Recovery · Religion and Spirituality · Science and Philosophy

Losing grip on eternity: Part 1: Foundations and Questions

Content note (added January 2024): This post was originally posted on July 27, 2015. It contains a historical inaccuracy. The Quran was not written and published until about 600 years after the beginning of Christianity.

 “I was swimming through the waves
For what must have been days
But could find no relief;
When I started sinking down
I thought for certain I would drown
Until I saw you in the ocean,
Underneath all the bright colored fish tell
Of a treasure in a dull shell
‘Such subtlety, so easily missed!’
You, my hidden pearl of pure and perfect love,
And I’m the living example of 100% the opposite of this.
If I ask the same questions… well, yes, sir, I ask the same questions…
Well, maybe I repeat myself from time to time
But if I ask the same questions… and then I know I ask the same questions,
It’s because everyone who answers me is a liar!!” –mewithoutYou, Tie Me Up! Untie Me!

I liked the idea of heaven. An end to suffering, a place where there is no sin or temptation, a chance to see God. It seemed a little boring, but that’s just because we know so little about it. My dad would say that heaven provides ample opportunity to do new things forever. If you want to study astronomy for a century, or perfect an athletic skill, you can. I also read somewhere that in heaven, we’ll be able to exchange stories about the epic lives we lived on earth, around campfires through the night.

When I was a teenager, I stopped believing in original sin. It was one of the first beliefs I ditched when I started studying theology for myself. There wasn’t much backup for it – original sin wasn’t in the curse on Adam and Eve, God told Cain he could live a sinless life in the next chapter of Genesis, even Romans said “all have sinned” with past-tense, insinuating that we can choose not to live sinful lives.

Then a friend asked me: If we can live sinless lives here on earth, how is heaven any different?

Well, I reasoned, it’d be nice to live in a place where everyone else is also not sinning. Then people wouldn’t make your life difficult with lying and stealing and murdering. The question was more about the mechanics of human nature, though. Does our “original sin” just wash off when we die? Do we lose all desire to sin? Why do we sin now on earth, if we can live without sin?

My first theory was that life on earth features temptation, but heaven does not. In heaven, there are no demons, and therefore, nothing to tempt us to sin.

“What about habits?” Another friend asked. “Do you just immediately quit doing what was habitual before?”

Then he said, “Because that sounds like heaven infringes on free will. If God overrides our actions, even our habits, then heaven isn’t really free, is it?”

In that moment, I realized that an instantaneous transition from life on earth to life in heaven would mean our individualities, both vices and virtues, would undergo drastic alteration. There wasn’t much choice there, and as a vehement opponent of Calvinism and predestination, I couldn’t believe in that. I wanted nothing to do with a God that didn’t offer genuine choice to those who loved him.

My focus switched as I re-read the Bible through for the last time. Heaven was described three ways in the Bible: most often it was a poetic name for the sky, then Yeshua liked to use the phrase “kingdom of heaven,” and he also talked about “my father’s house.”

Heaven, in the modern use of the term as a place where the righteous or saved go after death, is most closely described in the Bible in the “My father’s house” line from John 14. It’s still super vague, though. Jesus’ friends were confused when he started talking about “the way,” but Christians today like quoting it to prove that only Jesus will get you into heaven.

Most of how we got the elevator-pitch Christianity (you’re-a-sinner-and-you-deserve-hell-but-you-can-go-to-heaven-if-you-accept-Jesus-who-died-on-the-cross-for-your-sins) is really difficult to defend from the Bible. Like, really difficult. You’ve got to splice things and quote things from all over, and the verses I memorized as a kid were pretty vague. Historically, the quick-Christian mantra happened like this:

(1) Other religions said clear and definitive and literal things about heaven and hell. The Quran, for instance, claims to be the inspired word of Allah (aka God), and it defines literal heaven and hell as two places in the afterlife.

(2) Then Christians said, “Hey, we want an inspired book, too! And we want to have heaven, hell, and purgatory as afterlife options, too!” and picked loose and vague quotations from the Bible to defend these concepts.

It’s a super illogical way to do things, because it so definitely messes with the original intent of the text. But that’s a simple way to describe what I found in my extensive theological study about how we got the sharing-your-faith elevator pitch.

So far, I had two major strikes against heaven: it might override free will, and it wasn’t clear in the Bible.

What was clear in the Bible, though, was Yeshua’s Kingdom of Heaven. I like to call it the Kinglessdom, which is a phrase I got from my friend Love. When a reader noticed this phrase on my blog, she asked me about it. I wrote to her, “Yeshua preached about the Kingdom of Heaven, but it doesn’t work like a traditional monarchy, where the king can do whatever he wants and everyone else has to obey. Most of his parables reverse expectations. They begin with, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is like…’ and tell stories about caring for strangers, welcoming betrayers. Then the so-called king dies a death of shame after washing the feet of his disciples. It’s a kingdom that isn’t a kingdom, or a kingdom that is kingless, a kinglessdom. Does that answer your question?”

She wrote back, “Kind of. I think He’s at most the King now, and especially so when the Old Earth and Heaven are obliterated to set in place the new.”

I said, “The teachers of the Law of Moses expected the Messiah to be a warrior who would lead them in a fight against Rome. If the Jewish leaders had such wrong expectations, how can we expect that we’re right about a more monarchic and warfare-focused second coming of Christ?”

She said I’d made a good point.

The Kingdom of Heaven didn’t follow an afterlife timeline, either. Yeshua’s parables describing it sounded like life on earth. “The kingdom of heaven is within,” he said, in a verse I never memorized as a child.

Heaven starts here. Heaven is what manifests when we do what is heavenly.

My understanding of heaven and hell shifted about five years ago. It was more interesting than ever, because I was freshly motivated in my everyday life: heaven and hell were at war with each other, and I’m empowered to participate in bringing heaven.

I stopped believing in hell (as a punishment for bad people in an afterlife) soon after I stopped believing in heaven as an afterlife. The forces of creativity and chaos in conflict with each other, though, was still very real.