That the journey from faith to apostacy often produces compelling insights was underscored for me again this week when I bumped into the website of psychologist Valerie Tarico, the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light.
In a 2015 blog post, titled “10 Reasons Popular Versions of Christian Heaven Would be Hell,” Tarico encourages readers to view traditional notions of “Paradise” with a more skeptical eye:
“Most Westerners are at least vaguely familiar with the popular Christian version of Heaven: pearly gates, streets of gold, winged angels and the Righteous, with their bodies made perfect and immortal, singing the praises of God forever. What’s surprising is how few people have actually thought about what a nightmare this kind of existence would be.”
She itemizes the many reasons such a supernatural place might be enormously unpleasant in a human context.
“The closer you look, the more the Bible’s version of paradise seems like another version of eternal torture,” writes Tarico.
Among the traditional heaven’s more troublesome aspects, according to Tarico:
- Perfection: Because heaven is in every way perfect, it also must be “sterile — in every sense of the word. … It means there’s no room for improvement — for change and growth.” The imperfections, the varieties of humanity are what give our lives interest and variability.
- Irrelevance: Because everyone and everything is perfect, the divergent qualities that once distinguished us as individuals and bestowed our relative value become profoundly irrelevant.
“Compassion and generosity are pointless, because nobody is hurting or in need of – anything. Forgiveness? Not needed. Creativity? Courage? Resilience? Decisiveness? Vision? All useless.”
- Forget earthly pleasures: Would the need to eat even be a thing in heaven, for example, if hunger were only a feature of the mortal past?
“Eating, drinking, or fornicating – each of these physical pleasures depends on hunger of one sort or another. … The reality is that our bodies and brains are made for each other and optimized for life on this planet where our pleasures are linked to survival.”
- Free will begone: Temptation is obsolete in such a place.
“In Heaven there is no sin, no option to sin, and so, by Christianity’s own definition, no free will. … Secular philosophers and neuroscientists debate whether free will is real or merely and adaptive illusion. Either way, in the Bible’s version of Heaven, even the illusion vanishes.”
- The unborn and barely born: If you crunch the data, heaven should be a place populated not mainly by adults, but zygotes and toddlers.
“Human reproduction is designed as a big funnel. Most fertilized eggs die before implanting, followed by embryos and fetuses that self-abort, followed by babies and then little kids. A serious but startling statistical analysis by researcher Greg S. Paul suggests that if we include the unborn, more than 98 percent of Heaven’s inhabitants, some 350 billion, would be those who died before maturing to the point that they could voluntarily “accept the gift of salvation.”
- Infinite choir practice: What exactly would everyone do in heaven? “The same thing the angels do,” Tarico speculates. “They worship God and sing his praises.” It’s counterintuitive:
“It has been said that the only god worthy of worship is one who neither wants nor needs it. What are we to think of a deity who creates the earth and her inhabitants – in fact the entire universe—so that a crowd of bipedal primates, most of whom were never born, can spend an afterlife in this posture of praise and adulation?”
That’s just a partial list, but Tarico contends that the “theological implications” of these contradictions are “huge.”
“Christian theologians typically explain evil by arguing that this was the best of all possible worlds, the only way to create free will and to develop moral virtues (like courage, compassion, forgiveness and so forth), to make us more Christ-like and prepare us for Heaven. But if we run the numbers, it appears that God didn’t need the whole free will — sin — redemption thing to fill his paradise with perfect beings because no suffering, evil, or moral freedom is actually required as a prelude to glory.”
Indeed, the vast majority of earthlings who eventually arrive in heaven — 98 percent of them — apparently get there before having a chance to even flirt with damnation. So lifelong moral struggle for the rest of us seems downright unfair.