The Problem with Heaven

I have a minor gripe with the way Christian theology is laid out. It’s not that I think it’s wrong – I’m a faithful Catholic, if perhaps not a good one, and tend to believe what the Church says to believe – it’s that the emphasis often seems misplaced.

The issue is with the concept of “Heaven”. Philosophically, I’m not sure exactly what it will be, or what a “resurrected body” is, etc. I do think it’s pretty clearly not going to be what we expect (sitting around on clouds for the rest of eternity – which most people use to mean aeviternality, but that’s a different story), but that’s not that big a deal. But it is a big deal that the idea of a Heaven than you either get into or don’t, and if you don’t you go to hell, encourages a really flawed way of looking at morality.

How this happens is pretty clear. With a Heaven-Hell strict duality, you end up trying to do just the bare minimum to get into Heaven, and not try to be as good as you can for the sake of being good, you end up not being very good at all. You just end up not very bad. That’s not what Christianity is about.

Of course, this is a commonly recognized problem. Look at the text of the traditional Act of Contrition: “I detest all my sins because of your just punishment, but most of all because they offend you, my God”, etc. We’re not supposed to avoid sin because it’ll stop us from getting into Heaven; we avoid sin because it offends God, because it is wrong.

But casting things in terms of getting into Heaven or not predisposes us to look for the bare minimum, because, well, if you’re either in or out, what’s the least you have to do to get in? Find out, do exactly that, and you’ll have a fun, easy life and end up in Heaven. The Catholic Church gets around this somewhat with the concept of Purgatory – putting the emphasis on sanctification, rather than justification, and making clear that just doing the bare minimum might get you into Purgatory, but that you’d be a lot better off doing more than that – but even this leaves the basic Heaven-Hell duality there.

It’s not like I have a solution to this, of course. And I’m not saying we should emend the Bible to not talk so much about Heaven and Hell. But we do need to realize that the point of life is not get-in-or-get-left-out-of-Heaven; the point is to become a good person, and you are who you are when you die, and that not only determines your fate, that is your fate. If you were a bad person, you live with that and that is Hell; if you were a mediocre person, you might get to Heaven, but it won’t be a very big Heaven for you.

This is something that’s been talked about throughout history, but I think it could bear reiteration. Mainly because it’s something that a lot of people don’t realize, or if they do, they don’t have a good understanding of; I know several people who will do things of questionable morality and say, “well, it’s not going to stop me from getting into Heaven, so why not?” That’s exactly what we need to avoid – not because that attitude will stop us from getting into Heaven (it might, or it might not), but because it completely misses the point.

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