What is Heaven Like to an Atheist? March 24, 2010

What is Heaven Like to an Atheist?

President of the Secular Coalition for America, Herb Silverman, has a great response for people who ask him — an atheist — about the afterlife:

I do know what will happen to me when I die. I’m going to medical school, just like my Jewish mother always wanted me to do. I’ll use my body parts to their fullest when I’m alive, but I hope others will be able to take advantage of them when I die.

I love that.

It comes from a terrific piece Herb wrote in response to the question: “What is your vision of heaven?” at On Faith.

As a child, asking heaven and hell questions probably contributed to my journey that led to atheism. I used to wonder whether I could be happy in heaven knowing that some of my friends would be suffering in hell. I also wondered if I would have free will in heaven, as I assumed I had on Earth. If so, could I sin in heaven and be sent to hell? If not, would I really be me, or just a robot without free will?

Finally, I couldn’t believe that belief mattered more than behavior. So perhaps because of my mathematical bent, I wondered how much better the worst person in heaven would be than the best person in hell. The only answers I received were “God knows,” which is synonymous with, “I don’t know.”

That last part is interesting. If Heaven existed, someone would have to be the “worst person” there, right? What would that person be like…? And the “best person” in Hell?

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  • I wrote about this also for the Examiner:
    On Faith: What is Heaven Like.

    I have been and will be continuing to respond to all the On Faith issues on my Examiner page. We can never have enough Freethought voices out there.

  • Greg

    As a child, asking heaven and hell questions probably contributed to my journey that led to atheism.

    Interesting, I found the same as a kid, actually, but mine were a slightly different bent. They were things like:

    “What happens if you’re murdered, and your murderer later asks for forgiveness and also goes to heaven. What happens when you meet?”

    Or a load of questions about infinity. (Like: “If there are an infinite amount of people there, then how do you socialise? I mean, anyone you want to do something with will already be doing something with someone else…”) Ah, infinity… one of the biggest reasons I stopped believing in a god.

    You know, one of the weird things is I never had a real idea of what heaven was like. It was always more of the same of life here on earth, but (somehow) everything was eternal, and infinitely big, and you were happy. 🙂

  • Having just lost a beloved pet of thirteen years, I understand why people felt the need to create a happy afterlife; the death of a close relative or friend would make the desire even stronger.

    But, man, the Xtian vision of heaven is pretty lame and vague. Sure, the Norse and Muslim visions of paradise are misogynist as all get-out, but at least it was something interesting.

  • HA! Worst person in heaven VS best person in hell? That is a funny concept.

  • noah

    I think some of this post is a bit of a strawman. I’m no expert in Christian mythology, but I think most Christian sects believe that to get into heaven you must believe and act in a certain way. For example, in Catholocism, your actions count. If you sin, you cannot get into heaven, unless you take particular actions: repent, confess, etc. While there may be some Christian sects who believe that belief alone is enough, I do not think that this is generaly true.

  • “What is your vision of heaven?” – I don’t have one. If anything an “eternal reward world” would be the same as this world but better, kinder, happier and with less suffering. I don’t think that is heaven but I do think it is something that we can change this world into.

    I have no concept of an after life. I have no frame of reference for such a “place” and no reason to believe that it is even a viable “life”. However if I were a god I’d make people live their lives again with the benefit of hindsight until they decided that they’d got it “right” then I’d let them live the lives of everyone who they had influenced in some way. Whether that is heaven or hell I’m not sure.

  • rbray18

    to noah,i can’t speak for most southern baptists but the churches i went to loved to use the example of a old lady who never did a thing wrong in her life but didn’t believe,she’d still go to hell simplely for not believing in god/Jesus.

  • [Anonymous]

    Hitler would be in heaven according to my understanding of it. So, It wouldn’t take a very good person to better in hell and better.

  • noah


    Right. Read my post again. I said that I think that most religions require BOTH belief and good behavior. The original post suggests that belief alone is enough to get into heaven. I do not believe that most religions teach such a doctrine.

  • Miko

    If Heaven existed, someone would have to be the “worst person” there, right?

    This depends whether the universe is infinite in duration (in at least one of time or space). If it is, there could be infinitely many people in heaven, in which case there could be an infinite descending chain of people, each one worse than the last. Also, it’s obviously going to depend on your poset ordering and probably the axiom of choice.

    noah: I think most Christian sects believe that to get into heaven you must believe and act in a certain way. For example, in Catholocism, your actions count.

    Nope, you’ve hit on pretty much the only example. Most non-Catholic sects (i.e., most = those other than Orthodox sects) descend (indirectly, at least) from Luther, who argued that “man is saved by faith alone.” Calvinists tried to twist this doctrine by saying things like “man is saved by God’s predetermination, but actions are a sign of being included in this predetermination,” but Anne Hutchinson (the first American anarchist and depending on your point of view the first female minister in America) did a great job of exposing this as nonsense (and got banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for her troubles).

  • I remember hearing about heaven as a young child, and my primary visualization was of a place up in the clouds with angels flying around.

    This was the impression I had from cartoons and television and movies, but I had no idea people thought it was a real place. Even now, it’s such a funny idea to me. I have a hard time “getting” that people believe it actually exists. I mean, I know they do believe it, but it still seems so odd to me.

    It’s not just heaven, though. I have a hard time understanding how people can believe in any kind of afterlife. It’s not part of my background, so I feel like everyone has got to realize how false the concept sounds, at least on some level. It seems like such obvious invention and wish-fulfillment to me.

    Honestly, I think everyone knows subconsciously that death is the end, and that’s why such deep grief is associated with the end of life. Even people who say they have a belief in heaven still experience those incredibly intense feelings of sadness. I think they know that it isn’t true, although perhaps they can’t admit it to themselves.

  • rbray18

    yeah i wasn’t too clear,tired sorry.what i meant was the point of the example was you needed belief nothing else could get you in.
    the church i spent most of my youth in was small.bout half of the church was family in some way.so the preacher was saying that you better be sure you were a rtc(real true Christian a term i picked up from slacktivist btw)they said works were nice but faith was the only true way into heaven.
    and they believed you could sin and sin and sin just so long as you asked for forgiveness you were ok.

  • Kyle

    Having been raised Mormon, my impression of heaven was this: Only white male heterosexuals who got married in the temple get to be gods. Their wives got to be eternally pregnant servants to their husbands. Anyone else who falls short of this lofty goal gets to do exactly what every other good Mormon got to do in life: proselytize to the “nonbelievers,” baptize them into the Mormon faith, and sing praises to Joseph Smith (and those other lesser beings God the Father and His son Jesus Christ.)

    Thanks but no thanks. I’ll take Eternal Darkness (there is no real Hell in Mormonism) and go party with the other sinners. After all, since I’m gay I cannot, by rights, be married in the temple unless I find a woman to con into it. 🙁

  • Jenea

    Reminds me of the line from the song “Road Movie to Berlin” by They Might Be Giants:

    We were once so close to heaven
    Peter came out and gave us medals
    Declaring us the nicest of the damned

  • If there is some kind of continuation of existence or experience after death, I seriously doubt it would be dependent on anything you did or believed while alive. It would probably be something like all “psychic energy” flowing back into “the source” like matter flowing into a black hole. Once it flows back in, all previous identity will be lost. Even if something like this happens, there is no point to worship “the source” and plead for favor. Just live a good life, be good for goodness sakes, and don’t worry about what happens after you die.

    There is, in fact, no evidence at all of any “psychic energy” existing either before or after you die. (although there is plenty of wishful thinking).

  • Sunioc

    Well, according to christian doctrine, where you go when you die isn’t based on behavior, it’s based on belief. You can be a model citizen for your entire life, and go to hell because you don’t believe. Alternately, you could have been a serial rapist killed hundreds of people during your life, then converted to Christianity and repented 5 minutes before going to the electric chair and go to heaven. Therefore, the best person in hell certainly would be a far better person than the worst in heaven.

    As for my personal vision of what heaven would have to be like for me, it would pretty much be the opposite of what a “good christian” would imagine it to be. There would be lots and lots of sex with as many partners as we liked, without any risk of disease or pregnancy. Unlimited supplies of mind blowing drugs with no side effects or addiction. Mountains of the most amazing food you could imagine, stuff that would make Escoffier look like a McDonalds fry cook, that you could eat as much as you want without ever becoming full or getting fat. Rock concerts that lasted for years. And most importantly, no hell! No matter how amazing heaven was, I couldn’t possibly enjoy it knowing that other people, especially people that I care about, are being tortured for all eternity with no hope for escape.

  • muggle

    I was raised to believe if you believed, you’d go to heaven, end of story. But sinning kind of said you didn’t really believe and on Judgment Day, god would demand an explanation for all your sins since asking Jesus to be your savior or he wouldn’t think your faith sincere and, man, you’d better have a good explanation. Oh, and you wouldn’t be aware of hell in heaven or anyone there so no worry about the guilt of others being tortured.

    When I was little, I too thought heaven was like earth but only with the good stuff and no bad. You would finally be free to do whatever you wanted to do. You could play 24/7 and never get tired. Eat and eat all the delicious bad for you stuff and never get a belly ache or grow fat or have to go to the bathroom.

    My vision was kind of like that song “Playground in my Mind” (hmm, no wonder I love that song). “where the children laugh and the children play and they sing a song all day…” Really grownups didn’t even enter into it. Not even god or jebus. We’d be free to be us.

    Then I grew up and started fearing god in earnest in my teens. Of course, I was listening to a lot of Billy Graham and Garner Ted Armstrong.

    I remember getting pissed at Graham after one of his specials where some lady sang Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and then going on about how she thought that song was about Jesus dying on the cross for us and laying down for our sins like a bridge over troubled water.

    This was the beginning of my shouting at televisions. I was an ardent Paul Simon fan. More than. He was rather a father figure to me growing up. (Mental substitute in place of my asshole father; I probably made Paul Simon out to be a much better person than he actually is though I still suspect he’s a much better person and father than my father.) I was screaming at the TV, “It was written by a Jew, Goddamn it.” (I’m surprised my mother didn’t beat me bloody, especially since this was after she called Paul Simon a heathen because he’s a Jew. Maybe she was too shocked not only at my behavior but because Billy Graham was using an evil heathen’s song.)

    And loathed and detested Billy Graham from then on. My, the teens are a strange time, aren’t they? Unfortunately, I switched him out with Garner Ted Armstrong. Eh? What the hell was wrong with me in my teens? Note, I was also a very suicidal teen and convinced god spoke to me because Garner Ted Armstrong filled my head with we could hear the voice of god if we but listened. (Took that a bit too literally, didn’t I?) But, on the bright side, this fear of hellfire and brimstone prompted me to get closer to god and understand him better which led to losing my faith, first in jebus then altogether.

    At that point, I only had a vague idea of heaven. The playground was replaced by something more vague and sinister. Some notion of having to please god forever to avoid torture but if you did, he’d let you live in peace, floating around the clouds, playing a harp and the cute guys would all love me.

    Man, I was one fucked up teen. Ah, well, I survived it. I’m sometimes amazed I did but I did. And I’m feeling much better now. 😀

    Now, I’m damned glad there’s no heaven and think it would suck. Not only would it be utterly boring and you’d live forever fearing god’s wrath but, man, my mother and my ex would both be there. Christ, say, what you will but those two truly believed.

    Damned glad I don’t. What a freaking nightmare.

  • mheisey.nox@gmail.com

    When I was younger I could think of nothing more boring than the prospect of having a whole eternity in complete perfection. What does one live for if that’s the case? For a while I contemplated the idea of reincarnation till enlightenment, or a return to soul collective, but I could never quite reconcile such a belief with observable reality.
    I am currently an atheist practicing Pastafarianism–I don’t believe in a heaven. But if there must be an afterlife, then bring on the beer volcano and stripper factory!

  • Kid A

    This to me is one of the most damning things about Christianity: One is not “saved by works, but by faith.” That may not mean that works aren’t a part of the equation, but the crucial element is the “faith” bit. Without that, works are “dead.” From the Christian perspective, helping others, being kind to others, etc. is not enough. If you don’t believe in their god, then off to hell you go.

    The problem is that the converse is true then as well: If one is not “saved” by works, then one is not condemned by them either, becuase the ULTIMATE criterion is faith, not works.

    Technically speaking, from the Christian perspective, Stalin is not in hell for all the terrible things he did, but rather because he was an atheist. Who you ARE matters more than what you DO.

    And yet, if he were to “repent” etc. on his deathbed (as Constantine himself did and the thief on the cross) then everything would be OK.

    No matter how you look at it, that’s ethically twisted.

  • Jack

    Heaven for me is where I could choose the cards I wanted to play, instead of playing the hand I was dealt.

  • Dan Covill

    In an episode of the British sitcom “Waiting for God” some years ago they were speculating on heaven. Tom Ballard (one of the retirees) said that the clergy made it sound like “an Albanian Disneyland.”

  • Kid A

    Everyone is trying to get to the bar.
    The name of the bar, the bar is called heaven.
    The band in heaven plays my favorite song.
    They play it once again, they play it all night long.

    Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.
    Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.

    There is a party, everyone is there.
    Everyone will leave at exactly the same time.
    Its hard to imagine that nothing at all
    Could be so exciting, and so much fun.

    Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.
    Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.

    When this kiss is over it will start again.
    It will not be any different, it will be exactly
    The same.
    Its hard to imagine that nothing at all
    Could be so exciting, could be so much fun.

    Heaven is a place where nothing every happens.
    Heaven is a place where nothing every happens.

    Talking Heads: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5zNdMc6wGtU

  • Houndies

    I always got the impression growing up as xtain that somehow in heaven everyone would be the same and my mom always told me no one would know anyone in the same way they did on earth. Dont know why she thought this. Also, I have known xtians who believe the old “once saved, always saved” line which I suppose means as long as you are “saved” you can act pretty much however you want and still get into heaven. As, for hell, the xtian belief is that unless you believe in christ you’re screwed, so I would imagine if this was the case there would be some really good people in hell. For myself, I dont believe in either place.

  • Shawn

    From Revelation 4:

    6And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind.

    7And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle.

    8And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, LORD God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.

    …so there you go. Who wants beer volcanoes and stripper factories when you can watch winged, sycophantic, calf-faced monsters for eternity?

  • GribbletheMunchkin

    The free will issue gets me. Can one sin in heaven? Lucifer did. So clearly you can if you are an angel. But how about a dead human? If you can’t sin, then you don’t have free will. happiness would be akin to being permanently high on some awesome drug. Fun for a weekend, but hardly appropriate for eternity.

    If you can sin in Heaven however, does that mean that you could bully other dead humans, make them miserable?

    Perfect, eternal paradise just doesn’t make sense except as a childish fantasy.

    I’d rather hang out with Gandhi and Buddha in Hell, than Ted Bundy and John Calvin in Heaven.

  • Kid A

    Tertullian wasn’t the only Christian to say this, but he wrote about how Christians in heaven would look down and those burning in hell and rejoice. And yet, to me, if I were one of the elect, and I were looking down on many people I knew and loved, how could I rejoice? That would not be heaven to me, that would be hell.

  • Aaron

    I had a friend of my brothers once to led me that heaven is where you spend eternity “glorifying God”.
    I thought that did not sound much like paradise.

  • Canadiannalberta

    When I was younger I figured heaven was Earth without anything nasty. Everyone did what they wanted and somehow that meant no one hurt anyone else. Probably because only the ‘good’ got into heaven.

    Then I learnt about the little fact that it didn’t matter what you did – and this came from my very Catholic family, as I was told nothing on Earth can affect whether or not you went into Heaven. Only the moment after death would decide – the Devil would tempt you, and if you followed the Devil you went to hell. If you didn’t follow him, then you went to heaven.

    After reading the Bible, I concluded that if heaven exists, then it is one long mass. Forever praying, singing, and taking communion to glorify god. Not how I would want to spend my eternity.

  • Aaron

    Some fundamentalist Christian sects (populated by members of my family) have a doctrine of the “elect”.
    It goes something like this:
    1. God gives faith to people by some mysterious manner (like a lottery decided before birth).
    2. Those people develop faith upon hearing about Jesus (like it is a symptom of a condition).
    3. Those people go to heaven.

    Behavior means nothing, since no action you can possibly take affects your heaven/hell destination. Basically, all humans are so evil that nothing they can do makes up for it.
    There are some interesting corollaries:
    Members of the elect who do not hear about Jesus during their lives are reincarnated until they do. (Yes, reincarnation is part of Christian mythology, for example John the Baptist is also supposed to be Elijah)
    You can spend your whole life in church, giving to charity, praying, etc. and go to hell. Even if you do your best.

    I always asked “If nothing I can do helps me go to heaven, why bother trying?”

    They spend alot of effort trying to spread the gospel, an act that, by their own admission, is almost useless. I suppose the only thing they hope to accomplish is the discovery of one of the elect that has not heard of Jesus (which is unlikely in ant 1st world country). They also recruit people who, by their own admission, are going to hell despite their efforts.
    I may have some of the details wrong, but that is the gist.

  • dan

    when i was very young i pictured heaven as a long hallway in a castle (i.e. tall ceilings, big gray stone walls, and long narrow windows). everyone in heaven sits on the floor against one wall and watches reruns of their life projected on the opposite wall. i used to want to make sure i was buried wearing my favorite red brontsaurus t-shirt, because that’d be the shirt i’d wear for eternity.

  • Noir

    ” If Heaven existed, someone would have to be the “worst person” there, right?”

    Nice to see the Well-Ordering principle put to such good use!

  • Shauna

    Heaven is going to be the same nothingness that existed before my birth. I have no recollection of the time before I came into consciousness, and it will be the same for the eternity after me. Once I am gone . . .done. Finito. I rather like that idea. It gives all the young ‘uns behind me some space.

  • I have briefly skimmed over these comments and only one or two comments included excerpts from the canonical Bible. Any person’s belief of heaven, whether we like it or not, is based on our belief of the Bible. If we believe the bible to be true, we have a basis for believing in a Heaven. If we do not believe in the bible, then our belief of heaven is soley based on our own perceptions and opinions developed by a relativistic and moralistic culture. For example, if you say heaven doesn’t exist, that’s fine, that’s what you believe; but don’t you dare tell me what is true. That is the result failing to believe in (oh should I dare say it?) Absolute truth. In my opinion, it seems our world hasn’t gotten any better or more peace by living this way, am I right?

    Finally, I believe the bible is true. Christ, is the only way. If the name of Christ, 2000 years later, still makes your cringe, check your pulse, because something has your heart beating..

  • Whose “Absolute Truth”?

    In my opinion, it seems our world hasn’t gotten any better or more peace by living this way, am I right?

    No, but I suppose it depends on what criteria you are using.

  • Richard Wade

    That is the result failing to believe in (oh should I dare say it?) Absolute truth. In my opinion, it seems our world hasn’t gotten any better or more peace by living this way, am I right?

    Finally, I believe the bible is true. Christ, is the only way. If the name of Christ, 2000 years later, still makes your cringe, check your pulse, because something has your heart beating..

    Yes, Zach I completely agree with you. 2000 years of the vast majority of people believing in absolute truth, and an enormous portion of those people believing in your favorite book and your favorite sage has definitely not gotten our world any better or more at peace.

    My heart is beating in the hope that people will free themselves from their destructive, bloodthirsty addiction to absolute truth, will stop slaughtering each other over miscellaneous differences in their absolute truths, will stop aggrandizing themselves with their prideful, vain and superior boasts of possessing absolute truth, and will finally become interested in HONESTY.

  • Zach,

    I place my trust in Jesus’ grandfather… The one who created YAHWEH. man.

    When I say “trust” I mean trust but verify. One can be optimistic and skeptical at the same time.

    (unlike religion where you have trust but verification is discouraged or outright impossible. Where you just follow leaders or blindly believe superstitious things written in old books).


  • no god in church

    A catholic from birth, I am just beginning to discover and embrace the reality that god and heaven and hell do not exist.

    Funny that this enlightenment has come from my employment at a church. I thought that working at a church would bring me closer in faith and that the charitable acts of the church could be personlly fulfilling, since I was helping make that happen.

    Well, just the opposite has happened. I have found the least amount of Christians at this particular church and found greed to be the great motivator. This church is corrupt and rediculous.

    In the meantime, I am admitting that I only believed in all this god stuff because I was told to believe. I just don’t believe anymore. And although it is difficult to un-brainwash myself, it feels kinda good.

  • Durgency

    As a kid I attended Sunday school with the neighbor’s kid, my best friend of the time. They were die-hard fundies and took The Bible literally. At age 8, I asked the mother about the origin of Cain’s wife, since, up to that point, all humans had come from Adam and Eve. She told me to never ask such questions, just believe. (This was the same woman that told me, 17 years later, that my compassionate, generous, honest-to-his-own-detriment, no-nonsense father, who just died of a brain tumor, was burning in Hell, because he never joined the Jesus club.) I remember asking her about Heaven. She told me that it is a beautiful place in the clouds where an enormous pyramid ascends to God Himself, sitting on the top. The more pious and sinless one is in life, the higher the level one gets to dwell upon in Heaven. When I asked what the people in Heaven do, she told me they continuously sing praises to and worship the almighty and nothing is more pleasurable to them; happiness and fulfillment for eternity.
    When I was eleven, I asked her why God had genitalia, which was nothing more than a biological component for reproduction, something he would not need. She was confused by the question. I explained that God was always refereed to as a “he”, which denotes gender, something that mortals are very familiar with, but for immortals should be unnecessary. She gave me the catch-all phrase that I have heard for decades since, “God works in strange and mysterious ways.” That kick-started my Gnosticism.
    Sorry fundies. The celestial carrot and infernal stick might work on the sheeple, but your intellectual superiors can spot the contradictions and hypocrisy as young children. There are those of us that are born with the BS radar and organised religion glows brightly.
    Now that I live in The South, I have discovered that what is “true” in The Bible is whatever the faithful person I am talking to believes personally and what is made up or added in, is anything they disagree with, personally. Yep, if you hate gays, Leviticus or Deuteronomy will support your bigotry, but that stuff about rich people making it into Heaven and the eye of the needle, well, some Jew just threw that in there because they were jealous.
    I actually saw a bumper sticker in Georgia that said, “Jesus was white, spoke English and voted Republican”. I thought God made us in his image, clearly it was the other way around.
    Google “Council of Nicaea” and read some Bart Ehrman, ignorant fools.
    P.S. I’m NOT an atheist, but have studied all major religions in detail. The goal is control.

  • Allan Pool

    Let’s hope heaven is not for real. We’re simply not made to exist in an environment without contrast. There has to be bad things happening to make the experience of good things possible. This video illustrates the point: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLEwr49YTDs

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