By Steven M. Cahn
For many theists the importance of believing in God rests on the possibility of a blissful afterlife. Yet the notion of Heaven raises numerous difficulties.
To begin, where is Heaven? How does one travel there? No one knows. When we die, our bodies stop functioning and may even be destroyed. What form will they take in Heaven? If a person was ill for decades, will a resurrected body suddenly enjoy health that was rarely, if ever, attained in life? Again, no one knows.
If a new body is provided, would the resurrected person be the person who died? If a ship is destroyed and an identical one built, the second is different from the first. Similarly, if a person is destroyed and an identical one created, the second is different from the first. In that case, the original person would be lost.
A way to avoid difficulties about resurrected bodies is to suppose that after death what survives are not bodies but souls. Yet what is a soul? Can two souls inhabit a single body, or is the arrangement only one soul per person? Do non-human animals have souls? How could we know?
A crucial question concerns the personality of the resurrected person. Suppose Smith is charitable, loyal, and humorous, and enjoys gardening, listening to classical music, playing golf, and taking trips with friends. After death, will the resurrected Smith have the same character and interests? If not, in what sense is the resurrected person appropriately identified as Smith?
To see another difficulty, consider two acquaintances, Peters and Peterson. Peters looks forward to spending eternity with Peterson, whereas Peterson looks forward to being forever free of Peters. Assuming they retain their fundamental likes and dislikes, how can they both attain heavenly bliss?
Other problems arise when we try to understand the relationship between those in Heaven and those on Earth.The common supposition is that those who die maintain an interest in events of this world. For example, a loving father who taught his daughter to become a championship swimmer will presumably, after his death, take pride if his daughter wins an Olympic medal. But that supposition, while perhaps comforting to the daughter, turns those in Heaven into spectators of the living, watching intently as events unfold. What, then, becomes of heavenly bliss? How can Heaven bring peaceful existence if the triumphs and tragedies of this world remain the focus of attention?
If those in Heaven are unconcerned about events on Earth, however, the relationship between them and those who have died is broken. After all, if the father of the swimming champion no longer cares whether his daughter succeeds, athletically or otherwise, in what sense is he still her loving father?
Yet another question: what happens in Heaven? One answer is that God is experienced. But how long can we find ecstasy in sheer contemplation, even if the object of our attention is divine? In the absence of events, even the most passionate love grows dull. Eventually we want to do something with or for those we love, not just remain endlessly in their presence.
If those in Heaven have no worldly interests and characteristics, then they have lost their individuality. For instance, if someone who was cantankerous in life goes to Heaven, does that person remain cantankerous? If so, what becomes of eternal bliss? If not, what becomes of the individual’s distinctiveness?
Even granted these innumerable difficulties, the hope for Heaven is understandable. After all, death looms for all. Like boaters riding a long rapids flowing inexorably toward a deadly waterfall, we can take pleasure in the passing scene so long as we do not focus on where we are headed. What we cannot do, however, is stop the current or change its direction. We are caught in the grip of time. Yet Heaven offers us an escape. There we can live forever, surrounded by those for whom we care, and safe in the eternal home, abiding in the light and goodness of God.
The vision is compelling, even if unreasonable. Yet philosophical reflection never forces us to any conclusion. Every argument requires premises, and if the conclusion of an argument is found unacceptable, the premises can be denied.
In this case, the vision of Heaven may be so attractive that many may wish to believe in the idea regardless of any arguments against it. They may consider all questions of who, what, where, why, and how to be mere quibbles.
Furthermore, even false beliefs can play a positive role in our lives. Suppose, for example, that as a youngster you were told by your parents that your uncle left the country decades ago and now lives in an inaccessible region of the world. He is an upright man who cares for you deeply and has high hopes for you. He also possesses sizable resources and in mysterious ways keeps track of your activities.
As you grow up, your belief in your uncle plays a crucial role in your life. When your hopes are stymied or your confidence wanes, you find renewed strength in the thought that your uncle loves you and wants you to succeed. In short, your belief in your uncle enables you to deal with life’s problems and achieve important goals.
If, however, you have been misled and your supposed uncle never existed, would you have been better off learning the truth? Perhaps not.
Analogously, suppose that as a youngster you were told by your parents that your uncle died decades ago but still watches over you from Heaven. Let us assume that this belief plays a crucial role in your life, enabling you to deal with life’s problems and achieve important goals.
If Heaven does not exist, would you be better off learning the truth? Again, perhaps not.
Still, we need to remember that the desire to reach Heaven may lead some individuals to commit horrendous crimes and thereby seek to secure a glorious future in the next world. That result, too, may be a consequence of disregarding the canons of reason.
In conclusion, we may wonder whether the concept of Heaven, regardless of its rational justification, does more good or ill. To that question, though, philosophy alone cannot provide any definitive answer.
(An intriguing historical study of Christian views of heaven is Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang, Heaven: A History. The minority view that heaven is not needed for Christianity is presented by Grace M. Jantzen, “Do We Need Immortality?” Modern Theology 1 , reprinted in my anthology Exploring Philosophy of Religion.)
Steven M. Cahn is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His most recent book is Religion Within Reason (Columbia University Press). This essay is a shortened version of an article that will appear in the British journal Think.