The Problem with Paradise

The story goes that the pastor of Abraham Lincoln’s church once asked the congregation how many wanted to go to Hell. Not a hand went up. “And how many prefer Heaven?” he queried. All but Lincoln raised their hand. “Which is your choice, brother Lincoln? the puzzled minister asked. “I’d just as soon stay here,” Honest Abe answered for himself and probably for most of us today.

We reveal our preference for this life by the unconsciously dismissive way we refer to the next one: afterlife, hereafter. In other words, after our main life here is over, we begin an “afterlife” there. Like Lincoln, we reckon that Heaven is a nice enough place, but one we avoid as long as we can. And one reason is that from our physical perspective, Heaven sounds–dare we say it?–anemic, at least according to our sketchy knowledge of it. The Bible tells us precious little about Heaven, beginning with which part of us goes there. Does our whole self go to Heaven, or is it a journey only for the unbodied thing we call our “soul”? And once there, must we forfeit the pleasures we enjoyed in this life–food, drink, love, games, competitions, pets, parties, gratifying accomplishments, and creative endeavors? They tell us that we shall have other, greater delights. But can anybody tell us with any certainty what they are? Jesus stated that no marriages will be made in Heaven. Remove, then, one of this life’s greatest sources of happiness.

Will we even remember our earthly life and its troubles, or shall our memory be anesthetized and unhappy recollections purged so that we will no longer worry about loved ones still suffering on earth or perhaps writhing in Hell? Will we still be ourselves or, as the Buddhists believe, merge like a drop of water into the infinite ocean of being?

Though a relatively new concept to the Western countries, recycling in several Eastern religions is ancient and much more radical. There people have been recycling themselves through countless lives, trying to get it right.

In contrast, the male Islamic Heaven resembles nothing so much as an endless sexual orgy. It promises men several dozen accommodating virgins–young ones, we assume, and girls, we suppose. But who knows? Is age and sex discrimination allowed in paradise? The rewards for Islamic women are unclear, but I believe they can have anything their heart desires, similar to an everlasting shopping spree.

I cringe at two sentiments common to many obituaries: “angel wings” and “eternal rest.” The problem with the first is that angels are a separate category of beings that doesn’t admit humans. As for eternal rest, I cannot imagine anything drearier than everlasting idleness. (At least let me take along a magazine.)  We have worked to make our life count for something in this world, otherwise we probably wouldn’t have made it to Heaven to begin with. God grant us the chance to do likewise in life’s longer version.