Problems with Heaven

Michael Martin

Belief in Heaven is an essential part of the great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Famous theologians have written about it, and ordinary theists hope to g o there after death. Unfortunately, atheists have had little to say about Heaven, though some atheist writings are indirectly relevant (e.g., Flew 1984). However, the concept of Heaven is neither clear nor unproblematic. As I will show in what follows, there are three serious problems with the notion of Heaven. First, the concept of Heaven lacks coherence. Second, it is doubtful that theists can reconcile the heavenly character of Heaven with standard defenses against the argument from evil such as the free will defense. Third, Heaven is unfair and thus is in conflict with the goodness of God.

Paralleling Jonathan L. Kvanvig’s characterization of the doctrine of Hell (2010, 632), the traditional doctrine of Heaven can be spelled out in terms of the following theses:

1. The reward thesis: the purpose of Heaven is to reward people whose earthly lives and behavior warrant it.1

2. The permanence thesis: once one is in Heaven, one does not leave.

3. The anti-universalism thesis: some people will not get to Heaven.

4. The individual external existence thesis: Heaven is a place of individual conscious existence.

All of these doctrines can in principle be questioned by theists and, in fact, some have been. For example, some Christians have denied (1) and maintained that Heaven is a gift of God’s love that is completely unmerited. Other theists have denied (3) and argued instead that everyone will be saved eventually and go to Heaven. I do not know if anyone has rejected thesis (2), but one could certainly maintain that a human being who gets into Heaven might do wrong there and be demoted, for example, by being sent to Hell.2 Finally, although among Western theistic believers it is rare to deny (4), it is common among the followers of Eastern religions and pantheism to argue that attaining Heaven consists in a merging with God in which individual consciousness is lost.

The doctrine of Heaven that I have outlined has at least three variants. In one common variant, the immaterial soul of a human being—not the body—goes to Heaven shortly after his or her death. In this variant, Heaven is considered “a place” but is not in time and space. In the second variant, the body of a dead person is resurrected shortly after death in an altered form in some different space—a space that is completely unconnected to the space in which human beings now live—and is rewarded in that space (Hick 1975, 198–200). In a third variant—one that many scholars believe is the original Christian view—Heaven does not exist now but will exist in the future with the Second Coming of Jesus. With the Second Coming, people’s bodies will be resurrected in an altered form, but they will be rewarded in the space in which we now live.

The Coherence of Heaven

All three variants of the doctrine of Heaven have deep conceptual problems that affect their intelligibility. Take the immaterial soul variant. It is difficult enough to imagine even in a rough way what disembodied existence would be like in time and space. How would a soul move from place to place? How would it recognize other souls? What would disembodied souls do all day long, since presumably there would be no need to sleep? The problem becomes insuperable when it is combined with the idea that Heaven is outside of space and time. All of our mental concepts—for instance, thinking, willing, and desiring—are temporal notions that take time to perform and take place at some particular time. Nontemporal thinking and desiring are inconceivable. Yet in this variant, souls think and desire nontemporally.

The two resurrected body variants are perhaps initially less problematic than the immaterial soul variant, but they have conceptual difficulties of their own. There are two conceptual problems with the notion that when people die, their bodies are immediately resurrected (although in an altered form) in a different space—a space completely separated from our space, that is in principle impossible to travel to from our space. It is difficult to make sense of the idea of such a space. On the one hand, how can there be two separated physical spaces, spaces in principle unconnected by space travel? On the other hand, if the space inhabited by the resurrected bodies is not physical space, what kind of space is it? Second, why should we suppose that the body in this different space is that of the same person who recently died in our space, rather than a replica of this person? Suppose that Mr. Smith dies and his body—call it body “B1″—is buried. Suppose, too, that another body, “B2,” is resurrected in a different space. What grounds are there for believing that B2 is Mr. Smith rather than a replica of him? Unless we have a good reason for thinking that B2 is Mr. Smith rather a replica, we have no reason in this variant for thinking that Heaven is a reward for our earthly life.

Consider the variant where Heaven does not exist now but will exist in the future when people’s bodies are resurrected in altered form but in space as we know it. Here we do not have the problems associated with the second variant: Heaven is in our physical space and there is only one body for each deceased person. But still there are difficulties. Bodies that are buried decay, and the atoms that constitute them might become dispersed. Indeed, some of these atoms might eventually become parts of the bodies of people who are now living. And much the same thing is true of bodies that are cremated. In view of problems like these, theistic philosophers such as Peter van Inwagen have argued that not even an all-powerful God can resurrect a body that is completely decayed. But since human bodies do decay, this is a problem.

Van Inwagen has suggested a solution to this problem so bizarre that, were it not for his status within the field, the idea would not warrant serious comment.3 He has suggested that, despite appearances to the contrary, human bodies do not decay. Rather, God preserves our bodies—perhaps at the moment of death—and substitutes replicas that either rot or are cremated (Van Inwagen 1978/1994, 389–392). Unfortunately, this proposal reintroduces some of the problems associated with the second variant. Why should one suppose that the rotting or cremated bodies are the replicas and not the bodies that are preserved? Further, where are the preserved bodies stored? If it is held that they are stored on some distant planet or in a different space from ours, problems immediately arise. The latter possibility introduces the problem facing the second variant. The former suggestion, moreover, leaves open the possibility of future empirical verification, in that space exploration could in principle find the planet where God stores the preserved bodies.4

Independent of its intrinsic bizarreness and problematic implications, there is something puzzling about Van Inwagen’s suggestion. Why should God go to such lengths to make it appear that people pass into complete nothingness? Van Inwagen suggests that if bodies did not rot or mysteriously disappeared after death, this would be sure evidence of a power beyond nature. He says that although God wants us to believe in him, he does not do all that he can do to provide us with undeniable evidence. Van Inwagen concludes, “perhaps it is not hard to think of good reasons for such a policy” (1978/1994, 392).

Perhaps it is harder than Van Inwagen supposes. Theodore M. Drange (1993, 1996) has presented powerful arguments that show that the usual arguments given for God’s failure to provide us with powerful evidence for his existence
are very weak. For example, one cannot argue that being presented with powerful evidence interferes with one’s free will since free choice is compatible with having powerful evidence. In any case, if it were found that bodies did not rot or disappeared after death, this would hardly be undeniable evidence for the theistic God since this state of affairs is compatible with many nontheistic interpretations, such as an evil demon trying to confound us.

The Problem of the Heavenly Character of Heaven

One aspect of Heaven that I have not yet considered creates difficulties for such well-known attempts to solve the problem of evil as the free will defense (FWD). The FWD is commonly used to explain the large amount of moral evil in the world. Since, however, the inhabitants of Heaven presumably have free will, yet Heaven is presumably relatively free of moral evil, the existence of Heaven casts doubt on the FWD.

Although theists believe that immaterial souls or resurrected persons are different in some ways from earthly persons, they must believe that these entities have freedom of choice. Such choice, according to theists, is an essential part of human nature. Moreover, one is inclined to say that by definition existence in Heaven is better than our earthly one. “Better” in precisely what respects is not completely clear, but the improvement surely must include freedom from all, or at least most, of the difficulties and evils of earthly existence. After all, Heaven is supposed to be a paradise. This means that it is free from death, sickness, suffering, and the ravages of old age. Presumably this freedom from—or at least the extreme lessening of—the evils of earthly existence must also include moral evils. Heaven would hardly be the paradise it is thought to be if murder, torture, rape, cruelty, and the like exist there in any appreciable amount.

The question arises as to why Heaven is virtually free of moral evil. Certain explanations can be ruled out immediately. Presumably, not everyone who goes to Heaven is a saint. Indeed, on some accounts, one’s moral character is not even relevant for salvation. Thus, on at least one interpretation of Christianity, a person is saved by faith in Jesus and not by good works. Moreover, it is not clear that a person’s character is transformed in Heaven. Even if evil people do not go to Heaven, one would assume that those who do go can do wrong while they are there—they can make moral errors, backslide, be overcome by temptation, and so on. But if in Heaven they have free will yet do not do wrong, one wonders why earthly existence does not follow suit.

It may be suggested that an explanation for the lack of moral evil in Heaven is a change in physical ability, not in moral character. Presumably, in a disembodied existence we would not have the physical abilities to, for example, murder, rape, and torture. Moreover, even if Heaven contains embodied denizens, their bodies may not be subject to the same physical laws as the bodies in our earthly existence. However, these suggestions create a new problem. For if human beings with free will can exist in a form (either disembodied or embodied) such that less moral evil results, then why are they not created in this form in their earthly existence?

Recall that according to the FWD, a world with free will is a better place than one without it. The FWD provides an explanation of why there is so much moral evil: human beings misuse their free will and cause evil. God does not interfere with these choices, for to do so would be to interfere with free will. However, philosophers such as John L. Mackie have argued that there is a possible world where human beings are free and yet they always do what is morally correct (1955, 208–209). Since God could have actualized such a possible world but did not, Mackie argues, the FWD fails. Theists counter by maintaining that, although there is such a possible world, not even God could actualize it (see Nagasawa, Oppy, and Trakakis 2004). However, the theistic assumption of Heaven suggests that Mackie may be more nearly correct than his theistic critics. If God could have actualized a world with free will in which Heaven is an essential part, it is difficult to see why he did not actualize a world with free will that is heavenly in its entirety.

One reason that might be given for why there is little or no moral evil in Heaven but so much on Earth is relevant to another famous defense against the problem of evil. The soul-making theodicy (SMT) maintains that evil is a necessary condition for forming human character. Perhaps the reason why there is moral evil in our earthly existence is that it provides obstacles to overcome—obstacles that are necessary to the building of human souls. Once our souls are formed in this life, there is no need for more moral evil in Heaven, and God, therefore, arranges things so that human beings have free choice but do not do bad things in Heaven. There is at least one serious problem with this retort, however: moral evil is not necessary to provide obstacles to overcome because there is natural evil. The suffering and destruction that results from disease, tidal waves, hurricanes, and volcanoes provide obstacles enough. There is consequently no need for evil that is the result of human free choice.

The Unfairness of Heaven

According to the standard view of Heaven, some people are sent there as a reward for something that they do in their earthly existence. On a variant of the anti-universalist view mentioned earlier, Heaven is a gift of God that is completely unmerited. In either case, the fact that some people go to Heaven and others do not seems unfair.

On the anti-universalist variant, the gift of Heaven seems arbitrary and unfair. A father who bestowed unmerited gifts on some of his children and not on others would be considered unjust and arbitrary. Surely, much the same thing could be said about God if he were to act in a similar way. But suppose we accept the standard view that going to Heaven is based on merit. It still seems unfair. Suppose that Heaven is a reward for belief, for example, in Jesus as the Savior. Millions of people through no fault of their own have never heard of Jesus, or at least have not been exposed to Scripture. These people’s failure to believe is hardly grounds for punishment, that is, lack of reward.

Moreover, even if people have been exposed and have failed to believe, why should they be punished? Many nonbelievers reject the Gospel message for the good reason that the evidence shows the improbability of many of the major doctrines of Christianity: the Resurrection, Virgin Birth, and Incarnation (Martin 1991).

Even if these doctrines are true and not improbable in the light of the evidence, rational people surely can fail to be impressed by the evidence. It would be going beyond what the evidence dictates—if not being in conflict with the evidence—to accept Jesus as the son of God. Furthermore, even if nonbelievers have misevaluated the evidence and it does indeed provide solid grounds for belief, many nonbelievers sincerely believe that the evidence is lacking. Why would a good God want to withhold the gift of Heaven to a sincere nonbeliever who might lack sufficient insight, knowledge, or analytical skills to appraise the evidence correctly?

Suppose the reward of Heaven is based not on belief but on moral behavior. This is still unfair. Millions of people have not been exposed to the moral teachings of the Bible. That they do not live according to biblical standards is not their fault. Moreover, even those who have been exposed to the Bible may find its moral message unacceptable on moral grounds. God as portrayed in the Old Testament is often cruel and arbitrary, and in the New Testament even Jesus is pictured as having a flawed moral character (Martin 1991, 162–196). Moreover, even for those who accept the Bible, the question is, what behavior should be rewarded? What the Bible teaches concerning morality is subject to various c
onflicting interpretations. But how in all fairness can Heaven be a reward for following the correct moral standard of Scripture, since what this represents is unclear?

On the other hand, advocating universalism also has its problems. What is the point of Heaven if everyone goes there eventually? What is the meaning of earthly existence with its suffering and trials and tribulations? Although in this case one can perhaps no longer complain of unfairness, one can complain of the meaninglessness of the exercise.5 Human existence becomes apparently absurd and a deep mystery. Why do we have an earthly life at all? Why not start life in a heavenly state? If theists want to avoid either the charge of unfairness or the charge of pointlessness, they will seriously have to revise their theory of Heaven.

What conclusions can we draw from our arguments so far? First, the notion of human existence in Heaven—be it disembodied or embodied—is conceptually unintelligible. Second, it remains a mystery how the denizens of Heaven can have free will and yet presumably do little that is morally wrong. Third, the existence of Heaven as a realm of human existence that is relatively free of moral evil undercuts the traditional free will defense to the argument from evil. Finally, the anti-universalism thesis is unfair, while universalism seems pointless.

However, my argument is not complete. There are objections that could be raised to my argument that must be answered.

Objection 1

It might be objected that in my critique I fail to mention the practical issues involved in Heaven. The Bible, it may be claimed, is “brimming with practical import,” and if it is taken seriously, life is no longer about the here and now but is “bound up with eternal considerations.” This can be “extraordinarily liberating” (Wanchick, 2004). The beauty of Heaven, one could maintain, dims the hideousness of life, and even helps us enjoy life today.

However, although belief in Heaven may sometimes be liberating, it has more often been politically and socially repressive, hindering social change and making people complacent about poverty, political oppression, and injustice. Promises of reward in Heaven have induced people to accept the hideousness of human existence without trying to improve their earthly lot. Dictators, tyrants, and even church leaders know this well and often use religion with its promise of pie in the sky to keep people in their place and to maintain the status quo.

But there is another aspect of belief in Heaven that suggests that its practical beneficial import is less impressive than one might think. Bound up with belief in Heaven is a belief in Hell. Threats of eternal punishment go hand in hand with the promises of eternal reward. Ministers, priests, and clergy have threatened eternal punishment for everything from masturbation to heresy, homosexuality to adultery, working on the Sabbath to questioning the Bible. Needless to say, rather than being liberating, such threats have the effect of repressing and diminishing the human spirit.

Objection 2

One could object that I have omitted what might be called the intermediate state/future resurrection (ISFR) view of Heaven (Wanchick 2004), a model that some believe is held by the majority of Christians. According to this view, immediately after death a person’s immaterial soul enters a nonspatial but temporal Heaven. At some future time after that, this immaterial soul will become joined with a resurrected body. One might argue that such a model avoids the problems of the views of Heaven that I criticized in my paper (Martin 1997).

How one can be so sure that the ISFR view of Heaven is held by the majority of Christians is uncertain. The ordinary Christians to whom I have spoken do not have a clear view of Heaven and the afterlife. Belief in the resurrection of the body tends to be held only by rather sophisticated believers. In any case, I did not intend my analysis to apply just to Christians. I meant to cast my net to include all believers in the Western tradition of theism. In addition, it is not clear why the future resurrection of the body is needed for allocating rewards, given the existence of an immaterial soul in Heaven.

On the ISFR view, postmortem rewards or punishments are meted out before the resurrection of the body, and thus bodily resurrection seems irrelevant. The combination of the two ideas appears more like a clumsy attempt to synthesize the Greek and Christian traditions than an attempt to develop a plausible view. After all, what is the point of a bodily resurrection in which the soul returns to the body to experience a bodily Heaven when the soul has experienced a nonbodily Heaven for perhaps hundreds, if not thousands, of years? To be sure, Jesus is supposed to come again to resurrect the bodies of the dead and to judge the quick and the dead. But the idea of an immaterial soul residing in Heaven assumes that a judgment has already been made and executed. Jesus’s Second Coming is pointless if there are immortal souls.

But let us grant that the ISFR view is a position that is held by many Christians. To be sure, it is correct that some of the problems that I discussed in relation to other views of Heaven do not apply to ISFR. But this is not to say that it is free from problems of its own. First, ISFR has conceptual problems.

I do not understand how there can be human thoughts that are not located in some space. Suppose my Aunt May dies. On the ISFR view, she exists after her death as an immaterial soul. Suppose that she now has good thoughts about me. According to ISFR, these thoughts are literally nowhere. One obvious problem with this view is that of identification. Suppose there are two immaterial souls who have my Aunt May’s memories, and both of them believe that they are Aunt May. How would it be possible to tell which soul really is Aunt May without some bodily criteria? Even if there were only one soul claiming to be Aunt May, how could one tell whether the soul “in” Heaven is the same soul that was embodied in Aunt May’s body? It is no good saying that one can trace the trajectory of Aunt May’s embodied soul to its disembodied state, for this makes it seem as if Aunt May’s soul traveled from her dead body to Heaven in some sort of space. However, there is no space. In addition, how can it be that Aunt May’s disembodied soul, that now exists nowhere, will exist in a resurrected body sometime in the future? Surely if ISFR is true, it will someday be correct to say that Aunt May’s good thoughts about me exist in some particular place. How is the transition from nonspatial thoughts to spatial ones made? Again, the same problem of identification arises. How do we know that the soul in Aunt May’s resurrected body is the same soul that existed in Heaven?

Another conceptual issue has to do with the state of the soul that survives death. Suppose that my Aunt May became senile several years before her death. In the afterlife, was her impaired mental function restored to its normal state? Even more pressing, let us suppose that Aunt May had a severely mentally disabled child who died at age two. What is the status of the child’s soul? Is it still mentally disabled? Has its mental capacity changed? To what? Remember, it was never normal. Moreover, nine months before Aunt May was born, there presumably was no soul of my aunt. When she was born there was such a soul. When did the soul first appear? Christians still argue over when the soul enters the body without any objective way of settling the dispute (Haring 1970, 127–130). Finally, in the evolution of the human race there was a transition from the ancestors of Homo sapiens to Homo sapiens. When did the soul first enter the evolutionary process? Who was the first creature to acquire one? Again, any specific answer seems arbitrary, and Christians still debate the issue without any objective way to reconcile the issue (Dee 2004).

Independent of the conceptual i
ssues, there are powerful empirical considerations that tell against the idea that immaterial souls survive bodily death. Neurology, aging studies, pharmacology, and brain injuries all indicate that memory, thought, personality, emotion, and the like are correlated with brain states. Yet ISFR depends on the view that the mental properties of a soul—thoughts, memories, emotions—can exist independently of the brain.

Another problem with the ISFR view is the low probability of future resurrections. This aspect of the doctrine is a biblical prophecy and must therefore be judged by the probability of biblical prophecies coming true. Such a prophecy conflicts with all of our scientific background knowledge, and the track record of biblical prophecies taken in isolation from this background knowledge has not been good. Many biblical prophecies have failed (McKinsey 1995, 291–312), among them Jesus’s false claim that he would come again within his listeners’ lifetimes, i.e., before this generation has passed away.6 If Jesus was wrong about this, what is the likelihood that billions of people will be resurrected sometime in the future?

Objection 3

A critic might well take issue with my view that it is hard to reconcile the FWD with the assumption that Heaven is free of moral evil. The FWD is supposed to explain moral evil in our world. But in Heaven there is free will and yet no moral evil. Why couldn’t God create a Heaven-like world—one with free will and no moral evil? A sophisticated Christian could argue that neither a deductive nor an inductive argument will be successful in showing any incompatibility between God’s inability to actualize a world without moral evil and God’s ability to actualize Heaven with no moral evil. He could argue that a deductive argument would fail since it would presuppose a premise that could not be justified, and an inductive argument would fail because it would presume that we as “finite knowers” have knowledge that we could not have and that only God could have (Wanchick 2004). The counterfactuals of freedom that God has to work with might exclude world W1 (earthly existence) without moral evil but allow world W2 (paradise) without moral evil. If this were so, it is not something that humans could know.

Christian apologists may be tempted to use Alvin Plantinga’s FWD in terms of counterfactuals of freedom without acknowledging the grave problems with Plantinga’s position (LaFollette 1980; Smith 1997, 148–156). Hugh LaFollette (1980) exposed flaws in Plantinga’s possible worlds FWD, including an inconsistency at its very core. When discussing humans, Plantinga claims that moral good cannot be produced without also producing moral evil, but when discussing God, Plantinga assumes that moral good can be produced without also producing moral evil. Quentin Smith (1997) considers the inconsistency identified by LaFollette in light of three senses of freedom in Plantinga’s possible worlds FWD: external freedom, internal freedom, and logical freedom. Smith argues that an omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good God could have—and thus would have—created a world without moral evil, i.e., a world containing only rational creatures who, like God, are internally and externally free but are logically determined to always choose the good.

Given these criticisms, one has a right to be skeptical of the force of Plantinga’s argument. In addition, apologists may forget that God does not have to use counterfactuals of freedom that will result in wrong choices. Let us call the combination of W1 (our earthly existence) and W2 (our heavenly existence), W*. For the sake of the argument, let us grant that given the counterfactuals of freedom available to God, He could not have actualized W1 without moral evil. So moral evil must be found in W* since W1 is part of W*. But why did God have to actualize W1 at all? Why could God not have just actualized W2? Thus, we can allow that God had some counterfactuals of freedom to work with in which human beings do nothing wrong. God knew what they were in advance. It seems that God could have actualized only a world where there is no moral evil using just these counterfactuals of freedom; that is, those that constitute W2 or a world very much like it. If God could not have done this, we need an explanation of why not.

Objection 4

In the first part of this article, I also argued that Heaven is unfair. I suggested that on some accounts, the human beings who go to Heaven are arbitrarily chosen by God. Apologists disagree. They first take issue with my use of the term unfair, maintaining that God owes human beings nothing, and that we can demand nothing from God. It is rather a question of God’s loving nature (Wanchick 2004). Why would a loving God not place all his creatures in Heaven?

According to some Christians, God places into Heaven those who have trust in Christ as the Messiah (Wanchick 2004). One could object that millions of non-Christians have never been exposed to the Gospel message, and through no fault of their own have no trust in Christ. Thus, it is unloving (if not unfair) for God to deny them Heaven. However, one rejoinder is that God knows that if these non-Christians had been exposed to the Gospel message, they would have rejected it. So ultimately it is their disposition toward “wickedness” that prevents them from going to Heaven, and it is not important in God’s eyes that they have not actually heard the Gospel message (Wanchick 2004).

Let us call this view of acceptance or rejection of the Gospel message the “hypothetical view”: what a person would have done had he or she been presented with Jesus’s teachings but in fact never received them. The trouble with this hypothetical view is that it makes Jesus’s incarnation, preaching, and resurrection unnecessary. If God could tell that an African native in the fifth century B.C.E. would have rejected the Gospel message had he or she been presented with it, then God could tell that the actual people Jesus preached to in Jesus’s own time would have rejected the Gospel message if Jesus would have but did not present it. It follows that there was no need for Jesus to actually have preached his message at all. There was no need for Jesus to have been incarnated. God could have known who would reject his message had he not actually been incarnated and had he not actually preached his message to anyone.

This hypothetical view of things can be taken one step further. There seems to be no reason for God to have actually created human creatures to inhabit the earth. For God could have known that if such and such a human being had been created and had been preached to, he or she would have rejected his message. On the other hand, if other human beings had been created and they had been preached to, they would have rejected his message. Presumably, Paul would fall into the former category and Judas would fall into the latter category. On this reading, actual history is redundant, and God could assign souls to Heaven or Hell without going through any preliminary stage. If so, one can only wonder why God did go through a preliminary stage.

But what is perhaps the most serious problem concerning the fairness of Heaven is often completely ignored. Down through the ages, millions of human beings who were not morally accountable have died: prenatals, neonatals, very young children, severely mentally disabled adults. Assuming that all of these humans have souls, the question arises as to their postmortem disposition. Richard Schoenig (1999) proposed a formal definition of unfairness and considered the four ways that the reward/punishment doctrines of salvation handle the postmortem fate of people who die without ever attaining the state of moral accountability. Drawing on these considerations, Schoenig argued correctly that an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent god who acts in any one of these ways is unfair.


The objections considered above
do not undermine my argument. Heaven has a negative practical import that is often neglected. The ISFR theory of Heaven is conceptually problematic and empirically improbable. The question still remains why God could have actualized a world like Heaven yet not created our world without evil. So the problematic moral nature of Heaven also remains. No evidence has been provided that all humans are given a fair chance to accept some god or other, let alone accept Christ, and in any case no reason is provided as to why their rejection of God would be grounds for supposing that they are wicked. In addition, the unfair disposition of the millions of people who die without being morally accountable remains unanswered.


Adapted from The Myth of an Afterlife edited by Michael Martin and Keith Augustine. Copyright © Rowman & Littlefield. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.



1. One related popular view that I will not consider further is this: Heaven, it is said, makes up for or compensates us for the horrors of earthly existence. But, as will be shown later, Heaven may not be very heavenly. Even if it were, some horrors are beyond compensation, such as Ivan’s stories of the torture of innocent children in chapter 25 of The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoevsky 1880/1990) or Mark Vuletic’s story of a brutal rape (2002).

2. It might be suggested that Satan is a being who was once in Heaven and was demoted because of bad behavior. However, according to the traditional story, Satan did not achieve Heaven as a reward only to be demoted. Further, Satan is not a human being but a fallen angel with powers far beyond those of humans.

3. His solution can be considered either a fourth variant of the doctrine of Heaven or else as an unorthodox interpretation of the third variant.

4. However, given the vastness of space, failure to find the location of such a planet would not tend to disconfirm its existence. Technically, the hypothesis “There is a planet where God preserves the bodies of human beings who die on Earth” is an unrestricted existential statement and thus is not falsifiable by observational evidence.

5. I say “perhaps” because the fairness question might be raised with respect to universalism as well. Is it fair that everyone will be saved when some people have lived incredibly evil lives, while others have lived wonderfully good lives?

6. Matthew 4:17, 10:23, 16:28, 24:34; Mark 9:1, 13:30; Luke 9:27, 21:23; John 5:23.



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Michael Martin was professor emeritus of philosophy at Boston University. He authored Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (1990), The Case against Christianity (1991), and Atheism, Morality, and Meaning (2002). He was also editor (with Ricki Monnier) of The Impossibility of God (2003) and The Improbability of God (2006) and editor of The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (2007). His article “Three New Arguments for Nonbelief” appeared in FI, Fall 2001.

Michael Martin

Michael Martin was professor emeritus of philosophy at Boston University. He authored Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (1990), The Case against Christianity (1991), and Atheism, Morality, and Meaning (2002). He was also editor (with Ricki Monnier) of The Impossibility of God (2003) and The Improbability of God (2006) and editor of The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (2007). His article “Three New Arguments for Nonbelief” appeared in FI, Fall 2001.

Traditional ideas about Heaven are conceptually incoherent, and that’s just the beginning of their problems.

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