Heaven at the Price of Hell

In my essay “Those Old Pearly Gates” on Ebon Musings, I raised what is, to my mind, one of the strongest moral arguments against the traditional monotheist conception of the afterlife:

The point is this. How can anyone enjoy Heaven, knowing that while you have eternal bliss there are people experiencing eternal suffering? Unless you belong to an insular religious community or a cult, it’s almost certain that you know someone – a friend, a relative, a loved one, an idol who inspires you – whose religion of choice is different than yours, or who has no religion at all. How will you be able to enjoy Heaven in the certain knowledge that that person is, at the same moment, suffering the torments of the damned? What if it’s a spouse, a parent, a best friend, a child? …How can Heaven be any sort of reward at all if it means eternal separation from the people you care about, all the more so if those people must suffer without release while you are powerless to help them? And will you, a saved soul in Paradise, be content to kneel and worship the same god who, elsewhere at that same moment, is pouring out the flames of his wrath upon your lost loved ones?

Some religious people handle this problem by saying that Hell is not a fiery pit of torture, but a state of darkness and emptiness caused by separation from God – although I don’t see how that would make things any better. Others simply dodge the question altogether.

However, the good folks at Rapture Ready have a different solution:

God’s Word foretells that the Lord will wipe away all tears and sorrow for Believers –that all the things of the past, sinful world will be removed in some way. We infer from this that all memories that are painful –such as knowledge that we have family and friends who are suffering eternal damnation because of their rejection of Salvation through God’s son, Jesus Christ, will be totally erased in the Heavenly dimension.

Apparently, they felt that this apologetic would soothe their worried readers. I can’t speak for Rapture Ready’s clientele, but it had exactly the opposite effect on me. This is horrifying. In a twisted sense, I have to give these people credit – they’ve managed to come up with what is possibly the only thing that could have made the idea of Hell any worse than it already is.

I’m not against the idea of Heaven. I accept the fact of death – mine and others’ – but that doesn’t make me enthusiastic about it. If there was another life where I could be reunited with my departed loved ones, I’d gladly welcome it. But if there was a Heaven, the existence of a Hell would be an unacceptably high price to pay for it. Even if I knew I was one of the saved, I’d rather choose nonexistence than be forced to know that people I care about were suffering eternal torment. That knowledge would be a kind of torture in itself, more than enough to turn Heaven into just another hell.

But the idea of forgetting that my loved ones were condemned? That would be even worse! What kind of happiness is it that must be purchased at the price of being ignorant of the suffering of others?

The authors of Rapture Ready never seem to think through the implications of this idea. What if it’s my mother or father that’s damned – will I have no knowledge of who raised me on Earth? Would a heavenly soul in that situation wonder why all his friends had their parents with them and they didn’t have any? Wouldn’t they be driven to investigate, to find out the great secret that’s being hidden from them?

It would undeniably be a horrible thought that you were saved while your loved ones were forever damned. That grim knowledge would be enough to overwhelm whatever bliss there was to be had in the afterlife. But as in other areas, the way to fix the problem of suffering is to end suffering – not by making everyone else ignorant of it by some kind of miracle-induced amnesia. The idea that the saved should be induced to forget about the torture of their damned loved ones, so that they can enjoy their heavenly bliss in a state of dumb naivete, is intuitively revolting, and confirms what I said on an earlier occasion about how any attempt to actually explain what Heaven is like invariably reduces its inhabitants to a kind of bright machines.

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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.

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

    I’ve heard two theories that aren’t covered here: one, that part of the joy of heaven is in fact knowing that others are in hell – sort of a “well, they asked for it” schadenfruede, I guess. The other was told me by a rather religious friend: “We’ll all go to Heaven, but some of us won’t like it.”

    This is what motivates a lot of the pushier evangelists – the fear that someone they love will end up in Hell. I’m not sure they’ve really given much thought to how they’ll feel about it themselves, though – but clearly Heaven is a state of perpetual joy where all trouble and sorrow are done away with, so somehow the suffering of the damned has to be either a source of joy or something the saints in Heaven are completely unaware of.

    Your theory that people might go searching for their missing loved ones is not, I think, tenable: it’s far more likely that there will be no loved ones in Heaven: everyone there will be totally subsumed into the ceaseless “joy” of praising God.

    Which makes the point of the whole exercise somewhat problematic.

  • http://dominicself.co.uk Dominic Self

    “If there was another life where I could be reunited with my departed loved ones, I’d gladly welcome it.”

    Well, yeah, sure, but only if it was a *life* – a finite life.

  • http://badnewsbible.blogspot.com XanderG

    I agree with Dominic. The idea of an infinite eternal life is hideous in its own right. I think what many people truly want in an afterlife, is the chance to say goodbye to loved ones, and get some kind of closure, rather than a never ending ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. Of course there are those who would and do wish for such a thing, but I believe they either fall into the ‘crazies’ camp, or just haven’t thought through the implications of such a place.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    And if we forget the people we love — completely forget about them, have their very existence wiped from our memory — then in what way are we still ourselves?

    The people I love, and the love I have for them… that’s an enormous part of what makes me who I am. If I believed in the soul, I’d say it was a central part of my soul. And what profit do we have if we gain Heaven but lose our soul?

    The Heaven these people are advocating? It’s like a scene from “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Or worse — it’s like Alzheimer’s.

    I have a better solution. If we’re going to go the brainwashing route, why not just let the people in Heaven believe that their loved ones are in Heaven with them? Sure, it’d be a deception and a lie… but no more so than wiping people’s memories of the people they loved the most.

    (And you know something’s wrong when the atheists can come up with better apologetics than the believers.)

  • konrad_arflane

    What kind of happiness is it that must be purchased at the price of being ignorant of the suffering of others?

    Well, it seems to work well enough for some people here in the real world (viz. the third world, or just the large living standards differences within the US), so why wouldn’t it work in heaven?

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Another good post. I’ve had many similar questions. When I was a Christian, I didn’t think about heaven and hell very much for at least two reasons. First, I realized that there was no way we could know anything about them, so there was no point in speculating.

    Second, I wasn’t sure the afterlife was as great as it was alleged to be. First, I didn’t want to spend eternity in a never ending Praise & Worship service. Frankly, that struck me as boring rather than blissful. Second, I couldn’t figure out how I would enjoy paradise if I knew that people I loved were not merely absent, but were suffering endless, hideous torment. Third, I wouldn’t want heaven at the cost of all that makes me human. My life is imperfect, sure, but it’s all I’ve got. I’m making the best of it and enjoying it, for the most part. Losing all memories of earthly life, or losing all compassion for people I’ve known don’t strike me as attributes of a joyous, fulfilling existence.

    As ghastly as Christian teachings about hell are, their notions of heaven are not much more appealing.

  • Robert Madewell

    I think the Rapture Ready argument poses a problem for the freewill argument that some fundies use to counter the problem of evil. How can you have freewill if God will wipe all the troubling memories from your mind? I don’t see how the two arguments can be compatable.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    “I think the Rapture Ready argument poses a problem for the freewill argument that some fundies use to counter the problem of evil. How can you have freewill if God will wipe all the troubling memories from your mind? I don’t see how the two arguments can be compatable.”

    Good point, Robert. And if God can eradicate the free will of people in Heaven by removing our memories, why can’t he eradicate the free will of people on Earth by removing our desire to do bad things? Why is one acceptable but not the other?

  • D.S.

    There is also the next obvious thing. That hell is not biblically supported. One of the first things that brought me out of religion was the day I realized what almost the entirety of Christianity believes in, Hell as a place of eternal torment. I researched that subject a lot and found that there is just as much support for universal salvation as any other doctrine. In any case after I realized I could dismiss that I got interested in figuring out other stuff I couldn’t reconcile and it lead me into a state of happiness being atheist.

  • yoyo

    You are right, the forgetting theory it truly horrifying, it is like a drug fueled alzheimers. Argh. I have never thought that heaven or hell were the strongests aspects of religious belief. Every part of it seems counterintuitive and contradictory. I could never get a good answer to why people who hadnt heard of jesus and pals, should be condemned to hell, or how we are all going top get along in heaven when people from different times will have different social mores etc.

    Guess that’s why it never stuck with me.

  • Robert Madewell

    Sorry about posting twice, but I visited that site and discovered that they do use the freewill argument here. I guess it’s OK to be inconsistant if it is convenient.

    Also, here the apologist is claiming that the devil causes people to commit suicide and if you are contemplating suicide, you should seek the “professional godly” help of a pastor or christian counselor instead of seeing a mental health professional. He completely ignores the cause of most suicides, chronic depression. He goes even further as to say that “born again christians” can not feel so hopeless (depression?). I have known many christians who have suffered from depression, including me. The apologist is completely ignorant of the fact that depression is a disease (not a spiritual condition) and that it can cause a person to kill himself. Here, he does recognize that depression causes suicide. Instead of advising the person contemplating suicide to see a doctor, he says to seek a Christian counselor (pastor?, deacon?, song leader?) to determine whether your depression has a medical cause or not. Still it seems that he is unwilling to see depression as a disease instead of a spirtual matter, since he advices seeing a pastor first.

  • OMGF

    I could never get a good answer to why people who hadnt heard of jesus and pals, should be condemned to hell…

    Well, that one’s easy. god obviously plays favorites all through the book, so those poor souls that don’t get to learn about Jesus get tortured in hell just as those who reject Jesus, and it’s all OK because god is the creator and he can destroy his creations if he feels like it and who are we to talk back to god and he works in mysterious ways and all that…. ;)

  • Karen

    The authors of Rapture Ready never seem to think

    Exactly. And there’s the problem, in a nutshell.

    When I was an End Times believer, I just accepted what I was told at face value. To think about it closely was inviting Satan into your mind to mess you up with god (so went the teaching).

    Some pastor (who probably didn’t even have a college degree) told me that I’d be blissfully, eternally happy in heaven, and not to worry about anything else like loved ones roasting alive, etc. Of course, I was frantic to “save” my agnostic father and other family and friends who were destined to hell, but I figured if I had to undergo a mind wipe to take away the pain of their fate once I got to heaven – so be it.

    This is the real tragedy of religion: Being systematically indoctrinated not to use your brain.

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

    It’s still free will, because you choose to surrender your entire being to God to do with as he chooses.

    And @Robert – that’s an easy one. If you’re really “born again” you won’t feel that way; if you do, then you weren’t really born again. It’s the old, old circular argument that they’re so fond of.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Conservative religious heavens are almost inevitably boring and unimaginative. They’re like writing that tells without showing — because there’s nothing to show, no believeable substance. More liberal religious concepts of heaven can sometimes be better; the notion that we’ll all go to heaven but some of us won’t like it, for example, seems to leave room for a more natural heaven which isn’t perfect for everyone, but which is the best possible place for good people.

    Heaven becomes more interesting when you talk about trying to create it on Earth without the magic of divine intervention. At that point, you’re talking about a line of thought that can draw you into a deeper understanding of human nature and of what it means to live well. But as soon as you put God in the picture, the temptation to try to get rid of the difficult but interesting bits by magic seems to be inevitable.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Adam, one way around the dilemma would be if angels appeared to you in heaven in the guise of your family and friends, so you would believe they are in heaven with you.

  • javaman

    Does god have a special section in hell for us atheists?If he does I couldn’t think of a better group then you all to spend in eterity burning together. But the default position is we mostly likely go back to the same place(?) we were in before birth and human consciousness, Memories only exist in an alive brain.After brain death nothing exist, because there will be no you.

  • http://www.mindonfire.com John Remy

    Before my deconversion was complete, I believed that because God was a being of perfect love and empathy that there was no one happier or more miserable than him. I extrapolated from my own experience as a parent–I am overjoyed at my children’s success, and emotionally crushed when they are suffering. I figured that heaven would be like this–a place not of endless happiness, but a place of perfect empathy, and therefore a place with unending joy and misery.

    Now, without belief in God, heaven, and an afterlife, it’s surprising how much like my short little life on earth the above scenario is–alternating joy and sorrow (however selfish and imperfect) for my family, friends, and the world.

  • http://yetanotheratheistblog.blogspot.com/ YAAB

    The very concept of a “kingdom of heaven” where everyone is in a state of perpetual bliss is nothing more than an escapist fantasy. Fundies, even moderates, of many faiths love to talk about the kingdom come. The kingdom is ruled by god, and everyone happily accedes to his will. Of course, when you start parsing it, you can only get this state of bliss by mentally neutering the inhabitants, in order to get around problems like to one you’ve focused upon in this post.

    And why this infatuation with a “kingdom”? This implies an absolute ruler, and since everyone is so happy, they must happen to completely agree with his decisions. Freewill no longer exists, because you are no longer free to disagree with the king. Heaven doesn’t have much of a model for dealing with dissent; see also, how satan was rewarded for questioning god’s will. In practical terms, “god’s will” means nothing more than “my viewpoint,” where the speaker is some variety of demagogue.

    Personally, I’ll take an earthly democracy over a heavenly kingdom any day of the week.

  • Dutch

    It’s been very good commenting and replying to various posters here(mostly on another thread)

    I’ll just take one quote from this article;
    “How can Heaven be any sort of reward at all if it means eternal separation from the people you care about, all the more so if those people must suffer without release while you are powerless to help them”

    Time does not exist in heaven. We will not be eternally separated from our loved ones. For us, it is very difficult to comprehend the non existence of time.
    As Jesus said, “it is finished.” And as He said to a repentant “malefactor” crucified next to Him;
    “Luk 23:43 And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.”
    He said this despite the fact He was laid in the grave.

    From “thebigview.com
    “Just as there is an infinite number of 3-D reference frames in Galilean relativity, there is an infinite number of 4-D spacetime reference frames in Einstein’s theory. This is to say that Einstein put an end to absolute time. The revolutionary insight lies in the conclusion that the flow of time in the universe does indeed differ depending on one’s reference frame.”

    Now I to go to church


  • http://thereligiousatheist.com plonkee @ the religious atheist

    The existence of hell is somewhat of a problem. It’s almost as if the whole thing had been made up by people who didn’t really know what they were talking about.

    But, if it would make fundies happy to lose all their minds and forget about the suffering of others, I say, let them go for it. The burning forever part is at least a more honest way to end up.

  • Dutch


    You/we are already in Hell, which by interpretation is; grave, pit, sheol…


  • Dutch


    I haven’t read your “about me” section untill now. You said, “I contain multitudes.” You are more right than you know.


  • terrence

    oooh, I must, I must. ‘Scuse me while I whip this out:


  • benj

    Hey Everyone,
    I just read the passage from Revelation about ‘Christ wiping every tear away.’ I am pretty sure that forgetting about your suffering loved ones is a rapture-ready interpretation.
    But can we take seriously the interpretations and teachings from the fondly named “fundies”? They, at least the extremists, take everything so literally without taking the whole Bible into account. They take Revelation literally, for crying out loud, and they are trying to count the years and days until the rapture happens! I dont condone it.
    I think the ideas and images in Revelation, and especially the idea of “eternal hellfire” are highly figurative. Why would there be physical fire in a non-physical afterlife of the soul?
    For a different portrayal of hell, check out Luke 16:19-31.

  • Dutch


    We are in hell.

    Not only is Revelation figurative, but the entire Bible is.


  • Eric


    Based on your prior postings which suggested you had been ostracized from your religous community and the above post where you say we are in hell, I wonder of your mental state and health. Honestly, you are kind of creeping me out and making me pretty uncomfortable.

  • Christopher

    I think that – when it comes to Hell – Sartre got it right: we make our own Hell by our inability to connect to each other. The Heavens and Hells of religion are nothing more than what they interpret that inability as. For example, Christian fundamentalists can’t connct to non-believers, so they create a place in their imaginations where they shall be eternally separated from them (a place where they can’t challenge their beliefs and suffer for not adopting them).

  • Dutch

    Yes Eric,

    I and my church, have been “ostracized” from the religous communty at large. Our pastors have had conferences with this religous community which turn into name calling on their part, and once, our pastor was physically shoved while being called Satan. I assure you my “mental health” is quite sound. I am well known and respected in my secular community. I have five beautiful kids and four wonderful grandkids.

    What I know and have been shown would blow your mind away. All in good time. I have the sure knowledge of the outcome of everything. So call me crazy. Actually, the knowledge I and other members would sort of “creep” you out – it did me the first time.

    Have a good day, Dutch

  • Joffan

    Greta, expert theological wrangling on the Heavenly stand-ins!

    Of course such an Almighty policy could never be revealed because then the bliss of the saved might be clouded by doubts that the loved ones who finally “made it” to heaven were fakes… even if they weren’t.

  • goyo

    My friend Dutch: You know everything that you are sharing with us on the various threads is all predicated that the bible is true, and that it is “the” book of knowledge. You do know that we don’t believe the bible is true, nor any other religious book. Why do you insist on backing up your claims with the bible?
    Is there anything that you can share with us that doesn’t come from the bible?
    You say that what you know and have been shown is mind-blowing. What is it?
    How can you prove it? What is going to happen?
    Come on, give us something that you can prove.

  • javaman

    Dutch-stand and deliver you have our full attention, I mean this in a nice way.

  • javaman

    Satre also said ,hell is other people

  • http://ecstathy.blogspot.com Efrique

    If “my” future soul in Heaven does not care about what is central to me now, then it is decidedly “not-me”. That is, they are essentially saying that I should spend my life doing ridiculous things so what’s effectively an invisible parasite that’s somehow in me can go to some kind of brain-dead heaven.

    Why would I want that, exactly?

  • Christopher


    That’s what he was refering to: Hell is other people BECAUSE we are unable to connect with other people (See “No Exit” for a good example of this failure).

  • Dutch

    Goyo, Javaman,

    You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. If I told you I saw a guy walking on Lake Michigan, you’d say it was some kind o trick. You are a “freethinker,” that like most, is married to your opinion. Open your “freethinking mind,” and read elsewhere.

    from Stuart Hameroff”s website,
    “I am not by nature confrontational, but am happy to debate scientists and philosophers who oppose our theory. Atheism does not hold the scientific high ground. Secular spirituality based on quantum biology and the physics of spacetime geometry is a viable and important idea.”

    At this conference, put on by “beyondbelief.org,” Mr. Hameroff pissed-off both theists and atheists.

    As I said in an earlier post, will one day scientists ask that big question of “The Big Bang,” why?

    Later, Dutch

  • goyo

    Dutch: Read elsewhere, what? I am an ex-fundamentalist, ex-pentacostal, sunday school teaching, cult-specialist. I have read and studied the bible for many years. I know all the pre, mid, post positions there are. I know you think you have a special insight into the scriptures that nobody else has; as I’ve said before, been there, done that.
    Let’s just stick with the bible.
    I’ve asked this before: Why is your life no different than mine, when it comes to answered prayer? What purpose is this whole christian thing if it makes absolutely no difference in our lives. You receive a happy feeling, and see strange things in your dreams. I simply don’t.
    There are no miracles, and you’re right, if I saw someone walking on a lake, I would have to think that there is something else going on. (Chris Angel has already done that) Sorry, but that’s the way it is.
    Besides, even jesus had to prove that he had risen to thomas. Of course, he hasn’t appeared to me to convince me.
    Has he appeared to you? I mean, physically? Really appeared and talked to you. Not in a dream, but in person?
    Has he appeared to you?

  • Robert Madewell

    Hey Dutch, You allude to this special knowlege. Why not share it? I am a freethinker and I promise that I will keep an open mind. Of course, if it’s absurd, I’ll tell you. But, I will research it too.

    Hey goyo, I too am an ex-fundie. Also an ex-praiseleader. My father is still a pastor of a baptist-like church.

  • KShep

    Robert, goyo—-

    You guys are wasting your time. Dutch has been alluding to some kind of “special” insight on other threads for a few weeks now and apparently has no intention of revealing it here. He just keeps saying things like “you wouldn’t believe me if I told you” and moving on.