By Vexen Crabtree 2003
The concept of heaven is not universal in religion. Many of the most ancient religions have no such concept; the ancestor-worship of many natives, for example, has the afterlife as a more or less earthly affair. Many religions - even including much of Judaism has an abode of the dead, but, it is rather mundane. Heaven, as a perfect place of happiness, togetherness, light and proximity to God / truth / etc, was a concept that developed over time. It becomes most prominent as a feature of pagan Gnostic religions in the Roman Empire, where this world was seen as a trap which needed to be escaped from. The same is true of the idea of Nirvana in Hinduism and Buddhism1. Gnosticism was highly influential on early Christianity, hence, the idea of a transcendental and eternal heaven spread throughout the West in its idealistic form.
“The idea of avoiding death through some kind of belief in the afterlife is one of the most powerful driving forces behind religious belief3. For many people, (1) the personal desire to survive death and (2) the personal desire for social justice both conspire to make belief in the afterlife feel right. Some historians say that belief in an afterlife is one of the universal traits of primitive Human culture that led to the founding of our religions4, and it continues to fuel the appeal of faith even today, in the 21st century. Actual beliefs have differed from culture to culture, based mostly on geographic location. Historically many cultures believed that all dead folk (good and bad) go to a single underworld, but Christianity and Islam developed their ideas of heaven and hell into a very black-and-white moralistic affair. Now, many people say their fear of hell is one of the reasons they follow their religion5. Most spiritual experiences throughout the rest of the world rest on the idea of continual reincarnation rather than on heaven. The concept of an ultimate scheme which redresses the moral imbalances of the world is common to religion both in the West and in the East. God, or Karma, works to make sure that good people are rewarded, and bad people taught a lesson. It teaches us that we have a powerful social instinct towards justice, and when we don't find it in this life, it is very soothing for us to believe that it is found in the next6. There is no actual evidence for any kind of afterlife7 and in many countries where scientific knowledge is high, belief in the afterlife has heavily declined.”
The idea of heaven is one of the most attractive features of religion. The ends to which people will go in order to foster the required spiritual brownie points to get to heaven is seemingly endless - from lives spent in prayer, meditation and repentance, to lives wasted in suicide attacks and isolation: if there is potential reward at the end, people will believe in it, and then act on those beliefs.
The following things make the concept of heaven compelling and mentally addictive:
The attainment of a personal state of eternal happiness and bliss.
The idea that friends and family, alive and dead, have found peace and happiness in an afterlife.
The idea that all the wrongs of life are righted because good people go to heaven, and the bad people we've encountered are tortured in hell even if they got away with their wrongful attitudes during our own lives.
The worse one's own life in this world, the stronger is the compulsion to believe in a better life after this one. The statistical correlation between social inequality and religion, and, social instability and religion, has been reported on thoroughly by Barber (2011). People yearn for, and then believe in, an ultimate and absolute justice that will rectify all the wrongs of this life. There is certainly a strong element of condolence in believing that those who do wrong against us will be punished for each and every deed.
“Because the distribution of wealth and power inhibits them, the resentful cannot act out of their desire for vengeance against the wealthy and the noble; as compensation, therefore, they seek to score moral victories that in the end will enable them to turn the tables on those who have previously lorded it over them. Thus, as Weber (1964: 110-11) put it, 'suffering may take on the quality of the religiously meritorious, in view of the belief that it brings in its wake great hopes for future compensation.' The notion that unconscious drives for salvation, motivated by suffering, take on the form of religious claims to eventual privilege, was shared by Freud, perhaps in a common debt to Nietzsche.”
If God is all-powerful and all-good, it would have created a universe in the same way it created heaven: with free will for all, no suffering and no evil. But evil and suffering exist. Therefore God does not exist, is not all-powerful or is not benevolent (good)9. Such arguments have been used by many philosophers as evidence against belief in god10,11. A theodicy is an attempt to explain why a good god would have created evil and suffering. The most popular defence is that it is so Humans could have free will. However the entire universe and the natural world is filled with suffering, violence and destruction so any Humanity-centric explanation does not seem to work.”
There is no suffering in heaven, and no evil. This is by definition. It is a perfect place. The free will defence of evil states that God created evil because it wanted us to have free will; that free will was more important than anything else. If free will is of such importance that God creates evil in order to allow moral free will, then the beings in Heaven must have free will. Heaven is a place where there is free will, but no evil. This means that free will can exist without the presence of evil and suffering. This means that the free will theodicy is not valid. God could make the Earth and everywhere else the same as heaven, with the same free will but without suffering.
If babies go to Heaven, what is the point of life's suffering? If babies go to Heaven despite not suffering the trials of life, why is suffering in life necessary for the rest of us? If God exists and has the capability of sending babies to Heaven despite the fact that they have no religion or belief, why doesn't God send everyone to heaven immediately, and therefore end all suffering? God must be an immoral sadist, or, heaven doesn't exist.
If God is good, then it does not want us to suffer. God should immediately put every thing in heaven. It would end all suffering, eliminate all evil, put a stop to all sins. There is no sin in heaven, no transgression, no bad things, etc. If free will is good, then everyone in heaven has free will, but also everyone is happy and nobody does evil. This is because evil doesn't exist in heaven: it's not possible to act badly just the same as it's not possible, on Earth, to sprout wings and fly around at will. If being in heaven is the ultimate good, then God would gladly put everyone in heaven. There is no disadvantage of doing this. If God wants to, it can. Why doesn't God want to put everyone in Heaven? If there was an omnibenevolent god with free will existing in heaven, then, all people should automatically be in heaven too. That this isn't the case means that either god cannot do it (is not all-powerful) or doesn't want to (is not perfectly loving), or that God simply doesn't exist, or that Heaven doesn't exist.
An objection from a theist by email: God doesn't "force people to do things":
"You are basing your reasoning on a misunderstanding of the nature of a "loving" God. Love does not "force" people to do anything."
My response was: That's a useless excuse. Why doesn't God put everyone in Heaven? It would end all problems. Just stating that it doesn't do it because it doesn't force people to do things is rubbish. It FORCED millions of South East Asians to move from their homes in the aftermath of the Christmas 2004 tsunami, it forces millions of people to have diabetes, genetic disorders, unfortunate diseases, suffer natural disasters... it forces all these bad things on people, why won't God force heaven on everyone too? Is it true that God forces all the sufferings of life on people, despite their "free will", yet won't force happiness on them? What type of God is that?!! Certainly not a God that holds free will in much esteem, nor one that particularly cares about us! It is as if God was actually evil, or simply not there at all!
The fact that all beings are not in heaven, as discussed above, is a serious problem for the problem of evil.
To the present day, all theodicies have failed to explain why a good god would create evil, meaning that the existence of evil is simply incompatible with the existence of a good god. After thousands of years of life-consuming passion, weary theologians have not formulated a new answer to the problem of evil for a long time. The violence of the natural world, disease, the major catastrophes and chaotic destruction seen across the universe and the unsuitability of the vastness of reality for life all indicate that god is not concerned with life, and might actually even be evil. Failure to answer the problem of evil sheds continual doubt on the very foundations of theistic religions.”
Pascal's Wager is a rhetorical argument proposed by Christians against atheists, and holds that it is 'safer' to believe in God because if you're wrong, you don't lose anything, but if you disbelieve then you could end up foregoing the benefits of heaven. It is a very common argument13. The problem is with this argument is that if you were so shallow as to be convinced by it, then, it probably will not work out for you. Altruism for the purpose of getting yourself into Heaven is fake altruism - it is merely a holy form of selfishness. As such, any moral God will not entertain you any more than any other selfish person. The atheist who does good for its own sake is clearly a more moral person than a theist who does good with the reward of heaven dangling in front of them, and the threat of hell burning at their behind. So, in other words, it is better morally if you try to be a good person without believing in heaven, hell, and God.
Guy Harrison in "50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God" (2008) documents that the lure of heaven is one of the reasons that entices people to be veer towards theism, and in his discussion highlights a particularly unsavoury example of selfishness disguised as philanthropy. It derives from Benny Hinn, the famous Christian televangelist, after he asks for donations.
“Hinn then informed the audience that his ministry accepts donations by checks and credit cards. Scores of assistants fanned out into the crowd with big buckets. 'Don't just give,' he added, 'Sow, so that you can reap a mighty harvest!' This is an interesting point Hinn makes at his services because it seems to eliminate any element of altruism from the donation.”
The fact that Hinn frames donations in terms of what you will get out of it later really is a damning indictment of the entire concept of "doing good in order to get into heaven" element of Pascal's Wager.
Theists have a two-pronged pair of incentives that serve to lessen the worth of any apparent moral act on their behalf. If I am threatened into behaving in a good manner then I am at best amoral, because I am not acting with free will. If you believe that a supreme god is going to punish you (in hell) or deny you life (annihilation) if you misbehave, it is like being permanently threatened into behaving well. In addition, if you believe there is some great reward for behaving well, then your motives for good behavior are more selfish. An atheist who does not believe in heaven and hell is potentially more moral, for (s)he acts without these added factors. Most atheists who do not believe in divine judgement, and most theists who do, both act morally. Some of both groups act consistently immorally. The claim that belief in God is essential or aids moral behavior is wrong, and any amusing theistic claim that they have "better" morals, despite acting under a reward and punishment system, is deeply questionable. Who is more moral? Those who act for the sake of goodness itself, or those who do good acts under the belief that failure to do so results in hell?
Consider the fates of these three people:
Out of all the religions, this person picks the one that sounds like it will give the best rewards after death.
This person simply accepts whatever religion he was born with, and tries to live his life as best he can.
Out of all the religions, this person doesn't know which to pick even though he studies them, so he tries to simply live his life as best he can, deliberating carefully over the moral stances that he takes.
Imagining for the moment that god is benevolent (good) and judges us, then, it is surely the third person who deserves most merit. The first person, who follows Pascal's Wager, is openly self-centered. Given that many religions proscribe punishments for those that worship the wrong god, the third position (pick no religion) is the safest of all three options.
So the irony is that if the monotheistic concept of heaven is true, then, it still makes better sense to derive your morals from Earthly, secular, and personal sources rather than divine ones. In other words: Be true to yourself, and, do not let any religion tell you how to get to heaven.
The Bible's description of musical instruments in heaven gives us more evidence that scripture is human-made and bound by human imagination rather than being divinely inspired. It is well enough that the Hebrews wrote about holy men and other people playing the lyre and other precursors to the harp, as, those instruments were growing in popularity since their adoption from Syrian culture16. But it just so happens that Revelation 14:2 says that these instruments emanate from heaven itself, from the angels! Is it coincidence that heavenly beings play exactly the same instruments as popular at the time of the formation of the Jewish and Christian holy texts? Why do the hosts of heaven not play a Chinese, Australian or even an electronic or modern instrument? The answer to these questions is that the description of heaven is culturally sourced in the time of the Hebrews and early Christians, and is therefore human and not divine in nature. The description of heaven takes elements of Human culture and projects them on to the divine. This can hardly be a phenomenon just of Jewish and Christian holy texts, but is a feature of religion worldwide. Consciously or subconsciously, the details of "divine truth" are simply made up: a form of subconscious, accidental homocentricity.”
What a breath of fresh air it would be to then revert to pagan beliefs in free will and the afterlife! Socrates, four hundred years before Christianity arose, thought up a much more moral way for the universe to run: "the good go to heaven, the bad to hell, the intermediate to purgatory"17. It is so much more moral that those who behave well go to heaven, than the Christian doctrines of baptism, original sin and predestination. It is no wonder that such pagan ideas found themselves accepted by most Christians, even though their Bible goes to great lengths to say otherwise. It's just lucky that they don't know the common-sense idea of heaven is pagan in origin. But pagan or not, any beliefs in the afterlife simply appear to be misguided cases of wishful thinking.
Current edition: 2003 Mar 04
Last Modified: 2017 Jan 25
Parent page: Causes of Belief in the Afterlife and Differences Across Religions and Cultures
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