Heaven Can Wait (in your debate arsenal)

A treacly portrait of heaven

Greta Christina and a different Christina at Freethought Blogs both recently came to the conclusion that the Christine doctrine of Heaven is coercive.  It’s so dangerous that Greta Christina called it “almost as evil a doctrine as Hell.”  Here’s their reasoning:

The promise of Heaven is the biggest reward of all. The promise of Heaven is infinite. It is the promise that you will get to live forever, and will never have to die. It is the promise that you will get to live forever in perfect ecstatic bliss, entirely free from suffering or fear. It is the promise that you will get to see everyone you most dearly love, forever, and will never have to say goodbye to them again.

This promise is so enormous, it can get people to do just about anything. It can get people to get out of bed early one day a week and go sit on an uncomfortable bench, even though they only have two days off in a week… It can get people to stand up when you tell them to, sit down when you tell them to, kneel when you tell them to, say magic words in a language they don’t understand when you tell them to… It can get people to fly airplanes into buildings and kill thousands of people. Just because you promised them they’d go to Heaven if they did what you asked.

I think this is an unfair knock on Christianity.  The objection to ‘too good to be true’ promises is that they’re false, not that something that awesome would be unfairly coercive.  The best critiques of Hell are set within Christian theology, arguing that eternal punishment or torture are incompatible with some other, higher premise of Christian thought.

I suppose one could argue the coercive power of Heaven is analogous to the coercive power of miracles.  If God won’t heal amputees, because such a showy act would abridge our free will, then how can He proffer a much greater reward and expect us to remain free?

But I don’t think the analogy holds up.  A description of Heaven doesn’t compel belief in Heaven (remember, I don’t buy Lewis’s argument that every desire is evidence that something exists to fulfill that desire), and it’s promise shouldn’t have much of an influence on your will at all.  The promise of Heaven is a knock on effect of believing in a Christian God, and it stands or falls with that belief.

A belief in Heaven is prima facie irrational unless you already believe in a omniscient and omnibeneficent God, so any atheist critique needs to be tuned to why you believe in that authority.  There’s enough variation in Christianity that it’s hard to write broad debunkings.  Heaven could be incompatible with some conceptions of a God that had the simple power to supply one, but you’d need to engage that specific idea of God (and be sure that the Christians you’re addressing actually believe in that one).

It’s also worth keeping in mind that not all Christian ideas of Heaven are comfortable.  C.S. Lewis’s allegory, The Great Divorce imagines that in Heaven we are most fully what we ought to be.  But reaching your telos involves hard, painful work to burn off what doesn’t fit.  These images of heaven go way beyond halos and harps.  Far from being illogical, they are tautologically true.  They claim the greatest happiness comes from being most free to do and love the Good.  Heaven is just the name given to that state of being.  And it’s not coercive to say that happiness will make you happy.

Image of Heaven inspired by Dante’s Paradiso

Essentially, almost all critiques of heaven should slide back a step to what they’re really attacking: the basis for trust in God’s power and goodness.  Unless you’re pretty conversant with your interlocutor’s reasoning on that score, an argument against Heaven won’t get you very far.  You’re better off sticking with the main question of trust or trying to find flaws in their model of human telos or the Good that Heaven fulfills.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://not-atamelion.blogspot.com Michael H.

    Here again, Christianity’s default is Catholicism. Mormonism’s conception of (the highest) heaven is somewhat like the Great Divorce – except forever, and hence the term “eternal progression.” We believe that those that inherit the Celestial Kingdom (the aforementioned highest heaven) will forever be gaining in knowledge, experience, and goodness, and will be thus working the whole time.

    Of course, this ties into lots of cool, complicated, and unresolved Mormon theologies of God, but that’s… complicated. :)

  • deiseach

    This point has already been covered; it’s the difference (in Catholic theology) between contrition and attrition. Permit me to quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

    “1452 When it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else, contrition is called “perfect” (contrition of charity). Such contrition remits venial sins; it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible.

    1453 The contrition called “imperfect” (or “attrition”) is also a gift of God, a prompting of the Holy Spirit. It is born of the consideration of sin’s ugliness or the fear of eternal damnation and the other penalties threatening the sinner (contrition of fear). Such a stirring of conscience can initiate an interior process which, under the prompting of grace, will be brought to completion by sacramental absolution. By itself however, imperfect contrition cannot obtain the forgiveness of grave sins, but it disposes one to obtain forgiveness in the sacrament of Penance.”

    Or, as different versions of the Act of Contrition demonstrate (emphasis mine):

    “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended You and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell (this part is attrition), but most of all because they offend you, my God, who are all good and deserving of all my love (and this is contrition). I firmly resolve, with the help of your grace, to confess my sins, to do penance and to amend my life.”

    Old version which emphases contrition:

    “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee and I detest my sins above every other evil because they displease Thee, my God, Who, in Thy infinite wisdom, art so deserving of all my love and I firmly resolve with the help of Thy grace never more to offend Thee and to amend my life. Amen.”

    As I learned it when making my First Communion, we should avoid sin not from fear of Hell, nor because we want the rewards of Heaven, but from love of God. This is the kind of thing we all learned when we were seven, but of course, when you’re seven, what heed do you pay to the likes of that?

    The point in the Sacrament of Penance is that perfect contrition is the ideal, but of course, we all fall short of the ideal so even the lowest version of attrition (eek! I don’t want to go to Hell!) is the starting point that we can build on; you shouldn’t beat yourself up because you think your motives are imperfect, but neither should you neglect to build your spiritual life so that with the help of grace you may attain to disinterested love.

  • Patrick

    You’re right to note that their argument presupposes that Christianity is false. That doesn’t seem to contradict the point of their argument, which is not an effort at convincing Christians stop believing in heaven. Its a moral argument against religious utopianism for an audience of atheists.

    Utopianism is commonly critiqued by noting that it throws moral calculus out of alignment: If you hypothesize that once your utopian society is created, everything will be awesome forever, you end up putting an infinite weight on the benefit portion of your cost benefit analysis. A lot can be morally justified if it leads to the best thing possible. Likewise, if someone hears about your utopia and decides that they think it sucks, you perceive them as putting themselves in opposition to the best thing ever, which makes them out to be horrible people of the absolute worst degree.

    I don’t think Greta Christina is incorrect to note that these excesses are exactly the excesses typical of Christian thinking about heaven and hell. The problems of utopianism don’t stop being problems just because your utopia is a magical one that happens after you die. Now as you properly note, if you actually think your particular utopia is a real possibility, you’ll never be convinced by arguments against utopianism. But that doesn’t preclude other people discussing how they should react to the utopianism in their society.

    Where she oversteps is that she doesn’t note that a great many Christians reject the idea of making moral decisions by means of a cost benefit analysis. They use other methods, like telos, or divine command. So for example, there are loads of Christians who officially believe that all human beings deserve infinite suffering, and who still feel that children don’t deserve to die of cancer- they justify it by saying that God told them to feel that way, even though its apparently contradictory. Christianity can make what would otherwise be contradictory moral claims coexist by just using fiat to get around the contradictions. She should probably mention that. It doesn’t completely negate her point, but it does dull it somewhat.

    • deiseach

      Patrick, I think the dulling of her point comes in that when she says “Ha! You only want to go to Heaven because it’s going to be so pleasurable, and that’s the wrong motive!”, Christianity would agree with her: yes, we are supposed to desire union with God not because it’s going to be pleasure for us but because it is what we were made for. The same way that people don’t generally say “I love X because I otbain greater pleasure, enjoyment and benefit than I would by loving Y” but “I love X because X is wonderful”.

      By the same token, if the Coming Atheist/Rationalist Utopia is going to be a wonderland of peace, love, justice and cures for all our mortal ills (as I have seen promised and proclaimed – no more war! no more racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ageism, youthism, classism or discrimination in any form! The halt and the lame shall walk, the blind see, the deaf hear, and all shall live extended lives of health, youthfulness and economic stability!), should we not therefore refrain from becoming atheists/rationalist because that’s just an appeal to our selfishness in wanting its realisation, rather than because it’s right, good, moral or true? ;-)

      • anodognosic

        The lesson: all claims of superlative future happiness or suffering should be subjected to double-plus extra scrutiny because of their potential for shorting out otherwise good decision systems.

  • Brian

    More to the point for me is the fact that heaven, as it is usually imagined, sounds fairly boring. If you are in a “perfect” state, which is the definition of heaven, that means that any change from that state cannot happen, therefore change is impossible. Change is what makes life interesting. Then you tack on the fact that you will be in heaven for an infinite amount of time.

    • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

      Bad Catholic just addressed the idea of heaven being boring:
      http://www.patheos.com/blogs/badcatholic/2012/03/christopher-hitchens-and-groaning-during-sex.html
      Anyway, just because Heaven is eternal doesn’t mean there is no change. I think that while God is understood to be atemporal, humans in heaven would still be experiencing time because living bodies are inherently temporal. Additionally, perfection is a multiplicity, as multiple as there are natures of things. Because grace perfects nature rather than replacing it, if human nature is to grow in fullness then we can expect Heaven to be perpetual progression towards God.

      • http://delphipsmith.livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

        “…humans in heaven would still be experiencing time because living bodies are inherently temporal…”

        But we wouldn’t BE living bodies any more, would we?

        • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

          The tradition and Bible speak of a resurrection, not so much a ghostly afterlife. The resurrection restores us with living flesh, like Jesus, not like ghosts with wings and harps. I’m not an expert on this stuff, but I think Heaven is a lot more like a big party (with only nice people, and plenty of good conversation) than any ghostly ideas of the afterlife.

          • http://delphipsmith.livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

            “only nice people” defined as…what? Sorry, couldn’t help but poke at that ;) But yeah, definitely good conversation. And a HUGE library.

          • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

            I’d like the Library of Alexandria to be there, with translators. :)

  • http://fester60613.wordpress.com fester60613

    My my my I found this discussion kind of interesting and sort of silly and completely impractical.
    We have first to understand that no matter where the idea comes from, no matter what impulse draws us to it or what force impels us toward it, there is not ever going to be any sort of utopia for humanity. Ever.
    At the dawn of the Anthropocene, at the start of the age of the internet, it must be obvious that all we humans can currently agree on is that we agree on nothing. We humans are camps of thought, claques of theories, swarms of religiosity and spumes of science.
    Extrapolating humanity into the other (countless?) intelligent species that surely must exist in the billions of planets in our home galaxy and beyond, species could not possibly be other than camps, claques, swarms and spumes.
    It seems tragic to me that humanity continually maims itself with these arguments of what systems of governance or existence might lie beyond our current civilization – as if those pie-in-the-sky dreams might somehow inform us in ways to be better than we are, different than we are.
    I have no idea where this might have been going when I started typing but it seems to have reached an end.

  • http://delphipsmith.livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

    Ted Chiang’s short story “Hell is the Absence of God” is pertinent here. I couldn’t find it free online but you can listen to it here. (It’s posted with the following note: “Rated R. Contemplates existential issues.” — apparently you need to warn people before you shove any of those pesky Deep Thoughts into their faces, heh heh.) But the audio quality isn’t the best, and since Chiang is an amazing writer whose stories frequently deal with metaphysics, religion, free will, determinism, and other of our favorite topics, you’re better off picking up a copy of Stories of Your Life and Others. “Hell…” is in there along with seven others that are all equally original and thought-provoking. The title story is the best and delves deeply into the question of free will, particularly whether our belief in it arises from our purely linear view of time. Heady stuff!

    • leahlibresco

      I know the text isn’t available online, since I’ve wanted to link to it before. I ran across it in a Year’s Best SciFi a long time ago.

    • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

      Weird! My friend just gave me a copy because she knew the author and thought I would enjoy it… I will make sure I read that one *cough*whenIdon’thavefinalpaperstowriteandexamstograde*cough*.

  • deiseach

    This is only tangentially relevant to the post, but since we’re talking about Heaven, and it’s coming up to Easter, then obviously it has to be time for the usual “Christianity will be turned on its head!” newspaper story that gets trotted out every Christmas and Easter, and the “Daily Mail” does not disappoint.

    I feel somewhat guilty about linking to this, as I definitely felt stupider after reading it and I don’t wish the deleterious effects on any of the rest of you. Also, I am hoping desperately that this is just the usual “media needs to boil down complex argument into snappy headline” distortion, because if a genuine Cambridge academic trotted this out in all seriousness, then woe is me for the state of modern academia.

    Leah, Ray, all you other agnostics/atheists – I apologise. I have not sufficiently appreciated you and your sanity. I can understand someone saying the whole notion of the Resurrection is a pack of nonsense; I can understand someone saying the Shroud of Turin is a mediaeval fake; I can understand someone saying that the Shroud is not genuine but that has no bearing on the truth of the Resurrection.

    What I cannot understand is someone who says the Shroud is genuine but the Resurrection never happened and instead what happened was that the apostles saw the image on the burial cloth and mistook it for (or it affected them in such a way that it caused them to hallucinate) the risen Christ. Banging my head against a wall feels so much better in comparison to trying to wrap my mind around that one.

    • http://delphipsmith.livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

      Funny, nobody in the Bible mentions that Jesus came back wrinkly, fuzzy and vague in outline ;)

  • @b

    Valhalla is where the slain can feast with Odin for eternity.

    Those sentiments surely had an impact on the life of those who believed them.

    Talking about life after death is supposed to be compelling. Not merely a matter of fact.

    Leah objection extends even to the Catholic rhetoric of “rest in peace” because that claim is factually suspect. The case is weak. The evidence is poor. We don’t know a homo sapien mind can outlive its brain (to experience feelings).

    Greta’s criticism is more specifically of “heavenly reward”. Her objection (reading between the lines) is because that rhetoic -regardless of its truthiness- has the effect of distorting the believer’s earthly morality. And profoundly more so than the trivial “rest in peace”.


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