Attractive Afterlife?

Attractive Afterlife? January 21, 2015


This Far Left Side cartoon makes an important point. Not only have many religions come to focus on afterlife, but they have at the same time failed to offer an attractive picture of what that afterlife is like. At best, they offer something really terrifying as an alternative. But if the best you can say about your idea of heaven is “it’s better than hell,” then you clearly haven’t given enough thought to the subject.

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  • Paul Wallace

    Hi James. I like Marilynne Robinson’s idea of heaven. In _Gilead_ her protagonist imagines it like all the deeply good things of Earth — the small of rain, the brightness of fall leaves, the joy of community, the serenity of good sleep — multiplied by two.

    • Paul Wallace

      *smell* of rain

    • Kubricks_Rube

      I didn’t think it was possible, but I think Lila might be even better than Gilead.

  • As the book of Job and Robert Heinlein’s Comedy of Justice show, Hell is a preferable alternate to being with God.

    To him the greatest advantage of Sheol is being out of God’s punishing reach. Job alludes to this in slave is free of his master, where the word slave is intended to associate with its use in 1:8 and 2:3. Obviously, if God’s reach extends to Sheol it would offer no asylum.

    Pinker, A. (2007) Job’s Perspective on Death. Jewish Bible Quarterly. Vol. 35 No. 2. pp. 73-85.

    Heinlein’s vivid depiction of a Heaven ruled by snotty angels and a Hell where everyone has a wonderful, or at least productive, time — with Mary Magdalene shuttling breezily between both places — is a satire on American evangelical Christianity. It owes much to Mark Twain’s “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven”.

    • Running sheol together with hell is a mistake. The author of Job doesn’t seem to have thought that sheol/the grave represented any kind of meaningful ongoing existence. And so Job is a good example of ancient Israelite religion prior to its development of belief in an afterlife.

      • Sure, Christian ideas of Hell and Satan are mistakes, as chapter 4, The Devil, the Demons, and the End of the World, in Gregory Riley’s The River of God: A New History of Christian Origins (HarperCollins, 2001) documents; however, the mistakes are an integral part of common Christian belief.

        • Sean Garrigan

          Fortunately, that’s changing, albeit *much* too slowly. A number of minority groups have rejected the doctrine of eternal torment for some time, and while many “mainstream” Christians no doubt resisted annihilationism for fear of appearing “cultic,” it’s gaining ground despite such illegitimate concerns.

          Many have contributed to this over the years, but in recent times conditionalism has become for many *the* correct biblical understanding of the fate of the unsaved, while it is at least a respected alternative to the traditional view for many others. This is due in large part to the influence of Basil F. C. Atkinson and the excellent work of Edward William Fudge, though many other contributors could be named (e.g. Oscar Cullman, John Wenhem, John Stott, Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, etc.).

          Last year we saw something that would have been both unthinkable and probably impossible 100 years ago, namely, the publication of “Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism,” which is primarily a collection of writings culled form the works of influential conditionalists and others. Interestingly, the work of at least two of the author’s included in this volume, Basil F. C. Atkinson and Harold E. Guillebaud, had to be self published originally, the latter posthumously.

          I’ve wondered how the debate between Greg Bahnsen and Edward Tabash would have gone if Bahnsen had been a conditioinalist. “God’s a bad boogyman for creating hell” was pretty much the only argument Tabash offered against the existence of God that had any traction at all, and if Bahnsen had been a conditionalist, then, well, that debate would have been much better for it, IMO.

  • R Vogel

    My path out of traditional Christianity began with this very thing. There is simply no compelling picture of the afterlife – the doctrine of hell is abhorrent from beginning to end and Heaven just seems like the dream of a kindergartner from most descriptions I have heard. I see nothing to hope for beyond this life.

  • dk_adams

    I like Ms Robinson’s idea as well… while I do hope for something like that, I do realize the importance of helping to realize God’s will be done right here ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’

  • Andrew Dowling

    Fundamentalist Islam has put together what many would call an “attractive” picture of the afterlife ie a neverending orgy with teenage virgins.

    • I’ve never heard the never-ending bit. I thought you get at most 72, and pretty soon they are no longer virgins.

      • stewart

        According to some sources houris have regenerating virgins. I’d have to research further to ascertain whether this is an Islamic view, or an outside conception of Islamic belief.

        • stewart


    • Sounds like hell for the virgins.

  • TomS

    This calls to mind the reaction to the Pope’s recent suggestion that one’s pets will be in Heaven.

  • Bethany

    I’m thinking of something I read in a book by Borg (in which, IIRC, he was quoting someone else, but I can’t recall whom) to the effect that we know as much about what the afterlife as a baby in the womb knows about the world is like.

  • CorneliusFB

    A more interesting debate concerns the nature of immortality… is it embodied resurrection or disembodied soul…. is it timeless or unending time…. is it individual or social? And how does one’s view of immortality influence one’s politics?

  • Sean Garrigan

    That’s why I think N.T. Wright gets it right when he observes that the notion that we all “go to heaven” _up there_ is a faulty interpretation of Scripture. The *earth* will be made new, and human bodies will be made fit for eternal life in our natural home, which will be transformed into the paradise that was the original plan.

    Now that’s not too abstract, right?

    • About as abstract as a fairytale. I think Wright may be right that some scriptures intend this understanding of resurrection. It’s interesting (and maybe true in terms of authorial intent), but it’s no more believable (and perhaps even less believable) than a spiritual resurrection.

    • Sean

      I apologize. I actually wasn’t trying to be contrarian with that reply; I didn’t notice who I was replying to, and assumed that I was making a statement in general agreement with the original comment.

      I know that we disagree on the believability of resurrections, and wasn’t trying to start an argument.

      • Sean Garrigan

        No problem, Beau, but thanks for clarifying. To your final point in your previous post, I personally find it easier to relate to a physical resurrection than to a spiritual one, as I’m a physical creature, and I don’t even know what a spiritual resurrection would “look like”. I can certainly imagine what a physical resurrection might be like.

        • I totally agree with you about spiritual resurrections, Sean. A person without a body doesn’t make any sense to me.