The Good Place uses comedy to explore the absurdities of the afterlife. More than that, the show does a great job of making moral philosophy accessible.
The show’s plot assumes salvation by works, i.e. that to get to Heaven, you have to be a good person. Christian denominations differ over whether salvation by works or salvation by faith (atonement through the sacrifice of Jesus) or some combination is required to get you to Heaven or, if you’re a Jehovah’s Witness, resurrected at some future time.
An early church founder, Tertullian, looked forward to being in Heaven so he could witness the eternal torture of the wicked in Hell.
Takes all kinds I guess…
While listening to an episode of The Thinking Atheist podcast, I heard a short, simple argument, or perhaps a parable – to borrow a biblical word – that casts doubt upon the coherence of Heaven and Hell. I’ll paraphrase and extend it here.
Ruth’s daughter, Mary, believes in salvation by faith and the reality of Heaven and Hell. She’s not certain what Hell is, but she knows it means eternal separation from God.
Mary is sad that Ruth, who Mary believes isn’t saved, won’t be with her in Heaven, that she will be separated from her mother for all eternity.
When Mary is in Heaven, blissfully worshipping God forever, won’t she feel sad about being eternally separated from Ruth?
If so, won’t that negatively affect the quality of Mary’s eternal stay in Heaven?
No problem, you say!
God can make Mary feel better. God can do anything! He is omnipotent after all. He can make her forget about how she feels. He can make her forget about Ruth, about what she meant to Mary.
Or perhaps that’s a step too far…
Maybe God won’t remove the memory, just change the way Mary thinks and feels about her history with Ruth.
Who will Mary become?
Like someone who takes a drug to forget…
Or like a person with memory loss or personality change…
Either way, surely, Ruth would become someone other than who she used to be in some important sense.
Is this a water-tight argument against the existence of the Good and Bad places? Of course not. The non-existence of a thing is generally difficult to demonstrate. But it does chip away at the coherence of such ideas and should serve to further diminish their insane hold over us.
Why do I care about this argument? Because I know people in a Mary-Ruth scenario, and because this is just another example of how religion poisons everything, as the sub-title of Christopher Hitchens’ book God is NOT Great, says.
Aren’t there enough interesting and complex phenomena to devote our attention to without inventing complexities? Without creating gods, principalities, eternal abodes or false dichotomies (heaven or hell, saved or damned, …)?
If the Universe itself was capable of having a perspective, our lives would resemble a one-shot pulse from a 555 timer, a non-repeating SETI Wow! signal, a single QRS complex on an ECG from a dying heart, each briefly punctuating a baseline of nothingness.
Up close and personal, it’s different, because we are meaning creators.
It’s what you do within that brief pulse that matters, to you, your fellow meaning creators, and the other beings impacted by your actions.
The plain truth is that we have a good understanding of what happens to living things when they die, homo sapiens or any other species, admittedly less so about the subjective experience of the hypoxic sapiens mind near death.
Every organism that has ever lived, or ever will, was not alive for 13.8 billion years, after the beginning of the Universe.
When the life of an organism comes to an end, it will once again not be alive for an even unimaginably longer time into the future.
What makes these two not alive events asymmetric is that mammals like us have memories of individuals who once were and an anticipation of the end, the falling edge of the pulse, the precipice.
It’s in the nature of mammals like us to remember, to worry, to grieve, to fail spectacularly to live our lives primarily in the present.
It’s from this that our musings about possible afterlives derive, for any version of which, no compelling evidence exists.
All of which underscores the importance, even the urgency, of living as if today actually mattered, not for some imagined future, and of the need to be kinder to earthlings of all persuasions and species.