You die from natural causes. You ascend toward a warm, white light. You immediately realize you have entered the afterlife… and (much to your surprise) it is exactly like the clichéd, kindergarten version of Christian Heaven. The ground is covered by a white, cloud-like fog. Angels fly around you and play the harp. You are wearing a comfortable white robe. Everyone there is aimlessly walking around, smiling broadly, perfectly content; this, it seems, is how you will spend eternity.
Upon your arrival, you are greeted by Jesus (and he looks exactly like the stereotypical depiction of Jesus). “Welcome to Heaven,” he says. “I think you will like it here, and I look forward to loving you unconditionally for the duration of time. But I also realize that Heaven isn’t necessarily for everyone, so I always give newcomers a chance to go to the other place, if that’s what they would prefer.”
“Are you referring to hell?” you say in response.
“Oh, no,” says Jesus. “Not hell. Certainly not hell. I would never send you to hell. But you can go somewhere that isn’t here. It’s another viable post-life option. About eighteen percent of our potential residents go in that direction.”
“What is the other place like?” you ask.
“I can’t tell you,” says Jesus. “But if you do elect to go there, you can never come back here. And you only have twenty minutes to decide.”
“Why only twenty?” you ask.
“Because I’m Jesus,” says Jesus.
And that’s the hypothetical. I’ve asked this one of people before, and heard some interesting answers. There are a couple immediate questions that arise:
- Are you willing to give up a sure thing (Heaven) for an unknown thing (Other Place)?
- What is desirable about Heaven?
- If life in Heaven is, as is implied, both blissful and boring, what balance of the two is desirable?
- To what degree is differentiation required for meaning? Can an unvaried existence be desired?
- What might the Other Place be?
The immediate reaction I have is towards the Other Place. The reason for this lies in the nature of Stereotypical Heaven, and a distrust of its pleasantness. I think this distrust has a root in the same parts of human nature that make some facets of the Romantic revolt so alluring. In Heaven can we retain our individuality, if we are equally happy (and equally loved)? To problematize this, we might ask whether individuality is worth retaining at all. Another track is to ask whether emotion is relative. If it is relative and not absolute, the lack of variation in Heaven might render eternal bliss eternal numbness. If it is absolute–if there are no diminishing marginal returns to time in Heaven, it is impossible to be bored of bliss, one moment of beatitude is as good as the next–then we cannot really oppose this choice on the basis of pleasure.
An interesting wrinkle pops up if we suppose that we have accepted our place in Heaven. Would it be possible, once in Heaven, to regret one’s choice? Regret implies unhappiness, but unhappiness contradicts the nature of Stereotypical Heaven. I am led to think that it would be impossible to regret the choice to go to Heaven. On the contrary, it is very easy to see how one might come to regret choosing the Other Place. As long as the configuration of the Other Place involves a) remembrance of the choice offered by Stereotypical Jesus, and b) some sort of circumstance that would make one prefer eternal bliss, it seems almost certain that one would regret, at least for a time, the choice to spurn Heaven.
It seems we have looped back and shown quite demonstrably that Heaven is the better choice. It is impossible to regret such a choice; given this, how could it not be preferable? In order to elucidate the case against such a choice, we need to backtrack a little bit, and ask what the Other Place might look like.
The starting point is that we know it is not Heaven and it is not Hell. Heaven is Eternal Good and Heaven is Eternal Evil. The Other Place must then be either some mix of the two–sometimes good, sometimes bad–or something that cannot be described by the terms “good” and “evil.” The first case entails the existence of variation in the Other Place–perhaps variation and change and vicissitudes just like those on Earth. (To tell the truth, my hunch is that the Other Place is likely, well, life.) In the second case, the Other Place is beyond our imagination.
In the interests of length–I’ve gone on long enough, I think, so far, to make my points–I’ll cut things short here for now. I would choose the Other Place, I think, for the simple reason that I am curious.
Addendum: A highly interesting article, “Is God Happy?,” which references our question and explores a similar one at length.
Addendum II: “Blandula, Tenella, Vagula,” is a poem by Ezra Pound that also deals with the central idea of preferring Earth to Heaven.
What hast thou, O my soul, with paradise?
Will we not rather, when our freedom’s won,
Get us to some clear place wherein the sun
Lets drift in on us through the olive leaves
A liquid glory? If at Sirmio,
My soul, I meet thee, when this life’s outrun,
Will we not find some headland consecrated
By aery apostles of terrene delight,
Will not our cult be founded on the waves,
Clear sapphire, cobalt, cyanine,
On triune azunes, the impalpable
Mirrors unstill of the eternal change?
Soul, if She meets us there, will any rumour
Of havens more high and courts desirable
Lure us beyond the cloudy peak of Riva?