The Thorns on the Stem of Universalism

Temptations of the Heart and Soul

People give up on hell long before they give up on heaven, and they give up on almost everything before they give up on happiness in the afterlife. Somehow, our life experience inclines us to believe that the mind survives the death of the body. This same life experience, however, inclines us to believe that our loved ones don’t suffer after death. As such, there is a widespread pop spirituality that professes belief in love, happiness, and the promise of all these things eternally.

I have been unable to accept the possibility of a benign spiritual realm in which all people experience eternal happiness. I have been unable to accept the Oprah Winfrey Interpretation—I would sooner be an atheist. But for a number of reasons, I have found that I cannot be an atheist.

My reasoning is quite simple. If only good things can happen to human beings after death, why are bad things happening to human beings now? Perhaps more importantly, why are most of these bad things being done by other human beings? When observing this, I conclude one of two things: either there is a God who permits certain humans to suffer while others do not, or there is no God. In the former case, one might imagine that this God might even things out. The one thing I do not conclude is that there is a God who will take every last one of us to a comfortable bed and breakfast after death.

If God has only benign things in store for everyone, he is not the God we read about in most religious traditions. Who is this God? Where did you find out about him? What’s the point? While Christianity leaves many unanswered questions, it nonetheless makes itself clear. If believing Christianity is wishful thinking, pop spirituality is unbridled fantasy by comparison.

There are near-death experiences that serve as evidence for new age spirituality, and if anything, they increase my suspicion. Jesus often makes an appearance, but he’s nothing like the Jesus we read about. If he’s divine, you figure he could have made sure at least one copy of the real story was preserved. Furthermore, spiritual creatures in these experiences often tell their listeners that they should follow whatever religion brings them closer to God. Fancy that—it’s as if these religions didn’t have any differences whatsoever, or have very different conceptions of the truth. It’s as if the powers that be, who can speak to us through vivid near death experiences, would not tell anyone what’s going on, but rather prefer us to believe any one of a number of false religions. If I had a near-death experience and spoke with spiritual beings, I would choose a belief system that actually accounted for what happened to me.

Believing in an ambiguous spiritual realm in which everyone is taken to paradise, and in which the purpose of everything is honey and butterflies, is undoubtedly the easiest thing to do—unless you start to think about it, in which case it is the hardest thing to do. It isn’t that I would be terribly upset if this were true. It sounds very nice, and I’d eventually accept that I was wrong about everything. Dare I say, I’d almost like to believe it.

But I just can’t.

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4 Responses to “The Thorns on the Stem of Universalism”

  1. Funny that you would talk about how a benign God doesn’t line up with the majority of well-documented religious traditions, and yet not once use the word “justice” in this entry. Or, funny that you would say that God allowing pain in this life but only pleasure in the next doesn’t make sense (which line of thinking I don’t buy–what if the point of suffering here is simply to temper us, to better make us appreciate blessedness, and having lived through it all, we deserve to spend the rest of eternity free of trouble?), and yet not detail the logic behind bad behavior = punishment, good behavior = reward.

    Point being, traditional religion makes sense only if you have some innate sense of justice–which pop spirituality steers well clear of.

  2. What about the idea that it’s justice enough for people to experience a bit of punishment or embarrassment for their behaviour, only to go on to the final reward?

    You’re right, I left that out–but I did so for two reasons (unintentional ones, but reasons nonetheless). Firstly, pop spirituality includes a bit of justice. People experience some kind of life review, and they get handed the full impact of everything they did. Secondly, I wrongly assumed that the connection between pain and suffering here and justice (i.e. not universal rewards) was obvious. I’ll probably revise this entry.

    I stand by my comment about the pain and suffering being a clue that there is no universally happy afterlife. This is partially because I meant to draw a connection to justice (we are causing most of the pain and suffering) and partially because solely using this life to temper people would indicate that the preferred route is to kill oneself as soon as possible. Very odd. Also, it seems to me that there are better ways of making people understand that point. Finally, not everyone will be tempered, and some of them will be unnecessary tempered–far more than others–rendering the purpose useless for those who die without any measure of hardship. But I guess that veers near the justice factor again.

    Can you think of another purpose for this life in the benign God scenario? Not that I know what the purpose really, truly is–but in the scenario where things don’t end the same for everyone, this life has eternal *significance*. It has meaning; it isn’t just a game intended to teach us all a lesson.

  3. Right, ok. So you would have to address different ideals of justice and make a judgment call about which is more valid, and why. You would have to debate what the “full impact of everything they did” would entail.

    “…solely using this life to temper people would indicate that the preferred route is to kill oneself as soon as possible.” Yeah, I had my students debate this question a few weeks ago. It’s worth clarifying the arguments against such silliness, I think… because plenty of people do buy into it.

    I can’t, as a matter of fact–that’s why I pointed out that we need to factor in a justice that makes this life significant to the point of determining where we end up in the next. Many people just don’t: some would argue (unconsciously, more than likely) that God doesn’t need a purpose, or that purpose doesn’t matter, and, hence, neither does justice on an absolute scale. Pointing out how people tend to do this, even without knowing it, might help your position.

  4. Sorry for commenting OT – what WP theme are you using? It’s looking cool!

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