Those Old Pearly Gates

Although the Christian Bible has many verses describing the horrors and torments of Hell, it has surprisingly little to say about what Heaven is like. The assumption, it seems, is that everyone knows Heaven is a great place and everyone will want to go there, so advertising is not necessary.

However, this assumption, at least in my case, may not be correct. I do not mean to denigrate the civil, intelligent and rational believers whose acquaintance I have made, but in the course of researching atheism and theism, it is unfortunately true that I have come across religious bigots and racists, brazen hypocrites, hateful zealots, those who are ignorant and determined to remain that way, and many others who represent some of the worst qualities of humanity. Ironically, it is these types of individuals who most frequently insist that salvation can be assured, and who further claim that they are among the beneficiaries of that salvation. I say, if Heaven is full of these people, then I want no part of it.

In all seriousness, there remain some fundamental problems with the doctrine of Heaven. Consider the following:

Most major religious traditions with a concept of Heaven – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baha’i – hold that God is good. Yet it is undeniable that evil and suffering exist in this world, even though a truly good God would not allow such things. In a partial attempt to resolve this dilemma, apologists for these traditions often rely on the so-called “free will defense” – that God gave human beings the ability to choose, either to obey him or to defy him, and those who choose to defy him and break his laws are the cause of moral evil in this world. Many fundamentalist Christians would state this in even stronger form: they believe that all human beings are inherently sinful, and that it is impossible for anyone to avoid breaking God’s laws, no matter how good they try to be. As a result, these Christians conclude, humans are incapable of reaching Heaven by their own efforts, and only those who seek forgiveness of their sins from Jesus Christ will be granted salvation and eternal life.

However, “eternal life” is typically held in theist circles to mean an eternal continuation of mortal life – i.e., the souls in Heaven will retain the same memories, the same personality, the same character traits as they had on Earth. But if this is the case, do they also retain the same sinful human nature? Most religions would agree that even the best among us put a foot wrong occasionally, and some Christians would further state that everyone sins all the time. Do people commit sins in Heaven, just as the fundamentalists would have us believe they do on Earth?

There are two possibilities: either there is sin in Heaven or there isn’t. The teachings of virtually all religions mitigate against the first option, and with good reason. If there is sin in Heaven, it can’t be that much better than Earth. There may not be tornadoes, earthquakes or infectious diseases there, but human beings are capable of harming each other in a virtually limitless number of more subtle ways. Is there anger or frustration in Heaven? What about envy, pride, lust, greed, loneliness, hatred? Could there be harassment there, or infidelity, or treachery, or outright war? If all these things do exist in Heaven, then why would anyone want to go there? If they don’t, how can that be reconciled with the fact that Heaven is populated by fallible, sinful humans?

At this point, a simple solution suggests itself. According to the theodicy discussed above, moral evil and sin are the result of humans misusing the free will God gave to us. Therefore, an easy way to prevent there being evil and sin in Heaven would be for God to revoke the free will of its inhabitants. We now have a further choice: If there is no sin in Heaven, do the people there have free will or do they not?

I will examine the latter possibility first. The problem theists face could be resolved by claiming that there is no sin in Heaven because there is no free will in Heaven; when we get there, we become like angels, non-free-willed beings whose only function is to praise God and who are actually incapable of committing sins. But if Heaven is a desirable goal, those who make this argument must also claim that free will is a bad thing, or at least that the lack of free will is a desirable condition.

But this violates the key teaching of theism, embodied in the free will defense, which states that God gave us free will because he wants us to choose him of our own accord, not have our love programmed into us like machines. And yet the ultimate reward, the thing we desire and God desires for us, is to lose our free will and become mindless slaves to the Almighty? This does not make sense. It is not compatible with the high value God supposedly places on free will; so high, in fact, that he allows most of humanity to damn itself just so the fraction of people who worship him as he directs can be said to genuinely love him. If it is that important to God that we freely choose him, then how can he be content to be surrounded for all eternity by human automata chanting his praises, endlessly, like broken records? Would this not represent the undoing of everything he sought to achieve by creating free will in the first place? Indeed, if he is content with this, then the creation of this mortal world was entirely unnecessary. Why not just throw out free will entirely and begin with Heaven, and not have to create a Hell at all?

And if such a Heaven is unsatisfactory to God, it should be equally unsatisfactory to its other residents. Many people, I among them, would say that a Paradise without free will is no reward at all. I value my autonomy and self-direction. Why would I want to give that up so I could spend eternity mindlessly singing hymns over and over? If Heaven is not a place where you get the reward you desire, it is not Heaven.

It seems, therefore, that a Heaven with both free will and sin is unsatisfactory, and a Heaven without either free will or sin is also unsatisfactory. The final option – that there is free will, but no sin, in Heaven – is the most interesting, and the most potentially dangerous for theism. On its face, it seems like the best option for both God and human beings. But how can there be free will without sin?

The theist might answer that the free will in Heaven is some different kind of free will, superior to the kind we have on Earth. Perhaps the people there are gifted with perfect knowledge, or perfect empathy, or something of the sort, or perhaps we are transformed by being in the presence of God, or perhaps we receive new bodies immune to the temptations of sin (some Christians believe exactly this and call it “glorification“) – so that people in Heaven are either no longer able to commit sins or are able to avoid doing so, yet retain their free will in other things. But of course, this begs the question: Why didn’t God create us with this kind of free will in the first place and thus not have to create a Hell at all?

No Christian or other theist has ever been able to resolve this paradox. Assuming Heaven exists, there are only four options to choose from:

  1. There is both sin and free will in Heaven.
  2. There is sin but no free will in Heaven.
  3. There is free will but no sin in Heaven.
  4. There is neither free will nor sin in Heaven.

Together, these four options exhaust all possibilities, and therefore one of them must be true. The only remaining question, then, is which of the four is the correct one.

I have argued on theological grounds that option (1) is unacceptable to Heaven-believing theists, and I know of no theist who disputes that conclusion. (Option (2) is simply absurd and will not be considered.) I have additionally argued that (4) is likewise unsatisfactory because it would make Heaven an undesirable goal for many, and because it contradicts the free will theodicy, a key teaching of most religions, which states that God wants beings who freely choose to love him and not “robots” programmed to do so. Again, I know of no member of these religions who is challenging that. Therefore, the only conclusion is that the correct solution is (3).

But theists who accept this solution have stepped into a trap. Now consider this argument:

  1. By (3) above, it is possible for God to create free-willed beings
    without the possibility of evil.
  2. According to the free will theodicy, evil arises from the actions of
    free-willed beings.
  3. By (I) and (II), God deliberately chose to create free-willed beings
    who would commit evil acts, even though he had the option of doing
  4. Conclusion: God wanted evil to exist.

And a being that would want evil to exist is itself evil. This contradicts the tenet of theism which states that God is good, and so I believe I have shown that theistic belief as currently given by most of the world’s major religions contains within itself an irreconcilable contradiction. Therefore, it is not logically consistent within itself, and therefore it cannot possibly be true. In logical terms, this is an example of “proof by contradiction”: by taking the initial premises of a system as given and showing that a self-contradiction logically follows, we prove that one or more of the initial premises must have been flawed. On the basis of other considerations, I propose that the flawed axiom is that God exists in the first place.

The potential importance of this matter cannot be overstated. This dilemma strikes at the very heart of theism – a god who would create evil, or create a world where evil is inevitable, despite having the option to do otherwise, would itself be evil, simply stated. If God would have originally created us with the sort of free will that excludes evil altogether, then no one at all would have ended up in Hell. But if God did not do this, and instead created us in a way that allows for the possibility – or the certainty – of sin, thus necessitating the creation of a Hell and ensuring that countless millions of beings would be doomed to an eternity of punishment there, then the only conclusion is that he wants at least some people to go to Hell, and only a monster would desire this. If God deliberately chose this poor option when a better one existed, then he is evil, and such a god would not be worthy or deserving of worship even if it existed. Fortunately, the empirical evidence suggests that this god does not exist at all – that the contradiction arises only from the minds of human beings, who have attempted to live in an indifferent and unfair world while maintaining the fantasy that an almighty, all-good ruler presides over it.

Though this argument is the most serious strike against Heaven, other problems exist with the doctrine as well. For instance: Wouldn’t Heaven get boring eventually? Most religions that believe in such a place hold it to be a realm of perfect peace and idyllic contentment, where nothing ever goes wrong and where all the desires of its inhabitants are fulfilled. And there is no doubt that an arriving soul would find such a place to be very beautiful and would be very happy – at least for a little while. But it could not be long before a saved soul would look around at his heavenly surroundings and say, “Okay, now what?”

The point is this. How can beings such as humans not be bored if we have no work, no challenges, no accomplishments? What is there to do in Heaven? If you play a game of golf there, will you hit a hole in one every time? If you cultivate a garden, will it always give forth a profusion of beautiful plants and flowers regardless of how much or how little care you put into it? If you try to make new friends, does it really matter who you come in contact with, since every saved soul is just as loving and gracious as every other? (What would it mean to be an individual in Heaven?) It is easy to see how pointless such an existence would be, how rapidly it would become an intolerable monotony. Humans need obstacles to surmount, deeds to accomplish, new experiences to be had to make their life worthwhile, and Heaven offers none of these things.

I am not arguing that there must be evil for life to have value. A world where pain and suffering exist is unjustifiable. But a world where there are no challenges or difficulties of all – no change of any kind – would be sterile, pointless. Yet we are told that Heaven is such a world. Will the saved really want to go on forever in such a state? Won’t the same hymn praising God get just a little tedious after the ten trillionth repetition or so? Will the Muslims who are looking forward to receiving their promised seventy-two dark-eyed virgins really be satisfied forever with that? To an ignorant desert nomad, this must have seemed the greatest imaginable reward, but all finite pleasures must ultimately fade before the crushing, inconceivable length of time that is eternity. Likewise, it is significant that this site, which describes Heaven in rather absurd detail, mentions the saved being able to personally meet and talk to the heroes and prophets of the Bible – but the only stories these worthies will have to tell about come from their time on Earth. What will happen after Judgment Day, when all of humanity is either in Heaven or Hell and everything that’s ever going to happen will have happened? Won’t hearing Moses tell the story of crossing the desert with the Israelites, or Noah’s description of the Flood, or even having Jesus preach a sermon at your dinner party, lose its novelty after the last few hundred billion times?

Those who conceive of a changeless eternity, and think they will never tire of it, do not have much imagination. For all its nightmares, all its sadness and its horror, life on Earth has a point: while we are here, we can do things, things that matter; we can make a difference. In Heaven, no one can make a difference. The story will be over, the book will be closed. There will be nothing else to look forward to but ennui and despair from the endless march of weary eons. Can such a sterile and empty eternity really be considered a reward, or would not Heaven, with time, eventually become Hell? Who really wants to live forever?

There is one last problem to address – a big one. To admit the existence of a Heaven, one must also admit the existence of a Hell. (At least, as far as scripture is concerned. Some might believe otherwise, but such views find no support in any major religion’s holy book.) If this is the case, it is likely that for every one person who is saved, two or more will be damned, as no single religion commands a majority of the world’s population. And if the Bible and most other holy books are any guide, damnation is forever; Hell is an infinite punishment.

The point is this. How can anyone enjoy Heaven, knowing that while you have eternal bliss there are people experiencing eternal suffering? Unless you belong to an insular religious community or a cult, it’s almost certain that you know someone – a friend, a relative, a loved one, an idol who inspires you – whose religion of choice is different than yours, or who has no religion at all. How will you be able to enjoy Heaven in the certain knowledge that that person is, at the same moment, suffering the torments of the damned? What if it’s a spouse, a parent, a best friend, a child? (Some theists claim that watching the damned suffer is one of the rewards allotted to those who reach Heaven. About this no more will be said.) How can Heaven be any sort of reward at all if it means eternal separation from the people you care about, all the more so if those people must suffer without release while you are powerless to help them? And will you, a saved soul in Paradise, be content to kneel and worship the same god who, elsewhere at that same moment, is pouring out the flames of his wrath upon your lost loved ones?

Charles Darwin, the founder of evolutionary theory and initially a devout Christian who later deconverted to agnosticism, said it best:

“I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.”
    –From The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882, With Original Omissions Restored, p.87, ed. Nora Barlow. Norton & Co., 1969.

But even in the very unlikely situation that everyone you know or care about has exactly the same beliefs as you, is this really a solution to the problem? Do you have to know the people in Hell personally for their suffering to spoil your happiness in Heaven, or would it be enough to ruin your heavenly bliss to know that anyone is in Hell at all? Would a truly good person, the kind worthy of an eternity of peace and joy, be untroubled by the screams of the multitudes writhing in the lake of fire? Would he not be crippled with empathy for those lost in the darkness of separation from God? Indeed, it might well be said that if you’re looking forward to Heaven and don’t plan on being bothered by the suffering of those in Hell, then you don’t belong in Heaven. And how much worse would the problem be if the very appeal of Heaven, as already mentioned, is to be in the presence of the very god who is inflicting these unimaginable torments upon others?

Humans are, as far as we know, the only creatures cursed with a clear view of their own mortality. It is natural and understandable that we would seek to allay our fears by inventing beliefs by which we could persuade ourselves that we could escape this fate. The doctrine of Heaven is one such. At first glance, it sounds like everything one could ask for. Who wouldn’t want eternal life with God in Paradise? Who wouldn’t want to know that all of your (believer) relatives and friends who have died will be there, waiting for you? Such ideas can give courage to the dying, comfort to the bereaved, and hope to those who believe everything will be set right in the next world.

But just because a belief makes our existence more pleasant does not mean it is true. It is the right and the duty of every person to rationally and skeptically examine a proposition before accepting it, and if that proposition turns out to not be supported by logic or evidence, it is the mark of a mature mind to be able to set it aside and face life as it really is. Heaven is just such a belief. Comforting though the idea may be, a rational examination shows that it suffers from intractable logical problems. Therefore, we should face up to the fact that it is fiction, and find within ourselves the wisdom and the honesty to go on without it.

To those who have never known the freedom of a life without dogma, losing the safety net of belief in a pleasant afterlife may seem frightening and traumatic at first. But like so many other doctrines of theism, the discarding of it ultimately turns out to be not a loss, but a gain. The idea of “eternal life” makes our lives comparatively fleeting and worthless – after all, why bother trying to make yourself a better person now when you’ll have eons to do it later? Why bother trying to ease the suffering of your fellow beings when all their tears will eventually be wiped away? This concept devalues our achievements, debases our very humanity. Far better, far more commendable, is the atheist who does not fear death, though he accepts that when you’re gone, you’re gone, and strives to make the best use of the gifts of life and consciousness in the short time span available.

Tragically, the means that theists have adopted in an attempt to escape the end are instead depriving them of the only chance they will ever have. Using such precious time to pray and abase yourself and follow superstitious rituals, all in the hope of winning the favor of some fictitious supernatural being, is a terrible waste. Life is too short to spend it on your knees. Instead of preparing for another existence that will never come, we should make the best use of the life we do have. To learn wisdom, to appreciate beauty, to stand up for what you believe in, and to love – these are far better uses of the all too brief time allotted to each of us.