31 January 2012

Why I Am No Longer an Evangelical, part 2: Heaven and Hell and the Real World

Looking for part 1? Go here.

When I was an evangelical, I didn't think much about the End Times. I like the bit near the end of Revelation where it says that God will wipe the tears from our eyes and there won't be any more death or mourning or crying or pain. Seems like a good thing. It also seems like a world I wouldn't recognize.

I bring up the ultimate fate of the world and my relative (to other Christians/evangelicals) disinterest because when it comes to my ultimate fate— in short, if I'd go to heaven or hell— I was fairly well obsessed. For a while. I got better.

The primary reason I was so obsessed with heaven and hell and what happened to individuals after they died was because I'd been taught that, being corrupted by sin, this world was never going to be as perfect or ideal as existence in heaven. Hell was just what was left of this world when you took all the heaven out of it.

So, in my thinking, our current existence— the one in which I'm writing this, you're reading it, the only one that anyone has knowledge of, the one which I now believe to be the only existence, period— was little more than a shadow of an inaccessible greater future existence.

Eventually, I started to ask myself why I thought that this world was existentially less than that world. I started to care about right here, right now, and everything that comes with that. One day, I decided to perform a thought experiment. I would try to think of Christianity and evangelicalism and the gospel, but without reference to heaven and hell. I wanted to know if I could live only in this world.

Turns out it was easy to be a Christian and not think of all my experiences and actions in relation to any future other-worldly existence. I was surprised to find out, though, how fulfilling it was to think about how to love another person, to live in community, to be concerned about global justice. In many ways, I felt I'd awakened, or was suddenly aware, or suddenly alive. It was pretty sweet. So I kept going.

Something else I didn't expect was that I'd stop talking about God, too. Once I'd cut out heaven and hell and started thinking about the real world, I suppose there wasn't much need to talk about a being whose sphere of influence had just been diminished by two thirds. Maybe because heaven and hell were external or other than this world, my mind began ignoring anything incorporeal, anything that wasn't purely immanent in this world.

I still think Jesus is mostly pretty groovy. I think love and community and forgiveness are groovy. After finding that I was more comfortable thinking about a world where heaven and hell and God weren't in it, all those things are now humanisms. What I find now is that the world and the people in it have their dignity restored. In the next installment, I'll discuss in further detail the topic of dignity, especially as it relates to morality.


Ken Tryon said...

OK, maybe it's a little too obvious:

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Jamie Cassata said...

I can understand that sense of liberation that comes with giving up belief in an afterlife. I lost my faith during a religious vocation discernment retreat at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington D.C when I was in my second year at Geneseo. I was convinced that I no longer believed, and I remember how ecstatic I was on the plane ride. The conviction that this was the only life was liberating to me because there was this motivation to make life everything I could make it, since there was nothing beyond it.

After about a week, however, and I came down from the high of the experience, I realized that this experience wasn't demonstrating anything. Just because I felt this way didn't mean that God really didn't exist or that there was no afterlife. I was left to deal with the cosmological arguments for God's existence, and I couldn't answer them.

I couldn't base my life on a feeling, on a hunch. I realized I had made a mistake and repented.

Take that for what it's worth, but I challenge you to address the proofs for God's existence as well as the afterlife. Here's my blog post kind of diametrically opposed to yours haha: http://cassatanuniverse.blogspot.com/2011/12/what-happens-when-we-die-pt-1.html

Unknown said...

Jamie— Thanks for sharing, this is good stuff! Two things I'd like to address:

1) I think it's unfair for you to minimize my point by calling it only a feeling or a hunch. Forgive me if I've been unclear, but when I say I thought about the world without heaven and hell, I mean that I destroyed and rebuilt, over a course of months (and maybe years) the framework with which I viewed the world. It wasn't some whim one afternoon.

2) Your post was interesting, but I think it's got one fatal flaw. Your conclusion that a soul exists and exists for eternity doesn't necessarily follow from your analogy. At most, you've demonstrated that a human is not merely a body, but in a possession of non-physical identity of some kind, which most would call a mind. Basically, all you've done is point out that the mind-body problem exists. That's a rather specific epistemological issue that's outside the scope of my posts.

Jamie Cassata said...

1) I'm saying that your conviction in the matter seems to be based on your your preference for a naturalistic perspective.

2) I've pointed out the mind-body problem, yes, but I've done more than that. I've shown how the existence of universals precludes one proposed solution to the mind-body problem (materialism). In order to argue against an afterlife I'd say you have to grapple with this issue. I don't think it's outside the scope of the issue. I think it's very much in the scope of the issue.

Avila said...

Maybe I'm over simplifying and not taking quite enough time to think this through but isn't it possible to find a balance between living in this world and being concerned with a potential afterlife?

Unknown said...

Jamie— 1) All conviction is based on preference.

2) You've posited that the soul or the mind is indestructible, but I think you've got a long way to go to prove that. To discuss whether a mind exists separately from a body (I'm not convinced it does) isn't quite the same question as the existence of heaven and hell.

Avila— What would that balance look like, do you think?

Avila said...


It would look like making an impression on the world as we know it now to (hopefully) make things a little bit better but also remembering that things are never going to be perfect here where we are now.

I think the balance of that kind of life was apparent during my mom's funeral service. On one side there was a relief that she was no longer in pain due to side effects from Leukemia & chemotherapy treatments and (I say this primarily to be consistent with the faith that she expressed while alive) is now in Heaven where there isn't any cancer or a lot of other terrible things. At the same time we also celebrated the things she had accomplished while alive in terms of relationships, her job and artistic pursuits.