"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

There's loads of room in heaven

“I’m not sure if there is an afterlife, but I hope there is” is a comment that mystifies me when talk turns to religion. For one thing, if death really is death and all consciousness ceases forever, what is there to worry about? It’s not as though we’ll be feeling eternally disappointed at the lack of pearly gates and the chance of tea and cakes with St Peter since ‘we’ won’t exist.
This is actually a thought that I find extremely comforting as being an atheist doesn’t rank high on the list of beliefs that are supposed to guarantee a celestial entry pass. To ‘hope for an afterlife’ is, therefore, also to hope such an existence will be eternally pleasant and doesn’t involve pitchfork-wielding devils and a faulty thermostat.
But, some may say, it’s nice to think of deceased loved ones as being in heaven, somehow still aware of us and in some way available to talk to. Well, maybe it is, but that assumption still falls foul of the same objection. Your little old granny might be watching benignly down on you from above, but she could also be leering up from below; a slightly less heart-warming thought.
However all of this is largely irrelevant because at least as far as Christian theology is concerned, no human, not even your sainted grandmother, is in heaven. The idea that good people (or more accurately people who believe in Jesus) go to heaven when they die is a misconception that many people, including many Christians, hold dear, but the bible is actually very clear that this is not the case.
The only inhabitants of the biblical heaven are God, Jesus, assorted angels and possibly the prophets Elisha and Elijah who are described as being taken directly to be with God in the O.T. Nobody else is expected to be there ever. Christian eschatology has it that when Jesus returns the righteous will be physically and bodily resurrected (so I hope you didn’t have granny cremated) as immortals to rule earth for a thousand years alongside Christ after which time creation will be remade perfect and God and the gang will live amongst us. Some might argue that will be a heavenly state, but it obviously hasn’t happened yet, and it’s not actual ‘heaven.’ The precise timing of events and ideas of who actually gets to be resurrected in this way are interpreted differently by different sects, but the core point is not in dispute, no one goes to heaven.
Even if the Christian religion is true, you could be long time dead, before you get to live again on earth. Jesus actually promised his disciples he would return in their lifetime, but he’s obviously got distracted or caught up with paperwork or something as two millennia later he’s still not arrived. So, given his poor timekeeping I would not be too sanguine that any resurrections are imminent.
The lack of an afterlife is not a thing that should dismay us. Being dead is not an inconvenience to the dead and the best place for grandma is in your thoughts and memories, where she’s available to chat any time you need.

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