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.

Atlas Shrugged: The Cobra Commander Dialogues
SF/F Saturday: The Half-Made World
SF/F Sunday: Goodnight Stars
Marital Rape in the Bible
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.


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