Greg Kasarik

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No Place for Humans in Heaven.

Heaven is usually held to be the place where people go, once they have died, to spend the rest of eternity in the infinite bliss of God’s company. Different beliefs have different criteria for those fortunate enough to earn a ticket to Heaven, with some holding that everyone gets in (perhaps after spending some time in purgatory, where they serve time for sins committed while alive), while others hold that only good people, believers in a particular deity, or even just a few of the “elect” earn that reward.

Like Hell, Heaven is not a concept held by all believers in god. However, it is universally held by the major Christian and Islamic traditions, which means that some two thirds of the world’s population is likely to believe in this concept. It is a more widely accepted belief, with many people who refuse to believe in Hell, happy to believe that there is a Heaven. For example, Seventh Day Adventists, don’t believe in Hell, believing instead in the annihilation of evil doers (although this does seem little better than murder), with the good earning a place in Heaven.



Intriguingly, like Hell, there appears to be very little actually written about heaven in the bible itself, beyond a vague description in the book of Revelation. Most of what people believe about heaven is therefore obtained from extra biblical sources. For the most part, these beliefs generally run along the lines of eternal, blissful enjoyment of life, spent in the company of god and with none of the problems and concerns of human existence. Heaven is a place where evil cannot exist and good reigns supreme. Everyone in heaven is their perfect self. There are no poor or destitute, no hunger, disease, or aging and no wars, torture, or abuse.

While this sounds all well and good and at first glance it seems like heaven would be the place that we would all aspire to ending up, there are quite a few problems with it, both as concept and as an ultimate destination for a sentient being.

Strangely, enough this conceptualisation of heaven as a place of ultimate, eternal perfection (UEP) is actually quite unbiblical. Firstly, Jesus makes it quite clear in Mark 13:31 that heaven is not for eternity, when he says “Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away”. Accordingly, we are left to ponder what happens after heaven, but Jesus chose not to enlighten us in this regard. Secondly, in the Book of Revelation, verse 12:7, John of the Apocalypse categorically states that “there was war in heaven”. However, as is normally the case with respect to contradictions between what people want to believe and what the Bible actually says, both these passages are routinely ignored by the faithful, who continue to believe in the fairyland version, rather than the one described in the Bible.

The first issue with heaven occurs with respect to the fact that it is a place in which there is no evil. While it may not seem like an obvious issue, it helps to consider some of the ways in which theologians explain what has become known as the “problem of evil”.


The problem of evil is that it simply shouldn’t exist and its existence seems to be incompatible with a number of God’s claimed attributes. Surely, if God is perfectly good, then he would seek to oppose evil and remove it. If he was omniscient, knowing everything that it is logically possible to know, then he would be able to unerringly detect it and if he was omnipotent, able to do anything he chose then he could effortlessly remove it. But there is evil and as a result, and this evil seems to refute the claim that there exists an all knowing, all powerful, infinitely good God running the show.

Responses to the problem of evil, come under the heading of “theodicy” and one of the most popular is to say that the presence of evil in our world is not due to the acts, or intent of God, but rather the fault of humans. This position holds that it is our exercise of free will that has bought evil into our world and which continues to keep it alive, even today. As a theory, it has Biblical backing in the story of the Garden of Eden and how Adam and Eve were thrown out after using their free will to sample of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.



The problem with this conceptualisation is that it effectively compounds the existence of free will with the existence of evil. One is the result of the other. If one accepts this logic, then one is forced to also accept that a place in which there is no evil, is also a place in which there is no free will. In other words, anyone lucky enough to get into heaven will immediately have their free will removed and from then on in be condemned to act in a totally deterministic manner. People in heaven might as well be highly functioning robots and personally, I would suggest that the removal of such a fundamental aspect of being human is hardly a worthy price to pay for an eternity of orgasms.

The second issue with the UEP (AKA fairyland) conceptualisation of heaven is that it seems a dangerously hedonistic and pointlessly shallow existence. There appears to be nothing more to the heavenly existence than pure bliss and pleasure. Indeed, if one were to consider what earthly experience might compare to being in heaven, the closest likely candidate seems to be heroin, which users describe as producing a sensation of blissful euphoria.

Given this comparison, it is worthwhile to engage briefly in a bit of hypothetical supposition. Let’s imagine that there was a drug that produced the same effects as heroin, but had none of the associated health dangers, or potential for addictiveness. In other words, lets imagine a world in which heroin was perfectly safe to use. In this situation, would we regard we would regard a life spent on heroin as being a worthy one? Would, or should we aspire to live on heroin, safely enjoying the euphoria and bliss that accompanies its use? I would suggest not, as I think would most people, not because the pursuit of pleasure is a bad thing (although many religious traditions would attest to this misanthropic idiocy), but because in pursuing hedonism we miss out on what makes us truly human and the things that make us truly alive.

As philosophers since the time of Socrates have pointed out, there is more to a good, worthwhile life than the pursuit of blissful euphoria. Indeed, its pursuit is regarded by most as being indicative of a poorly developed personality. The reality is that most of us need a whole range of other things in order to be happy. Friendships, helping others, the search for knowledge, risking one’s fate, and overcoming difficult challenges are what provides most of us with meaning. With the exception of friendships, it is hard to see how the UEP version of heaven is going to provide. How can we help others, when there will be nobody in need? How can we search for knowledge and the answers to the big questions of meaning and the nature of god, when these will be handed to us on a platter? More importantly, how can we strive to face the monumental challenges that the very presence of evil in our world creates for us, if there is no hardship, tragedy, or even the hint of evil.

The importance of these challenges to what it means to be human should not be under estimated. Have you ever noticed that nearly everyone, irrespective of their station in life, seems to be functioning at the edge of their capacity? People either push themselves, in order to expand the scope of their horizons, or they remain static, in which case their horizons and capacity to function inevitably shrink, as they slowly stagnate. Either way, our need for challenge, in order to feel truly alive asserts itself as we strive to make our way through our lives as functioning human beings.

With challenge comes the risk of failure and in some cases the risk of death. Indeed, for many people, our very mortality and capacity for injury is crucial to their pursuit of meaning and a satisfying life. If one couldn’t die, or get injured, where would be the fun in jumping a motorcycle over a row of double-decker busses? If everyone could do it, where would be the satisfaction of swimming across the English Channel?

And what of simple competition, where the success of one person ensures the failure of the others. For many athletes, the hard work and perseverance of training makes the victory all the sweeter, or the loss all the more heartbreaking. Who would bother to compete in the Olympics if nobody could lose?

And of course, the very existence of something like heartbreak is absent in heaven, as is every other negative human emotion. While it may not be fun at the time, many people regard the difficult parts of their lives as being the most rewarding; as the times in which they have grown as a person and developed in ways in which they would never have dreamed possible.

And what of courage, valour, determination, sacrifice, fearlessness and the many other positive emotions and virtues, which we value because they are a response to adversity and are demonstrations of a the depth of a person’s character? Without adversity, these like so much of the human experience is consigned to the dustbin.

But, by definition, these challenges are missing from the UEP heaven. Simply, there is nothing to aim for. Nothing to achieve and nothing to overcome. In reality, there is nothing to do, beyond imbibing the heroin, which is handed out freely at the door.


And of course, the very existence of something like heartbreak is absent in heaven, as is every other negative human emotion. While it may not be fun at the time, many people regard the difficult parts of their lives as being the most rewarding; as the times in which they have grown as a person and developed in ways in which they would never have dreamed possible.

And what of courage, valour, determination, sacrifice, fearlessness and the many other positive emotions and virtues, which we value because they are a response to adversity and are demonstrations of a the depth of a person’s character? Without adversity, these like so much of the human experience is consigned to the dustbin.

But, by definition, these challenges are missing from the UEP heaven. Simply, there is nothing to aim for, nothing to achieve and nothing to overcome. In reality, there is nothing to do, beyond imbibing the heroin, which is handed out freely at the door.

But if it is wasteful to spend our threescore and ten years on heroin, why is it that our major religious traditions are actively encouraging us to aspire to spending an eternity on the stuff? As Marx might have said, the answer seems to be that they are peddling opium for the masses. They offer a Faustian bargain for the unaware: Behave as we tell you. Follow our rules, laws and dictates. Believe our dogmas without question. Give us your money, so that we might grow fat on the toil of your backs. In exchange, we will guarantee that you’ll get to spend eternity on heroin.

But the currency for this exchange is high. Indeed, it is nothing short of a gutting of who you are and the removal of everything that you have fought so hard to achieve during your life. It is a mockery of the challenges that you have overcome and the very qualities that make you human. The only thing that you get to take into the next life is your personality; who you are is all you will ever be. But everything that you have worked so hard to achieve and all that is worthwhile in your spirit are irrelevant in heaven. The “you” that gets into heaven is little more than a vague sentience; a shadow lacking purpose, nobility and humanity. You will be stripped of anything more than a desire to endure blissful euphoria for eternity. You will cease to be you. You will cease to be human.

As can be seen, it is clear that the concept of heaven, as imagined by the vast majority of the religious and faithful of both the Christian and Islamic traditions is quite untenable, firstly because it inevitably strips us of our capacity for free will and secondly, because it must inevitably strip us of the very things that make us human.

So, what might heaven actually look like? Most obviously, it would need to be a place in which we had the capacity to exercise our free will. Secondly, it would need to be a place in which our very human need for challenge, purpose and meaning are met. We can surmise that heaven would need to contain opportunities for competition, victory and failure. It would be a place where we could explore the fullness of being human and strive to improve ourselves, make a difference and experience achievement. In other words, it would need to contain obstacles, tragedy and perhaps even evil.

If you want to know what heaven looks like, open your eyes: You are already there!

 

 
 
 
 


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