If you would rather listen to this post, scroll down to the bottom for the podcast player.
Like anyone else I’ve endured the pain of losing a loved one, but none was as painful as the loss of my cousin, Mark Winn, in 2005 when he died from injuries after a motorcycle accident. I remember trying to process it all, standing outside the church building after the funeral. Even with the many hymns and reassurances by well-meaning believers, it wasn’t the hope of seeing Mark again that was foremost in my thoughts. Instead, I was thinking of how final everything felt. I was thinking about how I wished I had tried harder to connect with him as we were well into adulthood. I was wishing I had taken the more of the opportunity to do what we did best: laugh together. I was realizing that no matter what I believed about heaven, it didn’t matter to me one way or another at that moment.
Anyone who has spent time in traditional Christianity knows that one of the key motivators is the significant benefit of having access to an afterlife which is devoid of any pain or suffering. I’m not arguing that this arrangement wouldn’t be appealing. Nor am I trying to convince anyone that there is no heaven, for I know that the idea of an afterlife brings comfort to people. I want to share why this belief has not brought any real value for the way I think about or live my life.
I posted before about the horrific notion of hell, but I also think there are problems with popular notions of heaven as well. Neither idea had any cohesive expression in the early church, but a majority of people in the US (church-going or not) believe in some version of heaven after this life.
One of the many images of heaven I was given growing up was of a place where Christians will receive crowns of gold to commemorate their faithfulness to the cause. Even during my years as a minister, I never understood why that was something to look forward to. Yet, it was supposed to be one of the motivating features of the faith. Many of the other images presented for heaven were the same way. Whether it be streets of gold, many mansions, or every tear wiped away, none of this provided me any motivation for wanting to get to heaven one day. It was presented as a “great hope,” yet I never understood much of it.
Not everyone feels that way though. Many in my own family gain great comfort in the belief that there is an afterlife where we get to see everyone again, and after we have lived these many years on earth, there will be a renewed existence. Perhaps this belief helps deflect some of the pain of losing those we love to the inevitability of death, but this is one of the reasons I think it is not a helpful idea. Instead of taking the necessary steps to walk through the grief, sometimes belief in the afterlife is used to simply refuse an essential human experience when we face great personal loss. This can only lead to repressed grief and an inner life that is unhinged from what is real. If you choose to believe in heaven, consider what work you might be refusing to do about the natural but profound feelings of fear and dread about death. Coming to terms with our mortality can greatly improve the value we place on our life and the decisions we make while we are alive.
I believe I have been better served by a more focused attention on the known life I have now, instead of on an imagined future. Each present moment carries such great value, for these moments are not in limitless supply. Accepting that can fuel a resolute awareness of the meaning inherent in even our smallest interactions with others.
My most troubling problem is not with the idea of heaven itself, but that most Christian teachings feel compelled to couple it with the idea of hell.
Much of the appeal offered with the concept of heaven is that our existence there will be filled with blissful celebration. Christian hymns reinforce this idea, reminding us that “when we ALL get to heaven what a day of rejoicing that will be.” The problem is we aren’t ALL getting to heaven in that paradigm. Will God wipe our memory clear of all those people we knew and even cared about who didn’t say the right words or think the right thoughts according to a very systematic theology outline? According to most versions of western Christianity, those people will face never-ending torment in a fire-like punishment. While that’s going on, those of the “right” religion and belief will be celebrating their new, blissful state. How strange to believe that a God who loves the world and would sacrifice himself for it will also remove our capacity in heaven for empathy and sorrow while people you knew who now suffer in hell. No theological gymnastics will ever make that palatable to me.
Perhaps you are a believer who lives your life with a profound focus on the present. Perhaps you do not couple belief in heaven with a belief in a place where people are sent to suffer endlessly. But if you do believe in heaven, then ask yourself these questions:
- Have you used it to avoid the important process of grief?
- Have you ever found yourself less present to the wonder or the difficulties of life because you lean so heavily on your hopes for the afterlife?
- If you do also believe that there is a hell, how have you reconciled the idea of a blissful existence for you that is concurrent with great, unending personal suffering for others?
Exploring these questions might unearth some untapped insight and open your mind to other possible ways to speculate on the afterlife beyond the teachings of traditional western Christianity.
2 thoughts on “Right Here and Now”
Thats an excellent article, Jason. One of the big problems of believing in heaven, in my view, is that it distracts us from improving our lot on earth and can cause us to waste the limited time we actually have. Keep up the good work.
Thanks, for the feedback, John. I appreciate it.