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Michael Martin Heaven

Problems with Heaven (1997)

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 go there after death. Unfortunately, atheists have had little to say about Heaven although some atheist writings are indirectly relevant.[1] 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, it is in conflict with the goodness of God.

The Traditional Doctrine

The traditional doctrine of Heaven can be elaborated in terms of the following theses:[2]

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

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; and

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

The doctrine of Heaven I have outlined has at least three variants. In the most 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 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.[4] 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. With the Second Coming people’s bodies will be resurrected in an altered form but 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 idea that Heaven is outside of space and time. All of our mental concepts–for instance, thinking, willing, desiring–are temporal notions that take time to perform and take place at some particular time. Nontemporal thinking and desiring are inconceivable. Yet on 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 body of the same person who recently died in our space rather than a replica of this person. Suppose Mr. Smith dies and his body–let us call this 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? However, unless we have good reason for thinking that B2 is Mr. Smith rather a replica of Mr. Smith we have no reason in this variant for thinking that Heaven is a reward for our earthly life.

Consider the variant that 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 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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7]

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 disappear 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 He can do to provide us with undeniable evidence. Van Inwagen concludes by saying that “perhaps it is not hard to think of good reasons for such a policy.”[8]

Perhaps it is harder than Van Inwagen supposes. Theodore Drange has presented powerful arguments that show that the usual arguments given for God’s not providing us with powerful evidence for His existence are very weak.[9] 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 disappear after death, this would hardly be undeniable evidence for the theistic God since this state of affairs is compatible with many nontheistic interpretations, for example, 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 in any appreciable amount.

The question arises of 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 physically abilities to, e.g., 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 Mackie have argued that there is a possible world where human beings are free and yet they always do what is morally correct. Since God could have actualized such a possible world but did not, Mackie argues, FWD fails. Theists counter by maintaining that, although there is such a possible world, not even God could actualize it.[10] 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 Defense (SMD) 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 since there is natural evil. The suffering and destruction that results from disease, tidal waves, hurricanes and volcano 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 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 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.[11] 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 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.[12] 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 conflicting 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, denying anti-universalism and 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 trails and tribulations? Although in this case one can perhaps no longer complain of unfairness one can complain of the meaningless of the exercise.[13] 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.


Theists’ reliance on the notion of Heaven raises several important problems. 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.


[1] For example, Flew’s critique of different concepts of immorality is relevant here. See Antony Flew, God, Freedom and Immorality, (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1984).

[2] Cf. Jonathan L. Kanvig, “Heaven and Hell,” in A Companion to the Philosophy of Religion, ed. Philip L. Quinn and Charles Taliaferro, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), pp. 562-68.

[3] 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.

[4] This view has been associated with John Hick. See John Hick, “Theology and Verification,” The Logic of God, ed. Malcolm L. Diamond and Thomas V. Litzenburg, Jr. (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill, Company, Inc., 1975), pp. 188 – 208.

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

[6] Peter Van Inwagen, “The Possibility of Resurrection,” Philosophy of Religion, ed. Louis Pojman (Wadsworth Pub. 1994), pp. 389-92.

[7] 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 bodies of human being who die on Earth” is an unrestricted existential statement and is not falsifiable by observational evidence.

[8] Ibid., p. 392.

[9] See Theodore Drange, “The Argument From Nonbelief,” Religious Studies, 29, 1993, pp. 417-432, and “The Arguments From Evil and Nonbelief,” 1996, /library/modern/theodore_drange/aeanb.html

[10] For a discussion of these issues see Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Temple University Press, 1990), Chapter 15.

[11] See Michael Martin, The Case Against Christianity (Temple University Press, 1991).

[12] See The Case Against Christianity, Chapter 6.

[13] 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?

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