Atheist Myths About Eternity pt. 1 – Heaven is Boring

In a recent blog post on the New Atheist site A-Unicornist Mike shares his view of heaven by invoking Captain Kirk of the original Star Trek series. In the particular episode This Side of Paradise Kirk dismisses an offer to join an alien spore induced paradise with a typical Kirkian aplomb:

ELIAS: Captain, why don’t you join us?

KIRK: In your own private paradise.

ELIAS: The spores have made it that.

KIRK: Where did they originate?

SPOCK: It’s impossible to say. They drifted through space until they finally landed here. You see, they actually thrive on Berthold rays. The plants act as a repository for thousands of microscopic spores until they find a human body to inhabit.

ELIAS: In return, they give you complete health and peace of mind.

KIRK: That’s paradise?

ELIAS: We have no need or want, Captain.

SPOCK: It’s a true Eden, Jim. There’s belonging and love.

KIRK: No wants. No needs. We weren’t meant for that. None of us. Man stagnates if he has no ambition, no desire to be more than he is.

ELIAS: We have what we need.

KIRK: Except a challenge.

And later, with a reference to the Fall…

MCCOY: Well, that’s the second time man’s been thrown out of paradise.

KIRK: No, no, Bones. This time we walked out on our own. Maybe we weren’t meant for paradise. Maybe we were meant to fight our way through. Struggle, claw our way up, scratch for every inch of the way. Maybe we can’t stroll to the music of the lute. We must march to the sound of drums.

Mike’s point in employing this bit of dialogue is the same one skeptic’s have been using ever since – well at least since I was a skeptic myself, namely that heaven is boring, so who would want to go there anyway? It is an adolescent argument, the sort one would employ if one had a teenage view of the matter – which incidentally is around the time many men choose to become atheists. But it fails for two reasons, at least as far as Christianity is concerned; and one of the reason it fails is because Captain Kirk is a hypocrite.

How is he a hypocrite you ask? Well if you have a geek’s knowledge of the Star Trek universe like myself, then you know that by 21st century standards, the world Kirk and his crew inhabit is a paradise. Think about it – the Federation has long done away with money. The crew of the Enterprise never worries about running out of power, having an ample supply supplied by dilithium crystals. They jet about the galaxy, free to explore the mysteries of the universe having all their physical needs supplied at the push of a button on a replicator. They can move about at will over distance materializing in buildings on a planet’s surface in seconds (hey, where have I seen that before?!) War has ceased on earth and diseases are cured at the wave of glowing medical device.

As a matter of fact, Kirk often lectures warring alien about their primitive ways and absurd prejudices. Why? Because in order to have the freedom to really explore and gain more knowledge (which is after all the mission of the Enterprise) a high level of peace, prosperity and knowledge must be attained first. And as it turns out, this is pretty much true – historically, the cultures that have greatest advances are those who have managed to carve out for themselves a space where they can prosper in relative peace, away from the primitive human urges that constantly tear down civilizations. Man doesn’t stagnate when he is given room and means to rest and reflect, man prospers. In short, we advance by way of the heavenly, not by the way of the brutish struggle, something Kirk apparently forgot. But he is not known for his logic.

But the other reason this fails as a critique of the Christian view of heaven is that it is not an accurate view of the Christian view of heaven, at least as Scripture explains it. The proper Christian view of heaven is not one of mindless people floating about clouds, playing harps without a care or concern. That is a cartoon view of Christianity, which is where New Atheists seem to get most of their information. In Scripture our earthly lives are just a shadow of what our eternal experiences will be. This is how the Apostle Paul puts it:

For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. – 1 Corinthian 13:9-12

Paul is contrasting our current experience which is limited by time, our limited knowledge and experience with an eternal existence which has no such limitations. Knowing what’s true won’t be limited by our senses.  In another passage, Paul attempts to explain how different this life is from the life to come:

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another.
There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.

So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.1 Corinthians 15:35 -39

In other words, one can’t measure our eternal experience by our temporal, earthly experience. It would be like trying to study a forest by looking at an acorn. Saying that ‘heaven is boring’ is akin to a bird in a cage saying the sky looks boring. It’s absurd, especially if you have a tiny taste of what flight is like.

It’s always interesting for me to think about how awed atheists are by the universe; and one can see why – it’s vast, it is continually revealing new secrets and the more we know about it the more we know about ourselves. If it were feasible one could spend a lifetime exploring it and never scratch the surface of all its mysteries. Now think for a moment about what keeps us from exploring this immense creation. Our lives and resources are limited. For most of human history they have been severely limited. At this point in human history we barely have the capability to send machines to the nearest planets. Even if we manage to reach them ourselves, there is no indication we could ever send a person to the nearest star. Certainly in my lifetime it will not happen and if it ever does happen no one alive today will know it. And to be even more frank, the power and resources available to us is dwindling – and the will to use it for long term speculative ventures is waning as well, because people sacrifice long term understanding for short terms pleasure. Our ambition is stalled by our selfish natures not by a desire for heaven.

What is exciting about the thought of heaven is no such barriers exist. Time and resources are available for the ultimate exploration of the vastness of creation. Of course, beyond this lies the vastness the Creator Himself – to which there is no end of knowledge, understanding, and immeasurable motivation to go as C.S. Lewis put it, “further up, and further in”.

Of course in our hearts we know this – that’s why we strive for it on earth, even though it will never exist on earth. We strive to know more, we strive to live longer, to be healthier, and to be more at peace. We strive for these things because we realize that desperate lives of limitation are not how human lives ought to be.

Of course this is nonsense to Mike because he does not believe heaven exists to begin with, which rather makes his critique of heaven odd.

But if one is going to criticize something, one should at least understand what one is criticizing and his cartoonish cliché ridden view of the Christian notion of heaven shows he is not only ignorant of heaven, but of human nature altogether.

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2 Responses to Atheist Myths About Eternity pt. 1 – Heaven is Boring

  1. Mike D says:

    Thanks for the reference Jack. My thoughts on your critique, in reverse order:

    * I’m not critiquing Heaven per se. I’m critiquing the concept of Heaven commonly held by millions of people. It’s a belief that I find ill-formed and riddled with internal logical contradictions.

    * Your post actually highlights the absurdity of Heaven. If we have eternity to explore Creation and learn about it, then all possible knowledge will be attained at some finite point because we’d have infinite time to learn finite knowledge – at least, all possible attainable by us in our spirit form. Then what? Basking in God’s majesty forever?

    * Your appeal to mystery and things supposedly beyond our rational purview does nothing but obfuscate the substance of the issue. It’s equivalent to a shallow, “the Lord works in mysterious ways” excuse. It’s like saying, “Don’t worry about all those logical paradoxes; your mortal mind can’t comprehend it. All the answers will be available when you die.” It’s simply a dodge to keep yourself from thinking critically about the concept of Heaven.

    * Deepak Chopra once said, “There’s no creative impulse in the absence of discontent. If you were in Heaven, you’d be doomed to eternal senility”. That’s essentially the metaphor of the Star Trek analogy, and I don’t think you’ve substantively addressed it – only dodged the paradoxes with an appeal to mystery. We grow through hardship. We learn by failure. If we are robbed of those things, how will we be anything more than mindless sheep?

    * There are numerous other paradoxes. If I were saved and in Heaven but had loved ones in Hell, could I truly experience eternal peace with the knowledge that my loved ones were suffering a horrible and meaningless punishment? And what is to keep anyone in Heaven from doing terrible things or rebelling against God, lest God strips them of their free will?

    It’s a red herring to suggest that I’m critiquing some caricature of Heaven. I’m pointing out logical paradoxes with the concept of Heaven, and your only rebuttal could be summed up as, “It’ll make sense when we get there.”

    Peace and long life,

    – Mike

  2. jackhudson says:

    I’m not critiquing Heaven per se. I’m critiquing the concept of Heaven commonly held by millions of people. It’s a belief that I find ill-formed and riddled with internal logical contradictions.

    Well this is problematic because it is in fact an elaborate straw man sort of logic. If I critiqued the ‘popular’ view of Marxism, or atheism, or physics, I wouldn’t be saying much about those subject areas.

    Your post actually highlights the absurdity of Heaven. If we have eternity to explore Creation and learn about it, then all possible knowledge will be attained at some finite point because we’d have infinite time to learn finite knowledge – at least, all possible attainable by us in our spirit form. Then what? Basking in God’s majesty forever?

    First off, I said nothing about our ‘spirit form’, nor is there any indication that is how we will exist in eternity. And even if it were the case that our eternal dwelling was finite, God Himself is not finite, He is a knowable and explorable infinite entity. And while basking in His glory would be wholly satisfying, growing in our knowledge of Him would certainly provide infinite pleasures over and above understanding His creation, as one would expect, since He created it. So there is no logical limit to the growth of our knowledge and or experience.

    Your appeal to mystery and things supposedly beyond our rational purview does nothing but obfuscate the substance of the issue. It’s equivalent to a shallow, “the Lord works in mysterious ways” excuse. It’s like saying, “Don’t worry about all those logical paradoxes; your mortal mind can’t comprehend it. All the answers will be available when you die.” It’s simply a dodge to keep yourself from thinking critically about the concept of Heaven.

    I am not sure where I appeal to ‘mystery’. There certainly are mysteries in this world in the next (in fact atheists appeal to them as well as ‘brute truths’ which are things they just accept without understanding them) but I made no such appeal in my post.

    Honestly, sometimes I think you respond with a prepared set of arguments without reading the actual claims.

    Deepak Chopra once said, “There’s no creative impulse in the absence of discontent. If you were in Heaven, you’d be doomed to eternal senility”. That’s essentially the metaphor of the Star Trek analogy, and I don’t think you’ve substantively addressed it – only dodged the paradoxes with an appeal to mystery. We grow through hardship. We learn by failure. If we are robbed of those things, how will we be anything more than mindless sheep?

    I find it humorous that you are citing a man that you otherwise consider to be a nincompoop. Interestingly, that is one assessment we may share in common.

    But I did address that point substantively by pointing out that our greatest discoveries have actually occurred in times of relative peace and prosperity, contra the claims of Chopra. I think an assessment such as his is based on certain conceptions of who God is. Scripture depicts God as an entity that when encountered froze men in their tracks with the intensity of His presence. Chopra sees him as a mindless energy field, nebulous glowing warmth. The Bible however depicts Him as having personality with which one interacts and which fills up the senses in ways no earthly experience can, however challenging. It would literally be impossible to ever be bored around God – in fact that is my experience now.

    There are numerous other paradoxes. If I were saved and in Heaven but had loved ones in Hell, could I truly experience eternal peace with the knowledge that my loved ones were suffering a horrible and meaningless punishment? And what is to keep anyone in Heaven from doing terrible things or rebelling against God, lest God strips them of their free will?

    Certainly there is a real and warranted existential dread with regard to the existence of hell, though there is no indication it is meaningless. Jesus touches on this somewhat in His parable of the rich man and Lazarus – what follows in eternity is a consequence of the choices we make now. It means our choices are really real as opposed to the meaninglessness of choices if eternity didn’t exist. Hell has meaning because its existence is related to choices we make.

    So for those who are with God, they will completely understand the justice and the reality of the connection between choices made and consequences experienced. They won’t be flailing around in ignorance trying to understand why things turned out as they did as we do now, but they will have the whole picture and the picture will be satisfying. And they will know it could not have been any other way.

    I think the hardest thing to comprehend is that we ultimately stand alone with our choices – there are people I love and people who love me, but I have to stand alone before God and account for my life. The fact that others would wish it otherwise because of their love doesn’t change the goodness and rightness of people being held to account for their actions. What changes in eternity, when we have full knowledge of human choices and their consequences is our nature and our desires fully align with God’s, and we see justice and rightness in a way that we don’t now.

    It’s a red herring to suggest that I’m critiquing some caricature of Heaven. I’m pointing out logical paradoxes with the concept of Heaven, and your only rebuttal could be summed up as, “It’ll make sense when we get there.”

    You already admitted you are basing your critique on popular notions of heaven. The fact that you cite Chopra as an authority reveals you certainly aren’t critiquing the Christian view of the matter. I never appealed to ‘mystery’ or hid behind mere faith with regard to the matter – though I fully admit no human could fully expound on the matter. But your argument is predicated on an unwarranted and inherently illogical premise that if some things cannot be known for certain about God or eternity, than nothing can be known for certain about God or eternity. If this were true, then we could never know anything for certain, and discussing what is true would be impossible.

    There is sufficient knowledge to understand that your claims about eternity are false; that is sufficient even if we don’t know all there is to know about eternity.

    Thanks for taking the time to respond Mike.

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