Musings, Nits, and Praises: Theological Musing: Ambivalence About an Afterlife

Musings, Nits, and Praises

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Theological Musing: Ambivalence About an Afterlife

Growing up in a rather conservative Christian environment, I heard a few sermons about hell during my formative years, and as you might expect, those sweet homilies about hellfire (literal or metaphorical) were more than just a bit disconcerting to me. In fact, in our religious sphere the question of when someone was "of age" to be baptized was pertinent because there was always the terrifying possibility you could be, say, a happy-go-lucky 12-year-old who had always gone to church but not committed yourself to Christ in baptism, meet an untimely demise, and spend an eternity in the pits of hell all because you'd waited too long. Cue up "Almost Persuaded."

But more often than not, the thoughts that troubled me about the afterlife had nothing to do with Satan or weeping and gnashing of teeth, but heaven. Yes, heaven. The crux of my anxiety at the time--and part of what accounts for my ambivalence now--was the impossibility of wrapping my mind around eternity. Oh, sure, I had no reason to doubt that heaven as I heard it depicted was indeed a "wonderful place, filled with glory and grace," but the idea that my time there would go on and on and on unendingly struck me as a rather frightening thought rather than a comforting one. I distinctly remember lying awake one night when I was around nine or ten, trembling as I thought about eternity, crying quietly to myself that I didn't want to die. My dad heard me and came in my room to console me. I never did explain to him that it wasn't exactly death that was troubling me but what would follow.

I still shudder at times when I think deeply about eternity, but as I've grown older, other things have contributed to my ambivalence toward heaven as well. Though I can believe strongly--or try to compel myself to believe strongly--that heaven exists or that it will include certain things, my beliefs do not make it so and only when I die can I hope to know the validity of those beliefs. Ah, but someone may be saying, "But, Jason, it's a matter of faith." Yes, it is, but the Bible does not provide a clear or consistent view of life after death. Much of the Old Testament says nothing of an afterlife besides sheol, which is far from being described as a land of bliss. Only in later OT books do intimations of heaven arise. In the New Testament, Christ himself spends little time discussing heaven in the gospel accounts, and in other NT books, the writers offer varying descriptions of heaven, which are usually conveyed in metaphorical language. Many of our popular ideas of heaven are comforting colloquialisms that have little, if any, scriptural basis. Even the notion of the soul is cloudy one. The term isn't used in the OT as we've come to understand it, nor is it used in that way many times in the NT. Some biblical scholars, including some conservative ones I know personally, suggest the idea of the soul developed in Christian thought due to Greek influence. Advances in neuroscience have also made the notion of a soul increasingly difficult to defend.

But soul or no soul, the dominant view of heaven in the NT, particularly in Paul's writings, is not one of bodiless spirits but of resurrection, of a new heaven and a new earth. Of course, this view still brings with it a host of questions. When I think of a resurrection and a renewing of the cosmos, I can't help but ask some "how many angels can fit on the head of a pin" questions, as silly as they might be. How can I be resurrected if my body has completely decayed? What about people who were cremated? People blown to bits? How exactly could everyone fit on the planet? Will people still eat? Sleep?And then there are deeper questions, questions of identity, free will, and theodicy. Consider the conclusion from James Wood's piece "Holiday in Hellmouth" from The New Yorker a few months ago:

For Heaven must be a place where either our freedom to sin has been abolished or we have been so transfigured that we no longer want to sin: in Heaven, our will miraculously coincides with God’s will. And here the free-will defense unravels, and is unravelled by the very idea of Heaven. If Heaven obviates the great human freedom to sin, why was it ever such a momentous ideal on earth, “worth” all that pain and suffering?

The difficulty can be recast in terms of the continuity of the self. If we will be so differently constituted in Heaven as to be strangers to sin, then no meaningful connection will exist between the person who suffers here and the exalted soul who will enjoy the great system of rewards and promises and tears wiped from faces: our faces there will not be the faces we have here. And, if there were to be real continuity between our earthly selves and our heavenly ones, then Heaven might dangerously begin to resemble earth. This idea haunted Dostoyevsky, who wrote a chilling fable about it called “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” in which the protagonist, on the verge of suicide, has a dream in which he has died and ended up on a pristine Greek island, a heavenly utopia where there is no sin. Then this man tells his first lie, and eventually utopia is corrupted: Heaven is just Eden all over again, and man is busy wrecking it.

'Come quickly, Lord' is the great refrain of both the Old Testament and the New. But the problem for Jews is that the Messiah never came, and everything stayed the same (or got worse), while the problem for Christians is that the Messiah did come, and everything stayed the same (or got worse). Jews and Christians are dependent, in different ways, on an always deferred Second Coming. Heaven—because it comes next and is not now—is, as so often in religious thought, a solution that merely creates another problem. If God supposedly wipes away all tears from our faces in Heaven, why does he not do it now? Why does God not now establish paradise on earth, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe he will do? And what is the purpose of these eighty or so years we spend on earth not having the tears wiped from our faces?

In response to Wood's closing questions, I humbly respond, "I don't know."

In my most skeptical hours, I wonder whether our time on earth is the sum of our existence. After all, death has been part of the world long before people showed up on the scene.Still, I hope.

I hope for a heaven not only that I might reunite with departed loved ones (if there is indeed truth in that popular belief) or that I may see God or that all I am will not simply dissolve into oblivion but also because if God is just and merciful as I believe Him to be as seen in Christ, then only in heaven could justice and mercy prevail and God make all things new.

5 Responses to “Theological Musing: Ambivalence About an Afterlife”

  1. # Blogger Jeff

    Jason -

    I think I strongly agree with you on two points you make: (1) the Bible doesn't put forth believe in an afterlife as a critical point - therefore we should take care in applying too much importance to it as a tenet of belief - much less ascribe much specificity to possible details of such an existence, and (2) if God is just & merciful there must be some extended, portmortem existence in which all things are set right.

    While the former point should and does give me pause about predictions, beliefs or proclamations about the nature of an afterlife, the latter should give me confidence that "this is not all there is."

    While I suppose you are correct in your assessment that "[a]dvances in neuroscience have also made the notion of a soul increasingly difficult to defend", I'm actually not troubled by this at all. I think, at least as a lay-person, I've read pretty extensively on the subject and come away with the understanding that while we certainly have a deeper understanding into the mechanism of the human brain and some elements of conscious life, we are quite as far now from understanding human rationality and sentience as we were a few hundred years ago.

    In the same way that I believe evolution doesn't rob Creation of its majesty, beauty or divine presence (but, rather, enhances it), neuroscience gives us a deeper appreciation for the complexity and beauty of human consciousness. At the end of it, however, it seems that the question of existence of the soul lies quite beyond the realm of biological science - despite Dr. Watson's astonishing hypothesis!  

  2. # Blogger Jason

    "At the end of it, however, it seems that the question of existence of the soul lies quite beyond the realm of biological science - despite Dr. Watson's astonishing hypothesis!"

    I'm inclined to agree with you on this, Jeff. I don't think science has disproved the soul, but I do believe there's enough research to cause us at least to reexamine notions of a soul as Cartesian dualism goes. However, the materialist position that physical effects require physical causes is one that's testable only when considering material things. If indeed a spiritual dimension exists, who's to say it could be detected by physical means or that the spiritual have to react with the physical the way the physical does with itself?

    I'm not sure I just made any sense. Where's my coffee?  

  3. # Blogger Neil Chilson

    My response to Wood's questions is to point out that Wood relies on a false assumption. God is not within time - He sees all of time "at once". I like to analogize this (imperfectly) to how I might view a painting. And I then visualize God as the artist. To us, stuck in time, the work is not yet finished; to God, it is. And isn't. Realizing that God is outside of time brought me new insight to many difficult theological issues, including heaven. If we imagine that existence in heaven is also outside of time, "eternity" doesn't mean "a really really long time" - it means all times at once.

    Sort of. As temporal beings, existence outside of time is not only hard to talk about, it is hard to think about.  

  4. # Blogger Steve

    I recall George Cooper had some interesting thoughts regarding Dante's Paradisio and then noticed you still have a link to his web site where his last post discusses it. It is the case, as he notes, that most people give more attention to hell, its description and avoidance, than to heaven. And George mentions why. I found comfort in what he wrote and in the link he had to a New Yorker article that was a review of a new translation of Dante. I was entranced by the article and the snippets from the work. There seems to be some valid metaphysicality in the metaphors there.

    A mystery that has spurred me on since the late eighties was something Joseph Campbell once said in an interview with Bill Moyers. Joe was discussing his death that he figured was coming pretty soon and mentioned it would involve "undifferentiated consciousness". I wonder what that is?  

  5. # Blogger Jason

    Neil, I like your painting analogy, but I also agree with you that "as temporal beings, existence outside of time is not only hard to talk about, it is hard to think about."

    As to Wood's issues with pain in the world, I remember reading someone's response to his piece (I think it was on the blog of one of The Atlantic writers) in which he wondered whether there had been an increased angst in Western culture toward suffering in the world as the culture has developed. In other words, do we rail against pain more because we've gone to such lengths to eliminate it? It's an interesting premise, but it would take a lot of research to support it. My gut reaction is that it has some validity.

    Steve, I read George's post quite a while back. I'll go back and reread it.  

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