My Way or the Eternal Highway: The Business of Heaven

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Does heaven exist and, if so, will your atheist brother get in?

This is the sort of question that bothers lots of the faithful. And a Christian pastor named Rob Bell has stirred the pot with Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

I guess that would include you and me.

Apparently, what most bothers the more doctrinaire believers about Bell’s tome is that eventually everyone, even those who do not lead fully exemplary Christian lives, can be saved and go to heaven. In other words, “love wins” even for people whose beliefs don’t line up with those who go “by the (good) book” during their lifetime, even including the possibility of heavenly eternity for those of entirely different religions.

No more need to worry about that brother of yours, your mom or dad, or all those honorable people whose religious faith (or lack there of) is different from yours.

This would mean, of course, that there is no longer any need to convert others to your particular way of thinking and believing.

Look for the missionaries to be lining up at the unemployment office.

And it would also mean that you don’t really have to follow the letter of the law as it is written in the old religious document upon which you have been reliant. After all, you will get a chance to go to heaven anyway.

And then there are all the judgmental people who would have to stop passing judgment in earthly imitation of a “Last Judgment” that would no longer be exclusive.

And all the hellfire-and-brimstone preachers who keep Sunday morning TV crackling who would need to update their resumés; as would their cameramen.

Boy, the unemployment line is getting pretty long by now, isn’t it.

Seems like Pastor Bell’s point of view would mean trouble for those individuals whose livelihoods depend on getting even more people to look at the world (and the world beyond) in the same way that they do. After all, in the religious market place there are only so many souls who are interested enough in salvation to show up for worship on the sabbath. So, you’d better round-up whomever you can and get them to “buy-in.”

The cynical among us might just think that there could be a post-prison job for Bernie Madoff in this somewhere. Oh, wait, I forgot that Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Baker snapped up those jobs some time ago.

But before you line up at my office with a flaming torch in your hand, I do want to make something clear.

I’m not suggesting that all of those who want to save your soul are self-serving. I’m sure that the vast majority do so for the right reasons. But, where money is to be made, where churches and temples require repair and maintenance, where books and religious accessories are sold and salaries are paid, you do need to keep an eye open to motives less pure than your eternal reward.

Earthly rewards have a way of messing things up.

A 1951 movie comes to mind. The Man in the White Suit starred Alec Guinness as Sidney Stratton, a chemist and inventor who creates a virtually indestructible fabric that repels dirt. At first he is hailed as a genius and hero. Later, when clothing manufacturers and their employees realize that his invention will put them out of business, he is their target.

Heaven without a well-guarded gate and an earthly admission fee, like a white suit that will last forever, just might create some enemies. Apparently, Rob Bell has a few of those.

Then there is the question of what constitutes heaven. Several possibilities come to mind:

  • A heaven that every one eventually can reach even if they don’t make it on the first try — something like the “love wins” heaven of Pastor Bell. I would guess that such a heaven would be sort of like some grand family reunion, where all past grudges are forgiven, everyone gets along, and Aunt Edna’s fruitcake actually tastes good.
  • The standard-issue version of heaven where there is a judgment and there is a permanent hell for those who don’t pass the evaluation that happens at the end of life. In it, you (if you are anything like your current self) will miss your atheist brother who is in the “other place” for eternity because he screwed up the mere three score and seven years he had on earth — (under)grounded for life and then some. Moreover, if you care about what is going on with your brother while you are in a better place, you just might also be bothered by the troubling events on earth. None of that seems like much fun to me.
  • In the next possible conception of an afterlife, your brother still is in hell, but you don’t care; even though you loved him when you were alive. In other words, you have been transformed into a creature quite different from the one you were on earth, but you are having a grand time. Greek mythology anticipated this, by suggesting that the newly departed were required to drink from the river Lethe, whose waters caused them to forget their lives on earth.
  • The 1998 Japanese film After Life offers still another notion of a posthumous existence. Heaven would consist of living forever in whatever single moment you choose from your life history on earth. To live “in the moment” necessitates that you give up that part of yourself which, like all humans, allows you to look back and remember the past, as well as to look forward and anticipate the future. Experiencing whatever single event is most precious involves sensations and feelings of joy or delight attached only to that isolated slice of time rather than to thought, worry, reflection, or concentration on other things, even including other positive relationships, experiences, and events. With respect to the question of your brother mentioned earlier, unless he was involved in the single moment you choose to occupy for eternity, you’d simply never think about him.
  • Finally, there is the possibility that there is no heaven and no corresponding hell either.

Of course, it’s not as if I really know.

Do you?

The top image is Ascent of the Blessed ca. 1490 by Hieronymus Bosch, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

A World Without Heaven

What would a world be like without the “idea” of heaven? How would people behave? What would they live for?

Of course, it is not as if the world that we live in, where the notion of an afterlife or some form of continuing existence is prevalent, is perfect. No, there are lots of wars and disagreements in contemporary life. But perhaps we are able to escape a sense of desperation in the belief that modern medicine, prudent behavior, and the possibility of an afterlife will allow us to continue our existence for a while at least, and perhaps permanently.

The ancient, pre-literate Greeks of Homer’s day could not so easily apply the balm of eternal life to their troubled psyches. They had no notion of a heaven of the type that Christians believe in, no sense of reincarnation such as the Hindus expect, no Muslim vision of paradise, no anticipation of a reunion with relatives and friends who had predeceased them. Instead, death led to a trip to Hades, the underworld, where existence was a pale and not very attractive shadow of earthly life, not something to be eagerly awaited. So if we want to know how men live when the notion of heaven doesn’t exist, we might well look to these people.

Remember too, that the life of the pre-literate Greeks (the Greek alphabet is thought to have come into existence somewhere around 800 B.C.) was painfully short. Even at the turn of the last century, around 1900, the average American lived only about 50 years. The brevity of life was certainly known to the ancient Greeks.

Greek literature and philosophy point to two driving concepts that motivated men. (And I speak of men, because women were extraordinarily disadvantaged in that period, seen as having almost no function or status other than for sex, companionship, rearing children, and domestic handicrafts). Honor and glory were what men sought. Honor tended to come in the form of goods, precious metal, slaves, concubines, and the like; in other words, mostly material things or things that could be counted or displayed or used. Sort of like today, perhaps you are saying to yourself. In our world, honor is conferred by status and very similar material things–the size of your house, the amount of money in your bank account, a trophy spouse, the car or cars you drive, a gorgeous vacation home, etc.

Glory (the Greek word kleos) is another matter. What might glory have consisted of in a world without heaven? It took the form of a reputation or fame that continued beyond death. And, since there was no written word, you and your accomplishments had to be sufficiently great to generate discussion, song, and story once you were gone. This was usually achieved by being a great hero or warrior. In war, then, one could hope to grasp both of these things: the honor that came with sacking cities and accumulating wealth, slaves, and sexual partners; and the glory of having the fearlessness, strength, and tenacity to carry out that accumulation via battle; sufficiently so that people would (sometimes literally) sing your praises after you were dead.

As I mentioned, today’s world doesn’t strike me as much different from yesterday’s on the point of achieving honor, although we are a little more discreet about our sexual conquests and have largely risen above keeping slaves. On the subject of glory, however, we seem to do everything we can to avoid death, which in the ancient Greek world was the only path to glory; a path that required both risking one’s own death on the battle field and inflicting it on others in the same place. So, whether you believe in heaven or not, it would seem that the “idea” of heaven has had some civilizing effect. There are, after all, more ways of getting to heaven in our cosmology than killing people, despite what some terrorist/martyrs might tell us.

To me what is important here, apart from the question of a civilizing effect of a particular religious concept, is the human need to conquer death as revealed in the heritage that the pre-literate Greeks have bequeathed us and, of course, in our own religious behavior. Both the ancient Greeks and most of us seem to hope that when we breathe our last, we are not finished forever. It is not a new idea, even if our solutions to the dilemma of mortality are (in part) different from those of our ancestors.

Unless, of course, you are such a brave soul that you have dispensed with the idea that you will live on in any form much beyond the time of your earthly demise: not in words or writings, not in great buildings that bear your name, not in photos or videos, not in businesses or charities or foundations that survive you, not in the students you have taught, not in your artistic creations or inventions, not in visits to your grave site, not in making the world a better place for those who succeed you; not in the biological output of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who continue your genetic line.

Clearly, it is pretty hard to give up the idea of glory, some sort of posterity–the hope for an afterlife–isn’t it?

(Footnote: this essay was prompted by rereading The Iliad and The Odyssey for the first time in many years, and by listening to the lecture series The Iliad of Homer by Professor Elizabeth Vandiver of the University of Maryland. This course and many others are offered by The Teaching Company. Professor Vandiver is a wonderful instructor and I have relied heavily on her discussion of honor and glory in the pre-literate Greek world in this essay. I can strongly recommend courses sold by The Teaching Company. I should say, however, that I am in no way affiliated with that organization or benefit from any purchases from them that you might make; I’m simply a satisfied customer).

After Life

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The subject of religion is a dangerous one. Many people have strong opinions for and against. It makes little sense to trying to persuade someone that God does exist, or that he/she doesn’t.

At the risk of offending you, I’m going to offer a few random thoughts on the subject, with particular focus on the question of whether there is a life after death and what it might consist of. I don’t claim to be strongly attached to all of these thoughts, but I do find them interesting; you might as well. If, however, you are 100% certain of the validity of your own opinions (or that of your faith or lack of faith), I’d suggest that you don’t read further.

So, if you are still with me…

When I was a kid, an athlete who hit a home run or scored a touchdown generally didn’t make an enormous deal of it. Today athletes are much more demonstrative, not a bad thing in itself. However, a good number of them point to the sky, presumably to heaven, to give thanks. In some cases it represents the same “Gott mit uns” attitude, an essentially tribal view, that some countries adopt in and out of war-time: “God on our side.” In other cases, the jocks state that they are giving thanks simply for the good health and ability that they believe they have been given by God. Well, first of all, I sure hope God has better things to do than to side with one team or another. But there is actually a pretty funny story about this, in W. P. Kinsella’s collection of short stories, The Thrill of the Grass. The story is called The Last Pennant Before Armageddon and its about the Cubs winning the pennant.

On the subject of heaven, it seems that we all want to go there, but we don’t have a really clear idea about what it consists of. Many references are made to deceased loved ones looking down on us and looking after us from beyond the grave. But think about that for a moment. What if heaven does consist of people who do care, and care a lot, about what is going on back on this mortal coil? How can they be living in never-ending happiness? Seeing all the unhappiness, the accidents, injuries, and disappointments of life is heartbreaking and tough enough when you live here. To think that the dead are suffering with us from afar doesn’t sound like my idea of a better world.

On the other hand, let’s assume for the moment that “the dead don’t care,” a refrain in Thomas Lynch’s book Undertakings. (Lynch is both a published poet and a professional undertaker, so he has a rather interesting vantage point on death). If our parents and loved ones no longer care about us (and assuming that they reside in heaven), they must be quite different creatures than they were on earth. And I can’t imagine the petty jealousies of life, the hunger, the (at least) occasional insomnia, the worry, and so forth, being the lot of those in any heaven worthy of the name. So, if people actually do go to such a place, I doubt that we would quite recognize them as being very much like they were on earth. And, frankly, one would be so transformed in transit to heaven as to have difficulty recognizing oneself.

A number of people commented on how the recent death of Farrah Fawcett was overshadowed by the death of Michael Jackson. A few of my patients expressed the fact that they felt sorry for Farrah that the media didn’t attend more to her passing. It is a touching sentiment. But, if Thomas Lynch is correct, Farrah wasn’t bothered by it.

I recommend that you watch a Japanese movie of several years ago, After Life. It depicts a group of recently deceased people who assemble at a sort of transit station on the way to whatever is beyond. They are told that they will have several days to decide on their own version of eternity, which will consist of living forever in whatever single moment they choose from their just-ended life history on earth. They are each assigned a counselor of sorts, to assist them in the choosing process. To live “in the moment” necessitates that they give up that part of themselves that, like all humans, allows them to look back and remember the past, as well as to look forward and anticipate the future. Experiencing whatever large or small single event is most precious involves sensations and feelings attached only to that slice of time rather than to thought, analysis, worry, reflection, or concentration on other things, even including other positive relationships, experiences, and events. And so, perhaps not surprisingly, each person in the movie struggles with giving up all of their other memories, relationships, and daily preoccupations in return for an eternity of living within a single instant in time with a single focus.

To me, it sounds like a heaven worth wishing for, one that would really be wonderful, assuming that one would choose a particularly joyous or exciting or touching instant of one’s life. And it raises an interesting question: what moment would you choose?

Do we fear death or dying? Just asking. Shakespeare’s Hamlet clearly worries about the afterlife not being so much fun. If you haven’t read his famous soliloquy in a while, the one that starts “To be or not to be…,” you might want to take a look at what thoughts about death ultimately stopped him from taking his own life:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

Another film on the subject of life and afterlife is called Defending Your Life. Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep star as two forty-something, recently deceased Yuppies who meet in the place you supposedly go after you die, Judgment City. There, you are subjected to a sort of tribunal where it is determined whether you learned enough and accomplished enough in your earthly existence to win you a place on the next higher level of existence, presumably something like heaven. Streep’s character was a brave, generous, and loving person in life, so there is no question that she will go on to the next level. For Brooks’s character, however, things aren’t looking too good. He never overcame his fear of a great many things on earth, so he might just get sent back, reincarnated without memory of his past, in the form of a new-born little boy. And, if this happens, the love affair that has begun in Judgment City between him and Streep’s character will end. I won’t spoil the rest of the film for you, but it is a very funny, entertaining, and wise movie about the need to learn and progress and grow throughout our lives, and to be brave in facing whatever is difficult for us.

And, who knows, maybe there is something like a Judgment City ahead for all of us.

The above image is Stratocululi. Source: German Wikipedia, original upload 3. September 2004 by de: Benutzer. Living Shadow. Courtesy of Wikimediacommons.