Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Heaven and Hell - Helpful Illusions?

Have you noticed how no two people have exactly the same idea of what Heaven is like.  With Hell there's even more variance, including those who believe in heaven but not in Hell at all.  After all, Hell only features large in one sect of one particular religion, and one can't help thinking that it's used in the same way as parents might have coerced their children to behave by threatening that the bogeyman would take them away if they did not do this, or did do that.  No logic - just do as I say, or else...

I really struggle to see the point of Heaven. If it is an existence free from physical constraints, then there can be no individual physical sensation, no contrast, and therefore no appreciation of bliss.  Would we become passive, incapable of doing anything that we had done whilst alive on Earth?  Or would we experience virtual pleasure and pain as if it were real . (Could this apparent present physical body be a part of that experience - not real, but giving every impression of being real, in order to achieve its purpose?)  If so why?  How does make any difference to anything?  We just go on existing because we exist.  We achieve nothing, in eternity.  Personally I find the idea of 'not being' after death a far preferable outcome.  It has the benefit of certainty and if one does not exist one will not miss what it is to exist anyway.

I can understand from a psychological point of view why Heaven would originally have been such a comforting concept, when lives were generally short and brutal, and there was no chance to change one's lot.  Heaven would give one hope, provide a purpose for our misery, provide comfort in our distress, give meaning to our otherwise apparently pointless lives.

But wishing that something were true does not mean that it must be true.  Parsimony would suggest that there is no need for Heaven; and that therefore it does not exist.

I just wish I could understand how it is that so many humans are prepared to suspend logic and indulge in this untenable wishful thinking?  Is it brainwashing?  Is it the Ego refusing to countenance non-existence?  It must be something very compelling - though most likely ultimately false.


  1. "wishing that something were true does not mean that it must be true" > neither does the fact that an outcome is desirable necessarily make it untue.
    My contention is that the assumptions you make in your third para. are not good ones. Life is still short and brutal for many millions, and the comfort of modern Western life only serves to mask the "apparent pointlessness" of all human existence. This perhaps explains why secularism is most popular in comfortable consumerist countries.
    Heaven, or whatever you like to call it, remains a source of hope for all those who get a raw deal from life. Whether this is an illusion is an interesting question, but an argument from complacency doesn't solve it.

  2. Thanks Charlie. I do agree that the concept of Heaven is still a source of hope, and maybe I should not try to deny that to people. But my argument is that it is still an illusion. I don't deny the attraction it still has for many people, and I realise that the alternative may be thought of as bleak to many, but I cannot see a way that it makes sense for Heaven to exist. Maybe I just don't understand Heaven as a concept. If you can point me to any explanations that might help I'd be grateful.

  3. I don't really know what would help. This is after all, a bit of a litmus issue - if you were suddenly to decide that heaven was a possibility, that would mean that you were no longer an atheist.
    FWIW, in my own thinking I am most convinced by Christian theologians who focus less on heaven as in "where you go when you die" and more on the idea of resurrection: equally implausible to a thorough-going reductionist, but helpful to me as pointing to how our existence might be continued after death.
    Might blog on this (although not yet while still in post-Christmas stupor). Interesting post.

  4. But surely it should be possible to understand something without having to believe that it exists. I don't have to believe in Father Christmas in order to understand the concept.
    But when it comes to Heaven, so far I cannot find two people who actually agree on what it is, and that's from the same religion! If one looks Heaven up on Wikipedia then the variety of explanations and options is legion.
    And yet this is surely something that is absolutely crucial and central to Christianity.
    This is not a flippant quest for me. I do genuinely want to understand. Look forward to your blog Charlie. Thank you. I'll probably post on this again. Millions of people believe in Heaven. I think I must be missing something, or maybe it's just that it defies the logical analysis I seek.

  5. My grandfather, who was Welsh and an amazing singer, saw Heaven as a real place in which he and countless others would sing the praises of God endlessly. His wife was tone deaf. He would joke that, although he hoped they would both go to Heaven, either her voice would become heavenly or that she would at least not be seated next to him, as that would ruin it for him. We reckoned that God would ensure everyone sang in tune.

    More seriously, I have considered the issue of time in an afterlife - of boredom, of what one would do with the time if worldly considerations no longer applied. All the issues that must occur - body versus no body and so forth.

    I find Heaven a lot easier to believe than Hell. Hell is so blatantly a human scare story. Even a monstrous sadist like Hitler or Stalin wouldn't make people suffer agonies eternally. The very concept demeans the idea of a beneficent Creator.

    I imagine Heaven as being an instant of communion, joy and love. Just an instant. But one without end. Like the timeless moments one feels in life when contemplating great beauty or love. And although I hope it's there, it makes not a jot of difference to my morality.