I used to think I would go to Heaven when I die. I imagined it as so many do: a place filled with light, and everyone I loved who had died before me. My parents told me that being, “Absent from the body,” meant being “present with the Lord.” So, I imagined that in one moment, hopefully in old age, I would die, surrounded by my family, and the next moment, I would wake up in paradise. There, too, I would be surrounded by family members and loved ones. They would tell me excitedly, “There’s someone you need to meet,” and they would take me to the throne room, where we would wait in line to meet Jesus in person. And that’s where the story of Heaven that I was told starts to feel like a fairytale—the moment it faces any hint of practicality.
I stopped believing in Hell in my early adolescent years—2013 or 2014. The deconstruction of Heaven took much longer. In January of this year, as temperatures in Minot reached -22° F, various books I was reading pushed me into an existential crisis of faith. At some point, Heaven just didn’t make much sense to me.
I’ve written before, “I don’t really believe that death is the end. Despite this, I feel it is wise to make peace with it as if it is.” The more I make peace with it, though, the more space I give myself to accept the most likely truth: death is the end, at least for the part of us that fears it the most. With all of this in mind, here are some content warnings for this essay: I don’t believe in Heaven, Hell, or the Abrahamic depiction of G-d. I think Johannine literature, if not most of the Bible, is fanfiction. Remember this if you choose to continue reading.
The Parable of the Ocean Liner and the Iceberg
Imagine you’re on an ocean liner, heading toward an iceberg, and you’re trying to convince the captain to steer the ship away. He says to you, “I would, but some people told me they’ll give me a lot of money if I keep the ship on course, right toward the iceberg.” So, you go to those on the ship, and you try to explain the situation to everyone. You say, “We have to get this captain replaced with someone who will steer the ship away from this catastrophe.” You’re met with blank stares—no one is concerned. One person speaks up, “But the captain told us he’d get us discounts on those appetizers we really like!” You’re dumbfounded. “Why does that matter? We’re all going to die if this ship hits that iceberg! He’s only told you that because he’s being manipulated by a bunch of rich people!” Another passenger stands up and says, “Don’t you think rich people are probably qualified to decide the fate of this ship? They worked hard for their money, after all.” Again, you’re more confused than angry. So you say, “Why do you care about what the rich people want? You won’t get those appetizers if you die in a shipwreck!” Finally, a third passenger stands up to explain. “Well, you see. We have it on good authority that if this ship goes down, another cruise will be sent to pick us up, and it will be far better than this one, anyway.”
Lots of people believe in Heaven, and most of them believe that’s exactly where they’re going as soon as they die, or make it through purgatory. A group within that group also believes that, just like their body, the Earth will one day pass away, and all that’s left will be Heaven and the New Earth. It’s tempting to think that the New Earth concept is harmless. However, when those of us alive on planet This Earth are faced with a catastrophe such as climate change, it’s helpful to have everyone on the same page about the fate of the planet. Or, at least, those in positions of power. Unfortunately, the United States has many leaders who do not believe the Earth will come to an end when humans let it, but when Jesus (a central character in eschatological Johannine fanfiction) returns.
The Cruelty of Evangelical Theologians
There are two Christian theologians that I specifically remember my father listening to when I was a young teen: John Piper and John MacArthur. While writing about Heaven, I began to wonder what these two Christians had to say about it, so I did a little research.
In an article on John Piper’s website, a mother asked him the question, “Why have kids if they might end up in Hell?” In his answer, he quotes 2 Peter 3:8-9, which says, “The Lord is not… wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” Piper says, “G-d delays the coming of Christ so that all of the elect will repent and be saved.” His answer to the question can be summed up as follows: Have children because G-d told you to, remember that G-d is good even when Their actions appear cruel, and hope that your children will be elect and contribute to an overall tally required to trigger the apocalypse. Then, it gets worse.
“When we think about the fact that people are lost and people are saved, we must always remember that G-d is infinitely wise and good. He has a purpose in having some that are lost and some that are safe. He has purposes, and they are wise. They are good. He knows what he’s doing. He has good reasons for why one person is shown mercy and another is passed over in their rebellion and unbelief. We must be very, very careful lest we think in a way that implies G-d’s ways are foolish or unwise or cruel.” If you have to remind yourself that G-d is wise and compassionate despite everything you believe, maybe it is not your god who is foolish or cruel, but you.
In a video on YouTube titled, “Do Aborted Babies Go to Heaven?“ John MacArthur answers that question with “Yes.” He says, “When you think about the fact that Heaven is going to be populated by people from every tribe, and tongue, and nation, as it says in the book of Revelation, how could that happen? Because the gospel hasn’t… In every region… Gone to every tongue, and tribe, and nation. But high [infant] mortality rates in non-Christian, third world, and false religion environments produce people for Heaven. I think G-d has been gathering little ones from every tribe, and tongue, and nation, around the world throughout all of human history.”
Even if you believe in Hell, and Heaven, and believe babies and young children are “graciously” sent to the latter, through some provision of grace that does not extend to the rest of mankind—I hope you can see how unhelpful this amount of literalism is. I hope you can see the cruelty in a man saying, with a smile on his face, that every child who dies before birth will go to Heaven, to never meet their parents, who survived long enough on Earth to become unforgivable by a god they were never told about.
For Real a Fairy Tale for Adults
While many people talk about Heaven as if it’s a real place, where they’ll spend eternity, few people have any idea what their loved ones, or they themselves, will do there. It makes me think that Heaven is like a fairytale for adults. Maybe you tell your child that the dead dog is at a beautiful farm now. Likewise, it seems like we just tell ourselves that those we have lost are in Heaven because we don’t want to face the likelihood that we are the only part of them that still exists. As long as we can convince ourselves that this life is not all there is, we can feel at peace, even if we have no concrete concept of what comes after. So, if Heaven is not “for real,” what is it?
Heaven gives us peace about those who have died. Heaven gives us peace regarding our own eventual death. It’s a story we continue to tell ourselves because however ill-defined and fanciful it sounds, it’s comforting.
Picture this. It’s Earth day #82,021,762, and you wake up or climb out of your resting nook where you go at the end of each day. Next, you go to breakfast with a bunch of your friends. At breakfast, you try not to talk about your grandparents, children, great-grandchildren, cousins, siblings, and old friends who are in Hell, since approx. 89% of people ended up taking the broad path to destruction. You enjoy your eggs and hashbrowns and go to the worship center for morning worship. You sing from hymn book #782, which is one of your top 3 favorite hymn books. While singing, you bask in the beauty of G-d’s glory, filling the space. Everyone breaks for lunch, and it’s your turn to serve in the salad line. It’s been years since that’s been your job; you’ve only done it a few hundred times. After lunch, a slew of preachers extol the goodness of G-d, and you clap at the points that have become your favorite. In the evening, you take a trip to one of your favorite destinations in space, with one of the people who used to work with your wife, who’s in Hell now. You talk with him about space, and how great Heaven is, and try not to ask, “What do you think my wife is doing?” for the millionth time.
Think of the fact the Bible says G-d will “wipe away every tear.” Does that mean that every time any of the billions of people in Heaven cry, G-d appears to wipe it away? Even as a child, when I fully believed in a literal Heaven, I noticed a lot of descriptions seemed like those of mythical places. It made it difficult to take the whole concept seriously.
Did I ever really believe in Heaven? Or was it only a hope? And when I stopped believing in Heaven, was it because I worried I may not end up there when I die? When my brother was an atheist for a couple weeks, my father asked him, “Do we die like dogs?” He said that someday, when our father’s mother died, there’s no way we could believe that nothing comes after this life. And maybe he’s right. Maybe the day I see a parent or grandparent’s face in the casket will be the day my faith in Heaven comes rushing back. And what’s the harm in believing in Heaven? I suppose I’ve demonstrated a few harms, but provided you are kind, and treat others the way you’d like to be treated, what’s wrong with believing you will meet everyone you once loved? If you’re wrong, you’ll probably never know, anyway.
I worry, sometimes, that belief in the afterlife—both Heaven and Hell—only serve to relieve pressure, to take some weight off of our collective shoulders. It’s nice to believe in Heaven when so many people face Hell on Earth, simply because of the time and place they were born. And it is equally satisfying to believe in Hell, when so many people who seem to deserve it go unpunished in this world.
If we believe there is land to be crossed into, we can spend our days imagining it, talking about it, hoping. If we believe this is it, we must come face-to-face with the realities of mass shootings and billionaires profiting on the backs of people working in factories with suicide-preventing nets around the perimeter.
I don’t want to talk about Heaven as if it is a real place, when so many only bring it up to make themselves feel better about the world, their god, or their own twisted view of the two. I’m not going to tell you Heaven does not exist. But I don’t want to talk about Heaven if it is only a distraction from our present, dark reality.