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Michael Martin More

More on Heaven (2004)

Michael Martin


Belief in Heaven as Liberating

In his paper “Trouble in Paradise,” Tom Wanchick[1] raises some objections to my argument in “Problems With Heaven.”[2] But before he does, Wanchick notes the practical issues involved in Heaven. He maintains that the Bible 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, he says, can be “extraordinarily liberating.” The beauty of Heaven, Wanchick maintains, 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 rewards 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 places and to maintain the status quo. Wanchick seems strangely unaware of this aspect of belief in Heaven or else chooses to ignore that it has very likely brought about more harm than good.

But there is another aspect of belief in Heaven that suggests that its practical beneficial import is less impressive than Wanchick indicates. Bound up with belief in Heaven is a belief in Hell. Threats of eternal punishment go hand in hand with the promises of eternal rewards. 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.

No doubt I will be told that ministers and priests are in error to use threats in this way. But Jesus himself threatened great punishment for those who rejected his teaching, “And if any one will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it shall be more toler-able on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gormorrah than for that town.”[Mt. 10:14 -15] Sometimes he threatened Hellfire for what seemed like a relatively trivial act. Thus, he said “But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council and whoever says: ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.'”[Mt. 5:21- 22] People who cannot accept Jesus’ teaching, who get angry at their brother or who are so unwise as to call someone a fool will hardly feel liberated by such threats even given the beauty of Heaven.

There is one aspect of Wanchick’s views that is misleading. He assumes that without the prospect of Heaven people will suppose that life is about the “here and now.” But what does this mean? Unless the here and now is just another way of referring to our finite existence on Earth, human life is not–or at least should not be–just about the here and now. Atheists should plan for their own futures and those of humankind. Indeed, it is irrational and immoral to do otherwise. Thus, rejecting the notion of Heaven does not entail that one should live in the present, give no thought for the future, and so on.

The Immediate State/Future Resurrection View

One of Wanchick’s main criticisms of my paper is that I have omitted what he calls the immediate state/future resurrection view (ISFR) of Heaven, a model shared by what he believes to be 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. Wanchick argues that such a model avoids the problems of the views of heaven that I criticized in my paper.

Why Wanchick is 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. Indeed, I said explicitly on the first page of my paper: “Belief in Heaven is an essential part of the great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.”

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, the rewards and punishment idea is operating 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 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’ 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. Wanchick is correct that some of the problems I discussed in relation to other views of heaven do not apply to ISFA. But this is not to say that it is free from problems of its own. First, ISRA has conceptual problems.

I do not understand how there can be thoughts of human beings that are not located in some space. Suppose my Aunt May dies. On the ISFR theory 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 some time 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 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 retarded child who died at age two. What is the status of the child’s soul? Is it still mentally retarded? 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 there being any objective way of settling the dispute.[3] Finally, in the evolution of the human race there was a transition from pre- 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.[4]

Independent of the conceptual issues, 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 ISFA 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,[5] among them Jesus’ false claim that he would come again within his listeners’ lifetime, 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?

FWD and Heaven

Another of my criticisms that Wanchick takes issue with is that it is hard to reconcile the Free Will Defense (FWD) with the assumption that Heaven is free of moral evil. The FWD is supposed to explain moral evil in our world. Yet in Heaven there is free will and yet no moral evil. Why could not God create a heaven-like world–one with free will and no moral evil? Wanchick argues 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 argues 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 we could not have and that only God could have. 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.

Strangely, Wanchick uses Plantinga’s free will defense in terms of counterfactuals of freedom without acknowledging the grave problems with Plantinga’s position.[7] Hugh LaFollette in a 1980 paper “Plantinga on the Free Will Defense” exposed flaws in Plantinga’s possible worlds version of the free will defense, 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, Planting assumes that moral good can be produced without also producing moral evil. Quentin Smith in Ethical and Religious Thought in Analytic Philosophy of Language (1997) considered the inconsistency identified by LaFollette in light of three senses of freedom in Plantinga’s possible worlds version of the free will defense: external freedom, internal freedom, and logical freedom. Smith argued 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 arguments that Wanchick embraces. In addition, Wanchick seems to 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? Wanchick seems to admit that God had some counterfactuals of freedom to work with in which human beings do nothing wrong. God knew what they are 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, Wanchick owes us an explanation of why not.

Fairness and Salvation

In my paper 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. Wanchick disagrees. He first takes issue with my use of the term “unfair” maintaining that God owes human beings nothing and that we can demand nothing from God. So, Wanchick says, it is not a question of fairness. It is rather a question of God’s loving nature. Why would a loving God not place all His creatures in Heaven?

According to Wanchick God places into Heaven those who have trust in Christ as the Messiah. But 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. Wanchick says, however, 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.

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’ teaching but in fact was not. The trouble with this hypothetical view is that it makes Jesus’ Incarnation, preaching, and Resurrection unnecessary. If God could tell that an African native in the Fifth Century BC would have rejected the Gospel message had she been presented with it, then God could tell that the actual people Jesus preached to in Jesus’ 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 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 fail 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 Wanchick does not consistently maintain this hypothetical view of acceptance or rejection of the Gospel message. At other times he argues that in fact every human being has actually been visited by the Holy Spirit and presented with the Gospel message and that many who have been so visited have rejected its message. Let us call this the actual view. The trouble with this view is that there is no good reason to believe that everyone has experienced the Holy Spirit. To be sure, Wanchick’s claims that the Bible says that they have. But given the inconsistencies, false statements, and failed prophecies contained in the Bible why should this be taken seriously?

One problem that arises in evaluating the claim that everyone has been visited by the Holy Spirit is determining what exactly this means. I raised this issue in my original paper, but although Wanchick attempts to deal with it, he does so inadequately. When he starts his criticism, the experience of the Holy Spirit seems to involve a particular Christian element and he speaks of people trusting in Christ as Messiah. One can only assume from this that having the experience of the Holy Spirit is related to Jesus Christ. For example, rejecting the experience presumably would involve rejecting Jesus as Messiah, Son of God, Savior and the like. But as the discussion proceeds things become much less specific. Indeed, Wanchick suggests at times that the experience of the Holy Spirit is merely some unspecified experience of God. The specific Christian element has dropped out.

Surely, this lack of clarity affects how one evaluates the thesis that everyone is visited by the Holy Spirit. In its most specific form it means that we are all presented with some experience that would give us the opportunity to trust Jesus, accept Him as our Savior, etc. In its broadest interpretation it would simply mean that every person has an experience of some God or other and thus the opportunity to accept some God or other. The former reading would only be compatible with Christianity. The latter would be compatible with various non-Christian religions.

There is no evidence to support the claim that billions of non-Christians have been so visited. Wanchick points out that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence, but surely the burden of proof is on him, not me. Wanchick is making a positive claim: Everyone is visited by the Holy Spirit. I don’t have to supply evidence that not everyone is visited. He has to supply evidence that everyone is. Furthermore, there is some evidence that not everyone is. Many Hindus, Buddhists, Mohammedans, Confucians, Taoists deny that they have been visited by the Holy Spirit and given the opportunity to trust Jesus. Moreover, it is hard to see why if they have had the experience and have rejected it, they are wicked and not deserving of Heaven. To reject Jesus as the Messiah is not to reject an ethical compassionate life style. Here one can only wonder about the adequacy of Wanchick’s ethical theory that would seem to identify wickedness with not accepting Jesus as the Messiah.

Although the broader interpretation that every human being has had an experience of some God or other is more plausible than the narrower Christian one, it also has no empirical backing and conflicts with the apparently sincere claim of many atheists that they have had no religious experience. It also rests on a dubious ethical premise that identifies rejection of God with wickedness and the questionable epistemology that religious experiences are veridical and indubitable. Given conflicting religious experiences there is no reason to suppose that they have any validity at all.[8] This problem with accepting religious experience as veridical is hardly considered by Wanchick and all of the difficult issues of establishing the truth of religious experience are pretty much ignored.

But perhaps the most serious problem with the claims of the fairness of Heaven is completely ignored by Wanchick. Down through the ages millions of human beings who are not morally accountable have died: prenatals, neonatals, very young children, several mentally retarded adults. Assuming that all of these humans have souls, the question arises as to their postmortem disposition. Richard Schoenig in a 1999 paper “The Argument from Unfairness” proposed a formal definition of unfairness and considered the four ways that 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.[9]


Although I appreciate Wanchick’s efforts to defend Heaven against my critique, they fail. Heaven has a negative practical import neglected by Wanchick. The ISFR theory of Heaven is conceptually problematic and empirically improbable. The FWD of Heaven used by Wanchick fails and the question still remains why God could not have actualized a world like Heaven and not our evil world. The problematic moral nature of Heaven also remains. Vacillating between narrow and broad unsupported and dubious interpretations, Wanchick gives no evidence that all humans are given a fair chance to accept some God or other, let alone accept Christ, and why in any case 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.


[1] “Trouble in Paradise?: Michael Martin on Heaven,” (The Secular Web, 2003).

[2] “Problems with Heaven,” (The Secular Web, 1997).

[3] See John T. Noonan, Jr. (ed.), The Morality of Abortion, (Harvard University Press, 1970), see index re: time of appearance of the human soul.

[4] James H. Dee, “The Silver Bullet Question That Kills the Immortal Soul,” Free Inquiry, April/May 2004, pp. 47-49.

[5] C. Dennis McKinsey, The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy, (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995), Chap. 15.

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

[7] Hugh LaFollette “Plantinga on the Free Will Defense” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 22 (1980): 123-32; Quentin Smith, Ethical and Religious Thought in Analytic Philosophy of Language, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997), pp. 148-56. Both of these papers are reprinted in Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier (eds.) The Impossibility of God (Prometheus Books, 2004), pp. 97-115.

[8] See my critique of religious experience in Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, Chapter 6.

[9] Richard Schoenig, “The Argument from Unfairness,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 45 (1999): 115-128. This paper is also reprinted in Martin and Monnier 2004, pp. 167-180.

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