I was born with a deformed heart valve. My parents brought me in for an echocardiogram every year, and at age 15 the cardiologist decided it was time to intervene with an open heart surgery. We scheduled it for the day after Christmas.
I was told my risk of death was around 1%. I thought about the small but non-zero chance anxiously and often in the months leading up to the surgery. What if the surgeon came across unexpected complications, or made a mistake, and I never woke up? I squirmed at the idea of going into surgery expecting to survive, only to die anti-climactically on the operating table without ever realizing it.
I didn’t want to die unprepared, so privately I approached the surgery as though it were the end of my life. I wrote a goodbye letter and hid it in my dresser. I imagined that morning, those moments being wheeled in to the operating room, to be my last. I figured if I got lucky and survived, the rest of my life would feel like bonus time.
As a lifelong Christian, I made peace with my death by focusing on heaven. Objectively, if what I was raised to believe was indeed true, then it wouldn’t be a big deal if I died. I’d be waking up after the operation either way, either inside my earthly body, or with God. Since heaven is way cooler than earth, what did I have to lose? I spent a lot of time thinking about it and eventually this perspective became very real to me. I felt peaceful as I was wheeled into the operating room, ready to accept anything.
I told one of my parents about my thought process, and they told other people in the church. At the Christmas service before my surgery, our pastor shared the story about why I didn’t fear death, praising the strength of my faith, evoking cheering applause from the congregation.
It doesn’t seem to add up
What I wonder now is: seeing as the afterlife is such a major tenet of Christianity, arguably the main reason most people believe (desire of bliss, fear of agony); and seeing as we all supposedly had the Holy Spirit inside us, revealing the truth of these spiritual matters; why did other Christians consider my faith in heaven to be noteworthy? And why did it take so much agonizing processing for me to reach that point? Why is it not perceived as a real truth for so many believers?
A lifetime lasts about 80 years. According to mainstream Christianity, the afterlife is infinite. Compared to heaven or hell, life on Earth is like an instantaneous flash. A drop in the ocean; a single grain of sand in the largest beach. The first millimeter of a million mile journey. We’ll live in heaven a trillion trillion years and not scratch the surface.
Every soul on earth must be subjected to one or the other. An unfathomable endlessness of the worst suffering or the greatest joy. And we’ve only got this tiny blip of an existence to sort ourselves properly.
It seems like most Christians either don’t grasp how extreme this situation is, don’t have a tangible belief in the afterlife, or don’t care if people experience eternal torture. If it was fully true in their minds, wouldn’t their lives look different? They should have zero fear of death and devote every possible moment to evangelism. Fearless, relentless missionaries. Because what could be more important, in this extremely brief window of opportunity, than saving as many people as possible from literal hell?
We all know that most Christians are not fearless missionaries. Life on earth still seems to take top priority. They tearfully reassure themselves that their loved ones are in heaven after they die — but why is this reassurance necessary in the first place, if it’s such a fundamental truth? If death is followed by an infinity of unimaginable joy, why would there be even a moment of hesitation, sadness, or regret about death? It should be seen as a blessed relief from suffering.
I know that humans — including Christians — struggle to understand the scale of eternity. I don’t mean to ask the impossible of them. The idea of starting a perfect new life with God in another spiritual dimension and never ever leaving is mind boggling, and it’s pretty hard to evaluate the worth of your mortal life in comparison to this abstract belief about a future one. I get it.
But I don’t think an eternal afterlife makes any sense, fundamentally, and deep down I suspect it doesn’t make sense to many believers either. Why would someone be punished or rewarded for all eternity based on what they believed on earth — especially when so many people never had the chance to hear about Jesus, and others were raised to believe in him from day 1?
If God wanted to have a bunch of human souls in heaven with him forever, why bother to spend several thousand years putting us through a sorting test on this weird planet, sending the vast majority to endure agony while a few enjoy paradise with him? Why not just create us to exist in heaven in the first place? How is this outcome remotely pleasing to him? Why not simply forgive everyone after they die, if he can do anything?
I can put myself back in my Christian shoes and imagine the defenses I would have made against these (silly! naive!) questions. “God didn’t create hell for humans, it was for Satan, and all humans were meant to be with God, but then because he had to give them free will in order for their love to be real, they had a choice to make and they chose sin and it all fell apart”, etc.
I can think of several different theological perspectives involving God’s holy justice and the weight of sin, which seek to reconcile how a loving, forgiving, all-powerful, all-knowing God could have specifically created a reality in which he has no choice but to send most of his beloved creatures to suffer eternally.
But my deepest intuition and my logical faculties agree in telling me that all of these explanations are plain bullshit. I don’t think there are any convincing answers to these simple questions I’ve asked. It’s unfair, it’s brutal, it’s the opposite of love, and everybody knows it. Any God who would do such a thing is sadistic, period.
Losing hell makes up for losing heaven
When I lost my faith, letting go of the idea of immortality in paradise was the hardest part. I recognize that the concept of heaven was effective for giving my 15 year old mind some peace during a scary time. It’s a powerful idea. A useful crutch at times. But it was also a massive relief to finally let go of the twisted, nonsensical paradigm of sin, heaven, and hell altogether. The idea that humans are disgusting and deserving of hell unless they find Christianity. What a weight off my shoulders, not to have to worry about my friends being sent into an inextinguishable furnace.
This relief more than made up for the fact that I had to accept my own final mortality. I now face my heart procedures with the knowledge that I truly may never wake up. This simply motivates me to live as fully as I can in the meantime.