A Cold and Sterile Heaven

The other day while browsing in the library, I found out that Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, authors of the Left Behind series, have also written a trilogy of prequels. (As long as Christians continue to purchase these awful books, it seems, they intend to keep churning them out.) The final installment of this trilogy is called The Rapture, and it’s about just that, written from the point of view of the faithful Christians who are miraculously transported to Heaven.

Much of the book is taken up by a long roll call in which the raptured “saints” and saved dead are called before God’s white throne and praised for the good works they did. This litany is very revealing, because essentially the only thing they have in common is that they in some way contributed to the spread of Christianity. Famous evangelists, missionaries, translators of the Bible, and historical preachers are all listed for their great “achievement”. In LaHaye’s conception, the only deed that merits honor or remembrance is converting others to Christianity. In fact, the saved are made to pass through a fire that “burns away” everything else that they did in their lives.

This is religion in its most purely viral form, its only purpose consisting of self-propagation. As Slacktivist says, their version of Christianity is the “contentless gospel”: “The good news is that now you can tell others the good news.”

This cold and sterile heaven doesn’t seem like any kind of paradise I’d want to live in. Why would I want to share eternity with these boring, repetitive, dogmatic preachers, those whose greatest achievement in life was the unvarying repetition of words written by others? It’s as if people were selected specifically for their lack of independent thought or creativity. What a tiresome, monotonous place that heaven would be!

Even worse, the book makes it clear that access to this heaven is limited to those mindless believers who mouthed the proper words of submission to the creed of one particular small and narrow sect. Everyone else, in this conception of Christianity, no matter what else they achieved or what good they did, is condemned to the torment of eternal immolation. Again – this is a heaven we should want to go to? To spend eternity praising a cruel tyrant in the company of his fellow slaves, and to miss out on the company of the bright and lively minds of history’s most famous nonbelievers?

Just think of who’d be missing from the rapture-fanatics’ heaven. Or, if you prefer, consider an alternative: a humanist heaven in which people were rewarded not for their allegiance to dogma, but for their contributions to humanity’s intellectual and cultural history, and for the good they did in the lives of those who came after them. Imagine who would be there, and imagine what a joy it would be to dwell among them!

Imagine a salon where you could discuss politics and statecraft with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Paine, as well as their precursors of the Enlightenment such as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham. From feminists and reformers such as Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Sanger, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Emma Goldman and Vashti McCollum, these early giants could learn how their work had laid the ground for later flowerings of liberty. Or, if you preferred to talk about science and the glories of the natural world, there’d be symposia attended by Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Galileo Galilei, Pierre and Marie Curie, and many more besides.

In airier realms of thought, most of history’s great philosophers would be there: Lucretius and Epicurus from ancient Greece, Giordano Bruno, David Hume, Baruch Spinoza, Bertrand Russell, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. One could pass many pleasurable hours lying in the shade and listening to these great thinkers holding forth on the beautiful abstractions of the mind.

The music, too, would be magnificent. One could enjoy the symphonies of Giuseppe Verdi, Ludwig von Beethoven, Hector Berlioz, Johannes Brahms and Richard Strauss – or, for a more modern bent, the stylings of Irving Berlin, John Lennon, Cole Porter, and Yip Harburg. For oratory, poetry and literature, it would boast Robert Ingersoll, George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy, Omar Khayyam, Kurt Vonnegut, Isaac Asimov, H.G. Wells, Robert Frost – and that’s just for starters. And this imaginary humanist heaven would not lack for laughter. You can hear the roaring of the crowds being entertained by Mark Twain, by Voltaire, by H.L. Mencken, by Douglas Adams, by George Carlin (alas), and by many more proud subversives who’ve used the weapon of humor to expose the absurdities of earthly society.

The roll call of famous names that would be present in a humanist’s heaven shows, by comparison, just how empty and impoverished the dogmatist’s heaven would be. All the illustrious thinkers and critics I listed above would be missing from any afterlife that sorts admission based solely on adherence to an orthodox creed. Such a place would hardly be paradise at all, but merely an echo chamber resounding through eternity with the monotonous chants of fossilized minds. How could Heaven be Heaven if it did not pay tribute to the fullest and grandest flowerings of the human creative spirit?

The dogmatist’s nightmarish hallucination of heaven, fortunately for us, does not exist. Like a nightmare that dissipates in the dawn, it fades away in the light of reason. Alas, the humanist’s heaven is also a dream, albeit a more pleasant one. I’d give almost anything to be witness to such a meeting of the minds, but there’s no rational reason to believe it will ever happen. Those who have passed on have left the world to us, and though ripples of their influence live on in the books they wrote and the lives they changed, the essence of the individual is gone and cannot be reclaimed. We mourn them, we honor them, but ultimately we must move on. The responsibility of guiding the future now lies with we who live – so rather than spend our time dreaming of another life, let’s turn our attention fully to this one. Our predecessors have left us an abundance of good lessons; let’s keep them in mind, so that we may write the next chapter for the good of those who, in turn, will succeed us.

(For a fuller listing of the names in this essay as well as others, see FFRF’s Freethought of the Day list.)

Secular Students Week 2015: How to Win at Activism
How Low Will It Go? The Continuing Decline of American Christianity
The Hidden Garden of Ex-Muslim Atheists
New on the Guardian: Atheists Are Diversifying
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.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X