My Problem with Christianity: Part 3 — Heaven

It would be all too easy at this point to rehash the “who goes where” discussion that went with Hell or even to set up a “strawman” Heaven, one of unending golf courses, buffets and the like nestled behind the Pearly Gates where St. Peter stands with his clipboard and so on, but that would be too easy and also miss the point. But even without those things, I still have serious problems with Heaven.

The first is with an afterlife in general. The rationalist in me sees it as just so trite and contrived. What do humans fear most? Death. What does God save us from? Death. How handy. Let’s face it, if human beings did invent (not discover) religion, this is exactly the religion that we would invent, one that promises an end to death. Of course many “religions” that are now considered “false” or paganistic or ancient did in fact promise something like that. Now the fact that other folks say almost the same thing as someone else doesn’t mean both are telling the truth, but neither does it say one or the other is lying. But it is true that many religions promise some relief from death to their followers.

So maybe the whole “escape from death” thing is made up. But of course, maybe not. Might really be an afterlife, none of us alive have experienced it, so who knows for sure. But if there is one, I have to say that God does not seem to have a strong grasp on human psychology in telling us about it.

We have certainly seen a classic examples of this lately as terrorists of all stripes used the promise of “heaven” to give them courage for their awful deeds. Convinced their cause was blessed by God and with a glorious new life ahead of them, they used themselves weapons of death and destruction. Surely not what God intended. This is but the most extreme example of the “mistake” of telling (or even implying) that there is some kind of afterlife. I think it is even a mistake when dealing with things on the positive side.

I am reading a book now, The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything, by Brian D. McLaren Which actually, and somewhat ironically, covers much of the same ground, from a Protestant prospective as GarRy Wills’s, What Jesus Meant. In a later post, I will compare and contrast the two, but for now, I just want to mention a major point from McLaren’s book.

He points out that when Jesus was talking about the “kingdom of God” that often the next thought or phrase was something like “is here now.” I agree very much with his analysis. One of my favorite moments from the movie “Oh God” was when George Burns tells John Denver, that “things can work out.” And Denver goes hysterical about “have you seen how things are out there…” yadda, yadda, yadda. George listens patiently for a bit, and when Denver is done says “It’s simple. Love and nurture each other instead of killing each other.” Indeed.

McLaren takes a lot more pages to say the same thing, but basically says that the kingdom of God is a world — our world — where people love each other, heal the sick, include the outcasts, make peace instead of war (ok, you can figure out the rest). And we can do that NOW. How? Jesus told us: love our enemies, stop with materialism, be meek, humble and forgive people and so on. The only scary thing about McLaren’s book is that he presents this plan as some kind of unique radical solution. Sorry, just about every other culture has figured this out too — just that no one has really figured out how to do it on a large scale. Even Christians. Maybe even especially Christians.

And unfortunately, one of the reasons is that many Christians still seem to think that the “kingdom of God” is in a far away time and place. McLaren even has quite a discussion in his book about Heaven. He quotes C.S. Lewis at length about the incredible gift that Heaven is to us from God. Which I am afraid dilutes the message, the good news, of the first 9/10ths of the book.

And that good news is that the kingdom of Heaven can be here. Now. It is a gift we can give to each other. Anytime. Like, ummmmm, maybe — now.

Maybe if most Christians were not so intent on looking up to the sky or being Pharisees and nitpicking verses from the Bible trying to guess who will and who will not go up to Heaven and so on, the kingdom of God would actually be at hand.

And that to me, is the biggest problem with Heaven.

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6 Comments

Filed under Christianity, Philosophy & Religion, Religion

6 responses to “My Problem with Christianity: Part 3 — Heaven

  1. Great posts, I enjoy reading your blog – seems like we have much in common. I do not really have a specific comment for this post, I just wanted to offer some praise. Now that I think about it, I remember something that a family member (my entire family is comprised mainly of evangelical Christians) brought up. He said that a youth pastor asked him a question: If there was no heaven, would you still be Christian (or would you still believe in God or something to that affect)? My family member admitted to the family that this was the first time in his life he could honesly answer “yes”. This, of course, was greeted with great praise among the extended family during that tearful, yet joyous, Thanksgiving meeting.
    Later that night I admitted to my wife that I was thoroughly skeptical of not only the answer, but of any true authenticity in the answer or the response of the family members. It is like the famous quip that there is truly no selfless act due to the self-congratulary nature of generousity. Although a Mahayana Buddhist might have a decent response to that, a Christian can not. Biblically speaking, everything is about rewards: rewards for good deeds, reward for right belief, and of the course the ultimate reward of heaven. But take away heaven and what basis would Christianity have? Certainly Pascal’s Wager would instantly fall apart (for those people who continue to actually think his is a solid argument).

    I completely agree with your idea that heaven if all too convenient (see rebel Rev. Spong’s book “A New Christianity for a New World”) and is more probably a result of humankind’s awakening of self-consciousness. I would add that heaven adds a sort of spiritual shallowness to Christianity – a commonality it has with most religions that offer any sort of paradise.

  2. I could not agree with you more. And I have read Rev. Spong’s book. 🙂

    Having been raised in the faith, I had the idea of Heaven (and Hell, of course) deeply implanted into my psyche. But as I thought about it more and more, the idea that an omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving God would want to play out some sort of “good cop, bad cop” routine seemed ridiculous. In my Christian education much was made of our free will and how God wanted us to love Him freely. “Why then the carrot and stick?” I began to wonder.

    I wonder with you as well how many “Christians” would still be along for the ride without the notion of Heaven, a glorious afterlife. The belief that “saved” means “saved from going to Hell,” not “saved” from the worse aspects of human nature and behavior seems almost universal. And you are right, this kind of “salvation” can lead to a deep spiritual poverty, I have felt that myself.

    This is not to say all Christians are only on the train to go to Heaven, there are many truly deeply spiritual people who carry the Christian faith. But the funny thing, it seems to me, (now that I know enough about it) is that those deeply spiritual people seem to see Christ through a Buddhist lens. I have thought many times in the past few months that St. Francis is our most Buddhist saint, and also a model Christian.

    If we all behaved like St. Francis, we would certainly have heaven here on earth, but there seems to be a huge shortage of St. Francises(myself included, of course). And I believe there is a big reason for that (and it is not totally the notion of Heaven).

    Christianity is long on model (the life of Jesus, St. Francis and so on) but short on method. It is wonderful to say, “love your enemies” but how do you accomplish such a miracle? I feel that Jesus only hinted at the answer to that question. Of course many Christians over the years have figured out the answer to that question for themselves, and perhaps that is what Jesus intended. On the other hand, the Buddha was almost all method. His teaching is all about the “how.” And in my life right now, I need “how” a whole lot more more than I need “why” or “which way.”

    Thank you very much for you kind words.

  3. shannan

    Only the person making a comment can know the sincerity of their statement. Would I still live my life the way I do if there were no heaven? My response is yes. It’s not about the rewards or punishments that drive my desire to live my life, but love. I feel as though a constant stream of “love” is flowing through me and find myself viewing others in that regard. Maybe I’m not “intelligent” or capable enough of saying- it may be this or it might be that or agreeing with just any religion. I believe that Christ is my role model and my Savior- BUT I admit that I could be wrong- I doubt it, but since there is that possibility, I would never dream of telling someone whether they were going to heaven or not. Thankfully, that’s not within my power (and I bet my ex-husband is just as glad that isn’t in my power, either!) But again, acting from a love stand point- I’ve been able to do things that I would never have been able to do without what I feel is the power of the Holy Spirit- another one of those “elitist” gifts that Christians claim to get. I’ve been able to get through extrememly trying times and still be truly happy- accepting things in ways I don’t believe I could without prayer and contemplation. I guess my repsonse comes down to this- no heaven- yes, I’d still WANT to live this way- without God’s gift of the Holy Spirit- I don’t know if I could.

  4. Ahhh, but you are one of the ones I was thinking of that would still be on the train, even if the last stop was not Heaven. It’s cause yer a liberal, of course! 😉

    And a closet Buddhist to boot! 🙂

  5. وأحـــة الوطــن k s a

  6. a large cat

    in any case, I’m a large cat.

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