Sunday Sacrilege: Imagine no Heaven

Religion has a real problem with incentives. As long as they’re all in an invisible afterlife, it’s hard to take them seriously.

The religion I grew up in was rather vague about the consequences — there was a Hell which was not discussed in polite company, and Heaven was a place brought up at funerals as an answer to where the dead had gone, nothing more. I didn’t think much about it until I was in my early teens, when a crazy lady forced me to…and mainly, she made me realize she was a crazy lady.

My brother and I were walking down James Hill in Kent when a woman started yelling and hallooing at us, waving her arms frantically. We stopped — we were young and trusting and living in a small town, nowadays I’d probably start running while pulling out a cell phone and calling the police — and like good polite boys we wondered what we could do to help her. She pulled out a Bible and told us how happy she was to see us and so glad to be able to bring us the Good Word and had we been saved? And do we love Jesus? She had a kind of manic cackle and a demented grin on her face, and at this point, despite our innocent Tom Sawyeresque upbringing, I was beginning to wonder if she was going to pull out an obsidian knife and sacrifice us, laughing and smiling the whole time.

She really warmed to her subject when she began to talk about the Lake of Fire, though. “When you go to Hell, you are thrown in the Lake of Fire [big smile — I noted she had very nice dentures] and your skin will be burned off and your lungs will be seared by the fumes. Do you know what brimstone is? [smile] It’s a sulfurous rock so hot it melts and smokes and it will be poured down your throat [rapturous smile] and you will be trapped there forever writhing in agony and you can never get out, no matter how much you scream and scream and scream and your Mommy and Daddy won’t be able to save you, ever [sad smile]. But I can save you now! All you have to do is swear your love for your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen, right here, and you’ll be spared the torments of the damned! Hee, hee!”

And then she told us to kneel down in the gravel by the side of the road and put our hands on her Bible, which we did, because at this point I was afraid if I didn’t our Mommy and Daddy would find our little corpses with our throats slit and a mad woman dancing in our blood. Then she recited some lengthy vow with lots of Jesus in it, looked at us expectently with another mad-eyed grin, and we mumble-whispered “yes, ma’am” and she let us go, throats uncut, hearts still in our chests, heads still attached to our necks, while she capered off triumphantly, having secured two more souls for her lord and master. She thought.

But, as you can know now, all she actually managed to do was make me aware that people who believe in Heaven and Hell are freakin’ nutbag insane.

This is a real problem for religion. Oh, sure, it works just fine as a motivating mechanism when all it is is a simply presented choice between pain and bliss (hint: most people can choose bliss without even breaking a sweat), but if you really think about it, the whole concept doesn’t hold up under inspection at all, and the effectiveness of the metaphysical carrot and stick only works if nobody tries to think it through. It’s not just that there is zero evidence for any claims of an afterlife, but that they are logically untenable.

Hell. Let’s start with the ol’ bugaboo, a bad place of eternal suffering. Most of the naive portrayals of Hell are weirdly material: if I’m dead, I’m bodiless, so what’s all this nonsense about pain and body parts on fire? And really, I don’t think my mind, or anyone’s mind, could hold up for more than a few moments under the kind of intense agony they propose before consciousness is lost, insanity ensues, and a complete disintegration of self and personality is accomplished, so simmering a twitching husk in a pool of lava for eternity seems rather pointless. Unless, of course, God is some kind of mindless psychopath who likes pointless torture.

Other visions of Hell are a bit more sophisticated — it’s a place of psychological torture, unending despair and futility, where you feel regret and sorrow for all time, or suffer because you are deprived of the presence of God. That’s a bit more plausible for a disembodied self, I suppose, but still…throw a mob of people in a Slough of Despond for a long, long time, and at some point someone is going to get together with someone else and form a Glee Club, and there will be singing in Hell. And then a rugby match will break out, and there will be cheering and betting, and thespians will be pestering Shakespeare for some new plays, and before you know it, culture will emerge and it won’t be Hell so much anymore. Dante’s glum ghosts never seemed particularly likely to me.

But all right, let’s assume God has figured out ways to permanently suppress the human spirit among all those deceased spirits, and actually has contrived a truly painful Hell, one that I can not imagine but that he can, being God and all. Now we’ve got the problem that the loving God we’re all supposed to worship is an imaginative, creative death camp commandant, one who also maintains a luxury spa on the side. In that case, let’s just scratch “loving” and “worship” from his description.

Furthermore, there’s another twist. Most of the people who believe in this paingod also believe in a final judgment — that is, there’s a point before which you’ve got an opportunity to make the right choice and get in God’s good graces, and after which…sorry, you’re just done. You’ve abandoned all hope of salvation and will suffer forever, with no possibility of forgiveness. Does that make sense? No. I can understand punishment as a motivator — maybe angels whose harps fall out of tune get slapped with an hour in the Lake of Fire so they don’t do it again — but what’s the point of punishment without reprieve, without opportunity for reform? Your soul gets the first brief 70 years of its existence to decide whether Mormonism or Islam or Lutheranism (ELCA) or Lutheranism (Wisconsin synod) or Lutheranism (Missouri synod) or Catholicism are true, and if you make the wrong guess, the next billions and billions and billions of years are spent in utter abject misery? That’s insane.

The whole concept of Hell is so demented and irrational, that many religious people have abandoned it. There are quite a few Christians who sensibly reject it and simply say that because their God is a loving God, everyone gets to go to Heaven. Of course, now they’re stuck with the concept of Heaven.

Heaven. The funny thing is, for all my inability to imagine a viable vision of Hell, what probably comes closest is most people’s version of Heaven. Who would want to even visit Puritan Heaven, with all its smug and judgmental inhabitants praising God non-stop with pursed lips suspicious eyes? What woman would want to live in Mormon heaven, and what man could dwell there for long without developing a smidgen of guilt?

Heaven has all the problems of Hell. Just as this personality, this self, this me would not persist if it were immersed in the Lake of Fire, making immortality rather irrelevant, so too would I cease to exist if scoured in the all-consuming love of an omnipresent deity. What kind of PZ Myers could exist when stripped of doubt and disbelief and irreverence and impudence? An angelic PZ is a contradiction in terms — it would be the death of the me that counts. I am disbarred by my nature from any form of Heaven.

A paradise is also inhuman (I know, one can get around this by arguing that after death you can’t be human anymore, by definition; but then that requires throwing away the idea of life after death, which is what most people find appealing). Think about what defines you now: it’s how you think, your personality, your desires and how you achieve them — by what you strive for. Finish one project, and what do you do (after a little celebration, of course)? You look for something else to strive for, a new goal to keep you interested and occupied. But now you’re in heaven. All wishes are fulfilled, all desires achieved, we’re done with everything we’ve ever dreamed of, making Heaven a kind of retirement home where everyone is waiting to die. Waiting forever.

You can’t ask a human being to shed all of their aspirations without expecting them to seek new ones, and no, membership in the Choir Celestial isn’t going to be for everyone, nor is doing the finest job in the universe buffing God’s toenails. Given eternity to plan, you just know everyone is eventually going to get around to plotting the Big Coup, and then it’s back to Hell again, which we’ve already said is an untenable concept.

Of course, there is another version of Heaven that rips away all those troubling desires that define our humanity. Heaven is pure bliss, pure joy, pure worshipful existence in the presence of the deity; you won’t miss those trifling hopes because they will be blown away by unadulterated rapturous ecstasy fired straight into your soul by Jesus himself, for a high that will never ever end.

This is the crack cocaine vision of an afterlife.

I confess, it does have some appeal.

It is, again, a kind of death of the self, a commitment to an end of your existence as you know it for a mindless non-existence, but at least it’s winking out cheerfully. It’s rather like being given a choice on your deathbed: you can 1) have an overdose of painkillers with a tincture of ecstasy and aphrodisiacs while having aorta-rupturing sex, or you can 2) go out gasping and choking and clawing for a few more minutes of strained life, fighting for every second. I’d tend to favor choice #2 myself, but I can sympathize with those who would rather pick door #1. Either way, though, it’s an end of who you are.

There are some religions that embrace this sublime vision of an ultimate end that does not include the mundane humanity of its believers — the Buddhist afterlife does seem to be a kind of selfless oblivion — but that does not include the Abrahamic religions. They’ve still got the cartoonish anthropocentric version of an afterlife, where you’ve got a body with limbs and tongues and penises and vaginas, and you get to indulge in the senses within certain confining rules. You get to meet Grandma and Grandpa again, and they aren’t all subsumed in the godhead — they’re there to give you hugs and a plate of cookies. And that’s just silly. I can’t believe a word of it.

I especially cannot believe any of it in the absence of any reasonable evidence. It’s really nothing but people making stuff up based entirely on what they wish were true.

I’m not a popular fellow at funerals, you might guess. It’s not that I’m a disruptive shouter — funerals are places for grief and consolation, not anger — but I’m not going to deliver a eulogy unless it’s something like, “The deceased is dead and gone forever, now get on with your lives and accomplish as much as they did. Oh, and by the way, that smug jerk in the funny collar over there is lying to you if he says anything different.”

That is the godless view of death. It’s an end, not a transition. It deserves all the sorrow the living bring to it, and the absurd attempts of the believers to soften it with lies are a contemptible disservice to the life that is over. Don’t be shy about saying it, either; the life that is lost is far more important and the death far more tragic than any fantastic superstition conjured up by some pious twit can obliterate.

Although, come to think of it, funerals are fitting places for sacrilege. You’re all invited to mine, someday, and please do have a laugh over that rotting meat at the front of the room. I’ll be gone, I won’t mind…but please be nice to the family, even if they’re right up there razzing god with you.