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