No Heavens

Since time immemorial, believers in a loving and just god have looked around at the world we live in, filled with toil, strife and suffering, and have pondered how to reconcile their belief with the facts at hand. The solution which most religions have adopted is to assert the existence of another world, beyond this one, to which the souls of the good will fly in order to receive their due reward.

Poets and dreamers throughout history have filled their scriptures with rapturous visions of this distant promised land. The Hebrew Bible’s imagery of a land flowing with milk and honey and of wolves and lambs lying down together in peace has been interpreted by believers to refer to the world to come. In the New Testament, the apocalyptic Book of Revelation pictures a vast cube-shaped city of gold and precious stones, while the Qur’an promises faithful believers a garden flowing with rivers of wine and a harem of perpetually virginal beauties. Most other religions of the world have heavens of their own as well. In recent years, these escapist desires have been taken to an extreme by Christian believers in the Rapture, who expect to literally be sucked out of the world and into heaven in the twinkling of an eye.

What all these heavens have in common, though, is that they are far off, hidden from our sight. Preachers and scriptures tell us that this life is a vale of tears and none can change that, but if we bear suffering with good cheer and humbly obey the religious authorities, we will receive pie in the sky by and by. Although most religions have edicts commanding their followers to aid the poor, none have any expectation that their followers will succeed at alleviating want, or even that such success is even possible. Jesus, for example, is reported as saying that the poor will be with us always (Matthew 26:11). Instead, most religions teach that misery and suffering will persist until God returns to establish his kingdom on Earth, and of course they all teach that converting the poor is a higher priority than supplying material needs. (“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”)

At first glance, it may be hard for religious people to see how belief in heaven could possibly do any harm, but the fact of the matter is that it can and it does. The most obvious example is that of fanatics who are willing to throw their lives away in suicidal acts of terrorism, but this is just the most dramatic symptom of a more subtle and insidious trend: when one believes in heaven, one inevitably begins to view this life as poorer by comparison.

For this reason, while belief in heaven is surely comforting to those who are suffering with no relief in sight, it also has – and cannot help but have – the deleterious effect of discouraging others who have the power to help from doing so. It may even cause the sufferers themselves to passively accept misery as their lot in life, rather than demanding reform and justice. As Ed Weathers wrote in his masterful editorial “The Empty Box“, “If you would have your slaves remain docile, teach them hymns.” There is more than a little truth to this maxim, if one looks to history to see how religion has historically been taught to the oppressed.

There are more recent examples as well, such as the world-renowned Mother Teresa. Famed for supposedly dedicating her life to alleviating poverty and suffering among the poorest of the poor in India, in actuality she did almost nothing whatsoever to ease their pain. In fact, she wanted the downtrodden to suffer, out of the belief that they would be “perfected” for the next life by it. On one occasion, she said, “I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.”

Mother Teresa is thoroughly saturated with a primitive fundamentalist religious worldview that sees pain, hardship, and suffering as ennobling experiences and a beautiful expression of affiliation with Jesus Christ and his ordeal on the cross. Hitchens reports that in a filmed interview Mother Teresa herself tells of a patient suffering unbearable pain from terminal cancer: “With a smile, Mother Teresa told the camera what she told the patient: ‘You are suffering like Christ on the cross. So Jesus must be kissing you.’” Apparently unaware that the response of the sufferer was a put-down, she freely related it: “Then please tell him to stop kissing me.”

—”The Illusory Vs. The Real Mother Teresa“, Freethought Today, August 1996

Mother Teresa’s exaltation of suffering is perhaps the most dramatic example of how belief in heaven tends inevitably to degrade and devalue this life, but it is not the only one. Throughout human history, theists who believe in an otherworldly paradise have been willing to throw their own life away in pursuit of it, chasing the ever-receding mirage of salvation and neglecting the good they could have been doing for themselves and for others as a result.

It is time to set aside these fantasies, comforting though they may be; it is time to recognize that they were never anything more than the hopeful dreams of men. Though they may give hope and meaning to some, if we fixate on a fantasy we miss out on the very real opportunities for happiness in this life, the only one we know for sure that we have. In truth, there is a better way, another target at which to gaze. The truth is that heaven does not exist yet, but it may someday. It is not a world existing in parallel with our own, but a potential future state of our own world; not a place, but a goal.

However, this heaven will not be brought into existence in a flash of divine power. It must be, and it will be, built up brick by brick by our hands, our labor, our effort. We must work to ensure justice, to end poverty and suffering, and to establish a community that fills all its citizens’ lives with contentment and joy. If we want to live in heaven, then it falls to us to bring it into existence.

This is not the religious heaven where “every tear will be wiped away”. There will doubtless always be sadness in even the most perfect humanly attainable utopia, for the suffering of the past if for no other reason. But this just means we should be realistic; that we should have the wisdom and maturity to set aside unattainable fantasies and aim at the best that is within our power.

Other posts in this series:

Atlas Shrugged: The Rapture of the Capitalists
New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God’s Existence
The FLDS Cult Is Unraveling
A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 11
About Adam Lee

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

  • The Ridger

    There’ll be pie in the sky by and by when I die and it’ll be alright it’ll be alright

  • Archi Medez

    In a recent article, Amil Imani, a critic of the Iranian regime, wrote:

    “Khomeini, the founder of the Iranian Islamic state, made extensive use of the fatwa. Widely-known in the West is Khomeini’s fatwa condemning Salman Rushdie to death for his book. A lesser known fatwa of Khomeini during the last Iran-Iraq war led to the slaughter of thousands of Iranian children. Children, nearly all under 15 years of age, were given plastic keys to paradise as they were commanded by the fatwa of the imam to rush forward to clear minefields for the tanks to follow. In obedience to a fatwa issued to help achieve a goal, willing Iranians had no problem deceiving innocent children with plastic keys to paradise to make the Iranian army’s path a bit easier.
    [Emphasis added]

    From another source, some additional comments on the same events:
    (1985) The Iran-Iraq War: Strategy of Stalemate
    Major Robert E. Sonnenberg, USMC

    “The third major assault occurred on July 28th. The attack
    gained nothing. The lives of large numbers of teenagers, who had
    filled the ranks of infantry, were expended. Plastic keys to
    were found clutched in cold hands and bodies cloaked in
    battle jackets bore stenciled signs that proclaimed that the
    wearer had the Imam Khomeini’s permission to enter heaven.23
    These offensives raised the human cost of the war to at least
    80,000 killed, 200,000 wounded, and 45,000 captured.24″

  • Ebonmuse

    Interestingly enough, the phrase “pie in the sky” was originally written for the exact purpose for which I use it in this essay and Ridger quotes it: as a way of pouring scorn on religious proselytizers who asserted that people would enjoy pleasure in the afterlife if only they were properly meek and compliant in this one. It was part of a protest song, “The Preacher and the Slave”, written by the labor organizer Joe Hill in 1911. Here’s a link for those who are interested:

  • Infophile

    Very good post overall. There is one point I might contest however: why it is that people believe in heaven. Now, of course this can’t be proven either way, but I have another theory.

    I think it’s more that the human mind is incapable of comprehending its own nonexistence. Even us atheists acknowledge that we will someday not exist, but our minds can’t quite grasp what it will be like to die (of course, it won’t be like anything, and our minds have no way or reason to comprehend what they aren’t there for). To people of yore, the human mind seemed like an unstoppable force, and when it struck the immovable object of death, a hypothesized afterlife for the mind was the result.

  • Alex Weaver


    I think that’s why they believe in an afterlife. I think they believe in HEAVEN, specifically, for the reasons Adam suggested.

  • Philip Thomas

    Interesting. Of course there was at least one ancient people that didn’t believe in an afterlife: the Jews. By the first century some groups were challenging that perception, but even the Pharisees were not taking about one’s immortal soul being whisked off to Heaven- they beleived in the resurrection of the body, that God’s people would rise from the dead on the day of judgement (non-Israelites don’t seem to have got a look in). Some Early Christian emphasis was also on the resurrection of the body, at the parousia, which was seen as immininent. The Platonic notion of the seperate and immortal soul was incoporated rather later. And the Nicene Creed, still recited at many Christian services still speaks of “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting”…

    Of course, most of the objections to heaven apply to resurrection as well, but at least we can ignore the problems raised by the non-existence of the soul as traditionally conceived (see Ebon Musings, “The Ghost in the Machine”).

  • toomanytribbles

    but our minds can’t quite grasp what it will be like to die

    i suppose i will feel like i did before i was born. who can honestly say that non-existence is not the most terrifying things to deal with?

  • Philip Thomas

    I can. Eternal torment seems much much worse. But that is merely a personal opinion.

  • Prof. V.N.K.Kumar ( India )

    The author, Adams, writes so beautifully that it is difficult, if not imposible to add anything to it ! For the new crop of readers, who are not familiar with his earlier posts, I would strongly recommend the following essay : ” Those old Pearly Gates : The doctrine of Heaven ” at

  • Philip Thomas

    Yeah, I have read it. And as I pointed out to him some time ago, I believe there is free will and sin in Heaven, so I’m not sure why he still maintains that no one does.

  • Infophile

    I can. Eternal torment seems much much worse. But that is merely a personal opinion.

    Same here; I’d choose death over life in prison in a heartbeat. I’m in the minority, though, oddly enough. Even among Christians who think they’d immediately get to heaven, they seem to prefer life imprisonment. Maybe their faith in heaven isn’t as strong as they claim? (Or more likely, they overvalue quantity of life while undervaluing quality of life.)

  • Infophile

    Hmm, html coding wasn’t working correctly in that last comment. The first line was supposed to be a blockquote.

  • Ebonmuse

    And as I pointed out to him some time ago, I believe there is free will and sin in Heaven, so I’m not sure why he still maintains that no one does.

    To put it politely, Philip, your views on the topic are highly unconventional – as I’m sure you’re aware.

  • Philip Thomas

    So they are, although as they reflect the story of Lucifer’s fall, they could easily be arrived at by very many people if they bothered to consider the matter.

    Anyway, your essay claims that no one holds my views. If you said that almost no one holds them, it would be more factually accurate.

  • toomanytribbles

    i don’t believe in eternal torment, and also can’t imagine it.

  • lpetrich

    Another thing about Heaven: if belief in Heaven is supposed to be such a consolation, why don’t people turn funerals into celebrations of the dear departed’s arrival in Heaven?

    And why don’t people try to join their dear departed by committing suicide?

    That might be why suicide has often been decreed to be Pearly-Gate crashing; it would deprive the clergy of their followers. Heaven’s Gate is no more, because all its members had decided to hitch a ride on a comet by their committing suicide.

    Furthermore, if there is a Hell, then the dear departed could have been sent there instead of to Heaven, meaning that belief in an afterlife becomes a poor consolation in such a case.

    In fact, when a relative of mine, “Rufus”, died, another relative, “Gaby”, showed up at Rufus’s funeral and declared that Rufus would be going to Hell because he had not been a member of Gaby’s church.

  • Philip Thomas

    Well, that is the purpose of the wake.

    Suicide is a one-way ticket to hell, in most religous accounts.

    Yes, well one shouldn’t beleive in things just because they make you feel good. One should beleive in them because they are true.

  • lpetrich

    Then someone who leads a funeral service for someone who committed suicide ought to claim that that person has been sent to Hell? Otherwise they’d be lying, and lying, as we all know, is a sin, right?

    Complete with horrible tortures described in gory detail. And the “consolation” that one of the joys of Heaven will be getting to watch the torments of those sent to Hell.

  • Philip Thomas

    No human can know that another human soul is in Hell. It may be that at the moment of death, to late to save himself in this life, the suicide threw himself on God’s mercy and was saved for the next. It may be that he repented in the afterlife when confronted with his deed.

    Lying is normally a sin, but there are circumstances in which it is not.

    I do not believe that the torments of Hell are one of the joys of heaven.

  • lpetrich

    So you can commit whatever sins you want as long ao you repent in time?

    And if one cannot really know if anyone has been sent to Hell or not, then one cannot know what one has to do in order to avoid being sent there.

  • Philip Thomas

    The doctrine of Purgatory is important here: the repentant sinner still suffers (indeed, he has to suffer, for without purification he could not attain heaven). And the more evil that one does, the more evil one becomes and the harder it is to repent (true repentance being necessary, of course).

    As for knowing what one must do, I suppose you are right: the mercy of God is inscurtable. Fortunately, following the Universal Moral Code is what one ought to do anyway, regardless of its effect on the afterlife.

  • John

    Wow! I am completely speechless! It’s thoughts like these that make me wonder if any other website can add anything more to Atheism. You consistently state your thoughts with elegance and cohesiveness. Of all the pages I have been to regarding Atheism, this one is the best by far. You keep saying all the things that I have always wanted to say. Stop beating me to the punch, man! Ha ha ha! Keep up the goood work!

  • Alex Weaver

    Derivative though it is, I can’t believe I just thought of this:

    What is the afterlife? Control. The afterlife is a human-generated pipe-dream-world invented to keep us under control, in order to turn a human being into this.

    Apologies. Couldn’t resist :D

  • Ebonmuse

    That made me laugh. :)

  • charles