Jessica is one of the three contributors to the Peasants & Emperors podcast. She had a conversation on heaven/hell with a relative and then asked through Facebook what my opinion was on the matter. The following is a brief exchange which, incidentally, included another friend of mine not connected to this site named Mike. Both Mike and Jessica are former students of mine.
Jessica [to Rick]: I am interested in your thoughts on the concept of heaven and hell—how you understand it based on what you’ve studied or read, what you think of “good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell”. Any thoughts.
And I am asking in a public forum, as I suspect your ideas might be appreciated by others, as well.
Rick [to Jessica]: “‘Give me six lines by the most honest man, and I’ll find something in there to hang him” or so observes Cardinal Richelieu. If I get some time I’ll articulate an answer. What brought this question on all of a sudden?
Jessica: A discussion with a friend today about precisely this topic. Made me think of you.
Mike [a friend chimes in]: My perception of heaven and hell: Both aren’t literal “places”. They are states of mind. If you are someone who loves life, loves people and are willing to sacrifice yourself to help others—you live a Heavenly life. If you are caught up in drama, enjoy hurting others for your own benefit, greedy and immoral then you live a life in hell. It’s a matter of being of service to self or of service to others.
Rick [to Mike and Jessica]: Having no direct experience with either Heaven or Hell I can honestly say I know exactly nothing about them. While I have thought about the possibility of an afterlife my thoughts are just that—thoughts. My imagination isn’t any more useful a tool of discernment than the various books that exist claiming to provide descriptions of angels and other related topics. Books, like the fertile musings of an individual, aren’t without problems, e.g. books range from solid historic or scientific accounts to utter flights of fantasy. Some people believe certain books to be more authoritative than others yet, and this is important, opinions can exist on things that do not.
While I was taking a class on Judaism I asked the professor (a rabbi) whether Jews believed in Hell. He was a liberal-minded fellow I reckon (which in the minds of conservatives might disqualify his opinion as valid). Nonetheless, the rabbi graciously responded to my question saying, “I find it difficult to imagine a God of love would punish someone indefinitely for finite acts.” In other words, he expressed doubt as to whether or not a person went to Heaven for leading a good life or to Hell for leading a bad one. (By the way there exists no consensus view on what either Heaven or Hell is like or whether they even exist. Additionally, the view that most people have of Heaven or Hell is not a Jewish but a Greek view.)
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t desire Heaven to exist. I’d also be lying if I thought I was worthy of going to such a place. Imperfections notwithstanding I would definitely like to be with my mom again if only for a moment. I even have some thoughts on what God might be like. Yet, and yet, I do not mistake my desires or the fruits of my imagination as established facts. I am not in a position—experientially, spiritually or mentally—to be able to see things others cannot. Likewise I am skeptical of those people who claim they possess such powers of reckoning. I am, however, willing to accept my fundamental ignorance for what it is, i.e. I do not know. In the end, I cannot answer the question you’ve raised about going to good places if you’ve been good or bad places if you’ve been bad. I tend to share Einstein’s view though that if people are good only because they fear punishment and “hope for a reward” then we are a sorry lot indeed.
Mike [clarifying]: In simpler terms; neither can be proven nor disproven. It’s all up to the individual to believe or disbelieve what is.
Rick [responding to Mike]: this appears to be the position you are espousing: there’s no proof for or against [heaven/hell] so it’s up to a person to believe whatever they will. I’d rather look at it this way: there’s no proof for or against so the only intellectually honest position to take is agnosticism, i.e. some questions simply cannot be answered and we must remain fundamentally ignorant.
Moreover, belief doesn’t do what some people strangely think it does; that is, while a person can believe Narnia exists this does not mean I can send a letter to or go have a conversation with a benevolent lion at a lamp post. If you want to believe in Narnia go for it. But belief does not create things, e.g. I cannot postulate you in to existence any more than I can postulate [or believe] you out of existence. Belief doesn’t do anything. Zippo. It has the same effect on the physical world as an opinion on art does…none. If God is, well, God is—irrespective of the theist’s affirmation or the atheist’s denial. This is why I made the remark (with particular emphasis) that “opinions can exist on things that do not.”
Jessica [to Rick]: Fantastic reply. Pretty much what I was expecting—and pretty much in line with my own thoughts about it. However, I feel like I have an emotionally charged reaction to any discussion of heaven and hell, because there have been many times in my life when people have firmly stated that my family is going to burn for eternity because my family doesn’t espouse a very particular Christian viewpoint. This always struck me as problematic, because I believe that the people in my family are good people—community builders, loving, compassionate, etc.—and I did not think that their banishment from eternal happiness (or whatever the condemner’s idea of heaven was) fit in with the idea of a compassionate, loving god.
My conversation with my friend (my cousin, actually), was actually less about the potential existence of heaven but rather imagining the nature of heaven–as you said, IF heaven and hell do exist, one could only imagine them. We both were of the mind that if heaven does exist, we like the idea of heaven being not a place with golden streets and angels on clouds playing harps, but rather some kind of space where humans can mend and change the relationships they had in their finite lives, and also to discover/create/strengthen relationship with god. Heaven as relationship as opposed to heaven as luxurious reward, I guess.
Rick: I think there is wisdom to your view of relationships.