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25 August  Heaven is an Ineffectual Reward - Chris Pennington

Chris notes the many conflicting descriptions of Heaven in the Bible, the Koran, and other writings, and wonders what it might be like.  He finally concludes that it would not be at all interesting, especially if you are stuck there for all eternity. It may even be a little dangerous.

In this paper we explore the hypothesis that heaven is an insufficient incentive to bring about exemplary behaviour in human beings. Recognising that mankind needs faith, which is generally delivered via religious dogma, we identify that an afterlife is central to most religious thinking. Though this promised reward, whether real or artificial, appears to be ineffectual in bring about positive changes to our behaviour in the ‘real-world’.

Across the globe and throughout centuries every clan or tribe, every community or nation, has attempted to provide meaning to the world in which they live. Social structures and the advancement of civilisations have drawn mankind into increasingly complex societies (Diamond J. , 2005). Yet civilisation brought questioning and doubt. Fear through ignorance is a recipe to undermine and cause confusion. Hence,irrespective of the origin, every society has attempted to provide an explanation of the unknown (Freud, 2006).

Isolated from other civilisations, the Australian Aborigines’ dreamtime provided stories and myths, which aided both spiritual understanding and social cohesion. South American Incas worshipped sun gods and developed complex, involved rituals to provide meaning to their lives. African witchdoctors retreated within deep recesses to avail themselves of supernatural powers that granted communities with avenues for healing and direction. North American Indians developed systems of totems and ceremonies to propagate and nurture their culture.

Every culture across the globe and throughout history has implemented metaphysical mechanisms to explain our origin, unite our societies and influence our destiny (Feuerbach, 2004), (Hattstein, 2005). The major religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Taoism, Confucianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are natural extensions from more ancient spiritual belief systems. Modern-day organised religions have cemented their hold over various societies with vigour and control. Previous systems, such as those developed by the Egyptians, Romans or Incas have been swept away and ridiculed in favour of alternative views.

Let us concentrate our attention on three major religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These three are borne out of Zoroastrian origins and share many common threads.  Rather than focus on their differences it is perhaps easier to consider what unites these belief systems. Each of these religions is built on the foundation of an afterlife, namely heaven. This observation is not surprising. But the obvious statement belies a wider implication. It is possible to surmise these religions into a singular statement that is tied to the notion of heaven. Distil each of these religions to their very essence and we arrive at a core principle. Namely, “The means by which you live your terrestrial life will determine your destiny in the next life”.

This binds all the believers together under one umbrella. It is an over-arching principle. The righteous will be rewarded.

Here we establish our first premise: Heaven is a reward; the destiny of our afterlife is driven by a stick and carrot approach in this life.

This does not infer that benefits will not accrue to those on earth who live a spiritual or religious life; that
there is nothing to be gained on a day-to-day basis from religion. Indeed, for many the basis of their personal religious belief brings fulfilment, hope or support for their terrestrial existence. The Christian virtues of hope, faith and charity, are aspects which sustain many individuals in the present. In contrast heaven is always in the future. It is elusive. It does not seemingly dominate the conscious thought or action. Its presence is sublime, but always evident. This powerful agent mimics the gravitation pull upon the tides; its power is supreme and perpetual.

Heaven forms, not only the backbone of these religions, it is the driving force that binds individuals to the path. Maintaining a righteous path, not deviating on the spiritual journey of life, is a mantra we see repeated many times in religion. This is especially true and quite literal in the Koran. Stick to a straight path and your journey’s end will arrive at the gates of heaven; a compelling argument.

So, with heaven occupying such a powerful position, what thought do we give to the validity of such a claim? Does heaven exist? What is heaven? Is it a spiritual haven? Is it a Garden of Eden? Is it a state of mind? Do we take a physical form in heaven? Is heaven simply a place filled with spirits? Though the references are scant, both the Bible (Anon., 2001) and the Koran (Anon., NJ Dawood (translated by), 2003) do depict heaven in a physical form. In the twenty-first century, especially following many scientific explorations of space, it makes it difficult to comprehend a physical landscape hovering about our heads in the celestial skies. Throughout time our perceptions change, nowadays many people would be more comfortable accepting the concept that heaven is the exclusive domain of the soul. An unimaginable, incomparable ‘space’ or ‘place’ filled with eternal spirits.

What evidence is there to support heaven’s existence? Search the Bible for references to find out what heaven is actually like and the findings are thin. More is written about the wars, death and destruction on earth than of the beauty in heaven. The description of heaven does not appear as a major tenet of the Old or New Testament. Fleeting references are made to the ‘kingdom of God’, or ‘the home of our Lord’, but search for an accurate account and you will be left wanting. John does give a brief account in Revelation 21:1-27 of a city whose walls are made of jasper and buildings made from gold and precious stone. A place with no need for sunlight or moonlight, for the glory of God is ample to provide all necessary illumination.

The Koran delves deeper and tells us that those who have faith and do good works will “dwell in gardens watered by running streams […] Wedded to chaste spouses, they shall abide therein forever”1. Allah took what he created on earth and “fashioned it into seven heavens”, perhaps implying there is nothing more in heaven than what we see on earth today. Why seven iterations? Did each improve upon the last to finally reach a utopian state or literally a ‘seventh heaven’. More fleeting descriptions of heaven are scattered throughout the Koran.

In the early days of writing the scriptures it was obviously necessary to define heaven in a corporeal state. The tangible descriptions were presumably easier for believers to comprehend. Bar a few obscure references, there is practically nothing written about heaven, and hence heaven is quite literally taken on faith. Heaven is thus the ultimate definition of faith itself. It is not a question of substantiating the facts; there are very few facts to review. Heaven has become an unfathomed, unquestioned, unexplored label. Heaven is an axiomatic enigma. It needs no definition. Heaven is a priori. QED.

Many of the teachings contained within holy texts, such as the Bible and the Koran, fail modern-day intellectual scrutiny. Thus allegorical interpretation is used to preserve the reverence offered in the scriptures, holy stories, and even prophet’s quotes. Moving with the times, it is important to recognise that the early religious prose was written at a particular point in history with messages relevant to those individuals at the time. Yet today, fickle believers will still pick out sayings or stories, choosing when to depict them allegorically and when to demand that they are taken factually.

When we weigh up the evidence to support the existence of heaven we draw a resounding blank. The support relies on faith and dogma to support its claim. What is so convincing about heaven that it remains a central pillar of belief and acceptance for so many people? We appear willing to place enormous faith into a concept that has failed to provide substantiating evidence and remains elusive to the point of complete absence (Rousseau, 1911). The one-way journey through the membrane of death has produced an impermeable barrier to receive any insight, messages, meanings or explanation from the other side. The concept of heaven', free from scrutiny and forever removed from factual review, can be championed by anyone.

What of near death experiences, of mediums, of séances. Do these give weight to an afterlife? Well, William Kingdon Clifford once claimed that, “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” (Clifford, 1999). There may be many explanations for the bizarre and unexplained phenomenon of paranormal experiences. But, to suppose that these explanations provide a convincing theory that can withstand scrutiny is far from definitive. It remains coincidental that such unexplained events would miraculously match our desired wish-fulfilment of communication from ‘the-other-side’. Carl Jung (Jung, 1973) spent many years unravelling the mysteries of the unconscious mind. His work focuses on dreams and touches upon visions, especially recounting and analysing his own experiences. Such visions and near-death experiences are more likely to result from the juxtaposition of clashing conscious and unconscious thoughts. From the keyhole, Jung provides us a glimpse into the unconscious mind and encourages us to draw the conclusion that it remains complex and largely misunderstood. 1 The Koran, The Cow 2:25

If the evidence to support heaven’s existence is weak, this also brings pressure to the argument of whether heaven is a “real-world”. A “real-world” fills our sensory realm. It is tangible. The antonyms of real are descriptors such as fake; false; artificial; imaginary. Is heaven an imaginary-world? And, can fake, false or artificial aids be beneficial in the real world? From a practical perspective and observation the use of artificial vehicles play as great, if not greater role, in the lives of our real world, as real world experiences themselves. Organised Religion is unique to mankind, and it is used to aid our comprehension and lives in the real-world.

Imaginary or artificial aids do have a place in shaping our real world experiences. We need not be purest in our pursuit of reality to bring the real world into a perspective. Much of today’s entertainment is based on fiction. Does this detract from the relevance of the real world? No. Our real life experiences are supplemented by a plethora of fantasy experiences. Wii, Nintendo, Xboxes – these trivial examples illustrate the modern means of entertainment, they provide pleasure fulfilment and stimulus to deliver a vast array of a non-real experiences. Our real world is continuously subjected to artificial agents.

In 2007, Entertainment Weekly (Entertainment_Weekly, 2007) placed Homer [Simpson] ninth on their list of the "50 Greatest TV icons". Homer Simpson, the fictional, animated character of The Simpsons TV show is a great example of how artificial creations can influence the real world.

Artificial aids, something conceived of mankind and not nature, are overwhelmingly meshed within our
real world experiences. The civilised world is immersed in an environment of unnatural, artificial, manmade
creations. (Thoreau). At the extreme edge of human creation, we devise mental, metaphysical, philosophical and religious explanations to make sense of the real-world.

So in contrast to a real, physical domain, we may consider heaven to be an artificial world. It could certainly be considered imaginary. And, without proof or even evidence to support its existence it would not be too courageous to suppose it is false or even fake. Yet, it remains a core foundation of theseimportant religions.

In all likelihood, the ultimate reward could well turn out to be artificial. Does this matter? Does it detract from its impact or fail the definition of a reward? Our real world is intertwined and fabricated by many artificial aids; it matters little whether the carrot is tangible or “real”. What is important is the perception that the reward appears real; that the reward is attainable and positively impacts the real world. At this point, we should be clear in our definition of a reward. The dictionary describes a reward (noun) as something given in return for a deed or service. There is a concept of giving and receiving, “if I do this, I get that”. The converse is punishment, “if I don’t do this, I get that”.

Moreover, the use of rewards are tied to gratitude, their intention is to provide a pleasurable outcome. Attainment of a reward is reached when the actions or behaviour meet with approval. The use of rewards is universal within our society; in the home, at school or at work. We reward ourselves with indulgences; we control our children with the aid of lollies; we provide bonuses and incentives for reaching targets at work.

The ubiquitous use of rewards to induce favourable behaviour prevails as a generally accepted mechanism. However, following extensive research, Alfie Kohn (Kohn, 1999) writes about the negative implications of using of rewards. Rewards, Kohn states, are used as an attempt to control the behaviour of another person’s actions. Their application is used to provide extrinsic motivation and Kohn argues that sustained behavioural changes are best achieved from intrinsic motivation. Kohn pursues the idea that rewards are an instrument of manipulation. They assume the opposite end of the continuum from punishment, but nevertheless use the same approach. Indeed, he maintains that the failure to attain a reward is tantamount to a punishment. Eroding innate desire and motivation is a cause to question the overuse of rewards.

That rewards can work as an effective means to manipulate short-term behaviour is understood, particularly where tasks are repetitive, or uncomplicated. But the correlation of enhanced performance, for activities which involve complexity, over an extended timeframe is harder to measure. In the case of heaven, we must acknowledge that the reward is never actually attained. The closest we come to heaven in our earthly domain is the promise of a reward. Life’s journey must be completed before judgement can be passed. To gain the reward one has to cease living.

So, is heaven worth dying for? We established in our first premise that heaven is a reward, but now let us explore if “it is rewarding enough?” Can heaven be considered a worthy reward?

Heaven holds an exalted position in our consciousness, most of us would be willing to accept that heavenis the ultimate prize. By definition it is, ‘heavenly’, a wonderful, joyous place of happiness. For many, heaven is held out as a comfortable bastion of security, a sanctuary to which everlasting pleasure and peace will be delivered. It is held aloft, as a trophy, something that is full of wonder and amazement. Heaven is a promise of a better life, nothing can surpass heaven; it is our final everlasting reward.

At face value we can accept the notion that heaven provides amply reward. Or put another way, let me frame the statement thus: given the choice of spending eternity in heaven or hell, which location would you pick?

Before making a choice, make sure you focus on the operative word; that is: “eternity”. After all, eternity is a very, very long time. There are some that would say eighty-odd-years on earth is long enough, but just consider what eternity would mean. Speak with those who are very old and you may hear them talk as though they welcome death so that it may release them. That relief will not come to those that live for eternity. Eternity is not a thousand years, not even a million years, but millions upon millions upon billions of years. If the scientists are to believed when they suggest the universe is approximately 20 billion years old, recognise this is equivalent to the merest fraction of a second in the light years of eternity.

Given that choice, I would rather spend eternity somewhere nice.
Thus, we conclude a second premise, that heaven is not only a reward it is a reward worth achieving. Given this background, we must now consider whether heaven can be judged as an effective reward. To be effective, we must look at the behaviour of those who operate under the regime of attaining a reward and determine if the reward encourages the proper response. As previously stated, the principle of rewards stipulates that “if you do this, I will give you that”, i.e. gaining a reward is achieved, only when our behaviour meets with the acceptance of the ‘reward-giver’.

When the prospect of gaining the ultimate prize is within reach of every soul, why would anyone gamble this opportunity away by not behaving appropriately? Not only is attainment of the ultimate-prize an open contest, anyone can participate, but also the odds are very favourable. At the end of one’s life there are essentially two options, at best the odds are 50/50; heaven or hell. In contrast, consider the millions of people whose behaviour is manipulated weekly to buy a lottery ticket. Their reward is the possibility of significant material wealth, albeit to be enjoyed for an ephemeral moment in time. But, the odds of winning are very remote. In terms of effectiveness to influence behaviour, the lottery would appear to rate highly.

All believers would surely want to lead a life so pious and righteous that there is no question of the jury needing to ponder their decision on Judgement day. “Should this soul go to heaven or hell?” Why give the judge pause for thought?

Can it be that heaven is simply too distant a thought from the day-to-day drudgery of life to be held aloft as a suitable reward? Is an eternal life in heaven not sufficiently attractive? Is the threat of external damnation not a sufficient deterrent? If heaven is so wonderful and plausible why would anyone risk the chance of foregoing the opportunity to reap its benefits? If hell is so damning and outrageous, why not avoid its clutches by living a pious existence?

Is it too difficult to maintain a mental image of this reward and thus allow ourselves to lapse; to allow ourselves to commit sin during a relatively brief moment in time? In the eons of galactic timescales, God is only asking that we behave according to his principles for a relatively short period of time. We have established that rewards work over brief periods of time. Isn’t a lifetime, which equates to approximately 80-to-100 years, insignificantly “brief”, in contrast to “eternity”?

What behaviour does the appeal of heaven actually reward? The promise of immediate passage to heaven is a strong incentive for suicide bombers seeking martyrdom. Is this appropriate behaviour? Do we observe appropriate behaviour amongst our fellow human beings? Do we witness hordes of individuals espousing a consistent set of deeply pious, righteous, moral virtues? At a personal level we can often account for individuals or notable ambassadors within the community who epitomise a model citizen. If we cast our net wider and permit those whose conduct is regularly deemed appropriate, accepting the occasional misdemeanour, we may convince ourselves that there are sufficient members of our society that keep to the ‘straight-path’.

However, if we take a macro view of the globe, we see conflict, destruction and animosity. Within the safety and anonymity of a crowd; congregation; community; or indeed a nation we see the emergence of assertive position postulation. My position is correct, yours is wrong; my opinion is fact, and yours is falsehood. Christians versus Muslims; Israeli verses Palestinian; Americans versus Osama bin Laden; Russia versus Georgia; Robert Mugabe versus Morgan Tsvangirai. All of these macro conflicts ultimately result from the collective actions of individuals, and interesting the result bears no relevance to whether or not the individual’s actions initially set-out to be well-intentioned or not.

The report card on mankind’s behaviour across the centuries depicts an assertive, dominate and aggressive creature whose nature is tempered and restrained by compassion and love (Diamond J. , 2005), (Voltaire., 1999), (Machiavelli, 1984), (Goodman, 2008), (Kierkegaard, 2005). This dichotomy does not reflect well for the argument that heaven provides an effective reward. 

An effective reward drives behaviour that consistently meets with approval. Given that heaven is promised to be our ultimate magnanimous reward, the evidence suggesting it dominates our thinking and causes us to lead a model existence is underwhelming at best. Judging mankind’s overall conduct, either our understanding of the desired behaviour is warped or we conclude the promise of spending eternity in heaven is not an effective reward.


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Heaven is an ineffectual reward”
By Chris Pennington (c) Copyright February 2009.
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