Designing the Afterlife

In his book The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis puts a challenge to those who condemn the doctrine of Hell as immoral: “What are you asking God to do?”

The apparent reasoning behind this question is that even those who think the idea of Hell is monstrous would be unable to come up with a superior afterlife scenario in which justice would be done. I am happy to take up this challenge. In this post, I will sketch an alternative scenario, one which I believe any reasonable person would agree is morally superior to Lewis’ conception of the afterlife. In so doing, I intend to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that Lewis’ conception of the afterlife is morally unacceptable, and that if there exists a benevolent deity, the afterlife cannot be as Lewis and Christians of like mind have historically pictured it.

For the purposes of this thought experiment, let us assume that the Earth is exactly as it is now (though I am not claiming I could not improve that as well, if given the chance), save for one difference. In this alternate world, each person possesses an immortal, conscious soul as theists have historically conceived of it. Upon the death of the body, this soul separates from it and travels to the afterlife, where the scenario I imagine begins.

In my afterlife, there wouldn’t be a Hell, but there would be a Purgatory. Every person, upon their arrival, would undergo a review of their life. They would be shown both the best and the worst things they ever did, and would have explained to them, in a way that was impossible to deny or misunderstand, both the good and the evil that they caused by their actions. It will be explained to them precisely why their evil actions were wrong, and what they should have done instead.

After this would come the purgatory, less a place than a state of being. Each person would have to relive snippets of their life, not from their own perspective but from the perspectives of others whom their actions affected. All the happiness they caused in others, they would feel it as if it were their own, and likewise all the anger, sadness, pain and fear they caused. Each person would feel happiness equal to all the happiness they created during their life, and would suffer an amount equal to all the suffering they created during their life. (Naturally, for people such as Adolf Hitler, this process would take a very long time.)

Upon completion of this process, the person would be given a chance to express their sincere apology for the suffering they caused. If they refused (although I can’t foresee that ever happening), they would be sent back to repeat the process as many times as it takes. Since it is possible that the person will repent at the end of each cycle, and since all things that are possible will happen eventually given an unlimited amount of time, no one will be condemned to suffer forever.

The people who complete purgatory and sincerely repent their misdeeds would be allowed into what we can call Heaven. The physical appearance and characteristics of this place are not especially important; what is important is that it would be a meeting place, where the souls in residence can freely mingle, interact and enjoy each other’s company. Even aside from the enormous potential in a meeting of history’s great minds, I envision this as a place of good company and fellowship. The purgatory process would not erase the differences that make people unique, but it would ensure that they would treat each other with the respect and kindness that only come from gaining the most profound perspective possible on one’s own actions.

There is one potential problem with this scenario that needs to be addressed straight away. One of the major benefits of Heaven in every religious tradition is the hope of being reunited with departed loved ones, but Heaven would be a very lonely and distinctly unheavenly kind of place if one had to wait hundreds of years for friends and loved ones to complete the entrance process. To fix that, upon completing the process of purgatory, regardless of how long it took, every person would be moved to the same time, the “entrance time” of Heaven. Thus, no one would have to wait for anyone else to arrive in Heaven, and no one would be the first or last to arrive; everyone would appear there at the same time.

There would be another, major aspect of this heavenly realm. Each person knows better than anyone else what they themselves would consider paradise, so why not let them create it for themselves? Each person in Heaven would be granted a private reality that was completely under their control, within which they would be omnipotent, able to alter the laws of physics and create or alter worlds by will alone, limited only by what is possible to imagine. The heavenly residents could create private paradises inhabited only by themselves, or shape whole new planets inhabited by people of their own. They could reign over their worlds as gods and direct their unfolding from above, or enter them as one more mortal resident. They could even shape a storyline and suppress some of their own memories to better fit in, if they wanted. (Imagine being a character in a story you created yourself!) The saved would also be able to freely visit each others’ home realities, though they would not be able to affect anything there without the owner’s consent.

The possibility of creating a world with its own living inhabitants poses some special difficulties. I do not expect any of the people inhabiting Heaven to want to create a world where others would suffer, but I can recognize that an interesting world might involve conflict. To solve this problem, I propose that two options be open to world-creators: create either “zombies” that would behave as the creator desired and that would be practically indistinguishable from ordinary people under most circumstances, but that would lack any true subjective experiences and hence could not suffer, or create true, conscious free-willed beings that could learn and grow and would not be fully predictable. (And yes, the created free-willed inhabitants of these worlds could, in the fullness of time, gain admittance to Heaven on equal status with any other resident and become creators of their own worlds in turn. Why not?)

Finally, if anyone grew tired with even this degree of variety, residents of Heaven would also be able to reincarnate themselves and live another human life on Earth. People who had been through at least one life already would be able to control, to an extent, the location and circumstances of their next birth.

The only problem I can see with this scenario that I have not yet worked out is the problem of boredom. Given infinite time, even the limitless diversity possible within this conception of the afterlife could grow monotonous, and Heaven would not be Heaven in that case. It could be possible to allow the souls in residence to annihilate themselves, but that would raise problems of loneliness and grief among those who remain, two emotions that would seem inappropriate for Heaven. I do not know how to solve this (although, I should note, I do not think the traditional conception of Heaven avoids this problem or offers a superior answer to it). If anyone has an idea that respects the freedom of all involved and does not threaten eternal monotony, feel free to suggest it.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.