Today I respond to Bart Mitchell’s inaugural question to the Questions That Haunt Christianity series. Before I proffer my response, let me say that I am both humbled and astounded at the outpouring of responses to Bart’s question. I agree with many of your comments, and if I were a wiser man, I’d probably just copy and paste them here.
I’m also very grateful that Bart himself has been heavily engaged in the conversation. It’s not easy for a non-believer to repeatedly put himself in dialogue with committed believers, so it says a lot about Bart that he has. Now, without further adieu, my response.
Thanks for your question. It’s a tricky one, and I’ll admit that it’s not one I’ve spent much time thinking about. Unlike the Christians that you seem to meet, I did not grow up in a version of Christianity that was preoccupied by the afterlife. Sure, we talked about it, but it really wasn’t the motivating force for our Christian faith.
Of course, I am familiar with Christians who are preoccupied with what happens after you die — they seem to think that their purpose, as one pastor told me, is “to depopulate hell and populate heaven.” I’m not one of those. But the recent spate of books about “after death” experiences shows that it’s not just Christians who wonder what happens when we die.
You asked a two-part question:
- How enjoyable would heaven be if my loved ones aren’t there?
- If everyone goes to heaven, why become a Christian?
For me, the second question is easier. Let’s take your premise that everyone goes to heaven — that’s called “universalism,” and the evangelical pollster George Barna says that 40% of Americans and up to one-third of evangelicals hold this view. Universalism as a Christian belief is becoming more popular, and some have even argued that it is not antithetical to an evangelical understanding of the Bible. So I think that more and more Christians will be asking your second question in coming years.
The fact that there are so many universalist Christians attests to the fact that Christianity is attractive, even without the promise of avoiding hell upon death. I think that’s the case because in the Christian faith, millions of people find something that they deeply desire: intimacy with God.
What Jesus offers is a connection to the divine that is unique amongst the varieties of religions in world history. I’ve got some experience with the other major religions in the world — even last month — and I can attest that they do not offer the same kind of relational intimacy to the divine that Christianity offers through Jesus of Nazareth. Only in Jesus did the one God fully inhabit a human being, and only in the resurrected Christ is that divine-human connection continued into eternity.
That may not be a compelling reason for you to cross the line into Christianity, but a lot of your fellow human beings desire a close relationship to the divine, and Christianity alone offers that, regardless of the question of an afterlife.
Now, regarding your first (and more difficult) question…
I will again begin by accepting your premise that, at face value, the Bible seems to indicate that some people will experience a blissful eternity in God’s presence, while others will be eternally tormented. (I don’t believe this, but I’ll deal with that below.) The traditional Christian response has been this: the bliss that you will experience in God’s presence will so overwhelm your senses that you won’t have the ability to experience sorrow at the absence of your loved ones.
The problem with this answer is, What kind of an eternal destiny is this?!? It doesn’t seem very attractive to me that I would spend eternity in a state most like a drug-induced coma — alive but with only one, univocal sensory experience.
And here’s where our understanding of heaven (and the premise of your question) starts to unravel. The Bible was written at a time and by persons who understood the cosmos in metaphysical categories that I wholeheartedly reject. I no more think that heaven is “up above us” and hell is “down below” than I think that the sun “rises” and “sets” every day. The biblical writers, and even Jesus, communicated about eternal realities using the language and idioms that they knew — that’s why, for instance, Jesus’ contemporaries thought a guy who was foaming at the mouth and chained up in the cemetery was infested with demons, while you and I would consider him mentally ill.
So what’s left to us is the task of interpretation. Or, to frame it as a question, Can I reject the Bible’s metaphysics without rejecting its message? That’s a bridge too far for many of your fellow atheists (although they have no problem accepting Plato’s wisdom while rejecting platonic metaphysics). But it’s not a bridge too far for me. The Bible’s overriding message trumps its quirky details. That’s why I can accept the overriding theme that God desires our worship without accepting the quirky detail that women should cover their heads in worship.
Honestly, it’s not much different from you appreciating the witty genius of Mark Twain, even though he repeatedly uses the odious word “nigger.” Twain was a man trapped in his time; so were Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And so was Jesus.
So the quest for a modern Christian is to find the transcendent truth in a text that is inevitably time-bound. And, as you’ve seen in the comments under your question, the words in the Bible about eternal torment of sinner is one of those quirky, time-bound details that many modern Christians are ready to abandon.
For me, the eternal future is almost completely shrouded in mystery. I don’t think there will be an eternally burning lake of fire, even though Jesus is quoted as mentioning that. Neither do I think there is a mansion, though he talked about that, too. In both cases, I think Jesus was using metaphorical language to make a point. I don’t know if eternity is another dimension or a re-creation of these dimensions in which I now exist. All I can assume, on faith, is that the nature of eternal existence will be in keeping with the nature of God — and the nature of God is ultimately good, loving, accepting, and gracious.
Thanks again for your question, Bart. I look forward to your response.