Between Heaven and Nothing: Examining the Positivity of Nothing
If Heaven Doesn't Exist
Lately, I'm having an immensely difficult time imagining this concept: no afterlife. In particular, no heaven. Having believed in heaven throughout childhood and having clung to its existence when I learned at the age of nine that my dad was dying, the idea of heaven always seemed like the place you hoped to go, especially when life was hard and the world cruel. According to Christian theology, the new heaven is where God “will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
C.S. Lewis described heaven as the far-off country. Occasionally, people would have glimpses of this far off country through inconsolable longing. Lewis explores the idea of heaven throughout works like The Great Divorce, The Chronicles of Narnia and Till We Have Faces. Through reading his works, I began to equate heaven as the place where matters were set right, where people could become free of all trappings like petty vices and vanities, where life would be experienced in all its richness and grandeur. His imagining of heaven did not compare to the watered down version that Mark Twain mocks in Huckleberry Finn.
In Tolkien's works, heaven became synonymous with the experience of arriving at the longed for distant point after a long day's walk, as seen in Leaf by Niggle. In one of his short stories (I think it was the Smith of Wooton Major), heaven became the place where you learned to dance instead of shying away from such an act in fear. Heaven was where you could celebrate life deeply with all its grandeur and beauty with all the feeling of some deeply mystical, profound experience.
Yet even these descriptions would doubtless fail to impress some. One criticism regarding heaven is that often this leads to the response to not care about the suffering and injustice occurring in this life. Another criticism is that some people opt out of life because they are so busy waiting for heaven. What good is that? Is not life meant to be lived and celebrated? These arguments are not without their validity.
Perhaps the funniest objection concerning heaven comes from Julia Sweeney in “Letting Go of God.” Heaven was explained to her by some Mormons as follows:
“We believe that when you die, you get to get to heaven and spend all eternity in heaven with your family.
And I said, “Oh, dear. That wouldn't be such a good incentive for me.
"And they said Ohhh. And they said we also believe when you go to heaven you get your body restored in its best original state like if you lost a leg, you get it back, or if you've gone blind, you could see."
“And I said, “Oh, now I don't have a uterus because I had cancer a few years ago. Does this mean if I went to heaven, I would get my old uterus back? And they said, “Sure.”
And I said, “I don't want it back. I'm happy without it. Gosh. What if you had a nose job and you liked it! Would God force you to get your old nose back?”
Reading this dialog, it's easy to connect these sentiments with the vein of sentiments expressing horror at the idea of siting around on a cloud worshiping God all day. How boring! Yet what sentiments like these fail to miss is that the idea of heaven retains the most clarity in the face of intense suffering and injustice. When Revelation was written, it was written during a time of intense persecution and new converts had a lot more reason to question following the teachings of some carpenter from Galillee. Revelation doubtless functioned for them the way Thomas Paine's Common Sense did for the fledgling soldiers during the Revolutionary War.
In the days when mom and I learned dad had cancer and was going to die, it was the thought that I would see him again that made the grief more bearable. His death, which seemed so untimely and premature, has impacted so many of my decisions and thoughts, especially in regard to spiritual matters. Oddly, although my decisions and the nature of my search was different than the main character in Contact, who also lost her dad as a child, I find more in common with her because of that experience. Though she is an atheist and so does not conceivably believe in heaven, she too is searching for her dad, searching for an explanation, searching for some kind of consolation that has not been offered in this life. She just utilizes a different vehicle to sustain that search. Sometimes when I get to the end of the film, I hope that her end is the true one.
Lately, I've been examining the idea of no heaven and all its implications. What is most surprising to me is the idea that the concept of no afterlife is not looked on as a negative experience by some of the atheists I've been reading. In fact, the more intriguing concept is that the idea of no afterlife is actually a positive view. Well, with such a viewpoint that seems so alien to my own cherished idea, how could I not investigate further? Richard Dawkins (and on this, I'm just considering the book he wrote, NOT the man himself) compares these two ideas of heaven and no heaven in “The God Delusion” (which I bought for a whopping $2.59 on a whim). Dawkins sites a variety of examples illustrating how the concept of no afterlife is not so bad. Consider the following examples:
“Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting.” ~Bertrand Russell
“Being dead will be no different from being unborn – I shall be just as I was in the time of William the Conquerer or the dinosaurs or the trilobites. There is nothing to fear in that.” ~Mark Twain
“That it will never come again
Is what makes life so sweet.” ~ Emily Dickenson
“As many atheists have said better than me, the knowledge that we have only one life should make it all the more precious.” ~ Richard Dawkins
These examples Richard Dawkins provided helps in some way to imagine that life without the idea of heaven can be considered all the more beautiful because this is all that lies before us. Yet in his discussion of the tendency people have to cling to faith in times of trouble, he falls short by looking at it merely as false comfort that doesn't make the reality true. To be fair, as he seems thus far to be striving to be quite logical, it makes sense that he doesn't dwell too much on this point. Yet there seems something heartless and cavalier about it. My own experience detests this simple brush off. So I'm an emotional creature as well. Deal with it. The problem with this part is that while the logical part of me or even you might agree, inside is the part of myself that cries out that this cannot be the true reality. Can it be that some lives, so promising, are cut far too short, given so little? Can it be that this is all there is and that the great ills suffered in this world by some will never be set right?
In her dramatic monologue, “Letting Go of God,” it is Julia Sweeney that bridges the emotional and logical gap. When discussing the idea that heaven and hell aren't real, she raises many of the same thoughts and perspectives that I have. You mean Hitler is just dead? And what about all those people wrongly imprisoned? Do they just live their lives in jail? You mean all that suffering just continues? And what about my brother who died of cancer? He's just dead? Many of her points express the significance of what it is like to suddenly consider the idea of no heaven with all its implications and gravity. To my relief, she doesn't mitigate any of the negative associations that comes with this idea. Yet she then goes on to describe how life becomes much more amazing because this is all there is, describing how she became even more fully alive with this realization. The experience of thinking that heaven doesn't exist enables her to feel more deeply aware of life in a sense that she had never felt before, an experience I'm seeing as more common in the testimonies of people who gave up Christianity.
So maybe it's possible to have a positive outlook on the idea that there isn't a heaven or life after death. Yet having felt the draw of heaven and longing for it for so long, it is still hard to reconcile the idea of no heaven with “That's awesome.” The teaching of heaven has instilled in me a longing to see that new, perfect world described in Christian theology (sans all the torture and damnation that is quite disturbing). I would like a vine and fig tree where everyone lives in peace and unafraid, thank you very much. I'd like to see all the tribes and nations fully represented and finally leaving in peace together. I'd like to see God wipe away the tears. And I'd like to see some people again, dance in a world where words like racism and hate crimes don't exist because people have forgotten the very concept of what they are. I would also like to meet some of the great minds and see what the ones throughout history could achieve together, unseperated by time. Just think if Issac Newton and Einstein were off working together somewhere!
In the end, heaven continues to play on the wish-fulfillment side, that is also like the one where I wish I were fluent in ten languages or could traipse around the world. I can't deny that I have any way of knowing that it really exists and waiting and hoping for something that may never come fails to address the problems of the here and now. So I'm still trying to reconcile what I once thought with this current idea. A teaching I once heard on the “Our Father” conveyed the idea that in praying that prayer, Christ was advocating a petition that would make the world like heaven by bringing heaven to earth. I also can't help but consider what Christ meant when he said "The kingdom of heaven is within you" -- thus possibly suggesting that heaven is somehow attainable now, not when you die.
To me, this meant turning the tables on injustice and watching the love of money, prestige and power become overturned by love for humanity and more peaceful lives, not choirs of angels hitting everyone over the head with harps as some atheists might fear (and by Christian conduct, I can't help but find this fear justified). Although my thoughts run different than they once did, I don't see how this idea has to change. Perhaps in this way, I can still hold onto heaven. Even if heaven didn't exist, why not strive to bring heaven to earth by practicing peace and love where possible and standing up against the injustices that continue to dampen the lives of others? Or as Belinda Carlisle once sang, "Oooo, baby do you know what that's worth? Ooooo, heaven is a place on earth."
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