I think the first time that most children give their parent’s selected God much attention is when they realize people can die. Sure, heaven is present in various conversations children have with their parents during their formative years, but the human capacity to consider our own mortality is what makes heaven worthy of much consideration. It must be traumatic to first piece together that existence will someday end.
Aside from the existential fears about a finite mortality, I think the other factor that contributes to heaven’s perpetuation is its cosmic justice. When a baby dies, people recognize this as the worst sort of tragedy. The baby never got a chance to live its life or defend itself against a natural world intent on killing everything in it. This striking unfairness needs correction: enter heaven. Heaven forgives this injustice, and the almighty, all-powerful deity who allowed it. After all, a God who allows such outcomes might not be praise-worthy if his servants reflected on the fact that he literally spends all day killing babies, but provides no benefit in exchange for his sacrificial victims. Heaven is therefore a necessary fiction to provide motivation for lifelong worship and reverence in a cruel and unfair world this god so immaculately and carefully designed.
What about people who misbehave, yet still manage to avoid lowly, terrestrial punishment? Most people are offended by justice-ducking, because it violates their ideas about about what criminals deserve for the harm they cause. Heaven solves this problem too – if those jerks didn’t get their comeuppance during their flesh life, they certainly will once they die.
But what about those half-way decent people who feel bad for their bad behavior? Those doomed miscreants surely have potential to improve as they age, right? The heaven paradigm manages to solve this, too. Just behave better, apologize constantly, worship, and give all your extra cash to your church, and you’re a shoe-in. Death bed confessions are proof of how serious some people take these matters.
Heaven has something for everyone.
One of the sneaking suspicions I had earlier in my life was that heaven seemed unbelievable…not in the sense that it seemed great (although I assumed it must have some lovely qualities), but that it ran counter to almost everything else we experience or have ever experienced. Invoking supernaturalism as the cure for our natural state seemed like the ultimate copout: dishonest drivel that owes its framework to people who were too scared to imagine themselves not existing.
The dilemma I ran into was that, if humans were susceptible to the pressures of other animals, and if humans were preceded by less-human animals (Neanderthal, Heidelbergensis, Erectus, etc), then our ancestors would have encountered the stark realities of what it means to be an animal in nature: it’s challenging, there are predators who constantly want to eat you, food is not guaranteed, infection is always right around the corner, as are injuries and the occasional inter or intra-tribe homicide…in a word, almost everything about life is nature’s attempt to kill you.
Why should humans be an exception to that rule? To the Christian, it’s important to distinguish humans from other animals, but the undeniable truth to which one arrives after investigating biology and evolution is that humans are not remarkably different than a lot of other animals.
The takeaway is simply this: heaven would have been a lovely invention for people who were closer to the perilous realities of nature than we are today. In the absence of the ability to prevent death, the world seems quite cruel. Heaven is the perfect antidote to this reality, and that seems to be the most likely reason why people invented heaven in the first place.
The More Insidious Side
I often joke that you can’t get me to do anything unless you incentivize me with eternal reward or threaten me with eternal punishment. The intent is a little tongue-in-cheek mockery of heaven. But it really is obscene that the underlying tenet for many Christians’ moral framework is the notion that we can’t behave ourselves unless we’re threatened with hellfire. What’s to stop anyone from raping and killing everyone they want?
To paraphrase Penn Jillette, I already have killed and raped exactly the number of people I want to, and that number is 0.
It’s horrifying what little faith Christians have in humanity and in themselves. What do they think people did before religion? How did we even manage to survive? (you know, before god flooded the earth and killed everyone and sent bears to kill 42 kids because they called some guy “baldy”).
I think the worse thing, though, is the idea that people need heaven as an incentive to behave themselves. It’s interesting that Christians mock Muslims over their theology that states they’ll get 72 virgins in heaven if they die a martyr. Is the Christian heaven less absurd or unreasonable?
If a person can’t find a way to be a decent person without the expectation they’ll get eternity in paradise, then that person ought to be much more feared than the atheist who doesn’t think that eternal paradise is real.