A Christian Case Against Heaven|
January 25, 2006, revised March 28, 2008
This paper is prompted by the decision of the Learners and Teachers Mission Group of Seekers Church to offer a class on Heaven in the School of Christian Living. I have no idea how they plan to teach this course or what points of view will be welcomed or endorsed.
I feel like God has got me out of bed at 3:20 a.m. because Heaven is an important subject for Christians and I feel called, driven is more like it, to share my perspective on this subject. While the trigger for me is the upcoming class, the steam behind my interest in this subject is a decades long consideration of the damage done to Christian theology by a traditional orthodox understanding of heaven as a somewhere else, somewhen else, location that is a destination for (some) souls after death. Iím not claiming Godís endorsement for my point of view but I do want to say that it is indeed my perspective that the traditional Christian theology about heaven is a major distraction from the gospel of salvation, a major misdirection concerning Godís judgement and Godís grace because it directs attention away from the here and now presence of God as Holy Spirit. (I've just read Brian McLaren's book, Everything Must Change, and while there are aspects of his book that turn me off, I affirm his courageous engagement of this question. (March, 2008) He emphasizes the distraction aspect of a heaven focused faith and points to the blessings of a here-and-now focused faith. This paper goes further in clarifying the theological problems with Heaven.)
In this paper I will consider the biblical, particularly the gospel, message regarding Heaven; the historical development of a Christian belief in Heaven; the relevance and implications of Heaven as myth; and finally the intertwined psychological, social, ethical, and spiritual functions of Heaven in contemporary Christianity with a brief constructive alternative conceptualization regarding Heaven. Even though this paper is mostly a negative critique of the traditional Christian view of Heaven I will end with an affirmation about the impulse of hope that underlies the myth of Heaven.
When I use the word "myth" in this paper I do not mean "untrue." Myth is not a pejorative term for me. It is part of story theology, a way of talking about concerns that donít work well with declarative metaphysical or scientific statements.
Heaven and the Bible
It may surprise many readers that heaven is not a major consideration for Hebrew scripture or for the Synoptic Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. The emphasis on heaven grew in Christianity well after the time of Jesus in the context of Gentile Christianity, a subject for the next section of this paper.
There isnít much about Heaven in Hebrew Scripture nor in Jewish Apocrypha. The Jewish metaphysics treated the body and soul as a single reality. Whatever happened after death happened to body and soul together.
What is present in Hebrew Scripture and Apocrypha is a growing tradition of apocalypticism which some confuse as references to Heaven. Jewish hope was focused in a new creative act of God, a moment in which things would be made right, a moment in which the dead (some dead) would get new life and join the living in a new realm of God on Earth.
I understand the apocalyptic theme in Judaism as growing out of the Jewish belief that the Jews had a special covenant relationship with God, and that, despite all the evidence of agony to the contrary, God would somehow make things right in the end. For most Jews this hope was linked to the hope for the restoration of the Davidic Kingdom, a political dominance over enemies. The belief led to centuries of revolution against the empires of Persia, Alexander, and Rome. Such Jewish apocalypticism was a major grounding for the hope of a Messiah, a major source for both understanding and misunderstanding Jesus (and John the Baptist).
Though it is easy to see Jewish apocalypticism as a precursor of the Gentile Christian myth of Heaven there are several key distinctions worth drawing. The projected new creative act of God was social rather than individual. The dead were to wait in the grave for this new creative act that would establish (reestablish) the Davidic Kingdom. The Myth was about right relationship and a feeling of special connectedness and approval by God.
The Jewish apocalypse was to come on Earth not in Heaven. In the three level Jewish metaphysics, the heavens were above the sky vault that held back the rain. Heaven was the place for God and the sun and moon and the stars. Earth was the place for people. Godís new creative act would make the Earth right again for people, particularly it would make Earth right again for the Jewish people. The Jews would be dominant and their former enemies submissive and the Jews would establish a reign of justice and peace based on their dominance and their understanding of the law as a gift from God. The just would be rewarded and wrongdoers would be punished.
The original Gospel of Mark did not have the little apocaplyptic add-on in the last few verses. The oldest existing copy of the manuscript of Mark lacks those verses. Mark is a here-and-now Gospel that ends with the death of Jesus and the betrayal of Peter.
Matthew and Luke add somewhat different Christmas and resurrection stories to the Matthew narrative. Luke is quite clear about the eternal realm beginning here and now and then continuing with Godís new creative activity. Luke is all about the return (fulfilment) of Godís promise of Justice.
Matthew is more challenging to understand. However, I read the dominant concern of Matthew to be a defense of the theme that Jesus is a fulfillment of Jewish prophecy, a radical theme that needed to be claimed and defended against the Jews of that day who were clear that Jesus was not the Messiah. Matthew spiritualizes the message of Jesus. For example, "the poor" become the "poor in spirit." Such spiritualizing opens the door to the later development of the Christian myth of Heaven but it is my reading that Matthew does not go there himself. Instead, Matthew sticks with the theme of Jesus as Messiah who will bring in the new Kingdom of God on Earth.
One thing that I think is crucial to understanding the difference between Jewish and Gentile metaphysics has to do with the understanding of spirits. The Gospel writers believed in spirits with a small s. For example, Jesus drove the spirits out of the Garasene Demoniac into a herd of pigs who ran over a cliff and were drowned. In Mark, it was the spirits who first recognized Jesus as the Messiah. Such small s spirits were sort of detached personalities that infected (took over) a body. This was the dominant understanding of what happened in epilepsy and it is easy to speculate about psychological disruptions that we call mental illness today. It is important to note that these are not good spirits but are rather associated with disruption and lack of health. Alternatively, such spirits with a small s can be understood as a residue of animism in ancient religion, the Baal concepts of spirits in the animals and land that were condemned by Jewish monotheism but lingered on nonetheless. Mainly I think it is important not to try to impose contemporary scientific understanding on the meaning of such spirits. They were just part of making sense in a pre-scientific world.
The Gospel of John is another matter. I read the Gospel of John as being dominated by a theology of atonement. Jesus is first of all the Lamb of God who sacrificed himself, and therefore God, for our sins. Such atonement theology is a major part of the traditional understanding of Heaven. In other ways the Gospel of John is also much more sympathetic to an orthodox view of Heaven. It seems to me that it is ambiguous how much the author of the Gospel of John was thinking in terms of Jewish apocalypticism or in terms of a Gentile individualism with Heaven as somewhere and somewhen else.
I read Paul as decidedly on the side of Gentile Christianity, really as the author of Gentile Christianity. Atonement is a big deal for Paul in response to the challenges of trying to live with the guilt feelings that come with an emphasis on Jewish law. But it is also clear that Paul had a very strong belief in Jewish apocalypticism and believed the end of the world as we know it was imminent. That plays down any individualistic belief in heaven as a strictly after death myth. Still, the Gospel of John and the writings of Paul can well be seen as easing the transition to the Gentile Christian myth of Heaven that is found in the pastoral epistles and a lot of Gentile apocrypha of the first centuries after Jesus.
From Apocalypse to Heaven
It seems to me unclear from the biblical record what Jesus himself thought about heaven. As for the record of the synoptic gospels it seems pretty clear that Jesus had a here and now understanding of the Eternal Realm (Kingdom of God.) Following John the Baptist, Jesus proclaimed the Eternal Realm as present not future. The power of Jesus to heal and to cast our spirits were understood as signs that the Eternal Realm was indeed present. The experience of the early church with speaking in tongues and other gifts of the Holy Spirit also was, for them, a sign of the presence of the Eternal Realm. In the earliest Christian congregations, starting with the story of Pentecost, there was an experienced emotional source of belief in the presence of the Eternal Realm, and not mere biblical or intellectual speculation.
The beheading of John and the crucifixion of Jesus, and then the destruction of the Temple and genocide of Jerusalem in 70 c.e., were deep spiritual, political, and emotional shocks. The shocks called to mind the long record of Jewish history in which the prophets interpreted the shocks of defeat and oppression as punishment by God because of sins by the Jews. Some writings appeal to God to remember what the Jews felt was a special case covenant with the Jewish people. By 70 c.e., a couple of generations after Jesus, the feeling of imminence was strained and the later gospel writers were warning that we shouldnít think we know the date of the apocalypse but should rather wait patiently. With the waning of the power of renewed hope for the breaking in of the Eternal Realm in some dramatic fashion into life as we know it, and with the depression of ongoing oppression and active persecution, it was hard to experience the earlier hopefulness that the Eternal Realm was already present.
Equally or more important, by 70 c.e. Christianity was becoming a Gentile rather than a Jewish religion. All three of the Synoptic Gospels represent Gentile perspectives and it was Paul rather than Peter who had most successful in new church starts around the Mediterranean.
The intellectual world of the Gentiles of that era was heavily influenced, even dominated by Platonic thought, and secondarily Aristotelian thought. Both were dualistic and understood the soul as a free floating spirit that was connected to a body during life. The Gnostic Christian, the largest competitor group to the Christians who came to be called orthodox, had an even more radical dualistic understanding. You can see all this in Paul who regarded things of the body as bad and things of the spirit as good. The atonement theology and dualism found in Paul and John provide the key grounding for a theology of Heaven.
Heaven was an emotionally more satisfying myth than Jewish Apocalypticism. Placing heaven as after death and available to all who believed dodges the disappointment of an ever-longer delayed apocalypse. It also dodges political and economic morality in favor of individual morality and thus coexists better with Roman domination that finally morphed into Christianiny as the state religion of the Roman Empire in 314. This all coincides with the dominance of patriarchy, with an emphasis on withdrawal and prayer as key spiritual disciplines, and with the specialness of an emergent priesthood that ritualized Heaven thinking and used it to perpetuate itself in power.
Plotinus is the philosopher usually given the credit for bringing together Christian and Greek thinking, using Platonism as the philosphical base for interpreting scripture and structuring doctrine for the orthodox. In orthodox atonement theology heaven became the reward for believers in orthodox doctrine. Credal correctness was an important part of the orthodox party taking political control of Christianity from the several other contenders including Gnosticism. Marketing the belief that the orthodox priests had the power to open or shut the gates of Heaven to individual Christians worked very well as part of the political takeover. To this day it is the big stick behind the threat of excommunication.
I repeat that I am not anti-myth. I just think that Heaven, as typically understood, is a decidedly harmful myth. My thinking on this has psychological, social, political, and spiritual aspects.
I understand that heaven feels like a source of comfort to many and reduces the fear of death for many more. But it encourages a dualistic understanding of body and spirit and down plays the importance of the body. Furthermore it encourages a quietism of conscience based on low expectations for this world and a theme of endurance of the tragedies of this world rather than engagement with the world. This has bad social implications from my point of view, a quietism that takes Christians out of the work to make the world better now.
The worst spiritual aspect is that Heaven encourages a lack of appreciation for the good gifts of life and the world, the most precious gifts we have from God. Instead of celebrating what we have been given we give in spiritually to all that is wrong and wait for God to make things right after death. We lodge our hope outside of what is possible in life.
As a metaphor for what I believe, I like the song Heaven Bound, in which Heaven is a code word for Canada, the destination of slaves in the U.S. That turns a spiritual hope into a possible here and now goal. Now I donít think Canada is Heaven, too cold for my tastes. But turning away from slavery is a turn toward using Heaven as a code word for hope.
I end with the question. Where does your hope lie?