“Life is a precious gift, my friend. Don’t waste it away now.” – Domenic Troiano
In previous blog posts I mentioned that I was raised Catholic — however, I am not a particularly observant Catholic. Growing up, I was much more studious: I went to a Catholic elementary school, and my parents dragged me to church fairly regularly. However, I had problems accepting what my church was teaching me; in particular, their concept of heaven seemed completely ridiculous. These old men were telling us to follow their particular set of rules, and if we did, then we would be given an eternity of happiness. If we didn’t do as they said, then we would endure an eternity of suffering – in the form of demons sticking red-hot pokers into our body orifices, or being forced to watch Beaches and Steel Magnolias over and over again. Even as a child, I knew something was not right. How could these old men possibly know what happens to us after we die? The only way to know for sure was to die first, and then come back. I was pretty sure they hadn’t done that… nor had anyone else, for that matter.
Years later I was watching a British documentary called Connections, and the host, James Burke, seemed to sum things up quite nicely. He said that Christianity was all about the afterlife, and that your life here on Earth is best spent preparing for the next life. That certainly sounded familiar to me, and I’m sure that those of you who follow a Christian religion have already spent countless hours attending services, praying, worshipping, reciting scripture and doing whatever your religious elders tell us to do, so that you can receive that coveted (and apparently elusive) ticket to heaven. All over the world, in the quest for this ticket, people (through penance) deny themselves the simple pleasures that surround them. They suffer needlessly, and some even mutilate their own bodies for the sake of “building up credits in their own version of heaven”. Instead of thinking independently, they tacitly accept the advice of a bunch of old men who presume to tell them how the world works and how they should live.
This philosophy actually seems quite reasonable, given the way that the church has framed our existence for us. I like to think that we – the ones who willingly embrace the church’s dogma – are living in a “paradise sandwich”. In the beginning, we were given paradise, in the form of the Garden of Eden. We misbehaved and were evicted, and now we are encouraged to spend the rest of our lives behaving in a certain way so that we can earn it back. So here we are, living out our wretched, sinful existence sandwiched between two slices of paradise, feeling miserable about the unfairness of it all, longing for what was denied us, and doing whatever we can to right the wrong known as Original Sin. Such a delightful view of things!
The idea of Original Sin, and being saddled with the sins of others, doesn’t sit well with me. It reminds me of a teacher who decides to punish an entire class because s/he wasn’t able to identify a troublemaker. I didn’t forfeit our paradise; our common ancestors were kicked out of Eden and ruined things for the rest of us. If I didn’t misbehave, then why must I spend my entire life trying to earn it back? The idea of my regaining paradise strikes me as inherently selfish – Adam and Eve alone ruined things for all future generations, yet I am following rules solely to secure my own place in heaven. Everyone receives the same punishment, but when it comes to salvation, it’s every man or woman for him or herself.
In my blog entry The Generosity Coefficient – my own take on Ecclesiastes 11:1 – I write about the importance of “paying it forward”. In one example I suggest visiting a doughnut shop and giving the cashier an extra two dollars to subsidize (or pay for) the stranger in line behind you. Why isn’t there a mechanism in place in my religion that will allow me to do the spiritual equivalent of donating to a food bank? If I’ve already met the minimum requirements for entering heaven, and I continue to do good deeds, then I would like the option of crediting them, individually on a case-by-case basis, to someone else’s “ethereal account”.
Also, at some point wouldn’t the cumulative collective goodness of the billions of souls who have lived on this planet during the previous 2,000 years be enough to compensate for the Original Sin committed by two individuals? At which point the Earth would then be immediately transformed back into the Garden of Eden. It hasn’t happened yet, and despite our exponential population growth I don’t see it happening any time soon. Of course one could also argue that the evil that men do far outweighs our kindness and good deeds, meaning that the Earth’s sudden transformation into paradise won’t happen in the foreseeable future. I am in no position to quantify and compare our evil and good deeds, but I like to think that the overall goodness of the majority of the world’s population is greater than the wickedness of a small minority.
We should have earned back paradise long ago, which is why I believe that it wasn’t surrendered in the first place – we are living in it right now. It was time to revisit the question that had perplexed me as a child in church, but this time I decided to think differently. What if things were actually reversed? What if our existence on Earth was actually our great reward, and heaven (if it even existed) was a monotonous and unfulfilling existence from which we couldn’t wait to escape? To my way of thinking, this arrangement seemed to make more sense.
Heaven is presented to us as the great reward – the carrot that is dangling perpetually in front of us. Our collective vision of heaven, with its fluffy clouds, angels, continuous harp music that somehow never becomes irritating, and people wandering around in robes, seems, on the surface, to be components of a fairly pleasant and stress-free existence. If nothing else, it makes a cheerful backdrop for cream cheese commercials. However, after giving this some thought, I’m now of the opinion that we will not be deliriously happy or even remotely content. Let’s take a closer look at our idealized version of heaven, and I think you’ll see that after a while, we’ll want to return to Earth.
We Spend Eternity In Heaven
The first thing that seems completely bizarre to me is the promise that we’ll enjoy an eternity in heaven. This is utterly ridiculous, and I’m surprised that no one has ever questioned it. Let’s compare the numbers: we spend (on average) 75-85 years here on Earth, and then, if we follow our ecclesiastical rules, we will enjoy an infinite amount of time in heaven. Comparing any finite amount of time to infinity is absurd. How can anyone be legitimately entitled to an infinite reward for a finite task? A reward should be proportional to the effort; a 1:1 ratio seems reasonable. However, our promised reward / effort ratio is so completely skewed, that the ratio itself cannot even be measured (at least not with finite numbers).
Secondly, in my speech Living Without Boundaries, I proposed that the absence of boundaries makes our life exciting, and when the boundaries appear, the magic disappears. In my opinion, if we have to spend an eternity in heaven (or in any place), we will eventually become disinterested. Even a place as expansive and enjoyable as Disney World will eventually become tiresome if we have to spend an extended period of time there.
So how will we pass the time in heaven? While researching this blog entry, I came across a FAQ that included the question “Won’t we be bored in heaven?“. The answer was “Because we are with God, and God is infinite. We never come to the end of exploring Him. He is new every day.” That answer may placate some people, but it doesn’t impress me. Let’s use the Disney World metaphor again and suggest that an eternity in heaven is much like an opportunity to live out the rest of your life inside a Disney theme park. The pavilions will show short biographical movies and longer documentary films about Walt Disney himself, his life, his career and his many accomplishments. Imagine libraries scattered around the theme park, stocked only with books and magazines dedicated to Walt. There would also be courses offered on every conceivable aspect of Walt’s life. As much as I enjoy Disney’s movies, characters and theme parks, and as great and influential a man as Walt was, I think that I would reach my saturation point after a couple of days – even if new documentaries and classes were made available continually. Spending an infinite amount of time idolizing someone (even a deity) is not my idea of paradise – and, I would wager, not yours either.
Heaven is Perfect
The second thing that seems really odd to me is the promise that heaven is a paradise, in which everything is perfect. While on the surface, this may seem enticing, I think that we’ll tire of perfection fairly rapidly.
Yes, life here on Earth is far from perfect, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In my Toastmasters speech Life Is A Project, I suggest that the world is deliberately imperfect, and that we were placed upon it because we have a job to do. Our specific combination of talents, skills and abilities are needed to help build a better world. The joy in our own existence emerges from the opportunity to use these skills to enrich the lives of others.
A friend of mine, as she was about to embark on a career change and begin Teachers College in her mid-40s, told me something that I consider insightful: “You have to want for something”. She’s absolutely right – whenever I finish a project, I may bask in the feeling of accomplishment for a short while, but I soon feel like starting something new. After some introspection, I realized that I’m happiest when I’m constructing something, or teaching and helping others. In each case, I’m trying to make things or people better than they were before. If there is no goal in sight, then I become restless and bored. Consider the expression “The two greatest disappointments in life are not getting what you’ve always wanted… and getting it”. Once we attain our goal(s), we’ll seek another challenge. As motivational speakers are fond of saying “The journey is the reward, not the destination”.
We can also consider heaven to be an endless retirement, which also appears tantalizing. People who look forward to retirement during their working lives often become bored within 6-12 months after retiring, unless they are doing something that engages them. While we may dream of retirement while we’re working, how many of us really think it through and consider how we’ll actually spend our days, weeks, months and years? Our days will be filled with nothing but leisure time, and we won’t be making nearly the same contribution to society that we used to. In the article Does Working Longer Increase Your Lifespan the author notes that mortality rates among retired people are much higher than those among workers of the same age. While it’s difficult to pin down an actual cause, the author does say “it seems that engagement with life is what helps prolong life. You can get engagement with life from working”.
So here you are in heaven – an environment that doesn’t need any improvement. Your skills, talents, abilities and specialized knowledge are not required because everything is already perfect. As the above article suggests, this lack of engagement or even a sense that you’re no longer needed shortens your lifespan. Normally, this hastened and premature death would at least end your daily drudgery and catapult you to the next plane of existence. However, you’re now in heaven and can’t die. You’re here forever (and ever). This doesn’t sound like paradise to me…
Only Good People Make it Into Heaven
I think we all assume that heaven is populated exclusively with exemplary souls, where everyone admires each other’s accomplishments. Personally, I like to think of heaven as a fluffy white think tank – a place filled with the sweet sounds of continual TED lectures and an abundance of simultaneous colloquia and symposia. Everyone there is bursting with brilliant, creative, inspiring and forward-thinking ideas, and desire nothing more than an appreciative, erudite audience. Edification abounds and everyone is kind, helpful, ego-free and insatiably curious.
So what constitutes a good, heaven-worthy person anyway? While we may consider the idea of morality or even goodness to be an absolute, societal norms change and evolve over time. Over the course of decades or centuries, what once was illegal is now legal or even accepted (e.g. Sunday shopping, gay marriage) and conversely, what once was legal is no longer (e.g. slavery). One of my pet peeves, given this continual state of change, is revisionist history. Revisionism is just an attempt to sweep everything under the proverbial rug, ignore the reality that once was, and pretend that we as a society were always above that sort of thing. This may work for a while here on Earth – where lifespans and memories are relatively short and where we choose to disregard things that are unpleasant – but it won’t fly in heaven. We won’t be able to sweep anything under its proverbial cloud.
Let’s use slave ownership as an example. Up until 1833, it was legal in Canada for one person to own another person, and until the 1860s in some American states. As provocative as it sounds now, I’m sure that many slave-owners – those who lived their entire lives when slavery was still legal – were God-fearing, church-going folks who genuinely believed that they were good people, felt that there was nothing wrong with owning slaves, and were convinced that they were most certainly going to heaven.
My (or anyone’s) gut reaction to this world view would be “There’s no way that any slave-owner is going to make it into heaven – if I can’t eat meat on Good Friday (or on any Friday, before Vatican II), then owning another human being is certainly grounds for excommunication. The Bible must say something about this”. So I did some searching and found the following lines:
Ephesians 6:5 “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.”
Ephesians 6:7 “And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him”.
Well, that was not quite what I was expecting. According to these verses, a slave-owner who treated his slaves well, and who also followed the other tenets of the Church would be allowed into heaven. How would this person be viewed by others in heaven? I don’t imagine that he and I would become fast friends. In fact, I predict that he would be looked upon with disdain by everyone who was born after the mid-1800s.
Now picture a world a scant one hundred years in the future. Moral values have continued to evolve and now everyone is either a vegetarian or a vegan. When told stories of the late 20th century, the people of this time period would express shock and disgust that we killed animals – sentient beings who want to live – just so we could cook and eat their flesh. Imagine their revulsion when confronted with one of our supermarket flyers showing full-colour photographs of various cuts of meat, along with prices and serving suggestions. They would likely conclude that we were barbarians, and probably wouldn’t expect to see us in their version of heaven.
While it’s easy to assume that there exists in heaven a certain egalitarianism in which everyone is equally kind and benevolent, I predict that our changing societal norms will create a morality continuum or even a social hierarchy in the great beyond. If I’m in heaven and I tell someone that I have an inexplicable craving for cream cheese, I wouldn’t expect that person to say “No problem at all – I’ll have my slave will bring some to you!”. On the other hand, we would likely have no qualms about throwing some burgers on an ethereal BBQ, and would be genuinely surprised if someone complained bitterly about what they consider to be the revolting stench of burning animal flesh and then wondered out loud why St. Peter is letting in the riff-raff. It’s all relative…
There is a personality type that just drives me up the wall: the sycophant. This type of person, also known as a “yes man”, hanger-on, brown-noser or butt-kisser, spends his or her time trying to get close to those who have power, fame, wealth or influence. There are enough of these snivelling little worms here on Earth; just imagine how these folks (and many others who will undoubtedly crawl out of the woodwork) will behave when they are in the presence of the creator of the universe? They will spend eternity trying to align themselves with God, and then lord it over everyone else (pun intended).
Watching Us From Above
Nobody knows for sure, but the common belief is that our dearly departed are watching over us from heaven. While the thought of ethereal guardians may bring comfort to some, I’m not particularly enamoured with this idea. For example, I wouldn’t want by grandmother gazing upon me from heaven while I’m sitting on the toilet… but I digress.
At first glance, this new power of observational omniscience seems like a fascinating prospect – it reminds me of Chapter 17 in Tom Sawyer in which Tom and Huck attend their own funeral. Who wouldn’t want to listen in on conversations that we weren’t privy to on Earth? This is purely speculation, but I imagine that we would be able to not only listen in, but also watch whomever we liked, and jump around from place to place as if we were flipping through television channels.
As tantalizing as this new ability seems, I predict that we will soon grow tired of it – I gave up watching reality TV after the first season of Survivor because the programs were so insipid. Observing our day-to-day lives from heaven is much like watching television, and in a sense, we already have this ability. We’ve been using television to look at the lives of a number of fictional families: the Partridges, Bradys, Cleavers, Nelsons, Bunkers, Jeffersons, Cunninghams, Huxtables, Keatons, Bundys and countless others. While all this may be entertaining, it’s not interactive.
One of my favourite current television programs is The Big Bang Theory. Although I enjoy the program immensely, I would enjoy it much more if I could push a button on my remote control that would “beam” me to the studio and transform me into one of the principal actors. Imagine further that The Big Bang Theory was its own separate reality, and not merely a group of actors reading lines from a script. Visualize being transported into that reality and being allowed to say and do whatever you wanted? You (and not the writers) now have a hand in manipulating The Big Bang Theory universe; your words, actions and decisions move the story forward, day after day, week after week.
This ability to interact is an unappreciated aspect our day-to-day Earthly existence. Imagine if we are allowed to jump into our favourite television program, but only for a short cameo appearance in a single episode. You could do your best move the story along and influence the development of the scene, but then for the rest of the season, you were back in your living room, watching passively once again as the story arc progresses and the lives of the characters unfold. Wouldn’t you be eager to make another cameo appearance, so that you could push the story forward a little more and make your mark on the series?
Now imagine yourself existing on some ethereal plane – what we think of currently as heaven – and being able to watch what’s happening down here on Earth. We can watch, but that’s all; we can’t participate, send messages or interact in any way with the Earthlings. To a generation that was raised on television, we may not realize what we’re missing, since we are used to sitting passively in front of a TV set, and do not expect to make any contributions.
However, life, in whatever form, is a participation sport, and it is in our nature to be a part of things. When we watch horror movies, a few of us will shout at the screen and warn the main characters of impending danger. We’ll say things like “Don’t look in that closet!”, “Don’t walk backwards!”, “Why don’t you people ever explore abandoned houses during the day?” or “Seriously – don’t any of your friends own a cell phone?”. We want to participate, and are frustrated that we can’t. Our altruism gives us the natural desire to intervene when we see someone about to make a bad decision. Now imagine yourself in heaven, looking down on your loved ones, and watching someone in danger or about to make a poor decision. You can watch, but you can’t do anything about it. That sounds agonizing to me, even if you’re aren’t emotionally connected to that person. You’ll know where every missing child is located, but you won’t be able to do a thing to help.
Now picture yourself looking down and watching luminaries such as Newton, Rembrandt, DaVinci, Michelangelo, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright brothers, Banting & Best, Edison, Watson & Crick or Einstein change the world with their vision and creativity. Imagine looking down and seeing Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive designing the next must-have Apple gadget. You might think “This could very well be history in the making – how can I be a part of it?” Unfortunately, all you can do from your perch high above it all, is observe – passively and invisibly – while others live, teach, build, invent, enlighten, change the world and make ripples in their universe.
This Is The Reward
If you’ve spent any time listening to motivational speakers, then you’ve undoubtedly noticed a common thread in their material “Carpe Diem – seize the day”. This phrase was the theme of the movies Dead Poets Society and The Bucket List, and variations of its sentiment are entrenched in popular culture: one life to live; live each day as if it were your last; stop and smell the roses; live life to the fullest; enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think etc.
If we’re really living in a paradise sandwich, and if we were absolutely convinced that we were going to spent an infinite amount of time in heaven – a world far superior to our own – wouldn’t we be counting the days until our death? If you were serving an extended prison sentence, I doubt that carpe diem would be a philosophy that you would embrace during your incarceration. Of course, we could hasten the process, but I suspect that this is why suicide is a mortal sin – the church is ensuring that we all suffer together and that no one jumps the queue. Since this philosophy of living life to the fullest is so widespread and embraced, on some level there must be more than a little doubt about what, if anything, comes next.
Consider the words of George Bernard Shaw “Some look at things that are and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not”? I have no idea what will happen after I shuffle off this mortal coil, but the more I contemplate it, the more I’ve come to realize that our classic, idealized version of heaven is not the paradise that we all imagine it will be. You’re stuck there for eternity; you can’t leave, you can’t die, you can’t do anything to improve things, you spend your days studying God, and from an Earthly point of view, you’ve been demoted from a participant to a mere observer.
This doesn’t sound very heavenly to me – in fact, it sounds absolutely dreadful (as well as unspeakably dull and monotonous), which is why I am now convinced that things are actually reversed. In my opinion, we are experiencing our reward right now, which is why I am going to add my voice to the carpe diem chorus. Our world, for all of its imperfections, is a tremendously satisfying place to exist because its lack of perfection allows each of us to be a participant instead of an observer. When we wake up each morning, we are free to do anything we like – we have the ability to chart your own path and make an impact on the world.
In my opinion, people in heaven are looking at you right now with envy and admiration because you have the ability to shape the world, while they can only watch from a distance. They are stuck in heaven for eternity, presumably spending their days learning about a deity. You on the other hand, are the master of your domain. You can chart your own path, spend your days as you please, and (to some extent) have the power to craft a new and improved world in your own image. The reward is very brief, but you are now in its midst. Don’t waste a minute of this experience.