Needless to say, I do not believe in a literal Heaven or Hell. I stopped believing in these things well before I abandoned theism. I’m not alone. Many Christians do not believe in a literal Heaven or Hell. What the bible has to say about these places is enough to cause reasonable people to reconsider how literal these places could be. However, I believe that mainstream Christianity is still overwhelmingly populated by people who strongly believe in a literal Heaven and Hell. For many of those Christians, they can’t imagine what Christianity would be without Heaven and Hell. More to the point, they can’t fathom the purpose of life without Heaven and Hell.
So just what is this Heaven that many Christians hold as a central tenet of faith? This would be a great time to quote a few scriptures that would clear up the whole matter, but, I find that scripture, alone, is not enough. The bible provides precious little detail about this magic kingdom. Here is what we are taught by mainstream Religion: Heaven is the physical realm of the one, true god. It is not a planet in this universe, but stands alone, above, and beyond this universe. In other words, you cannot get there by getting in the starship Enterprise, and exploring every corner of the space-time continuum. You have to be able to open a special doorway into another realm that exists outside of space and time. It is a real, and by real, I mean physical place where beings with physical and spiritual bodies reside.
It is a place to which Jesus ascended. If he were moving, impossibly, at the speed of light, he would still be in the Milky Way. We probably should be able to spot him by telescope. If he was moving at the kind of speed limiting the movement of physical bodies, even enhanced ones, he would likely still be within the solar system. This image is obviously absurd. The only reasonable explanation is that he was able to open some magic door to the other realm once he was beyond sight of earth-bound humans. Heaven is in a magical location, but not so distant that humans and angels can’t come and go at god’s whim. The location is always perceived as up. There is no doorway from earth to Heaven. To travel the distance one must come down from Heaven or ascend up to Heaven. This presumes things about the universe’s structure that simply are not true. Yet we suspend everything we know about the universe to hold onto the pre-science notions of universal up and down. We know this is not a three tiered universe, but Heaven almost demands that we continue using that language to describe it.
As interesting as it is to ponder where Heaven is supposed to be, it is even more interesting to consider what Heaven is supposed to be. It is definitely a physical realm, but god is not a physical being. He is described as pure spirit. It is difficult to imagine why god would need a physical abode. Then again, perhaps there is a physical aspect to god hinted at by certain passages of the bible. When Adam and Eve discovered their nakedness, they went hiding in the woods. They heard the spirit of the lord moving through the trees. That requires physicality. When Moses wanted to see god, though god’s face was off limits, he was allowed a view of god’s backside. A face and a backside suggest physicality.
In the gospel of John, Jesus said, “In my father’s house, there are many rooms…” Only physical beings need houses. Every being god created was physical. The angels, cherubim, and seraphim, join the humans in possessing physical bodies. When the Heaven-bound humans finally make the trip, they will be given new, physical bodies. Why do we need physical bodies? Because Heaven is a physical realm. We will live in a room, or suite of rooms in the father’s house. Or, perhaps we will live in a mansion of our own. Either way, those are physical structures for physical beings.
Heaven is described as having streets made with gold. Gold? Really? That is a horrible building material for streets. Gold is too soft. Also, do you really want to look at something so gleaming all the time? Still, only a physical place would need building materials, especially building materials that are supposed to be emotionally appealing to look at. Other popular images of Heaven include, as the song says, a mansion, robe, and crown. This represents a place to live, something to wear, and a visible symbol of royalty. None of that makes sense without physical bodies.
About those bodies, will we require privacy and modesty? After all, we have a private mansion and we are wearing robes to cover our nakedness. Does that mean we will have private parts to cover? Why? In our mansions, will we eat, sleep, and excrete? If not, why do we need a mansion, or a room, or any such domicile. The streets indicate walking or driving a chariot, or some kind of transportation. Streets serve no other purpose. Creatures of flight do not need streets. Land-bound, physical creatures do.
What about the activities of Heaven? Growing up, I always understood the primary activity of Heaven dwellers was to be singing praise to god around the grand throne. Even as a child, this image was less than appealing. First, why would god want to hear praise for all eternity? Think about it. Also, even if you love to sing, do you want to do it all the time, or even most of the time? How many choruses of Amazing Grace can you handle in one sitting. Ultimately, singing for all eternity seems to be a waste of timelessness. What else is on the menu?
According to Paul, in an off-hand mention to the Corinthians, we will be judging angels. Really? Are you kidding me? First, what will the angels be doing that require our judgement? One only needs to be judged if there is a possibility of wrongdoing. It seems the angels will have the possibility of wrongdoing, just as before. Does that mean that there could be sin in Heaven? If not, then no judges would be needed. Will we be generals in an ongoing, cosmic war? Frankly, that sounds like more fun than singing for the next ten thousand years. But that’s just me.
At this point, I have exhausted everything the bible says and implies about Heaven. There is not much to go on, and it doesn’t sound a lot different from Vegas when it comes right down to it. The real, Christian definition of Heaven is the sum of all hopes and dreams. It is ultimate bliss, whatever that means, for all eternity. It is everything you ever hoped for multiplied by a trillion squared. The only catch is that it is kind of hard to get in. According to the bible, only few will find their way to the straight and narrow path that leads to salvation. Good luck being one of them.
So, why wouldn’t a perfectly reasonable person not believe in that?
But wait… There’s more! Just how does one secure a ticket to the magic kingdom? Stay tuned.