Most Westerners are at least vaguely familiar with the popular Christian version of Heaven: pearly gates, streets of gold, winged angels and the Righteous, with their bodies made perfect and immortal, singing the praises of God forever. What’s surprising is how few people have actually thought about what a nightmare this kind of existence would be.
Our familiar images of Heaven come from texts written in the first and second centuries and incorporated by the Catholic Church into what we now call the New Testament. The Hebrew writers of the Torah alluded to an afterlife much like the Hades of the Greeks and Romans—a hazy underworld in which the souls of the dead neither die nor fully live. But by the time the New Testament was written, the concepts of a distinct Heaven and hell had emerged in the Jewish culture, from whence they entered early Christianity and then, later, Islam.
The books of the New Testament were written at different times and for different ends, which means they don’t always agree. Although Paul, in 1 Corinthians, says that Heaven is beyond imagining, other writers offer concrete details. The popular version of Heaven today is a composite that comes from several texts but relies heavily on the book of Revelation.
- Heaven is a real place. The writer of John puts these words in the mouth of Jesus, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2-3NRSV). Some Christian leaders use verses from Old Testament prophets to pinpoint the location of Heaven, suggesting that it is somewhere beyond the North Pole.
- People in Heaven have bodies. The earliest Christian texts, the letters of Paul, suggest that the eternal body is pneuma or spirit, but later New Testament writers inclined toward physical resurrection of both Jesus and believers, though with renewed bodies. This view was affirmed by Church fathers and is now the predominant Christian belief. From this we get the Evangelical belief that in the “End Times” bodies of believers will rise up to Heaven in a Rapture. This belief in a bodily resurrection is even used to explain why Christian women should keep their bodies “pure.”
- Trappings of wealth abound. Many translations of the Gospel of John say that the dwelling places in Heaven are mansions, which fits with other descriptions of heavenly opulence. In the book of Revelation, the writer is taken in a vision to glimpse Heaven for himself: “And the foundations of the wall of the city were garnished with all manner of precious stones. The first foundation was jasper; the second, sapphire; the third, a chalcedony; the fourth, an emerald; The fifth, sardonyx; the sixth, sardius; the seventh, chrysolyte; the eighth, beryl; the ninth, a topaz; the tenth, a chrysoprasus; the eleventh, a jacinth; the twelfth, an amethyst. And the twelve gates were twelve pearls: every several gate was of one pearl: and the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass.” (Revelation 21). God sits on an ornate throne, and along with crowns, the heavenly hosts are clothed in white, a symbol of purity and a reminder that they do not need to work.
- Heaven is eternal and reserved for believers. The Bible verse that is most quoted by Protestant Christians is John 3:16, which makes both of these points: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. The author of Revelation assures that, “he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Revelation 21:4). In this eternity, it is always light and there is no need for sleep.
- Children who die before an “age of accountability” also go there. Despite the belief that children are born bad, thanks to “original sin,” many Christians believe that children who die young go to Heaven because the alternative is simply unthinkable. For evidence, they point to two verses in the book of Matthew: “So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” (Matthew 18:14). “But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Matthew 19:14). Although Christians have disagreed over the centuries about when a budding human acquires an immortal soul, many now believe this happens in the process of conception.
- Inhabitants spend their “time” serving and worshipping God. Even though it is always light, we are told that the saints (meaning the saved) will serve and worship God round the clock. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them (Revelation 7:15). Several passages suggest that the faithful will receive crowns, which they can then offer up as gifts to God. Some take this literally and some do not.
Please note that I have made no attempt to analyze or explain what these passages may have meant in their original contexts, given the objectives of the writers. My purpose is to demonstrate where modern Christianity got the image of Heaven so often depicted in hymns, sermons, art and pop culture.
Why This Heaven Would Be Hellish
To many people the biblical description alone is enough to make Heaven sound unappealing, especially if you add in the company of noxious public figures like Pat Robertson, Mel Gibson, Sarah Palin, Ken Ham, or Anita Bryant. (Why does God have such a bad marketing department?) But the problem isn’t just bad company. The closer you look, the more the Bible’s version of paradise seems like another version of eternal torture. Let me spell it out.
1. Perfection means sameness. Much of what makes life worth living is the process of learning and discovery, growth and change. We delight in novelty and laugh when we are startled by the unexpected. Curiosity is one of our greatest pleasures, and growth is one of our deepest values and satisfactions. In fact, our whole psychological makeup is designed for tuning in to change, including our senses. When a sound is continuous, we mostly stop hearing it; a static image on the eye registers as a blind spot. Even art relies on imperfection and newness to create beauty or to trigger our aesthetic sense.
By contrast, timeless perfection is static, as Christians are reminded in the traditional hymn, “Immortal, Invisible God Only Wise”: We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree/And wither and perish but naught changeth Thee. In the book of Matthew, Jesus commands, “Be ye perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect,” and in Heaven, supposedly, this ideal is finally attained. The problem is, perfect means finished and complete. It means there’s no room for improvement—for change and growth. Perfection is sterile, in every sense of the word.
2. Your best qualities are irrelevant.If everything is perfect, then many of the qualities we most value in ourselves and each other become irrelevant. Compassion and generosity are pointless, because nobody is hurting or in need of anything. Forgiveness? Not needed. Creativity? Courage? Resilience? Decisiveness? Vision? All useless. Sigmund Freud once said that mental health is the ability to love and to work, but in the state of perfection both lose their meaning. There is no need to create or produce, and little value in offering our affection and commitment to another person who is 100 percent perfect and complete without us.
3. Gone is the thrill of risk.In addition to loving and creating, some of life’s most exhilarating experiences require risk: flying down a ski slope almost out of control, jumping out of airplanes, racing cars, surfing, performing. The adrenaline rush—the high—and the euphoria afterwards surge only because, despite our skill and preparation, there was some chance we would fail.
4. Forget physical pleasures like food, drink, sleep, and sex. Does the risen Jesus with his new and perfect body have a penis? Do angels? Eating, drinking, or fornicating—each of these physical pleasures depends on hunger of one sort or another. Ice water tastes most heavenly when you are hot and thirsty. Falling asleep is most delicious when you simply can’t stand to be vertical any longer. The reality is that our bodies and brains are made for each other and optimized for life on this planet where our pleasures are linked to survival.
To make matters more complicated, we are predators in a complex web of life. The eating that gives us so much sensory pleasure and sustenance simultaneously destroys other lives and creates waste. Christians disagree about whether there will be meals in Heaven. Some point to “feasting” in the book of Revelation and reassure foodies that eating and drinking will be part of paradise. But none dare speculate on the perfect slaughterhouse and sewer.
5. Free will ceases to exist. Some Christians explain the presence of suffering and evil here on earth as God’s way of creating creatures who would love him freely—by giving them the option to reject him. But that is exactly the opposite condition they predict in Heaven. In Heaven there is no sin, no option to sin, and so, by Christianity’s own definition, no free will. (Some skeptics point out that “love me or I’ll torture you forever” doesn’t exactly create the conditions for genuine love either. Why, they ask, would a god who wants love to be freely given threaten us with hell, even if it existed? But that is a different article.) Philosophers and neuroscientists debate whether free will is real or merely and adaptive illusion. Either way, in the Bible’s version of Heaven, even the illusion vanishes.
6. Ninety-eight percent of Heaven’s occupants are embryos and toddlers. Human reproduction is designed as a big funnel. Most fertilized eggs die before implanting, followed by embryos and fetuses that self-abort, followed by babies and then little kids. A serious but startling statistical analysis by researcher Greg S. Paul suggests that if we include the “unborn,” more than 98 percent of Heaven’s inhabitants, some 350 billion, would be those who died before maturing to the point that they could voluntarily “accept the gift of salvation.” The vast majority of the heavenly host would be moral automatons or robots, meaning they never had moral autonomy and never chose to be there. Christian believers, ironically, would be a 1 to 2 percent minority even if all 30,000-plus denominations of believers actually made it in.
The theological implications are huge. Christian theologians typically explain evil by arguing that this was the best of all possible worlds, the only way to create free will and to develop moral virtues (like courage, compassion, forgiveness and so forth), to make us more Christ-like and prepare us for Heaven. But if we run the numbers, it appears that God didn’t need the whole free will—sin—redemption thing to fill his paradise with perfect beings because no suffering, evil, or moral freedom is actually required as a prelude to glory.
The ratio of adults to embryos has social implications as well. Pastoral counselors sometimes tell a women she will get to apologize in Heaven to the fetus she aborted, which will be a fully developed person there. As a psychologist, I don’t know what this means, because the brain and mind, our individuality and identity—our personhood—develop only via experience. Imagine if 98 percent of the “people” around you had never made a decision or felt sorrow or experienced anything akin to an adult conversation. The company of Mr. Robertson starts sounding not so bad.
7. Gems and streets of gold define heavenly wealth and beauty.Our desperate, goat-herding Iron Age ancestors may have yearned for the trappings of royalty. They may have heard rumors of the gold and jewels amassed by Pharaohs or kings or tribal warlords and wished the same for themselves. Both greed and inequality are timeless, and the story of King Midas has played out in countless variations over the millennia. So, the fascination of the Bible writers with gold and precious stones is understandable.
But let’s be honest. Their gem-encrusted paradise is the product of limited imagination, an inability to dream beyond the arts, technologies, and mythologies of their own culture. The Bible’s version of paradise is like a velvet painting from a tourist shop when compared to an alpine meadow or cloud forest or coral reef (or when compared to a world that contains all three as Tracy Chapman does in her song, Heaven’s Here on Earth).
8. Take your pick of sadism or ignorance. One of Heaven’s dirty little secrets is that it co-exists with hell. Or maybe it isn’t a secret. Maybe it’s a perk. Some theologians have argued that witnessing the torment of the damned will be one of the joys of paradise. In the words of Puritan superstar Jonathon Edwards, who preached a whole sermon on the topic:
“When the saints in glory, therefore, shall see the doleful state of the damned, how will this heighten their sense of the blessedness of their own state, so exceedingly different from it! When they shall see how miserable others of their fellow creatures are, who were naturally in the same circumstances with themselves; when they shall see the smoke of their torment, and the raging of the flames of their burning, and hear their dolorous shrieks and cries, and consider that they in the meantime are in the most blissful state, and shall surely be in it to all eternity; how will they rejoice!”
If we are to believe the earnest Christian hate mail that Bonnie Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation has compiled into a book, or “love letters” read aloud by biologist Richard Dawkins (watching him struggle with the word biatch is priceless!), at least some of the faithful can hardly wait for the show to start.
Many Christians, to be fair, find this thought horrifying, and some teach universal salvation or that evildoers are simply annihilated. But for hell-believers the alternatives to gloating aren’t a whole lot better: Either the faithful are blessedly blissfully indifferent to the endless suffering of the damned, or their joy depends on them being unaware, meaning ignorance is a condition of their eternal bliss.
9. Your celestial day (and night) job is to sing God’s praises. What do the faithful do in Heaven? The same thing the angels do. They worship God and sing his praises. The writer of Revelation even offers us a sample song. In one passage, 24 elders “fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Revelation 4:10-110).
As one graduate of Evangel College (Assemblies of God) observed wryly, “Having spent some time in N. Korea, where the incessant praise music and propaganda were required and all-pervasive, I sometimes wonder if the dynastic leaders there somehow lifted a page from an older playbook.”
It has been said that the only god worthy of worship is one who neither wants nor needs it. What are we to think of a deity who creates the earth and her inhabitants—in fact the entire universe—so a few bipedal primates, most of whom were never born, can spend an afterlife in this posture of praise and adulation?
10. This Heaven goes on forever. Most of us would prefer to live longer than the time allotted to us. Aging sucks, and losing a loved one is one of the most painful wounds we can experience.
But forever? Forever is infinity. It never ends. Think of the best possible experience you can imagine—your favorite symphony or rock concert, the most beautiful place you’ve traveled, the most intimate or intense sex ever, holding your child…any one of them, stretched to infinity becomes unthinkable.
Fiction writers who seriously explore the idea of immortality rarely treat it as something to be desired, and for good reason. Even kids grasp the problems, for example, when they read Tuck Everlasting. Author Edgar Shoaff put it bluntly: Immortality—a fate worse than death. The movie Groundhog Day is a comedy. But part of what’s funny for viewers is the insane array of suicide attempts Bill Murray makes in order to stop living the same day over and over. What might an inhabitant of the Heaven I’ve just described do to cease existing?
Could an omnipotent god create an afterlife that was actually some form of paradise? Perhaps. And without a doubt pained Bible believers who read this article will insist that their God has done just that. Some will fall back on the words of Paul and claim, on biblical authority, that they (and I) have no idea what Heaven will be like—other than eternally wonderful.
But the fact is, Christians for centuries have claimed that they do have an idea of what Heaven will be like. New Testament writers, Church fathers, monks, iconographers, crusaders, inquisitors, reformers, conquistadors, missionaries, priests, nuns, Sunday school teachers, pulpit pounders, faith healers, televangelists, Internet wonders…for almost two millennia Bible believers have sought to entice small children, the desperate poor and the trusting by promising the kind of debased, tawdry everlasting life described above. They still do today. Selling shares in this Heaven is a multi-billion-dollar industry.
Crowns and white robes and streets of gold and angelic choruses are Christianity’s carrot, with the threat of eternal torture as the stick. Millions of people have lived and died, fearing one and anticipating the other, never noticing the sleight of hand—that they are two versions of the same thing.