Is Heaven Bogus?
I’m not sure about my title, I originally entitled this article, “To Suffer or Not To Suffer?” You tell me what is more appropriate.
Most of my best ideas come to me while in the shower. Most of my worst ideas also come to me while in the shower. My point – most of my ideas comes to me while in the shower. Since Scavella recently expressed disappointed with some of the recent articles for what may be considered straw man arguments, I felt that this might allow for some more philosophical argumentation. You will, however, have to excuse me for the lack of philosophical articulation in this post. Like most epiphanies, especially ones that happen in the shower, this one could easily be shot down with one sentence – I am looking for that one sentence. So theists, please help me with this one. This is not an argument against the existence of god/God/G-d. It is an argument against the incompatibility of earthly suffering and heaven.
Like many theists, even after grappling with various aspects of the issue, I was not convinced that the problem of suffering/evil was that problematic for my beliefs. Although I certainly was not Catholic, I favoured Pope John Paul II’s perspective that temporal suffering is almost meaningless compared to the grand scheme of God’s goodness. I think most Christians believe this, albeit maybe in different ways – some more, some less philosophical. Needless to say, the problem of suffering never confronted me as a huge philosophical problem against the existence of God.
But while in the shower yesterday I was thinking about heaven, probably because I felt like I could spend the rest of my life in that gentle, soothing, waterfall-like shower, and it got me thinking – none of the various arguments surrounding the problem of suffering/evil address the issue of the afterlife. On the surface, why should it? Heaven doesn’t/won’t have any suffering. But why is this? Just because God says so? Why didn’t God say so for this earthly time? Almost any answer given by theists for an explanation of suffering negates what many believe about heaven. (Aside: Does anyone know if there is a term for the “study of the afterlife” or “the study of heaven”?).
J.L Mackie (1917-1981) was an Oxford philosophy professor and divided solutions to the problem of suffering into two groups: adequate and fallacious. The adequate solutions rest on the demotion of wholly “omni-benevolence” or “omnipotence.” This sort of demotion, however, creates other problems for theists. It is, however, the “fallacious” solutions that Mackie disagrees with that we hear more often, and are discussed at length by professional and armchair philosophers and theologians alike.
Since I am not really concerned with the overarching argument of the existence of God at this point, I will only focus on what is probably the most popular defense by theists: [moral] evil is due to humankind’s freewill. This argument falls into line with the “best of all possible worlds” sort of reasoning which explains the more natural evils of the world (earthquakes, hurricanes, lightning strikes etc.). The reason that this argument is probably so popular is because Christians have a doctrine that backs it up: God created everything in perfection but gave humankind free will – with this free will, we screwed up and became separate from God’ kingdom (later to be reconciled by the ultimate “sacrificial Lamb”). But lets say that this doctrine is not a historical reality – as it isn’t in many Judeo-Christian circles, much less other religious traditions. The solution of free will is a convincing one, despite the problems that arise from it (free will vs. determinism, the paradox of omnipotence – i.e. a creator creating something it cannot control, or “is the creator bound to its own logic”). But let us say that J.L Mackie could not convince you (see Mind, Vol. LXIV, No. 254, 1955) with his arguments. Could you still hold that the Christian God that created this world also created another “world”, perhaps purely ethereal, that has no suffering?
Most Christians would argue that free will is a reality and a good thing, which is why God gave it to us. The tree of life, which we don’t hear too much about, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil, both symbolize the gifts of God. But if we are to believe that the next world, heaven for Christians, is to be without suffering, how is this going to be achieved? Will God simply not give us free will? Is there a better than the “best of a possible worlds”? Will it be because only Christians get into heaven (because, you know, that will be interesting)?
As I thought about several reasonable arguments that a theist might come up with, only one really stuck out. Heaven will be a place, unlike earth, infused with the Holy Spirit. Because of this stronger influence, heavenly beings will not cause other beings to suffer. The problem with this is obvious. Could two omnipotent, omnibenevolent beings exist in perfect harmony? Could three? Could three billion? (I’m not saying we all turn into gods, but the argument remains even stronger if we aren’t) Maybe this is why heaven is often idealized as a bunch of angels sitting on clouds, playing harps. But if they got up to play hockey, conflict would arise and suffering would occur (I once asked my mother if there would be hockey in heaven – she replied with an affirmative, I was happy). Furthermore, if God could figure out how to create a world without suffering, why torment us in the first place?
Again, this is not an argument against the existence of God. What I am calling into question are two issues that humankind have needed to answer since the dawn of consciousness: where does suffering come from and what happens when I die? Almost every major and minor religion has answered these questions one way or another, but have rarely done so keeping each other in mind (except perhaps the dharmic religious philosophies). What I ask now is for theists, or atheists, to help me realize whether I need to go back to the shower and think, and if so, why?