This is something I often wondered growing up as I did, raised by a very devout Christian widow who…well…let’s just say it was very important to her that her children would go to heaven. Which is why to this day I have never told my mom I no longer believe, and haven’t believed in what is now three years or more.
If I were to imagine heaven, it would be a place where there are no tears, no sadness, no heartache, no despair, no disappointment, no discouragement, no worry, no regrets, no hunger, no thirst, no loneliness, no yearning for things to be different. Heaven would be all the best things I could ever imagine, like all the most breathtaking natural beauty the earth could offer, only so much more, the colors so much brighter, the sounds so much sweeter. The air would be like standing in a grove of lilac trees, or in the center of a greenhouse filled with roses. All would be so glorious you’d want to stand there forever, drinking it in, content to stay still in that moment forever.
As a Christian I had friends who were not, family who were not. And it bothered me. Really really bothered me. My dad’s cousin Evelyn died, and she was an atheist who told me once to my face she had never sinned. Because she did not believe in sin–which in her view was a man-made invention that made religion necessary. So when Evie died, I was very sad. I didn’t want to think of Evie in hell. It upset me to think of such a wonderful loving lady in such a horrible place.
I have heard it said that hell is not what the bible describes in a literal sense. Hell is to be eternally separate from God. Hell is to be able to gaze across a divide at all the joys of heaven, and not be able to go there, not be able to be among all those happy people, but to be stuck forever and ever in a place apart from God. That’s what hell is.
Now if I were one of those lucky people who managed to make it into heaven, and I looked across and I could see–or even if I couldn’t see, but I just knew, I had friends or family like Evie, in some other place, and they were suffering. If I knew that because of choices they made in their life as puny and ignorant mortals they were doomed to be punished forever, unforgiven, to a place of despair, of sadness, of pain, of separation, of never knowing the utter bliss I was getting to enjoy… Would that be very nice for me? Would I be in heaven? Would heaven be a happy paradise for me, if I knew across the divide there were people I knew and cared for, suffering–and doomed by my God to suffer forever? Would that be a happy thing for me?
The only way I would find Heaven a happy place for me under those circumstances, would be if God made my heart very hard so I wouldn’t care anymore. So I would regard those friends I once cared for and family I cared for as deserving to languish in agony and despair forever. They would be like my enemy and I would feel how right it was for them to suffer for eternity while I enjoyed happiness beyond my wildest dreams.
If I had to have my heart hardened for Heaven to be a happy place for me–for me to no longer care about people I once cared for now having to suffer, how much more brittle and hardened would God’s heart have to be, considering he supposedly is merciful and “love” is one of his names? For him to be merciful and loving by nature, and yet able to condemn billions of souls to eternal torment and still go on his merry way being happy in his paradise despite all that suffering going on….wouldn’t he have to shut his ears and harden his heart and cease to be merciful and loving?
He would no longer be a loving God. He would no longer be a merciful God. He’d be a cruel and unforgiving God–by so enforcing an eternal horrible punishment upon mortal beings who did for whatever reason, not jump through the right hoops while they were living, and so now they must suffer forever.
It would be different if the rule book were crystal clear and not subject to this interpretation or that interpretation. But the rule book is not clear. There are verses in the bible that contradict other verses. The bible says Thou Shalt not Kill and yet time and time again God kills, or orders his followers to kill. There is a verse that says not by works are you saved, but it is a gift from god, and there’s another verse that says good works are just a part of what you must do to have eternal life. There’s a verse that says you should make it known what good works you do, and another verse that says you should keep it secret, and not boast.
Which verses are the correct ones, and which are not? Why are there cities placed in the wrong countries in the bible? Why was there a census mentioned in the bible shortly after Jesus’ birth, but the year is off–there was no census at that time per actual history?
If God’s good news is so important, so critical that the punishment is so horrible indeed for those of us who don’t hear or hear but don’t believe…then why isn’t God’s word perfectly clear? Wouldn’t God insist on it being absolutely clear? Without flaw? Without human tampering? And if our salvation is so important to God, why does he not simply make his existence fact, rather than keep us all guessing? In all the world there is not one scrap of non-biblical proof of the existence of God, or Jesus for that matter. Now if God is real, and if his good news is real, and if our salvation is so important to him, so we don’t end up in hell suffering forever while he, God, is forced to shut his ears and turn his back and never forgive–why isn’t evidence of his existence or Jesus’ existence, as plentiful to find as the bones of dinosaurs are? Why doesn’t God appear and end the doubting that will ultimately cost so many eternal life? Or for that matter, why did God make Lucifer in the first place, or human beings so fallable as to be capable of sin and then place them right where he knew his imperfect angel was lying in wait?
Or if God doesn’t want to appear? If our salvation isn’t worth him revealing himself, why not perform the impossible to prove miracles really do happen? Like, allowing the amputee who has been praying really hard, to have his lost arm or leg grow back? Or give the woman who had her eyes gouged out by the chimpanzee, new eyes–regrow them in her head? If God can do anything, these things would not surpass his power–and would leave very little doubt that the supernatural exists. And yet he doesn’t.
Anyway, I have digressed and I’m sorry. My point is, even if I were still a Christian, and even if I did make it into this paradise Christians look forward to. It wouldn’t be heaven to me because I would know my Aunt Evie was being punished in hell–and she was a really neat lady who does not deserve torment and pain for all eternity. So heaven would become hell for me, knowing Evie isn’t there and knowing there’s nothing I can do to appeal to this merciless deaf God to hear her cries of torment and forgive.
That wouldn’t be heaven for me, and that would not be a god I would even want to follow.