The Washington Post has an interesting online panel article about Heaven and Hell. The panelists were asked:
"Do you believe in heaven or hell? If not, why not? If so, who's going there and how do you know?"
Samples of the interesting entries:
Lisa Miller, the Post writer and organizer of the panel, sets the tone nicely:
In a world devoted to truth, science and skepticism, these may seem like silly questions, or, at best, late-night mind-benders at a sophomore beer party. But let’s look at the question of heaven another way: 81% of us say we believe in it and all of us are going to die. Wouldn’t it be worth applying some of our intellect and curiosity to this widely held belief so that when we do answer in an affirmative to the Gallup pollster, we’re certain we’re talking about something more important and more transcendent than the North Pole, home of Santa Claus?Applying his "intellect and curiosity," Cal Thomas came up with:
Scripture repeatedly teaches the existence of a literal Heaven and a literal hell. Whether you believe depends on whether you think God is telling the truth and His Word is reliable. Waiting to find out for sure is too late. Tickets are “on sale” now. Choose your destination. Both are one-way journeys. The trip to Heaven is a free gift that has already been paid for, but like any gift you have to receive it. The trip to hell you must pay (and pay and pay) yourself.Without the same trite analogy, Chuck Colson used hell the ways its inventors intended -- to keep us in line:
God doesn’t send anyone to hell. He gives us the clear understanding of how we are to behave and how we may have faith in Him and therefore be saved for eternity.To the deep discernments of Cal and Chuck, Bob Edgar, General secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, added ALL CAPS:
If God is love then God’s heaven is dwelling in that love. Hell is being on the outside of God's love, looking in. Fortunately, that never has to be the case, at least as far as God is concerned. The welcome mat is always out. God's persistent and ever-faithful message to humanity is: I LOVE YOU AND THERE IS NOTHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT!Such unsupported Christian thinking is chastised in a sense by the unsupported thinking of another panelist. I hope when Christians read Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo's mystically preachy response about the "spirit world" they begin to ask themselves what the difference is between their unjustified rationalizations and his:
A thinking, rational person is hard put to deny evidence of spirits. In my opinion, the reality of such spirits is more proximate than the existence of God. Consider these three factual sources of evidence. First: the history of humankind shows that most people over the 40,000 years or so of our species’ existence have contacted spirits. ... Second: the reported pattern of spirit behavior is consistent through history and across cultures, converting denial of spirits into a denial of empirical evidence. [Sounds like an apologist's argument for God based on the universality of belief!] ... Third: people who communicate with the spirits are not stupid.I know Christians who would laugh about the last one unless you replaced "spirits" with God or Angels.
For good measure, the lone Mormon respondent, Kathleen Flake, also lays bare the empirically justified tenets of her beliefs:
Latter-day Saints believe the playing field is leveled by provision of a two-stage process in the afterlife: the first, called the “spirit world” allows for further preparation for the second (the degrees of glory) and the demarcation between the two is marked by God's judgment. Those who did not, in mortality, hear of Christ will be taught and have the choice of whether to be baptized. In the next world too, faith is an act of free will and not required for resurrection. Once all have had the chance to make an informed decision, they are judged by God and inhabit the degree of glory commensurate with their choice.Again, how do you differentiate the mere assertions of one holy book against another? Remember, the charge here was to be "certain we’re talking about something more important and more transcendent than the North Pole, home of Santa Claus." Thus far, the respondents' replies to the "how do you know?" part of the question have not transcended Santa's legend.
Some Christian responders, such as Gardner Calvin Taylor, Senior Pastor Emeritus of Concord Baptist Church of Christ, replied more cautiously about their faith:
I believe heaven is the immediate presence of God. I believe hell is the total absence of God. As to who will be in heaven, I plead a reverent agnosticism.As an elderly Christian, Taylor reminds me in his response of Billy Graham's gradual lifelong change from a fiery Christian preacher to a more reflective older man. They still cling to the promises, but enjoy the divisiveness a bit less.
A few replies made me cringe more than others, since they attempt to lure people in with a modicum of scientific thinking. Thomas J. Reese, Jesuit Priest, puts a Catholic spin on a Sagan-esque question:
Meditating on our place in the universe as taught to us by science should make us humble. We live for a brief time on a small planet spinning around a sun that is one star in a galaxy that is only one of the millions of galaxies in the universe. How insignificant we are. As a result, I sometimes think that the hardest act of faith for a modern person is believing that God cares about us.How does he resolve this crisis of faith? With faith itself (of course!), a bit from Matthew 25, and the conclusion that "anyone who loves can go to heaven." It is just this kind of inanity that embarrassed me when I was a Christian and these guys purported to represent my thinking.
It gets worse! Jim Cooper of Trinity Church, New York, takes the cake:
If Einstein is correct and energy is neither created nor destroyed, we have energy and therefore in some basic way we continue.Just like the crystal healers, Jim conflates the scientific concept of energy with the mystical, life force energy concept. But he said it with a collar on, so he will be believed by many a Christian ("Wow, Einstein believes what I believe?!").
There were a few dissenting voices on the panel. Wendy Doniger fatalistically observed:
I can’t believe in heaven, because I no longer believe in the possibility of justice; I cannot even imagine a world in which there is perfect justice.Most insightful was Susan Jacoby, who turned the discussion towards the way the very ideas of heaven and hell are responsible for people denying their own reason in favor of illogical and immoral actions:
All of these articles allow comments. Thankfully, hers generated the most discussion by far.
Oh, for heaven's sake. This question irritates the...inferno out of me. Of all the pointless, utterly childish notions associated with traditional religion, belief in eternal bliss in heaven or eternal damnation in hell surely tops the list.
Religions that have allowed themselves to be modified by secular knowledge downplay orthodox ideas of heaven and hell for the very good reason that such beliefs have been used throughout history to justify the most evil earthly acts imaginable. Christians slaughtered Jews and Muslims during the Crusades precisely because they believed that they were earning themselves a place in an all-Christian heaven, hemmed in by restrictive covenants.
In recent years, radical Islamists have embarked on suicide murder missions with the absolute conviction that they will be rewarded with a place in a Muslim paradise. The 60 percent of Muslim Americans who, according to a recent Pew Poll, do not accept the fact that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were carried out by Muslim Arabs, are deluded. Like the Christian Crusades, Islamist terror attacks are deeply involved with a form of religion that forsees an eternal reward for dastardly crimes against humanity.
I know that indignant readers will claim that none of these crimes have anything to do with the "real" Christianity or the "real" Islam. They don't have anything to do with modern, moderate forms of Christianity or Islam, but they have everything to do with retrograde expressions of religions that preach, among other things, the doctrine of eternal damnation for unbelievers and infidels. And these retrograde religious forms are on the rise in the world. They are every bit as "real" as religion based on earthly, loving kindness--something that promoters of religion as an unqualified good never want to admit.
(There were many others who posted. Among these most notably was NT Wright, who used the question as a means to get into a theological discussion about the difference between heaven and the Bible's prophesied New Heavens and New Earth. His entry does not break down to a sound bite easily, but it shows the distance than can emerge between Christian theologians who are examining the same texts and finding markedly different points of emphasis -- resulting in a different conclusion: "God's new world will not have in it 'a concentration camp in the midst of a beautiful landscape', as some earlier visions of 'hell' have supposed, but rather the celebration (1 Corinthians 20.28) that 'God will be all in all'." )