07 October 2013

"What on Earth Do We Know About Heaven?" Pretty much nothing.

Randal Rauser wrote a book recently called What on Earth Do We Know About Heaven? Being a non-believer, I had about as much interest in that book as I do in books about the afterlife in general, which is to say zero. But I thought it might be worth checking out Randal's book simply because of a quick exchange over at his blog:


And "check it out" I have. I want to hold Randal's feet to the fire here and see if he really gives provocative answers to my questions, or if it's just the usual apologist goalpost shifting that I've come to expect. 

It's worth pointing out that this book deals with Heaven from a conceptual and theological standpoint, not an evidential one. Randal's not trying to convince non-Christians they should be concerned with Heaven. And that's good, because while anecdotal accounts (i.e., 'case studies') of near-death experiences and trips to the hereafter are in no small supply, evidence resulting from properly controlled experimental conditions that can and have been replicated are conspicuously absent – although I'm sure any white-belt apologist could conjure up some convoluted post hoc rationalization to explain why God abhors properly controlled experimental conditions. 

So I take the word "know" in the title of the book with a gigantic grain of salt, because clearly Randal is using a pretty watered-down and meaningless definition of the term. His aim is really more to provide some measure of internal coherency to the concept of Heaven. Not to toot my own horn too much, but I think the questions I ask above are pretty sensible ones that highlight the logical incoherency of the concept of Heaven. Does he answer them? Well, spoiler alert: I still think Heaven is logically incoherent. But Randal's answers to my questions give me chance to expand on why I think that is the case. While this post is by no means a full review or analysis of the book, I do want to make some pit stops along the way to address what I feel are relevant points.


On diving into the first bits of the book, it's immediately apparently that Randal is engaging in some pretty standard-issue making shit up. Take this, for example:
Remember that Jesus’s body has spatial extension (that is, it takes up space), and so it follows that heaven must take up space. As Wayne Grudem puts it, “The fact that Jesus had a resurrection body that was subject to spatial limitations (it could be at only one place at one time) means that Jesus went somewhere when he ascended into heaven.”
It isn't hard to see why this is silly. We could just as well say that because Jesus had a physical body, he had to obey the laws of physics and could not have magically floated into the clouds as described in the gospels. But wait, the Christian will surely reply, you're talking about not some ordinary man but God incarnate, so it's not surprising that he could do extraordinary things no mortal could. But that just highlights the absurdity of it: all the Christian is saying is that God gets to break the rules, and as soon as you introduce this sort of supernatural gobbledygook into the equation, any hypothesis you can conjure up becomes superficially plausible. It's like William Lane Craig saying that the probability of Jesus being raised from the dead naturally is very low, but the probability of him being raised supernaturally is very high. Anything's possible with magic! Could God occupy a non-physical space with a physical body? Why could God not do some such seemingly impossible thing? Or perhaps Jesus' body was transformed in some inexplicable way when it entered Heaven. Or maybe the laws of physics are just so different in Heaven that our very concept of time and space do not apply – after all, if Jesus gets a pass on the laws of physics here on Earth, who are we to say we know anything about the physical 'laws' of Heaven? This is especially relevant because Randal will later make a similar argument himself with regard to the nature of time in Heaven, saying (more or less) that our material conceptualization of time does not apply in Heaven. Why he then cares about finding some coherent relationship between physical space and 'Heaven space' escapes me (he goes so far as to suggest that Heaven is an alternate universe something like what we'd see in String Theory), but this is standard-issue religious weirdness. I can't help but wonder what Randal would make of the book The Physics of Christianity by physicist/nutbag Frank Tipler, which postulates that our 'resurrection bodies' will be futuristic space-faring robots.

Anyway, apologies for the slight digression there, but it's relevant simply because it's important to see that as long as you're dealing with an omnipotent supernatural being that somehow exists as a disembodied mind that transcends physical space and time and can will entire universes into existence, it's a conceptual free-for-all. He later, for example, proposes that Earth will be our (well... Christians') eternal home, which does raise some issues with the whole dying sun and heat death of the universe thing. But of course, when the rules get in the way, God can just change them! God is the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card whose supernatural omnipotence becomes an out for all manner of conceptual nonsense. This is an issue that will come back to bite Randal later in the book.


Knowing that your loved ones are suffering in hell

So, to my questions. First, the idea of whether our knowledge of those suffering in Hell would render 'Heaven' impossible. It seems intuitively obvious that my poor mother would be in agony to know that I was being tormented eternally while she sat peacefully in Heaven. The only escapes I can think of are 1) God erases the memories of the saved, or 2) Make Hell not such a shitty place.

To my surprise, Randal does neither; in fact, he outright rejects the idea that God makes the saved unaware of the damned, but he does so because he believes that the church and the Bible teach otherwise – not because, as is the issue to me, it renders the idea of free will rather moot and reduces Heaven to some sort of blissful ignorance.

More surprisingly to me is that Randal really doesn't really answer the question at all. While he offers some possibilities, he seems to leave the question open. His central thesis is a sort of modified take on Schadenfreude – joy in the suffering of others. While Randal is satisfied to accept that it's immoral to gain some perverse glee in others being horribly tortured, he thinks that there's a defensible form of Schadenfreude in which it is a sort of satisfaction of justice served. But this answer isn't fully satisfying to Randal, as he goes on to argue that any satisfaction at justice served must be tempered by the sorrow we'd feel. He tells an anecdote about a girl named "Lizzie", and asks us to imagine that we were her parents. She rejects Christ, and is murdered shortly thereafter:
Given that Lizzie told you she rejected the gospel, you have reason to believe that she has gone to hell. At that moment, the grief at her loss is unimaginable. But is it possible that when you are resurrected into heavenly glory, fully conformed to the image of God’s Son, the grief you now feel will be transformed into joy that God is righteously punishing Lizzie in hell for eternity? Could this really be what it means to become fully like the God revealed in Jesus?
Therein lies the dilemma. If you wouldn’t experience deep pain and sadness in heaven at Lizzie’s eternal fate, then what does it even mean to be made like Christ? But if you would experience it, what then becomes of heaven?
To my surprise, this is where the chapter ends. It's clear Randal himself struggles with this issue, which is good – it's important to think critically about such paradoxical things that believers are expected to accept. I'm sure with enough creative thinking, an intelligent guy like Randal could conjure up some way to explain it away. Maybe Hell is just temporary (in the next chapter, he suggests Hell may be like Purgatory, a place where the unsaved are 'cleansed' before they can go to heaven); maybe it's just annihilation, so the unsaved will not exist (wouldn't our loved ones miss us?). Who knows. What I know is far from answering my question, Randal seemed to accept that it's a troubling paradox for Christian doctrine.

This whole issue also highlights the problem of Hell. There's simply no justification for eternal torment of anyone, for any finite crime. I am an atheist because I sincerely believe it is the most rational position to take. It seems almost comically absurd to think that God would deem such a 'crime' of freethought to be deserving of unimaginable torment that never ends. You get to go to Hell for being wrong! I can imagine all the fundies lining up for their own little Schadenfreude, saying, "Checkmate, atheist!" as I'm tossed into the fire. Randal remains noncommital on the nature of Hell, saying,
Please keep in mind that I’m not claiming that we are wrong in reading Matthew 25: 41 and other hell passages as supporting a doctrine of eternal hell. (Although the complexity of translating the Greek word aionios, which is commonly rendered in English as “eternal,” certainly allows for that possibility.) Instead, the main point is that we cannot be certain that we’re right in this reading. And if there is even a tiny possibility that we could be wrong, we ought to hope that we are, given that being wrong would have such an extraordinary outcome— salvation for all!
The nice thing for Randal is that if he wakes up tomorrow and decides to take a firmer position, there's no way for his opinion to be confirmed or disconfirmed. He can believe whatever he wants, and convince himself to be fully satisfied with it. Blissful ignorance indeed. 



What would stop the redeemed from repeating the Fall all over again?

Randal has an interesting answer to this question (although it's not phrased the same way I phrased it): that the saved will indeed lose their ability to choose sin, but simply because their desire to do so – the 'sinful nature' or 'the flesh' as it's commonly referred to in the church – will be redeemed. He offers a "gastronomic metaphor":
Isaiah 25: 6 promises a banquet to put all the Michelin three-star restaurants in the world to shame: “On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine— the best of meats and the finest of wines.”
Unfortunately, right now with our fallen moral tastes, we are as likely to quaff a glass of Two Buck Chuck from the grocery store as a glass of the finest French merlot.[ 117] When it comes to the “best of meats,” we’re as likely to choose a Big Mac as a filet mignon. And where rich food is concerned, we’re just as likely to opt for a Twinkie as a glass of sparkling shiraz jelly complemented with frosted grapes. One day, however, our tastes will be transformed as heaven reveals to us an infinite horizon of culinary delicacies. We will have no desire to choose evil but will have an infinite range of good choices.
That's interesting. Because see, I enjoy a fine steak or some overpriced sushi as much as the next guy. I love single-malt Scotch and a litany of wines. But I also the occasional plate of fries. While it's obviously not healthy to eat that way all the time, I know that the occasional 'cheat meal' is harmless.

But in Heaven, there are no 'cheat meals', because the consequences for slipping up are dire; if it's like Adam & Eve, the consequences are borne out for all of humanity, not just the guilty party. So Randal's saying that we will not be stripped of our ability to have a celestial 'cheat meal', but our desire.

Pardon me for thinking that's the kind of difference that only an academic philosopher could believe is relevant. It seems to me that it is little more than a semantic distinction to say we technically can choose to sin, but we really can't because we will not desire to. Our desire to be right with God will absolutely overwhelm any temptation of sin, making another Fall functionally impossible. You say po-tay-to, I say po-tah-to. This is especially obvious when one considers that our ability to sin is entirely the result of desire. The man is only capable of cheating on his wife because he desires some sort of sexual thrill he's not getting at home. Remove the desire to sin and you remove the ability to do so. That to me seems as much an abrogation of free will as any divine mind-wipe.

It's worse though. This whole nonsense highlights the absurdity of Christian theology in general. Why does God have to wait until the saved are in Heaven to wipe out their fleshly desires? Why couldn't people just be 'perfected' when they are 'saved'? This seems like a needlessly elaborate charade. And heck, I haven't even touched the problem of the Fall to begin with.


Is Heaven just eternal senility?

I have to admit, Randal does a much better job with this one. I'll keep it short. He recognizes that we derive satisfaction from overcoming some measure of difficult and suffering, and thinks that there's some acceptable degree of unhappiness in Heaven:
[Extreme] and unrewarding suffering will indeed be part of the old order that will pass away. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be no melancholy at all. Just as there may be room for the drives of hunger and thirst that enrich the banquet, could there also be room for a dimension of melancholy to the extent that it could enrich our emotional life in eternity? Of course that possibility depends on whether there can be a melancholy that enriches our emotional life and thus can meaningfully be called sweet.
Randal says that this "sweet melancholy" is distinct from real suffering in several ways:
  1. It includes hope
  2. It has an "aesthetic dimension" absent from suffering (that one's a bit vague to me)
  3. It lacks the emotional intensity of deep sadness
The problem, as I see it, is that this appears to conflict with Randal's other thesis (in his chapter on Hell) that people in Heaven are "maximally happy". In this case, maximally happy seems to include some degree of sadness. How much, exactly, seems hard for Randal to quantify. Too much sadness and it's bona fide suffering; to little, and you lose something of the creative impulse and reward of hardship that we use to describe happiness on Earth. So the answer seems to be that Heaven doesn't eliminate sadness, but has the amount that's "just right". Goldilocks would be proud.

I actually would have expected Randal to go a different route altogether, like suggesting that we simply cannot compare our states of happiness and suffering on Earth to what we'd experience in Heaven. That would of course be the standard ineffability cop-out, so I have to give Randal some credit for a creative if somewhat noncommittal and paradoxical answer.


If Heaven goes on for eternity, wouldn't we eventually have all experienced all possible experiences such that there would be no new experiences, nothing to learn, nothing 'new' at all?

At the outset I pointed out that I thought it odd the way Randal goes through great lengths to reconcile the laws of physics with the laws of Heaven, but when it comes to time he doesn't hesitate to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But try as I might, I couldn't find any direct answer to my question in Randal's book. He proposes the idea that people will age cyclically, that culturally significant events and places could be re-experienced, etc., indicating that time will not necessarily be experienced in the arrow-like fashion we experience it now. But he never quite gets to addressing the problem that when you have eternity (regardless of whether the arrow of time is pointing straight or not), you can ultimately repeat all those experiences an infinite number of times and still have all of eternity left over to experience all other possible experiences an infinite number of times. In the introduction, Randal rejects the view that Heaven is 'timeless' – just as well, since 'timeless' also implies 'changeless'. But I'm not sure where that leaves him. So, I'll have to leave it to Randal to clarify on this one.


Being a former Christian, I can easily see how this kind of book makes for great reading for those already swimming in the Kool-Aid. But Randal remains vaguely elusive or noncommittal on some very important questions, and spends a lot of time just making stuff up and saying, basically, Hey, it could happen! Perhaps the entire facade of the book is best summarized by this passage:
In case you think I’ve gone off the deep end, I grant that the whole idea of cyclical aging in eternity may sound rather fantastic. But it is surely no more fantastic than the idea that a body that rotted into the earth millennia ago will suddenly be restored to perfect life.
Indeed. 

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