In the past week, two friends died. Karen was sure she was going to heaven. She lived her life based on that idea. The other, Michael, didn’t harbor that vision and lived without such an end in mind.
Both were very good people who followed moral and ethical precepts, even though they had opposing views on the afterlife. Karen was positive she’d be welcomed into a bucolic setting where she could await the arrival of her husband.
Michael was sure nothing happened.
I believe Michael is correct.
Just for starters, what are the criteria for a heavenly berth? The only ones we know were created by humans. As a result, they are contradictory. A person can be rewarded and condemned simultaneously for the same act. For example, a Christian who converts to Islam would be condemned to hell by Christianity and promised heaven by Islam for doing exactly the same thing.
Besides, who knows what the rules are? Some people point at the 10 Commandments, but they do not constitute a plan of action for anyone going to heaven. No such promise is made in the text or even hinted at. In fact, there’s no mention of a heaven or hell in the 39 books of the Jewish Bible. The 23rd Psalm offers the “valley of death,” which isn’t either. The Prophet Ezekiel raised up dry bones, but there’s no indication that their owners were previously residing anywhere but on Earth.
The New Testament simply claims that anyone who believes in Jesus will go to heaven. That, however, excludes anyone born before Jesus was voted divine status by other humans who lived 300 or so years later and never knew him. Estimates place that number of people who lived prior to Jesus in the billions, not to mention the four billion people living today who don’t belong to a Christian faith.
Only believers in one faith, among the thousands of existing religions, can expect a heavenly reward? Karen based her existence on the promise, which is at best arrogant and chauvinistic.
Which heaven? Islam has a heaven; so do the Zoroastrians, who conceived the idea of a heavenly reward for believers. Both are sure Christians are condemned to hell, which Zoroastrians also invented.
Then, there’s the question of location. Where is heaven or hell? As anyone who has studied astronomy knows, there is no “above” or “below.” We live on a planet floating in nothingness without an up or down. The biblical account of a “firmament” above and below is not only physical incorrect, it comes from the Babylonian creation myth. The “firmament” is the bisected body of the ousted chief goddess, Tiamat.
Her name lives on as the word “chaos” in the first sentence of the Bible.
As for hell, the idea that anyone would be punished in such gruesome ways for eternity belies even the most modest claims about God’s supposed justice and mercy. On top of that, the tales of hell come from the Italian poet Dante, whose description sprung from his imagination. No one has ever suggested divine guidance for his poetry.
Inmates in hell invariably committed crimes against humanity, such as the bloody, devilish jury in the story The Devil and Daniel Webster, or failed to lived up to religious precepts. As such, hell is conceived as punishment for those who failed to achieve human-generated standards.
The same contradictions apply here as with heaven. Not even a deity could unravel that knot.
Finally, none of us can conceive of not existing. That’s why we conjure up images of a heaven or hell. Nevertheless, no one seems perturbed that none of us have the slightest awareness of existence before birth. It’s just an enormous void. There’s no reason the same can’t be true after death.
One final note: Michael died of pancreatic cancer. The cause of such a disease is often unknown, but doctors told Michael that he belonged to a small group of people who inherited a gene that encodes pancreatic cancer. As such, no matter how much he prayed during his life or how saintly he behaved, he was likely to develop the disease.
There’s nothing godly about that, as any of the victims of other genetic diseases can attest. Their hell, as Michael learned, is on this planet. Heaven was their release from it.
That’s why Michael’s last request was that his wife, daughter and family go out to dinner after he died, drink a toast to him and talk about him. They don’t have to pretend he’s being rewarded in some special heaven or being tormented in hell.
That’s for people like Karen who need rosy illusions. The rest of us will just have to get along with a more prosaic reality.
To quote a Peggy Lee song: "If that's all there is, then let's keep dancing, break out the booze and have a ball ... if that's all there is."
That's all there is.
Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history. He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida. You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.net. He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion. His most recent book is Passover in Prison, which details abuse of Jewish inmates in American prisons. His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. He can also be followed on Twitter.
You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at http://www.udemy.com/comparative-religion-for-dummies/?promote=1