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.