence against existence of what most people call "God."
Can you think of any other good questions about Heaven or Hell? Feel free to ask them in the comments!