I Don’t Believe in Heaven, and Neither do You

While the first half of the title of this essay is fairly straightforward, the second half is unquestionably audacious. “How dare you,” you are almost certainly asking in an offended tone, “make claims about what I believe and don’t believe?” In most cases, I would agree with such an objection. I hope, however, that you will be willing to bear with me through a thought experiment to test out this idea. In doing so I hope that either you will learn something about yourself, or you will be able to point out where my analysis of the thought experiment is mistaken.

Imagine that your best friend has landed her dream job. She is going to be the first person to visit an extrasolar planet. She has been training for such an opportunity her entire life, and this chance fulfills her dreams. Traveling to this other planet will take years of her life, and, because of relativistic effects, hundreds of years of your life. Because of the way such space travel works, you will never be able to speak with your friend again. Try to imagine the morning her spacecraft launches as vividly and realistically as possible. What are your emotions? Please try to answer that question before continuing to read.

If you’re like most people, you will have a complicated mixture of emotions. Pride in your friend is probably one of them, as is sadness that you won’t be able to interact with your friend again. But, again if you are like most people, one emotion that is probably not in your mix is grief. Grief is a distinct emotion from sadness, and while sadness would be quite common in this kind of scenario, grief is not.

Now, further imagine that the day after the launch, you wake up to hear a news report that the spacecraft carrying your friend exploded. Think very carefully. Is grief among your emotions now? Again, if you are like most people, the answer is yes.

Now let’s explore what that change in emotion implies. Whether the explosion happened or not, you won’t be seeing or talking with your friend again, at least in this life, so the direct loss of interactions with the friend has no bearing on the change. Furthermore, however great for your friend the trip would have been, heaven is, pretty much by definition, infinitely better. Your friend is now, in a scenario where heaven exists, infinitely better off.

So why, if you truly believe in heaven, would your emotion change to grief? That is a serious question that I hope you will answer in the comments, because I can think of no consistent explanation. And if that’s right, then I think this thought experiment may have just demonstrated that you don’t, in fact, believe in heaven.

Full disclosure: This argument is taken whole-hog from my new favorite philosopher, Garret Merriam. I am posting it here rather than simply linking to his video wherein he outlined it because (a) I think it is more honest for me to post my own understanding of the argument, and (b) I want to solicit feedback.

7 Comments

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  3. I’ve been thinking about this since you posted it and I’m not sure my response is all the way thought out yet, but I wanted to encourage you that it did provoke me to think about this scenario. What it comes down to for me is that the difference in the situations you outline above is DEATH. I could possibly argue that someone truly could feel grief at knowing they will never see their living best friend who is traveling to other planets, just as years ago family members likely truly felt grief when their family members left for America with the knowledge that they would probably never see them again. But with both of those scenarios, the person(s) in question are still ALIVE. We GRIEVE at a person’s death because death is a result of sin (Romans 5:12; 6:23) and our hearts long for the day when there will be no more death (Romans 8:20-23; Revelation 21:4). It is natural to grieve for the loss of a loved one, even when one believes that their loved one is in a much better place. When I grieve over those I have lost in this life whom I know were in right relationship with God, I grieve for MY loss and for their still living family members. I hurt because I will miss them and my life won’t be the same without their presence; I hurt because I know it will be difficult for their family to carry on without them, etc., but I do not grieve FOR THEM because I believe they are with God, and I have the hope of seeing them again. When I grieve for those who die without knowing the Lord, I grieve for my loss, I grieve for their family members, but I also truly grieve FOR THEM because I believe that they are eternally separated from God. In my experience, funeral services for believers are much more filled with life and hope and even celebration than those for nonbelievers which are somber and serious and sad in a very heavy and oppressive way.

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    • Thanks for the reply, Julia! I’ve been mulling your response in the back of my head since you posted it, but have had some trouble articulating exactly why it bothers me. But, I’ve let it sit on the back-burner for too long now, so I’m going to go ahead and take a shot at replying.

      I agree with you that the key difference in the scenarios is indeed “death.” I think the point is, however, that from the Christian perspective death means something completely different than it does from an atheistic perspective. From the Christian perspective, death isn’t an end, but a transition to something new… in fact, for someone that is “saved,” to something better. Do you agree with that statement? If not, why not?

      The thing is, the impression I get is that Christians often intellectually agree with those statements I just made, but emotionally disagree with them. That’s the thrust of the thought experiment that I provided… to get at the disconnect between what many Christians profess and what they actually feel. Of course it is quite possible that my impressions are incorrect, which is why I hope that you (or another commenter) can help me see how they are. I’m not convinced by what you wrote, however. Let me take some of your comments specifically:

      “our hearts long for the day when there will be no more death (Romans 8:20-23; Revelation 21:4)”

      This is really just a restatement of my comment about the human emotional response to death; it agrees with what I wrote.

      “We GRIEVE at a person’s death because death is a result of sin (Romans 5:12; 6:23)”

      This seems very abstract to me, and I don’t think it really captures the mental processes that are in play. Do you think that the grief felt by a non-Christian is qualitatively different from that felt by a Christian? I don’t. And yet the non-Christian doesn’t use sin as a mental proxy before getting to the emotional response of grief. I think grief is a natural human response to death, regardless of death’s origin.

      “It is natural to grieve for the loss of a loved one, even when one believes that their loved one is in a much better place.” (You continue with various expansions on this.)

      But, in terms of loss, the personal loss is no different in the case of death and the case of still-alive-but-never-will-be-able-to-communicate-with-again. There is more going on here than loss. Incidentally, I like your earlier comparison to people leaving for the New World very much! That is an extremely insightful comparison.

      “but I do not grieve FOR THEM because I believe they are with God, and I have the hope of seeing them again”

      But, as I mentioned above, the personal loss is identical, and yet the point of the thought experiment is that there is (typically) a change in emotions based on the nature of that loss. I’m sorry, but I’m not yet convinced.

      “When I grieve for those who die without knowing the Lord, I grieve for my loss, I grieve for their family members, but I also truly grieve FOR THEM because I believe that they are eternally separated from God.”

      This I completely understand. The thought experiment is trying to get at the former difference, however (for someone that, as you put it, was “in right relationship with God”).

      “In my experience, funeral services for believers are much more filled with life and hope and even celebration than those for nonbelievers which are somber and serious and sad in a very heavy and oppressive way.”

      I have been fortunate in that I have not attended very many funeral services, so I do not have a very large sample size to make comparisons within. I will definitely keep your observation in mind as I attend such services in the future.

      I will say that my wife and I have talked extensively about what we want when we die. There are several guiding principles. First, the services are for the living, not for the dead, to help them reflect on and accommodate within their worldview the life the deceased had lived. Neither of us is particularly fond of the idea of a funeral, but we both are quite attracted to the idea of a wake, a celebration of the life the deceased lived and the lasting impacts that person had on all of our lives.

      Have you read Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card (sequel to the largely unrelated Ender’s Game)? The central theme of the book, set amongst a planetary settlement that is largely of Portuguese Catholic derivation, if I remember correctly, is death and how a culture deals with that death. The main character, Andrew Wiggin, in a personal mission of atonement for his “sins,” is spending his life traveling the galaxy finding ways to help people cope with loss. His primary mechanism is to learn everything he can about the deceased, and tell their tale, the good with the bad, allowing both celebration and catharsis. Even for the most reprehensible person, his thinking goes, if you truly understand why they acted the way they did, blame and hate can be let go of, to be replaced with understanding and maybe even love. Much as I dislike Orson Scott Card’s politics, I feel he created a true masterpiece with that book, and it models quite well what I would like when I die.

      Regardless, those are just my thoughts, which aren’t necessarily relevant to the original thought experiment. What I am left with, however, is that I am either not grasping the distinction you are trying to draw, or I am simply not convinced by it yet.

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      • Thank you for your response. Yes, I agree that the Christian’s perspective on death differs from the atheist’s in the way that you describe, but that doesn’t mean that Christians don’t, can’t, or shouldn’t grieve over death. For those who don’t believe in God, death is the end with no hope for anything better or more meaningful than life here on earth, whereas the Christian believes in something after this earthly life. I don’t think the grief experienced by a non-Christian is in and of itself qualitatively different than that of a Christian, but the manner in which we grieve is. I will grieve with the belief that a believer is with God and in a better place and that I will see them again someday.

        I have not read Speaker for the Dead but will add it to my reading list.

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  4. Julia:
    How many funerals of nonbelievers have you attended? How many funerals of believers have you attended wherein the deceased person might have actually secretly been an atheist? Could it possible that the somber or celebratory nature of a particular funeral is entirely dependent upon the behavior of its attendants, the types of services provided, or the setting of the funeral itself? I think you’re making a lot of assumptions here.

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    • Jordan:
      Thank you for your response. I can’t say exactly how many funerals or visitations I’ve been to for nonbelievers but I’m guessing 5 to 10. It is unlikely that I’ve been to a funeral of someone I knew as a believer that may have secretly been an atheist, but I understand what you are getting at, and agree that the last sentence of my original comment was based on my perceptions as a believer. Thanks for pointing that out, and I will give that some more thought in the future as I attend other funeral services for nonbelievers. It won’t change the fact that my heart will be heavy for those who die not knowing or believing in God.

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