Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Dissatisfaction of Heaven

My mother died when I was nine years old. Although I have very few memories of her, the one memory that stands out above all the rest was the day she sat me down (as the oldest I had privy to grown up information) and told me that she was going to heaven to be with Jesus. And in my nine year old mind it didn’t sound like a bad thing. I figured I could come and see her like I did when she was in the hospital. But no, she said, heaven is too far away and I’ll never see her again.
But, I persisted, when I go to heaven I’ll see you there right? We’ll be together then?
No, she said. Once you go to heaven you won’t remember me. We’ll walk down streets paved of gold. We’ll smile, nod and walk away.
The thought horrified me beyond words. It scared me worse than seeing the severed hand in the film Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte. I screamed for what seemed like hours. Finally, I had to be sedated.

It was, after all, 1967 and my pediatrician still made house calls.

That last conversation stuck in my head like so much molded cheese. What use was heaven if you couldn’t be with the people you love? What good is it to worship God for an eternity if you can’t recognize the people around you? And later, when I grew older and started my questing phase, I asked myself, how could a loving God send a good man like The 14th Dalai Lama to hell, but would grant a convicted murderer to heaven because the convicted murderer believed in Jesus, whereas His Holiness does not?

I asked a number of theologians at the time who either agreed with my mother’s assessment or disagreed, according to their denomination’s doctrines. Then finally, when I was an adult, I studied comparative religions and it came to me then that in truth, nobody knows. There are debates, commentaries, and sermons galore, but at the end of the day, nobody really knows what happens when one goes to heaven. Or, if there’s even a heaven at all.

And thus, when I was at my great niece’s funeral a few days ago, paying my respects to an infant girl whose beauty was too great for the world to bear, I sat, listening to another rendition of heaven, the glory that is there, and the streets paved of gold, and how my niece would be showing us the sites once we all arrived. (Providing we were saved, of course).

And as my feet itched at the idea of gold paved streets, (I am quite allergic to gold) I listened as the evangelist assured us all that if we believe in Jesus, no matter how bad our lives were prior to salvation, we would go to heaven. And after being welcomed in we’d know our family and friends and everything will be wonderful, and we’d worship Jesus forever and ever. And although it’s comforting to think that our loved ones are in a better place, I found myself chaffing at the idea. The idea made me uncomfortable, like a grain of sand underneath your toenails.

And as he progressed, I couldn’t help but feel—not think—but feel deeply and profoundly, how the whole idea of spending an eternity in a celestial realm was utterly unsatisfactory.

Sure we’ll walk streets of gold, but then what?
Sure we’ll all have mansions over hilltops, but then what?
Sure we’ll be with Jesus and God forever, but then what?

I pondered it deeply, and realized I really didn’t want to go to heaven. Sure it’s probably a great place to vacation, but then again so is Tuscany, but I wouldn’t want to make it my eternal residence.

And so it came to me that the concept of heaven was nothing more than another celestial realm. And after reading about celestial realms earlier in the year, where people walk around blank minded in splendid surroundings until their good karma was exhausted, I found that idea just as unsavory as going into a hell realm.

It hit me then, that eternalism is a real bore. Not only is it boring, but downright depressing. And if you think about it, like that old Twilight Zone episode where the gambler thought he went to heaven because he got everything he wanted, only to discover he was in hell, I came to realize that heaven and hell are really a matter of perspective.

Although we dream about it, try to create it through so called utopian societies, and wish for it in the afterlife, the sad truth is, is that we as humans simply are not made for paradise. We’d get bored or worse, we’d become mindless automatons worshipping God for ages without end.

And I for one have no desire to be warehoused in either a celestial realm, worshipping for ages without end, living in splendor that has no real substance. And how could I? When I know there are so many beings that are in need of help? How can I just abandon everything and walk on golden streets with my itchy bare feet and not be concerned about all the infinite beings who are still struggling?

Nope, that’s it. I’ll come back. There is simply too much to do.

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