Heaven is almost as evil a doctrine as Hell.
I’ve written before on how profoundly screwed-up the doctrine of Hell is. I’ve written about how wildly disproportionate it is to give infinite punishment for finite sins. I’ve written about what a lousy form of punishment it is, since it’s permanent so you don’t have any chance to learn from it, and it’s invisible so others can’t learn from your example. I’ve written about how it makes such a powerfully insidious form of social control: how the threat of infinite, infinitely terrible punishment will make people do just about anything to avoid it.
But a guest post by Christina on the WWJTD? blog is making me realize: Heaven is almost as evil a doctrine as Hell is. Worse, in some ways. And for much the same reasons.
Christina’s post took the form of a short poem, which I’ll just quote here in full since it’s short:
Will you walk
down the hall, down the stairs
across the street to fetch me a newspaper
and a soda?
I’ll buy you a soda too.
How about five bucks
to go with your soda.
The reward goes up
you’re more likely
to do what I ask.
It’s a simple exchange.
yet at some point
The reward I offer
When you offer people a reward, they’re more likely to do what you ask them to. And the bigger the reward, the more likely it is that they’ll say Yes. If I really don’t feel like going across the street to get you a soda, I might not do it for five bucks — but I’m more likely to do it for ten. I’ll almost certainly do it for twenty. Damn sure I’ll do it for a hundred.
Of course, the more that’s being asked, the more you have to offer to get people to do it. I’d go across the street and get you a soda for five bucks — but to get me to go clear across town and buy you this special soda that they only have in this one store, you’re going to have to do a lot better than five bucks. If we’re very close friends and you’re having a bad day and this special soda is the one thing that would cheer you up, I might do it out of the goodness of my heart… but in general, offering a bigger reward is how you get people to do bigger and better things for you.
You see where I’m going with this, right?
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 wear ridiculous and uncomfortable outfits. 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 give you a tenth of their income, or more. It can get people to teach their children to believe everything you say. 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.
Now. Think about this for a second.
What do we think of people who promise rewards to get us to do what they want… when they can’t make good on those promises?
What do we think of people who promise rewards to get us to do what they want… without having any good reason to think those promises will be fulfilled? What do we think of people who say, “Oh, yeah, if you drive across town to get me that special soda, this guy Hank will give you a hundred bucks” — when they have no good reason to think that Hank even exists, much less that he’s going to make good on the promises they’re making on his behalf?
We think they’re frauds. Charlatans. Scam artists.
And the bigger the promises, the worse we think they are.
If I promise you five bucks to go across the street and get me a soda, and after you’ve gotten me the soda I look in my wallet and say, “Oh, shoot, I thought I had five bucks but I don’t, sorry”… well, you’ll probably be somewhat irritated, but you probably won’t hate me for the rest of my life. But if I’m your boss, and I promise you a bonus of two thousand dollars if you work weekends on a special project, and then I say, “Oh, shoot, I thought I had two thousand dollars in my bank account, but I don’t”? You’re going to be furious. You might even quit, or sue, or start a boycott against me. As well you should.
When people offer a bigger reward to get us to do what they ask, our expectation that they be able to make good on that promise goes up. In fact, when people make really big promises, we generally enforce those promises with contracts, to legally compel them to make good. And we get much, much angrier when it turns out they were bullshitting. We understand that bigger promises create a bigger enticement to get people to do what we want. So our moral obligation to make good on our promises, and to only make promises we know we can keep, goes up in proportion to how much we’ve promised. And when people don’t make good on their promises, when they make promises they can’t personally keep and have no way of knowing will be kept by others… our anger goes up in proportion, not only to how much was being asked of us, but to how big the promises were in the first place.
So when people offer an infinitely huge reward to get us to do what they want… without having any good reason to think this reward will happen?
We should be furious.
And that’s exactly what the doctrine of Heaven does.
We often think of Heaven as the nice doctrine. We criticize Hell all the time: atheists, skeptics, even many progressive believers, are eager to say that the doctrine of Hell is a terrible form of fear-mongering and manipulation and social control. But Heaven, we tend to give a free pass on. Even if we think Heaven is a lie, we often think of it as a pretty lie. We think of Heaven as the comforting doctrine, the doctrine that gives pretty dreams to kids and makes Grandma happy on her deathbed.
The doctrine of Heaven is every bit as screwed-up as the doctrine of Hell. It is every bit as insidious a form of social control. We should give it every bit as much hostility and scorn as we give to Hell.