Atheist Myths About Eternity pt. 1 – Heaven is Boring

January 22, 2013

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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The Ignorance of Stephen Hawking

May 20, 2011

While there is widespread agreement that Stephen Hawking is an unusually bright light in the firmament of theoretical physics, he shows himself to be considerably less stellar when he applies his mind to other disciplines.

In his recent book The Grand Design he made philosophical proclamations about the universe while simultaneously claiming philosophy was dead. Some trick that. And in a recent interview with The Guardian, he made this claim:

“I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

At the outset this old trope, which bears striking similarity to Karl Marx’ claim that religion is the, “opium of the people” begs the question a bit – he doesn’t even seem to pause to wonder how or why computers would be afraid of the dark to begin with or of being shut down.

But his statement also belies a fundamental ignorance of religion, Christianity in particular. Obviously in Christianity there is the definitive belief in the existence of hell. As an afterlife experience, hell is always portrayed as considerably more horrible than this life – it doesn’t incite comfort about the afterlife at all, but a fear of eternal punishment. Now here the atheist might inject that it is this very reason for the creation of the idea of hell – to scare people into seeking ways to get into heaven. The problem is if people created heaven because they were scared of death, why would they need the idea of hell to further motivate them? And if the whole set of beliefs are imaginary, why imagine an eternity so horrible at all when one can simply be comforted by heaven?

This seems to be another case where atheists criticize religious beliefs for completely contradictory reasons – we are somehow simultaneously trying to scare people into belief and comfort them into belief. Indeed, in view of hell a belief that death is a mere shutdown of our mechanical systems might be the real attempt to ease one’s fears about death.

In addition, Christianity doesn’t hold heaven itself to be a place of mere comfort and ease. Our actions in life are understood to have eternal impacts even if we are going to heaven – we can suffer loss by our choices, or gain through right choices in this life.

As much as a Christian understands this to be true, it makes this life considerably less easy from a practical standpoint. A Christian who believes he will reap what he sows in eternity isn’t afforded the luxury of devoting himself to material comfort or selfish pursuits. He isn’t allowed to conform to society at large in terms of its customs and practices. Paul commands us in Romans 12:

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Though adamant atheists are generally disliked, committed Christians are often actively persecuted and excluded. In fact the most comfortable set of beliefs to adopt in the Western world if one wants to fit in is to have a casual indifference to all things spiritual, and a devotion to physical attractiveness and material wealth. That is the pattern of this world. So being strongly committed to the idea of an eternity in heaven creates great discomfort, at least in terms of one’s daily life.

Hawking’s notion that heaven is a mere pacifier created to ease our fears of death is a sign of his ignorance of the actual concept. He should probably stick with theoretical physics which seems to be his stronger suit.