An Atheist in Heaven

John’s post about Universal Salvation got me thinking about Heaven. And that even if I were to hope that all people are ultimately saved, maybe I don’t really want to be if Heaven is the destination.

“Heaven” is one of the most ubiquitous religious concepts, yet remains nearly as nebulous as the concept of “Hell.” In the Western tradition, Heaven served simply as the domain of the deities, which mortals were unable to access unless they were particularly pious or virtuous (e.g., Elijah, Herakles, the Mahdi). As an optional (positive) destination within the afterlife, Heaven was linked more closely with the underworld than the mystery beyond the clouds, such as the Greek concept of the Elysian Fields. Eastern versions of Heaven were mysterious realms full of supernatural agents, the spirits of ancestors, and the source of divine rule.

The Bible mentions Heaven infrequently, and provides the only clear description in the 21st chapter of the Revelation of John. There, Heaven is presented as a new version of the city of Jerusalem, except constructed almost entirely of gold and jewels. The Revelator further describes the New Jerusalem as being centered on worship of Jesus Christ:

I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. In the daytime (for there will be no night there) its gates will never be closed; and they will bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it; and nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

The conception of Heaven that most appeals to me is what C.S. Lewis imagined for the completion of his Narnia series, “The Last Battle.” Lewis’ Heaven is really nothing more than a rebooted version of the world we already know, minus all pain and suffering.

And that sounds nice to me, admittedly. I suppose that if there is a God who exercises his prerogative to extend universal salvation, that’s the best possible outcome that I could imagine. But I doubt that I could extend my appreciation, least of all my worship. For if a version of the world we know now without pain and suffering is within the control of a God, why not just reboot the system now and install the upgrade? If universal salvation is truly a viable option, then any delay is unnecessary cruelty.

As an atheist in Heaven, I can imagine my shock and surprise giving way not to a deep and abiding sense of gratitude, but rather to a bitter disappointment. Perhaps the more humane option really is something like Annihilationism, which would at least spare virtuous atheists the agony of an unending moral despondency.

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