Here is a great question I saw in the Guardian which raises a whole set of other questions, like all good questions do:
Are Christian souls in the afterlife as segregated by gender as we are on earth?
Souls. What are they, and do they engender gender, so to speak?
And if not, then what is it about a soul that makes it ‘you’ or anything to do with you? Is is representative of your body? And in heaven, at what age?
This reminds me of my heaven section in The Little Book of Unholy Questions (available from the sidebar, there):
141. At what point of your life do you get judged to go into heaven?
142. For example, which one would get into heaven? (This one’s multiple choice, God, so it should be easy!) A) a man who does evil for 50 years in unbelief, and repents, asks for forgiveness and lives virtuously for 2 months in belief. B) a man who does virtuous good for 50 years, gives up belief and then commits evil for 2 months. C) both. D) neither
143. If you suffered dementia for the last 5 years of your life, what would you be like in heaven?
144. In other words, in heaven are you defined arbitrarily by who you were (at any point) in your actual life?
145. On what grounds is it chosen as to at what point in your life your heavenly self represents?
146. In philosophy, boredom is seen as a lethal state in which to be, and this is why an immortal life is deemed as problematic. Death can be claimed to be an event necessary to give meaning to our lives. However, those who get to heaven are ensured an eternal existence. Without changing our mindsets, and thus constraining our natural inclinations (and free will), how could we possibly enjoy an eternity in heaven without getting bored?
147. If Hitler was truly sorry for what he did, would you forgive him and allow him into heaven?
One fruitful theme that I wanted to explore here was that heaven and the existence of free will without suffering and evil is incoherent. We are often given the free will theodicy as (at least partly) the answer to why evil exists on earth. However, if heaven can exist with free will and no evil, then this should surely be an option on earth, especially if God is as loving as he is purported to be. This very simple logical argument has devastating effects on whether you believe in heaven, in an omnipotent God or even in free will. Many theists such as Oxfordtheologian Richard Swinburne[i] try to answer this by saying that life on earth is a ‘test’ for humanity, with the goal of being morally responsible, avoiding hell, and getting into heaven. The idea of punishment or reward in an afterlife becomes moot without free will, and so free will becomes the central tenet of such theology. But, as Sam Harris explains in light of this theory:
Yet if heaven must exist, if there is no doubt that heaven exists, then we know that we are being trained here on earth to exercise a free will that will not be needed in heaven, a free will the exercise of which causes immense pain to many people, but a pain that will be miraculously eased in heaven. This is nothing less than a definition of torture. (Though presumably the likes of Richard Swinburne would argue that seventy years of torture versus an infinity of heavenly bliss is a “reasonable” experiment.) Heaven is not and never has been the solution to theodicy; heaven is the very problem.[ii]
There does seem to be this promissory note that any amount of evil and suffering on earth can be balanced in an afterlife. I’m not sure that this works or even if it is properly evidenced by anything other than faith.
Another fundamental issue with the idea of heaven is the implication that we are immutable, unchanging people; that the person we are when we die is the person we have always been which is the person we will be in heaven. This is loaded with massive problems. We are changing animals. I am clearly not the same person I was before my present relationship, before I had children, ten years ago, as a student, as an adolescent, as a child and so on. If I develop Alzheimer’s now, then I would be a very different person again. Access into heaven is defined when? Because if I had Alzheimer’s and my heavenly state was defined before the point of developing the disease, then surely this should be the same approach as for a person who became evil at the end of their life or good at the end of their life. A repenting sinner should be judged on their sinning if a person who becomes terribly evil only at the end of their life is judged on this and not the majority of their faithful, good life. Of course, if the soul does not equate to our conscious minds, then what does the soul have to do with our actions, and how can our soul be judged for those actions if it is not causally responsible for them?
It is a veritable minefield of troublesome theology. And that’s given the acceptance of the idea of heaven in the first place.