Bright Machines

One of the more important consequences of our society’s biblical illiteracy is that many people continue to believe in the Bible only because they think it is a far better book than it actually is. For example, consider this comment from Greta Christina’s Blog, in which an offended Christian denies that the New Testament says anything about Hell.

In truth, the Bible has a great deal to say about the horrors and torments of Hell. In the gospels, Jesus repeatedly speaks of eternal punishment, outer darkness, everlasting fire, undying worms, wailing and gnashing of teeth, people being tormented in the flame, and so on. Not to be outdone, the epistles add verses about how Jesus will “in flaming fire tak[e] vengeance on them that know not God” (2 Thessalonians 1:8) and speak of “the vengeance of eternal fire” (Jude 1:7).

But one thing I’ve always noticed is that, despite its lurid depictions of the underworld, the Bible has very little to say about what Heaven is like. There is a rich vein of ore to be mined here regarding why Christianity seems to consider the tortures of Hell a more potent inducement than the pleasures of Heaven. But there is another reason, I think, one which the biblical authors probably knew: damnation can be described, but salvation cannot. It is all too easy to conjure up nightmarish visions of endless agony and despair, but any attempt to describe something as ineffable and personal as eternal bliss is bound to come out sounding flat, washed-out and colorless.

Through the ages, many Christian authors have tried to describe Heaven, and the fruits of their effort prove my point. The residents of Paradise as portrayed in fiction invariably seem depersonalized, stripped of their individuality and humanity in a disturbing, Kafkaesque way – more like bright machines than like the fully realized, truly fulfilled human beings we are always told by theists that the saved will become.

Take Dante’s Divine Comedy, which supposes Heaven to be divided into spheres based on the planets, its residents ranked according to their chief virtue. Dante tells us that the lowest sphere of Paradise is reserved for nuns who took vows of chastity which they were forced to break by being raped. As a result of their defilement, they can never enter the higher spheres. With his heavenly guide Beatrice, Dante asks one of the spirits there if she is not unhappy over being denied deeper bliss over something that was not her fault:

“Yet inform me, ye, who here
Are happy; long ye for a higher place,
More to behold, and more in love to dwell?”

She with those other spirits gently smiled;
Then answer’d with such gladness, that she seem’d
With love’s first flame to glow: “Brother! our will
Is, in composure, settled by the power
Of charity, who makes us will alone
What we possess, and naught beyond desire:
If we should wish to be exalted more,
Then must our wishes jar with the high will
Of Him, who sets us here; which in these orbs
Thou wilt confess not possible, if here
To be in charity must needs befall,
And if her nature well thou contemplate.
Rather it is inherent in this state
Of blessedness, to keep ourselves within
The Divine Will, by which our wills with His
Are one. So that as we, from step to step,
Are placed throughout this kingdom, pleases all,
Even as our King, who in us plants His will;
And in His will is our tranquillity:
It is the mighty ocean, whither tends
Whatever it creates and Nature makes.”

In short, God “plants his will” within these women to make them content with their lot, and takes away their ability to wish it were otherwise. Is this really an appealing vision of the afterlife – to be transformed into a smiling automaton, one’s own desires and freedom to choose taken away?

For a more recent example, take the Spirits in C.S. Lewis’ novel The Great Divorce, about which I have written at length. In other books, Lewis writes that “merely to over-ride a human will… would be for [God] useless”. Yet that is exactly what passages like the above depict him as doing, and that is how this book depicts him as well.

In my review of The Great Divorce, I focused on a particularly disturbing scene where a saved woman tries to reach out to her damned husband, and then rejects him without a second thought when he will not go along with her:

“Where is Frank?” she said. “And who are you, Sir? I never knew you. Perhaps you had better leave me. Or stay, if you prefer. If it would help you and if it were possible I would go down with you into Hell: but you cannot bring Hell into me.”
“You do not love me,” said the Tragedian in a thin bat-like voice: and he was now very difficult to see.
“I cannot love a lie,” said the Lady. “I cannot love the thing which is not. I am in Love, and out of it I will not go.”
There was no answer. The Tragedian had vanished. The Lady was alone in that woodland place…

And then, having just accepted that her husband will spend an eternity in Hell and she will never see him again, she walks away, accompanied by an angelic choir singing joyously of her victory. According to Lewis, this is the best outcome we can possibly hope for, and we should not be troubled by it. On the contrary, he argues, the fact that the saved souls do not care about or miss the people in Hell is the only way to make Heaven an enjoyable and desirable place.

Finally, there are Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, authors of the legendarily badly written Left Behind series of Christian fundamentalist fiction. The sequel to the Left Behind books, Kingdom Come, is set in a literal heavenly kingdom on Earth personally ruled over by Jesus. Yet the characters seem, if anything, even more bland and interchangeable than in the previous books. To judge by the excerpt posted online, the most important aspect of Christ’s return is how he’s gotten rid of all that icky sex stuff:

And strange about Cameron and Chloe’s relationship was that they still loved each other, but not romantically. Their entire hearts’ desires were on the person of Jesus and worshiping Him for eternity. In the Millennium, they would live and labor together with Kenny and raise him, but as there would be no marrying or giving in marriage, their relationship would be wholly platonic.

“It’s bizarre,” Chloe told Cameron. “I still love and admire and respect you and want to be near you, but it’s as if I’ve been prescribed some medicine that has cured me of any other distracting feelings.”

The choice of words here is quite revealing – LaHaye and Jenkins apparently consider romantic and sexual attraction to be “distracting” feelings, things that lead away from God and should be suppressed. Instead, members of the heavenly kingdom can look forward to a glorious, non-sexual eternity of “praising Jesus with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” and eating “steaming piles of fresh produce, drenched in butter” (yes, that is their actual description of the garden of delights now to be found on a rejuvenated Earth, in its entirety). Of all the Christian descriptions of the afterlife, this one must surely be the most stultifyingly bland and conformist ever committed to paper. The idea of living forever in LaHaye and Jenkins’ conception of Heaven strikes me as an existence with the same freedom and opportunity for personal growth as the clockwork people that shuffle out of antique timepieces every hour, ring a bell with their tiny hammers, then turn and plod back inside.

This parade of sterile, Kafkaesque heavens populated by emotionless bright machines may indicate something about the plausibility of an actual such place. Beyond the endless cliches and the vaguest wish-fulfillment fantasies, it seems, human beings are not actually able to imagine a changeless eternity, not without it rapidly becoming a torture of monotony and tedium. For all that religious apologists accuse atheists of promoting a cold and mechanical view of the world, their alternative, as described by their own hand, seems even worse. However, I think there is another reason why all these heavens are so unfulfilling.

Recall again C.S. Lewis’ Spirits spurning the suffering of the damned, or Dante’s extensive trip through the Inferno before his ascent to Paradise. Witness, too, this scene from the last of the Left Behind books, in which the main characters watch Jesus condemn a majority of humanity to the lake of fire despite their having realized – just one moment too late – his omnipotence:

“Jesus is Lord!” the condemned shouted. “Jesus is Lord!”
Gabriel stepped forward as Jesus returned to the throne. “Silence!” Gabriel commanded. “Your time has come!”
Rayford watched, horrified despite knowing this was coming, as the “goats” to Jesus’ left beat their breasts and fell wailing to the desert floor, gnashing their teeth and pulling their hair. Jesus merely raised one hand a few inches and a yawning chasm opened in the earth, stretching far and wide enough to swallow all of them. They tumbled in, howling and screeching, but their wailing was soon quashed and all was silent when the earth closed itself again.

It is this basic moral disconnect that makes these heavens so unsatisfactory. Christian writers want to have it both ways: they want to depict the saved as happy, loving and compassionate, but they also want them to be unperturbed and untroubled by the miseries of those lost and suffering in Hell. The only way to achieve these two contradictory goals is to craft residents of Heaven as we have seen – eerily passive, deprived of their own will and desires, and lacking any concern for the majority of humanity inevitably depicted in these fantasies as eternally lost.

About Adam Lee

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

  • jpok

    I have nothing to add to this very incisive post, except that “Bright Machines” would be a cool name for a band.

  • jpok

    I have nothing to add to this very incisive post, except that “Bright Machines” would be a cool name for a band.

  • Jeff T.

    When I was an evangelical christian in my early teenage years, I would often contemplate hell, eternity, and the fate of those who had chosen the ‘easy and broad path’ to eternal damnation. It was so very hard for me to accept this theology. I mean, I would think about the endless eons with no water and fire—and I was just a kid who should have never been subjected to such horrorific teachings. I think this was a major factor in my rejecting religion.

    Unlike some ideas that I have heard from some which state that since life is short, we must live hard and fast; I find that for me—heaven is enjoying this life right here and now, with those that I love. In fact, this Earth could be heaven, if we as a society so chose to make it so. The earth is such a beautiful physical place. If I ever secretly wish that there was a god, it would be Gaia.

  • Jeff T.

    When I was an evangelical christian in my early teenage years, I would often contemplate hell, eternity, and the fate of those who had chosen the ‘easy and broad path’ to eternal damnation. It was so very hard for me to accept this theology. I mean, I would think about the endless eons with no water and fire—and I was just a kid who should have never been subjected to such horrorific teachings. I think this was a major factor in my rejecting religion.

    Unlike some ideas that I have heard from some which state that since life is short, we must live hard and fast; I find that for me—heaven is enjoying this life right here and now, with those that I love. In fact, this Earth could be heaven, if we as a society so chose to make it so. The earth is such a beautiful physical place. If I ever secretly wish that there was a god, it would be Gaia.

  • G

    “steaming piles of fresh produce, drenched in butter” Sounds kind of gross to be honest

  • G

    “steaming piles of fresh produce, drenched in butter” Sounds kind of gross to be honest

  • Polly

    Maybe I missed it, but where did the title for this post come from?

    As for the blessed neutering in Left Behind, I think that is what’s icky.

    I sometimes try to vividly imagine the world populated only by pacifist, cooperative, harmonious vegans and I’ve got to say that though the idea looks good on paper (and is ethically and morally optimal IMO) it really is a less human world.

    The same traits that make us grumpy, irritable, belligerent, greedy, devious, and ambitious also make us explorers, activists, champions, creative artists, and innovators. There’s no distilling humanity. Take us or leave us. To reduce any part of what we are through a spiritual lobotomy or neutering us, converts us into something different and I would say, lesser.
    Naturally, we should strive to apply those traits to the second list rather than the first.
    Just try it. Pick one human trait: anger, selfishness, whatever, and imagine a world absolutely devoid of it. Not just the positive results, but what day to day life would be like for you and what it would feel like to live with the people in such a world. Kind of reminds me of the Eloi.
    Believers would say that the reason we can’t imagine such a perfect existence is that what we know in part now we will know fully then. But, I think that kind of existence can only be a diminishing of humanness, not an enlightenment. Just as I think being stoic, that is, internally unmoved, in the face of tragedy is not superior but rather inferior to hurting deeply.

  • Alex Weaver

    I wonder if the choice of the phrase “steaming piles” was a bit of dischism, with regard to the quality of the writing?

  • Alex Weaver

    I wonder if the choice of the phrase “steaming piles” was a bit of dischism, with regard to the quality of the writing?

  • terrence

    The same traits that make us grumpy, irritable, belligerent, greedy, devious, and ambitious also make us explorers, activists, champions, creative artists, and innovators

    Polly, that is SOOOOO right! Or as Tina Sinatra said in her memoir, in so many words, “If my father hadn’t been such an (a-h), he would have been Perry Como.”

    But apropos of the post, in the immortal words of my beloved savior, Dr. Samuel Langhorne Clemens: “Heaven for the climate, hell for the company.”

  • terrence

    The same traits that make us grumpy, irritable, belligerent, greedy, devious, and ambitious also make us explorers, activists, champions, creative artists, and innovators

    Polly, that is SOOOOO right! Or as Tina Sinatra said in her memoir, in so many words, “If my father hadn’t been such an (a-h), he would have been Perry Como.”

    But apropos of the post, in the immortal words of my beloved savior, Dr. Samuel Langhorne Clemens: “Heaven for the climate, hell for the company.”

  • Andrew

    I just wanted give you a sincere thank you for what you have written here and in the past. Your blog has really helped me clear up my thinking on religion and god. I was raised raised catholic and had christianity shoved down my throat from elementary school to the end of high school. I am an agnostic atheist (meaning I think that that there probably isn’t a god but admit no one can know for sure). I have come to that realize that striving for the truth and being honest are extremely important. Thanks again and keep it up because you really have made a difference for me.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Maybe I missed it, but where did the title for this post come from?

    Ultimately, it comes from my review of The Great Divorce, where I was struck by the eerie, automaton-like qualities of the saved souls whose state we’re presumably supposed to envy.

    And for Andrew: Glad to hear it! I’m humbled to hear that my writing has made a difference to you. Congratulations on your deconversion – the decision to break away requires rare courage and strength of character, and you deserve to be applauded for making it. Well done!

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Maybe I missed it, but where did the title for this post come from?

    Ultimately, it comes from my review of The Great Divorce, where I was struck by the eerie, automaton-like qualities of the saved souls whose state we’re presumably supposed to envy.

    And for Andrew: Glad to hear it! I’m humbled to hear that my writing has made a difference to you. Congratulations on your deconversion – the decision to break away requires rare courage and strength of character, and you deserve to be applauded for making it. Well done!

  • anti-nonsense

    I would agree that every depiction of Heaven and saved souls appears to be dull at best, downright disturbing at worst. I can’t imagine a world of perfect happiness being anything BUT dull frankly. Overcoming hardship is a major part of what makes life meaningful. It’s not meaningful if you get everything you could ever want handed to you on a silver platter. The struggling to attain happiness is half the reward.

  • anti-nonsense

    I would agree that every depiction of Heaven and saved souls appears to be dull at best, downright disturbing at worst. I can’t imagine a world of perfect happiness being anything BUT dull frankly. Overcoming hardship is a major part of what makes life meaningful. It’s not meaningful if you get everything you could ever want handed to you on a silver platter. The struggling to attain happiness is half the reward.

  • http://atheistblogs.co.uk Joe

    There’s another reason that residents of heaven must be machines, and that is the problem of evil.

    The free will defence to the problem of evil claims that evil is a necessary price to be paid for free will. If heaven had free will and no evil, that would wreck the free will defence.

  • http://atheistblogs.co.uk Joe

    There’s another reason that residents of heaven must be machines, and that is the problem of evil.

    The free will defence to the problem of evil claims that evil is a necessary price to be paid for free will. If heaven had free will and no evil, that would wreck the free will defence.

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    I’m reminded of the plot of “Serenity”, where the Alliance tries neutering a planet’s population – removing their flaws – and ends up with people who just lie down and die. As Mal says when asked if he knows what his sin is, “I’m a fan of all seven”, and later “they’ll swing back around to believing they can make people better, and I do not hold to that.” It wasn’t so much that sin is good as that a complete lack of aggression and desire leads to oblivion. When the Operative sees “a world without sin” it breaks his faith.

  • malkie

    What about the Mormons’ idea of sex and heaven, then? A man who reaches the highest level of the Mormon celestial kingdom will have many wives, and will spend eternity populating his own worlds/universes with the spirit offspring of his “unions” with his wives. (The Mormon doctrine doesn’t say, though, if the quality of the sex will be any good – just implies that the quantity will be great.)

  • JonnyFive

    As much as it galled me to read the full excerpt from Left Behind, this was hilarious:

    “I cannot imagine the havoc unbelievers could wreak in this new world. I hope God grants us the strength to do with them what He wants.”

    What? How the hell can there be unbelievers in a world ruled by God and Jesus?! Do these books make any sense to anyone?

  • Polly

    @JonnyFive: It’s not the books’ fault. Revelations really is that ambiguous.

    Rev 22:14–”Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. (15)Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.

    But, “the nations” are mentioned in a few places in the last couple of chapters. So, the/a whole world still exists and isn’t just limited to the big golden cube city – Rev 21:16. So, where does that leave those “outside”? Among the rest of the world’s inhabitants, that’s where.
    Sounds like “Land of the Dead” (a travesty to the genre, btw)

  • LBBP

    Not to mention the endless list of flops in science fiction books and movies that carried a God theme to it’s logical conclusion. Many start out as good concepts, the Rama series by Arthur C. Clark starts out well for example, but eventually they all fail miserably as they face the inevitable disappointment associated with the revelation of God and or the universe. The only alternative plot device that ever seems to work is to leave it to the audiences imagination.

    I just now noticed that there was yet another Rama book written titled “Bright Messengers” by Gentry Lee. Which appears to be a long winded soap opera (or is that space opera) about a nun that gives it up to an agnostic (God forbid it be an outright atheist) while continuing the pointless delving into a sci-fi spin on angels or aliens (“Bright Messengers”). What a waste.

  • Shawn Smith

    This post reminds me of an original Twilight Zone episode where a small-time thief is killed and his soul gets sent to a room where all of his wishes are met. He gets to have all the good food, pretty girls, and material goods that he wants. It’s ok for a while, but then he starts getting antsy for some excitement, and when he tries to get his assistant to set up a bank so that he can rob it, he gets frustrated when the assistant makes is very clear to him that there will be no danger in that activity, and that he will, of course, succeed. It ends with him wondering aloud to his assistant, why, if this isn’t the “other place” he can’t simply follow his orders and not have everything completely planned out for him. At which point the assistant responds, “this is the other place.”

    @malkie,

    Quantity can have a quality all its own. Not necessarily in that case, of course.

  • lpetrich

    I remember that Twilight Zone episode — “A Nice Place to Visit”.

    And here’s a bit of “Left Behind: Kingdom Come”, complete with Cameron “Buck” Williams marveling that he no longer has a sex drive.

    I was wondering what LaHaye’s and Jenkins’s take on Gog and Magog, but I haven’t seen anything on that yet. And for whatever curious reason, they never mention the Whore of Babylon.

    It must be said that other religions have much more carnal paradises.

    Consider Islam. Those 72 virgins may be the best-known part of the Islamic Paradise, but there’s a lot more.
    Never too hot and never too cold.
    Water.
    Gardens.
    Milk that does not spoil.
    Honey that does not crystallize.
    Wine that does not intoxicate.
    Luscious fruits and tasty bird meats.
    Precious metals and stones.
    Jewelry.
    Lots of cute servant boys.
    And those houris, those Stepford Wives with their continually-renewing virginity.

    The Koran does not say how many houris each good Muslim man will get; it’s some of the Hadiths that say 72. And in those Hadiths, you find other goodies, like how your body will at most be 30 years old, how you will have super sexual potency, and how you will excrete, by making a musky smell that is pleasing to Allah, etc.

  • http://inthenuts.blogspot.com King Aardvark

    Heh, that does sound pretty good. The weather in southern Ontario is either too hot or too cold, and I hate it when my milk goes bad. But I wouldn’t exactly say that good weather and fresh milk is exactly paradise.

    I mean, where’s the stripper factory and the beer volcano?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    What? How the hell can there be unbelievers in a world ruled by God and Jesus?! Do these books make any sense to anyone?

    Yes, it’s true, believe it or not. The plot of Kingdom Come is that despite Jesus winning the literal battle of Armageddon, casting Satan into the pit for a thousand years and ruling in the flesh over a miraculously rejuvenated Earth, there are still unbelievers on the planet. (The book says that all these people die at the age of 100, whereas believers live throughout the full millennium.)

    I say “unbelievers”, but that’s probably inaccurate. The bad guys in the book are the most cartoonish stereotype of non-Christians in all the Left Behind books – they know God is real, they just hate him. Naturally, there has to be one more big battle at the end of the book, which is over in about two sentences. In fact, the last nine hundred years of the millennium take place in the epilogue.

  • SM

    Heinlein had a rather amusing take on this theme in his novel Job: A Comedy of Justice (mixed in with that theme of infinite universes he kept playing with in his old age).

  • lpetrich

    Now to some more paradises.

    Consider the Norse Valhalla. During the day, you engage in mock combat with your friends, slicing each other up and then getting restored. Something like paintball or player-vs-player computer gaming. And each evening, you get to eat roast boar and drink mead (fermented honey). They get the meat from boar Saehrimnir, who grows back, and the mead from milking the she-goat Heidrum.

    And the Greco-Roman Elysian Fields and the Islands of the Blessed. From this page:

    The Elysian Fields were described as a wonderful place, where everything was delightful. There were soft green meadows, lovely groves, a delicious life-giving air, sunlight that glowed a soft purple, and everyone was happy and peaceful. The sound of music played on pipes and lyres filled the air. Banquets occurred whenever the inhabitants desired.

  • tommy

    You know, you hit the nail on the head! When I was still a Christian, it really, really bothered me that eternity was spent doing the same thing. The only way it could be pleasurable to do all that worshipping nonstop would be if the presence of God were somehow like taking a lot of drugs. But even then, after a certain amount of time had passed, wouldn’t that lead to terror in any rational person? Never relenting of the pleasure, never a moment to rest and reflect, back in your own mind? Too much God seemed to me like the same thing as too much drugs, nice on paper, but terrifying in practice. I was always wondering to myself if folks would be permitted to wander and explore the Universe, or if they would always be stuck in the Ethers with God. No matter how nice heaven could be, it just never seemed enough.

    Thank goodness for the Internet, way back in 1997, and the wonderful, primordial atheism websites I came across as a kid! I sleep a lot easier now, and I don’t have to waste my time praying before I crash, either.

  • Brendan

    I want to say that I second Andrew’s statement about conversion, pretty much to the letter. I can still remember the eye-opening feeling of the first readings of essays on Ebonmusings. Atheist writing really does make a difference.

    I think it was somewhere in one of Issac Asimov’s autobiographies where he discussed his rejection of various heavens, and when he mentioned the Christian one, he commented, “It all sounded like an eternal sing-along of praise to God. It’s no wonder Lucifer rebelled.” or something to that effect.

  • http://blog.dmcleish.id.au Shishberg

    I want to say that I second Andrew’s statement about conversion, pretty much to the letter.

    Likewise. I think I’d already more or less given up belief when I stumbled across Ebon Musings, but I was still a bit shaky about it, and a few essays in particular really helped to convince me that atheism was the much more sensible position.

    On-topic, a few years ago (as a Christian) I was talking to an atheist, and he asked me what I thought heaven was supposed to be like. I basically said that I couldn’t give an answer, because anything we could imagine wouldn’t be good enough. In hindsight, it’s the same sort of argument that says that things that make absolutely no sense (insert your own example) are a “divine mystery” that show that God is “beyond human understanding”, which somehow makes him even better. A very useful out whenever you can’t find another way around a contradiction.

  • Ken

    “Steaming Piles of Fresh Produce, Drenched in Butter!”

    On Slacktivist’s Left Behind comment blog, this has been a running one-liner joke ever since LaHaye & Jenkins first put that excerpt up on the Web.

    As it has been pointed out on that blog, “When I hear the phrase ‘steaming pile’, the LAST thing I think of is ‘fresh produce’.”

    LaHaye & Jenkins are bad hack writers; that’s been established to my satisfaction.

  • johnnydee

    The idea sounds exactly like Talking Heads concept of Heaven:

    Everyone is trying to get to the bar.
    The name of the bar, the bar is called heaven.
    The band in heaven plays my favorite song.
    They play it once again, they play it all night long.

    Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.
    Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.

    There is a party, everyone is there.
    Everyone will leave at exactly the same time.
    Its hard to imagine that nothing at all
    Could be so exciting, and so much fun.

    Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.
    Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.

    When this kiss is over it will start again.
    It will not be any different, it will be exactly
    The same.
    Its hard to imagine that nothing at all
    Could be so exciting, could be so much fun.

    Heaven is a place where nothing every happens.
    Heaven is a place where nothing every happens.

  • Friday

    Mindless herds endlessly praising their master(s)…

    Seems to me to be precisely the kind of ‘heaven’ religious power systems want us all to ‘enjoy’ – even right here right now on Earth.

  • Friday

    Mindless herds endlessly praising their master(s)…

    Seems to me to be precisely the kind of ‘heaven’ religious power systems want us all to ‘enjoy’ – even right here right now on Earth.