A Parable of Talents


In a very schmaltzy YA book I read in middle school, a whole school bus load of middle schoolers died in a car accident and went straight to Heaven. I’m pretty sure the protagonist and his eventual girlfriend got to come back to life by the end because they had Unfinished Business back on Earth, but before they do, they get a preview look at Heaven as all their friends settle down for the rest of their afterlives.

The Heaven of this book most closely resembles a glitzy theme park. The children don’t miss their earthly lives. In the Heaven of the novel, they get the opportunity to do everything they would have wished in life. Several of the students go to see Joan Jett in concert, an opera aficionado gets to sing the parts she longed for in front of full amphitheatres.

At first, when reading these descriptions, I was excited and jealous. I have a decidedly mediocre singing voice and a deep and abiding love of musical theatre. The idea of being able to play the parts I’d dreamed of was deeply tempting, but a moment’s consideration quickly dampened my enthusiasm. The Heaven of the novel sounded like a simple lowering of standards. The only way I’d get a standing ovation as Emma Goldman in Ragtime was either if the audience were composed only of clones of my tone-deaf father or was instructed to appear enthusiastic. A hollow victory.

But it’s hard for a twelve year old to give up on instant gratification too easily. I rejected talent without effort and then, after a little thought, decided talent without training (the “I know kung fu” ethos of The Matrix) would be equally unfulfilling. I just couldn’t imagine mastery without effort.

When I was trying to find the book again to link to, I was surprised to find it praised as contemporary Christian fiction, since I had been so repulsed by its puerile Heaven. Upon reflection, though, I’m not sure how far off it is from mainstream Christian doctrine.

Ultimately, I rejected the gifts bestowed in the novel because I couldn’t count myself the owner of my virtues in that universe. There was no possibility of feeling pride in my accomplishments. Which, I hear (from Lewis anyway), is exactly the point.

In a Christian world, any ability I have to be good is given to me by the grace and mercy of Christ as gifts. I don’t earn it, don’t deserve it, and certainly have no standing to take pride in it.  It’s undeserved grace.  It’s as miraculous, absurd, and, ultimately, as vaguely unsatisfying for me as any other magical gift.

I can be pleased with the kindness of a friend only as a gift of good fortune, undifferentiated from the providence of catching a lucky break in traffic on my way to work.  My friend’s moral action is as impersonal and unmotivated as the eddy in the traffic pattern.  Presumably, in a religious framework, I would feel grateful to God for both, but I feel as unsettled and disappointed by this idea as I was by Magical Wish Granting Heaven.  To my mind, both profoundly devalue any human striving.


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  • a.The Christian idea of heaven is fairly sketchy ("eye has not seen," and all that), but it definitely entails something a little more conceptually sophisticated than a realm of uninterrupted wish fulfillment. Dante's Paradiso, one attempt to generate a description of the paradise promised by Christian doctrine, has almost nothing in common with the little book you describe.b.I think you're advancing too extreme a dichotomy between things we accomplish on our own and things we accomplish through the assistance of another. Anyone who pitches a perfect game, or delivers a flawless performance in an opera, is clearly very skilled. But much of their skill is the result of the training they've received; while we justly admire them for their accomplishments, they'd be wrong to insist they had got to where they were totally on their own.The Catholic view of grace is something similar. What we do is what we do, and we deserve the credit or blame for it in our own persons. People who do good are better people (that is, they're better at being people) than if they did evil. They're not any less good because someone (or Someone) has given them assistance.That, at least, is the natural Catholic response to your objection. But I think you might be coming from somewhere else. You want to be the author of whatever good is in you; you want to have earned whatever you have. There is something admirable about this position, but as I see it it's admirable in the same way Milton's Satan is.To consider the actions of our friends or our God towards us as part of the neutral, fortuitous and irrational external world is to live in a very lonely world. Frankly, I don't think it's a way of thinking that would ever occur to a Christian, and I'm not sure how I'd respond to it.Perhaps I should say that, from within Christianity, it's a problem that simply doesn't arise.

  • Anonymous

    All of those actions in 'heaven' presume that heaven is a temporal place. I see nothing in Catholic doctrine, at least, that presumes heaven to be such.

  • @Kevin:But what about extending the cooperational model of skills/grace to other "blessings" in life? I once saw my wife, job, finding of a wonderful house, etc. as "a gift from god." I rested on his provision when times were tight because I trusted that he would recognize that I tithed regardless of our tight situation.How does this work in 3rd world countries? How are those who believe to be equally blessed? It would seem that we have two choices (being generous to the god hypothesis for the moment):- our genes (skills), place of birth, and chance are responsible for 90% of our success/failings and having life's bare needs met/not met but god works through these means to bless everyone who turns to him in different ways- our genes (skills), place of birth, and chance are responsible for 100% of our success/failings and having life's bare needs met/not metOccam's razor would suggest that there simply is no intervener transforming the world. Surely nothing is stopping god from parting the seas to free the oppressed from threats of genocide so they can take refuge elsewhere or sending down manna from heaven to all the recent converts in 3rd world countries? What a change this would bring about in all those who say that god is not alive in our midst.Instead we have an unverified promise of heaven where "everything will be made right in the end" but an empty gut in the meantime. Maybe it's a sign of mercy that the poorest of the poor can die early from starvation rather than those just slightly more provided for who may live on for years and years in an emaciated state?

  • NFQ

    Aside from the cheapness of this kind of heaven (in both the "lowering of standards" sense and the "don't deserve it" sense), I also think it sounds like it'd get boring to the point of being unbearable in maybe a week tops. Such a big part of the fun is the journey, not just getting what you want instantly with no effort. I saw a Twilight Zone episode once with a similar premise — magical wish-granting afterlife — and the TZ part of it is, is this heaven or hell?