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.
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.