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PJ Slinger: Debating heaven with my devil’s advocate

By PJ Slinger

PJ Slinger

Nearly every day, I spend about 45 minutes walking through my neighborhood, going about three miles on average. With bad knees, I can no longer run for exercise, so now I take it slower. It gives me time to think, reflect, contemplate and just enjoy being outside (cold as it is).

During these outings, I often hold debates with myself on a variety of topics, including religion. I always try to play devil’s advocate when I attempt to debate the opposite side of my truly held position. 

But it’s funny how my truly held positions almost always win out. And that’s not by luck, of course. It’s because I have debated these same topics in the past, either within my own head or with other people, and if I have changed positions on anything, it’s because my previous thoughts were either ill-informed, under-informed or new information had been introduced.

But still, no matter how many times I have the internal debate about so many topics regarding religion, my conclusions have not wavered. This is because they have always been bound in logic and reason. And it’s not like religions are coming up with fresh ideas that would overtake my previously held positions.

Take for example, my debate recently with myself on heaven. I, of course, say there’s no heaven, no God to create heaven, no chance for this perfect utopia to exist. But my inner devil’s advocate says, “Hey, let’s look at this one item at a time.”

Eternity of bliss

The selling point of heaven is that you get to live an eternal life full of joy and to bask in the glory of God forever. But forever is a long time. Humans can’t appreciate the timescale of eternity. We can barely understand where the last 10 years have gone. 

Yet, the entry fee for heaven is allegedly based upon what you do with your maybe 100 years as a human being. You’re being judged on what you did during a nearly nonexistent fraction of time compared to eternity. In fact, the history of our universe (at 16.4 billion years) is also a nearly nonexistent fraction of time when compared to eternity.  

Only the good get in

Of course, everyone thinks they are part of the “good people” crowd. No one who truly believes in God, heaven and hell believes they are going to hell or they would certainly do something to alter that horrifying eternal fate. 

But what constitutes “good”? That kid who threw a snowball at me in grade school and gave me a black eye, is he good? Where is the line drawn? 

Anyway, why should you be punished (by not getting into heaven) by God for what you did during your time as a human? If God is omnipotent and omniscient (as God is claimed to be), then God knew long before you were even born that that’s how your life would play out, with you being a bad person. You had no chance. God had the opportunity to alter your human life into one where you were good, but didn’t. Seems like the game is rigged. 

Or can you be granted permission to heaven simply by believing in God and/or Jesus? That’s what some people think, which then means that a God-believing serial killer gets a free pass to heaven while an atheist who led a fruitful, positive life gets shunned. And what kind of heaven is that, filled with God-believing murderers, thieves and charlatans? 

Grandma is watching

Apparently, being in heaven means you get to peer down through the universe to that little speck of a planet in the Milky Way galaxy and see, with precision, what your loved ones are up to. “Oh, dear, Johnny is getting drunk again,” Grandma sighs from heaven.

This leads to a couple of perfunctory realizations.  

First, if those in heaven can see what is happening on Earth (or anywhere, I imagine), does this mean they have eyes or a physical form with which they can see? 

Also, is the speed of light a factor in this? When Grandma looks down and sees Johnny, is she seeing him in real time, or is it a remnant of what she saw based on the time it takes for light to travel from Earth to heaven (wherever that is)? If it is outside of space and time, as many believers say, then how does it work that heavenly souls can see into space? 

If those in heaven can see what humans on Earth are doing, and see something they are not happy with, doesn’t that go against the basis of heaven, where everything is perfect? If Grandma is up there worrying about Johnny’s drinking problem, is that what can be considered a perfect existence?

All will be revealed

There are so many things that are unknown to humanity. “Only God knows everything,” they say about the deity’s omniscience, which includes everything that has happened or will happen, down to the most imperceptible things. But if heaven is a place of eternal bliss, can there be souls who don’t know everything? If you don’t know everything, can your existence be perfect? 

If everyone in heaven knows all, and can see what is happening on Earth — the hatred, the killings, the horrific natural disasters — how can they be immune to the pain of humans on Earth? “There’s Johnny getting shot on the street corner. Oh, well, who cares?! This is heaven!”

It’s a sign!

Believers sometimes say that some loved one in heaven reached out to them on Earth by giving them a sign. “The light in the room flickered when I was thinking about Dad! He used to flick the lights on and off when he wanted our attention. It’s a sign from Dad in heaven!”

This concept is puzzling. Basically, they are saying that these souls in heaven have the ability to alter matter and/or energy on Earth. How is that done? Can they just think it into existence? And if they have those powers, why wouldn’t they put them to a more productive use, rather than merely making a light blink? Do all souls in heaven have these god-like powers? Does God have powers that are better than these powers the rest of heaven’s inhabitants have? Or does everyone have powers equal to God’s? If everyone is equal, then there isn’t one god, there are billions. 

Body and soul

Which then brings us to the idea of heavenly bodies. Is it only your soul that is up there, living in some sort of dream-state without a physical manifestation? Or does your dream state include realistic thoughts of having a body that you use as you would on Earth? And is that body the same as it was on Earth (obviously without the aches, pains and maladies you would get as a simple human)? And from what age on Earth is that physical body? Are you represented by your 18-year-old self, or your 40-year-old self? Or would you look completely different? 

What about babies who die in the crib? Once in heaven, are they perpetually babies? Or are they fully grown adults who just never aged on Earth? 

What about reuniting with your loved one when you die? Is that a good thing? What if your loved one secretly despised you on Earth? Is that person going to have to spend forever as your partner?

Seems like relationships in heaven could be fraught with trouble. Unless, of course, heaven is full of souls that cannot hold negative thoughts. But then where’s the free will? If there’s no free will, then all the souls are just automatons, going through the motions? What kind of heaven is that?   

Or, if heaven is just a mental state, where (and how) is the soul housed? Does it float freely in heaven? But float freely in what? Is the soul made of physical particles, or some unknown matter? What is the engine that drives it, since it supposedly requires no sustenance? 

Spending your time

Once in heaven, now what? You’re gonna be there for eternity. No, not just until the end of time, but for eternity. Eternity has no end. So, what are you doing with that time? You don’t need to sleep. You don’t need to eat. That leaves your entire existence free to do as you please. Will you get bored? You don’t need to learn anything, as you already know everything. What are you going to do to fill up an eternity’s worth of time? And what if what you like to do is at odds with what someone else likes to do?

That possibility came up during a discussion I had with a friend (several years ago) when I asked his thoughts about heaven. He was a motorcycle enthusiast and said he was looking forward to being able to race his motorcycle all the time in heaven.

I had a lot of questions. “Do you race others, or are you just out joyriding?” He said he would race others because it’s more fun.

“OK, so do you win every time?” He said because it’s heaven, you get to win every race.

“But what about the losers of your races? Aren’t they in heaven, too? How can that be fun (or perfect) for them if they always lose to you?”

He paused and said, “Well, maybe we tie every time.”

“You tie? How is that fun for anyone, much less perfect? You’re going to spend eternity never winning (or losing) a race?”

“I guess I never thought of that,” he dejectedly responded.

Unfortunately, I lost some intellectual respect for my friend (who is a professional in the mental health field!), who clearly never gave heaven a real thought. When I called him on it, I could see he realized there might be some contradictions in what constitutes an all-perfect heaven for everyone. 

Hopefully it opened his eyes (and mind) to deeper questions about heaven, questions that really lead to only one answer: It doesn’t exist.

And just like that, three miles have passed underfoot and I’m back home, with a bit of physical and mental exercise, to boot.

PJ Slinger is editor of Freethought Today.

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