So let’s say atheists are wrong. Let’s say there is a God, and there are places of permanent perfect bliss/ permanent absolute torture waiting for us after we die, and if God decides we’re good enough we’ll get to go to the former.
Is that something we would even want?
I’m not talking about the question of whether Heaven would get tedious; whether human nature is even capable of experiencing conflict-free, obstacle-free bliss into infinity. (Although I do think that’s a valid question.) I’m talking about something else. I’m asking: Could Heaven really be Heaven if we knew that Hell existed, and that people were suffering in it?
Especially if some of those people were people we loved?
This came up in a post on Ebonmuse’s Daylight Atheism blog. Ebon was talking about Christian theologian and apologist William Lane Craig, and a question that was directed to him about this very topic. The querant asked whether God shielded people in Heaven from knowledge of their loved ones who are burning in eternal damnation… and if so, by taking away that knowledge, how was that not taking away our free will? But, the question continued, if we did have knowledge of our loved ones who were being permanently tortured in Hell, how could we be happy in heaven? He said — entirely reasonably, in my opinion:
I would never forget that I had a child and wish to be with them in the afterlife unless God specifically altered my mind… I also find it hard to come to terms with your later assertion that my love and joy in being in the presence of the Lord would make me not care about my loved ones burning in hell… I am just having trouble imagining myself so happy that I just don’t think about my child who is burning in eternal damnation.
The writing of Craig that prompted this question:
It is possible that the very experience itself of being in the immediate presence of Christ (cf. the beatific vision) will simply drive from the minds of His redeemed any awareness of the lost in hell. So overwhelming will be His presence and the love and joy which it inspires that the knowledge of the damned will be banished from the consciousness of God’s people. In such a case, the redeemed would still have such knowledge, but they would never be conscious of it and so never pained by it.
His response to this letter begins (after a little opening background):
My first option suggests that it is possible that God removes from the minds of the redeemed any knowledge of the damned. It seems to me that so doing is merciful and involves no wrong-doing on God’s part. You object, Eric, that God would violate the free will of redeemed persons were He to take such action. I don’t see that this implication follows. God’s respecting human free will has to do with moral decision-making. God will not cause you to take one morally significant choice rather than another. He leaves it up to you. But obviously God limits our freedom in many morally neutral ways. He has so situated me that I cannot, for example, choose to begin speaking Vietnamese or to fly about by flapping my arms. My freedom is circumscribed in innumerable such ways. None of this violates my integrity as a moral agent. My morally significant decisions are still up to me. Similarly, if God removes from the redeemed knowledge of the damned, including knowledge of loved ones that are damned, He does not violate the moral integrity or free will of the persons involved, any more than if He had removed their knowledge of calculus. At least I’ve yet to see any argument that removing such knowledge violates free will in the morally significant way which is at issue.
And then he continues:
The second option I find even more appealing: the redeemed do retain knowledge of the fate of the damned but they are not conscious of it. When you think about it, we’re not conscious of most of what we know. This alternative suggests that the experience of being in Christ’s immediate presence will be so overwhelming for the redeemed that they will not think of the damned in hell. You reply that you can’t imagine yourself being so happy that you don’t think of your child who is damned. Well, to help stretch your imagination a bit, imagine an experience of pain — say, having your leg amputated on the battlefield without anesthetic — which is so intense that it drives out awareness of anything else. In such a condition you wouldn’t be thinking of your child at all. Now substitute for that pain-awareness a feeling of joy and elation, but immeasurably more intense and enthralling. That’s the beatific vision of the redeemed in heaven! It’s not at all implausible, it seems to me, that such an experience would preclude your bringing the painful knowledge of your child’s fate to mind.
And I was so appalled, I could barely find words.
Let’s recap Craig’s hypothesis. The experience of Christ’s presence will be so overwhelming that we won’t care about the people we love. We either won’t remember them, or we’ll be too blissed-out on the presence of Jesus to devote even a corner of our consciousness to thinking about them.
And how exactly will we be ourselves, then?
My thoughts and feelings about the people I love are a central, crucial part of what makes me who I am. The best part, arguably. It is impossible to imagine me being me without the part of me that loves people and cares about what happens to them. And that doesn’t just include my friends and family. I have love for people I don’t know: compassion and empathy for people I will never meet, but whose suffering I nevertheless feel, and whose lives I want to make better even if they’ll never know about it. It is a central part of who I am, and it is one of the best parts.
And Craig thinks that in heaven, this part of me will just disappear?
He thinks that if I’m a good person in God’s eyes, God will reward me by eradicating the best and most central part of who I am?
And he thinks that’s a good thing?
But in some ways, it gets even worse.
Let’s talk about the supposed “moral neutrality” of this conception of Heaven. Let’s talk about the notion that denying us the knowledge of the people we love, so we don’t have to be troubled by their suffering, is somehow the moral equivalent of denying us the knowledge of how to speak Vietnamese.
How quickly can I shoot this slow, stupid fish in this very small barrel?
Compassion for others is supposedly a central part of Christianity and Christian morality. (It’s a central part of every other system of morality, too; but let’s set that aside for the moment.) To know that other people are suffering, and to feel moved to do something about it by our sense of connection and brotherhood with them, is supposedly the essence of Christian love.
And yet somehow, our heavenly reward for living this caring life of Christian love and brotherhood is that we get to have that experience permanently stripped from us after we die. Our reward for our magnificent Christian compassion is that we don’t have to be burdened with it anymore.
And this is somehow morally neutral? Destroying the lynchpin of human morality — our compassion for others, based on our knowledge of their suffering and our desire to alleviate it — has no more moral impact than destroying our knowledge of how to do calculus?
How does that work, exactly?
If anyone else dealt with someone’s anguish over the suffering of their loved ones by permanently drugging them into a blissed-out state of ignorant catatonia, we’d be morally repulsed. In the novel Brave New World, the government that does it is considered an archetype of inhuman, soul-crushing evil. Why is it any different when God does it?
What is wrong with these people, anyway? Do they even hear themselves? Do they know what they sound like?
Now obviously, this isn’t an argument for why religion is mistaken and atheism is correct. As I’ve pointed out many times: We can’t decide what is and isn’t true based on what we want to be true. There are excellent arguments against the plausibility of the afterlife — and indeed, if any given afterlife is logically contradictory (as this one certainly seems to be), that’s one of the stronger arguments against it. But if Heaven and Hell were real, my not liking how they’re set up would not be an argument against them.
That’s not my point.
My point is this:
One of the most common defenses of religion is that it’s comforting. It’s emotionally and psychologically useful. It helps get people through the day. So who cares if it’s not real? If the belief that they’ll see their dead loved ones in Heaven helps people endure the grief of their loss… then what difference does it make if it isn’t, you know, true?
But it turns out that this belief isn’t so comforting after all. For many believers — such as the person asking this heart-rending and completely valid question — the idea of Heaven and Hell provide not consolation, but distress. If they know their loved ones are suffering — and not just suffering a stubbed toe, but suffering the most hideous tortures imaginable, into infinity, with no hope of relief — then how can they be happy in Heaven? But if they’re somehow made to forget about their loved ones and just bliss out on Jesus, then how will they be themselves… and if they’re not themselves, then again, how can that be Heaven?
It’s something Ingrid has talked about often. (In fact, she brought it up in the comment thread on Ebon’s piece.) Her fundamentalist relatives were deeply anguished by the fact that their children and grandchildren had left the faith, and even though they believed that they themselves were going to Heaven, they had no such certainty about their families… and they kept wondering, “How can it be Heaven if our families aren’t there?” It was even worse because they felt that the probable damnation of their family was their own personal failure. In their minds, their one most crucial task was to keep their progeny in the faith, so they’d get to Heaven too — and they’d somehow failed.
So their religion, which if it did nothing else should at the very least have been a comfort to them in their old age, was instead a source of grief and despair.
If Heaven and Hell aren’t real, and the only purpose of believing in them is to provide comfort in the face of death… well, it seems to be pretty cold comfort. Atheism may seem like a second-rate solace when compared to the idea that death isn’t real and we’ll get to live forever and be perfectly happy after we die — but at least it doesn’t teach that forgetting about the people we love is a nifty idea.
And if Heaven and Hell are real? If Craig is right, and being in Heaven means that God obliterates not only the lynchpin of our morality and decency, but the central part of our selves and souls, just so we don’t have to look at the torture he’s inflicting on the people we dearly love?
Then screw that.
God can go straight to Hell.