The boredom of heaven

As soon as Dilbert arrived in heaven, he was greeted by St. Peter, who warmly but somewhat formally shook his hand. This was odd, as he no longer had a hand. It was also odd that he could see St. Peter, as he no longer had any eyes. But let us leave such details aside.

“Welcome to heaven” said St. Peter briskly. “We have a brief half hour orientation session before full heaven conditions become operative. That allows me to explain to you how the place works, and you to ask any questions you may have. After that we’re straight into eternity. I hope you had a good trip here?”

“Er, yes, thanks – apart from dying, that is. A bit painful.”

St. Peter waved a dismissive hand. “Dreadful what they make you put up with when you’re dying these days. I do sympathise. But it’s all over now. Let me explain the ropes in heaven.”

St. Peter led them through the pearly gates into an area where a number of seated figures could be seen. They were all completely immobile and expressionless, spaced at some distance from each other and not communicating or interacting. Suddenly one of the immobile figures abruptly disappeared, as though a trapdoor had been opened up right underneath him, and he had immediately fallen through it.

“Oh, there he goes!” said St. Peter in a slightly jolly fashion.

“Where’s he gone?” asked Dilbert.

“Hell” said St Peter. “Now, the first thing about heaven I really must impress upon you is that it’s perfect. No imperfection allowed. As long as you remember that, and take it to heart, you’ll be fine.”

“But I thought heaven was a place of love!” protested Dilbert. “Surely the love of God allows a little imperfection here and there?”

“Oh, well, love is fine, but it’s got to be perfect love, you know. The Church is quite clear about that, and we always take their instructions seriously. It’s very easy to think you’re being good and loving, but because of all that imperfect conditioning you’ve had down there, to slip into imperfection. Any love you express has to be totally without reservation, even unconsciously. And then you have to think of your neighbour. If you start talking to them about heavenly love, and they start responding to you but haven’t got it perfect, then they’ll soon start breaking the conditions of heaven.”

“So what happens when you break the conditions of heaven?”

“Well, you go to Hell, of course. You saw what happened to that fellow just now. He must have had a stray impure thought. So off he went, down to the Other Place. It happens to most people sooner or later. We have to be very strict, I’m afraid, because there really is no wriggle room where perfection is concerned.”

“Straight to Hell with eternal torment? Is there nowhere in between? No Middle Way?”

St. Peter chuckled. “Middle Way? What are you, some kind of Buddhist or something? That’s a completely unintelligible concept. No, either you’re in heaven or you’re in hell. If you can’t stick it out here, it’s eternal torment for you. There’s purgatory of course, for Catholics, but that’s only to prepare you for heaven, and Limbo for unbaptised babies, but I take it you haven’t come via purgatory?”

“No, I’m a Protestant – and not a Buddhist” said Dilbert with some indignation. “Look, I was always told that I would be saved by my faith, and that heaven was eternal. God has mercy on sinners if they have faith in Christ, doesn’t he?”

“Oh yes, that’s doubtless why you’re here. And heaven is eternal – for as long as you can stick it. The trouble is that since the Reformation we’ve had all sorts of people up here who really aren’t prepared properly. They may have faith, but it’s a bit of a big leap from being faithful and imperfect to being perfect all of a sudden. If you ask me, just between you and me, I preferred the old system: at least when people have made their way up through all the levels of purgatory they’re a bit more ready for what heaven is like, and last a little bit longer. The descent rates for Catholics are a bit lower than for Protestants.”

“What about Jews, and Muslims?”

“Oh, they’re stuck in the grave for now. They have to wait until the Last Judgement. But then it will suddenly get crazy, I’m sure: millions of Jews and Muslims all arriving here at once.”

Dilbert looked back at the people seated in complete passivity. “So, don’t these people do anything?”

“I don’t think you’ve fully understood the rules” said St. Peter, “If you do anything you’ll very quickly find yourself in a state of imperfection. So, no activity. Remember, you don’t need to do any of the things up here that you had to do down below – no need for eating, or defecating, or even breathing. Souls don’t need any of that any more. So you can just be still. Some people get used to it after a while.”

“Do they think, then – compose books or play games of chess in their heads? Or do they meditate?”

“Oh no, none of that. Thinking is an especially quick way to perdition. You’ll get to impure thoughts pretty quickly if you start thinking. No meditating either – you’ll do it wrong at some stage and get distracted.”

“It sounds pretty, well, boring.”

“Boredom is the condition of the imperfect, my friend. I can assure you that Hell isn’t boring – oh, no, not a bit of it. Just in case you get bored with one torment they keep varying it so that you try them all. Here, you’ll either have to get over your boredom or go to Hell – shape up or ship out.”

There was a pause.

“So, do you have any more questions, or shall we start eternity conditions now?”

As he was increasingly unable to distinguish the prospect of the torments of heaven from those of hell, Dilbert desperately sought some more questions to put off the hour.

“Does anyone make it? I mean, is there actually anyone who stays in heaven for eternity and puts up with the boredom?”

“I’m afraid I can’t tell you that. From a human point of view, you’d have to wait an eternity to know the answer to that question.”

“Well, is there anyone – a saint or somebody – who has lasted, say, a hundred years?”

“We no longer measure time in earthly units, once the half hour orientation period is over. All I know is that heaven has never been empty, for there are always fresh recruits coming up with a hunger for perfection.”

“Are there any great saints still here who died centuries ago? St. Francis? St. Theresa? And what about Jesus Christ? Surely if he took human birth for the sake of our sins, he wouldn’t be perfect, would he? So he wouldn’t last long in heaven?”

“That’s all classified information I’m afraid. Releasing it might undermine the credibility of the Church, and stop the flow of recruits that keeps us going. Our very existence as an institution would be at stake.”

For the minute or so that remained to him, Dilbert stood dumbfounded.

“Now, I’m afraid your half-hour of orientation is up. Let me lead you to your place. Once you have settled into it, heaven-conditions will start to become fully operative.”

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 The irrelevance of perfect goodAscent_of_the_Blessed Bosch

It is not too difficult to grasp evil in terms of human understanding. We may often over-simplify by projecting an archetype of evil onto those who are mixed, but nevertheless there are some aspects of evil we can readily access as part of our experience. When it comes to good, however, we have no such facility. Since good involves avoiding dogmatism and addressing conditions, and there are many ways of doing that, there are many apparently conflicting goods. The good of compassion conflicts with that of wisdom, justice conflicts with freedom, courage conflicts with prudence, honesty conflicts with tact. Good is multiple (though not relative), in my view, because it is human and imperfect. However, for most of human history we have been confronted with views of good that are strikingly at odds with the very possibility of imperfect goodness. Instead, good has been constantly idealised and put into absolute forms. Good is seen as deriving from some sort of state of perfection, whether that perfection is the rational perfection of Plato or Kant, or the religious imagination applied to belief in God and heaven. The result of this has been a great deal of confusion, as we have tried to reconcile metaphysical beliefs about perfection from beyond experience with our actual experience of plural and imperfect goodness.

This story highlights the implications of that confusion as it applies to our understanding of heaven. Heaven is necessarily seen as perfect in the way that God is perfect, yet the implication of this is that humans could not exist there in any form. Religious teachings through the ages have tried to deal with this through the claim that only non-physical souls go to heaven. Imperfection has been identified with the body, leading to confused arguments about sex and other bodily functions, and whether these were intrinsically evil or good because designed by God. This approach failed to appreciate how much our entire experience, including our mental experience, is dependent on and shaped by our bodies. In effect it has adopted a narrow left-brain view of the self as sufficient and ultimate, completely ignoring the right-brain recognition of the wider conditions of our bodily experience. Not only could a person ascending into a perfect state not have a body – they couldn’t have thoughts, either. In fact, in removing all evil from them you would also be removing all good, and in removing variety of experience you would be condemning people to a new form of torment. Heaven and hell would be indistinguishable.

Heaven is more frequently imagined as a place of delight, but delight is not compatible with an eternity of perfection. Earthly delights are then explained to be mere analogies for the more subtly heavenly delights that we cannot yet imagine. Thus the Islamic tradition seems unembarrassed about offering the delights of sex with lots of virgins (houris) to the (presumably male) martyrs after their deaths, with the theological explanation that this is just an analogical way of imagining delights that will actually far surpass those fleshly pleasures. But pleasure of any kind needs a contrast with other states to continue being appreciated as such. The conquering martyrs will soon be bored with their virgins and want to be off killing infidels again. Even the ‘purest’ pleasures, coming from religious ecstasy, meditative states, or drug-induced release of dopamine, require contrasts if they are not soon to become ends in themselves that lose their meaning in human life. What is good about these sorts of states arises, not from their indefinite continuation, but from the ways in which they can contribute to balancing of judgement and sustainable equanimity in our lives. Pleasure, on all the indications, cannot be eternal without ceasing to be pleasure.

There will probably be some Christians who think I have misinterpreted heaven. Believing profoundly in the loving and forgiving nature of God, perhaps they will admit that heaven has to be imperfect and accommodating to our sins. If so, will it seek to help us to improve further, by reducing and ultimately eliminating our sins? If so, it is not heaven but purgatory. Or will it simply allow us to continue with our sins as they are without any moral goals? If so, this seems more like a continuation of earth than it is heaven. No, if we come to terms with our imperfection, perfection merely drops out of the picture and becomes not merely irrelevant, but unhelpful. If, on the other hand, we do actually achieve perfection of any kind, it seems that the torments of eternal boredom follow.

The fact that heaven turns out to be just as much of a torment as hell has profound implications. It throws us back on the Middle Way, in which we recognise and come to terms with our imperfection, and no longer seek to appeal to ideas of perfection. It also makes it clear that the perfections we may have idealised as good are actually evil, since it is beliefs about perfection that are evil, whether those beliefs pose as ‘good’ or ‘evil’. That means that there is no moral difference between belief in God and belief in Satan or evil, as it is the absolutised beliefs that create the evil, even if they are beliefs about good.

Such a recognition is consistent with the very poor track record of absolutised religious belief. Many of those who sincerely believed in peace have instead brought endless conflict, whether that conflict occurred on the battlefield, in the debating chamber, or in the individual psyche. It is not your belief in peace that potentially creates peace, but your ability to engage with conditions, and the more strongly you identify with an absolute formulation of the right way of acting, the more that is likely to bring you into conflict with those with a different formulation. The whole concept of heaven is ludicrously contradictory because the moral basis on which it has been built is contradictory. It is time for a new understanding of morality to be based on the Middle Way.

For other recently posted parables by Robert M Ellis, see the following links:

An Acre of Forest

The Lute strings

The Ship

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

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