Do We Need a Belief in Heaven?

Heaven would be nice. Everyone agrees on this, except Christopher Hitchens. He says it would be like living in North Korea, since you would be watched all the time. But, I must imagine, on his deathbed, if he were offered the chance to live, in perfect health, with the condition that someone would be watching him all the time, that he would have taken it. It doesn’t take even close to a perfect life for it to be better than…well, death.

While heaven would certainly be nice, I don’t think a belief in heaven does as much for people as you’d think. Supposedly, it gives them comfort. They don’t have to be afraid of dying, or of anything going permanently wrong, or of never seeing people they love again.

But…If they believed that, then death…would not be the end of life. It would simply be the passage from one life to another. One place to another. As mundane a passage as flying to Australia. But when people die, people don’t act like their loved one moved to Australia and would never come back. They act much sadder than that.

It would be sad if your child left for several decades, and could never communicate with you in the meanwhile. But the grief of a parent for a dead child is much greater than that, even the ones that “believe” in heaven. They don’t act like their child has just left, and they won’t see them for decades. They act like…well, like their child is really gone. Permanently. Ceased to exist.

If people really believed in Heaven, anticipated that they would live there if they died, I have to imagine that they would act a lot less scared of death. Supposedly, death is like sailing away to an unimaginably perfect island paradise, never to return. So great, that you won’t even feel sad for a single moment about anything, even though you won’t see your living loved ones for a few decades.

People don’t act that way. Imagine “Careful, if you run in the street, you might get sent to a perfect island paradise to be happy forever!” or “It is the duty of every patriot to be willing to be sent to a perfect island paradise for their country.”

If I really anticipated that dying would get me sent to an eternal paradise, I’d probably sign myself, and my family, up for the noblest, and most potentially lethal life possible. We’d all try to find burning buildings to run into to heroically rescue people. Or run supplies to soldiers under fire. Or be soldiers, and wish and wish and wish that someone would throw a grenade by your buddies so that you could jump on it and get a ticket to paradise. Suicide is supposed to be bad, but if you can die some other way, then that’s clearly the way to go.

I suppose I’d envy the dead. I’d look at a battlefield and feel overwhelmed with envy, unless I could keep it down and remind myself that sooner or later, I’ll join them in death. If I was the only one in my unit to survive an attack, I’d think “Why? Why me? Why did I survive? It’s not fair. I deserved to die, too, didn’t I? Wasn’t I good enough?” I suppose that, in the lower moments of my life, I’d be tempted to shout up to God in despair and even anger, “Why are you doing this to me? Why can’t I go to paradise?”

Like this:

I suspect, that all of these sentiments are completely foreign to the mind of most believers. But this is how you would act and feel if you really anticipated that dying would send you to paradise. That people do not feel this way, seems to indicate that…I don’t know, they don’t really believe in heaven? They certainly seem to. I used to, and I really believed. It just…didn’t occur to me, I guess.

Probably, people are just compartmentalizing. They believe in heaven, but at the same time, they never treat it like a real, normal kind of belief. They whip it out when they need comfort about people dying, and then carefully put it away without thinking any more about it. Probably, they’re just imitating how everyone else seems to treat it, and everyone else is taking their cues from religious leaders, who obviously can’t talk about how great it would be for everyone to be sent to an island paradise, I mean, die.

Here, in Unsongbook, angels and demons routinely talk to people. At one point, a broadcast of the tortures of Hell is sent up to people. Upon seeing it, people immediately try and give all their money away. They wander the streets and deserted wilderness, trying to isolate themselves in prayer and fasting. Beggars become millionaires in a day from everyone trying to give them money. That’s what it really looks like to believe in Heaven and Hell, to be desperate to do anything, absolutely anything that might help you get to Heaven.

So, while it would be nice if there was a heaven, by all appearances, believing in one isn’t quite so good as you would imagine it. You’re probably just fine without it. Better if we spend our time making this world into a heaven.

(See this news story of a woman who killed her daughters to protect them from the dangers of this life. She says they’re safe in Heaven now. According to most religious teachings, dying is the best thing that’ll ever happen to you; it’s killing that’ll get you sent to Hell. This mother sacrificed her own eternal happiness just to make her daughters happy now instead of many decades later).

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