I have neither the right nor the intention of disparaging anyone else’s belief systems, but when I think about it, which I confess is not often, I cannot get my head anywhere near around the concept of “The Afterlife.”
(Note: I don’t know why this is, but it is a virtual certainty that if a person holds an opinion that differs from another person’s opinion – they don’t even have to entirely differ; they can simply express insufficient agreement – then the person who holds that differing opinion will inevitably get mad at the other person and occasionally want to kill them.
I don’t entirely get that. Nobody gets upset if I say that my favorite color is orange and theirs is a different color. But in numerous arenas – and it doesn’t have to be ideological, it can be “I can’t stand tomatoes” or “I despised the ‘Hangover’ movies, even the first one” – holding a differing opinion can get you ostracized, attacked, and, if religion is involved, burned at the stake.
This “Note” is entirely self-serving, as I am asking you to restrain yourself from doing those things – especially the last one. Thank you.)
To me, the idea of Heaven is the ecclesiastical equivalent of
“I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.”
You want something from someone now – the price of a hamburger, their acquiescing acceptance of a terrible, horrible life, etc. – with the promise of repayment in the future that they, from a probability standpoint, are unlikely to receive.
And a lot of people buy into idea of Heaven, many of them smart people. So you know…(and I ask this sincerely and respectfully)… Why?
I am imagining a conversation between a “Christian Slave Owner” (not necessarily a Southern slaveholder; they had slaves in other places as well) and a recalcitrant “Converted Christian Slave”, which might go something like this.
CHRISTIAN SLAVE OWNER: Go to work.
CONVERTED CHRISTIAN SLAVE: I don’t want to.
C.C.S.: Why? I’m not talking back to God. I’m talking back to you.
God made you a slave and made me your benefactor.
My slave owner.
Point taken. But a beneficent slave owner. Look how I am allowing you to talk to me.
Now go to work!
You go to work!
Look here, Unpaid Underling. There is a “Divine System” at play here, a “Celestial Arrangement” not to be tampered with. You have seen how each animal fits into a…call it a “Circle of Life” – even though it is actually a “Circle of Death” but it is in place nonetheless – where every animal has an animal it eats and another animal that eats them? That’s how it works. Challenge that “Deistic Construct” and it falls entirely to pieces.
What’s that to me?
The analogy is staring you in the face, Man! We too are participants in a “Divine Arrangement.” I am the slave owner, and you are the slave.
I don’t care for it.
Irrelevant! Do you think the gazelle cares to be eaten by the lion?
Why would they? Still, you don’t see a gazelle going, “Oh, here comes a lion. Ah, well, that’s just the ‘Celestial Arrangement.’ I may as well just stand here and let him gobble me up.” They don’t do that. They run like crazy!
Yes, because gazelles are unaware of the magnificent reward that awaits them. But as a Converted Christian Slave, you are.
(SKEPTICAL) Oh yeah.
Do I sense doubts?
Is it still twenty lashes for “Doubts”?
At a minimum.
Then, no. But I do have questions. You’re allowed to ask questions, aren’t you?
As long as they do not impugn our long-established and deeply held beliefs.
And who determines if they do?
What a surprise. All right, I have one highly respectful question.
That is entirely acceptable.
But first, here’s what I understand, and you tell me if I’ve got it right.
I work for you. For nothing. You can do whatever you want with me – work me to death, punish me – often severely – for the tiniest infraction, split up my family by selling them off to other slave owners and, if you have the inclination, do stuff with my wife.
And it’s a one-way street, so to speak.
I can’t work you to death, punish you for infractions, split up your family or do anything with your wife.
Again, totally correct. And I’m being atypically generous by permitting you those thoughts.
One might wonder why I put up with this distinctly unbalanced situation, aside from the fact that you have the law on your side, which screamingly begs the question because the slave owners write the laws.
Have you been secretly educating yourself? Because you know that’s not permissible.
I was a lawyer in the other place. When this is over, I plan to write a book about my experiences called “So-and-So Years A Slave” – I’ll put the number in later. Anyway, you ask me to accept this one-sided situation without complaint because – correct me if I am mistaken – after I’m dead…which if I say the wrong thing here could be almost immediately…there’s this “Afterlife” – which to the pre-Christian “me” is already a contradiction in terms – ”After…life” – there’s a place you call “Heaven” where I will receive my just and eternal reward.
Gold star! You have the entire concept down perfectly.
And because of this “Heaven” – my eternal reward being well worth the crap I am required to take for a comparatively short period of time – it behooves me to know my place here on earth and to remain contentedly in it.
Which leads me to my question.
What if there’s no Heaven?
Well, there’s the problem, you see. If you question the existence of Heaven, you will be forever banned from experiencing it.
You mean, if it exists but you don’t believe it exists, you can never go to Heaven?
You can recant on your deathbed, but otherwise, no.
So I can’t even have doubts.
You can have doubts. But why would you want to? Suppose I concede that slavery is no fun. What you are then left with are two choices – you can endure your discomforts in the full and liberating knowledge that the bounties of eternity are waiting for you, or you can endure the discomforts of slavery and then die.
But what if the whole thing’s a big fairy tale deliberately concocted to keep me from rising up?
Forget about “rising up.” We have all the guns, and you don’t even have shoes. Your only choice here concerns how you decide to feel about your horrible existence – will you experience it as meaningless torture, or as meaningless torture where the books are magnificently balanced in the “Great Beyond.”
Okay. I will toil in your fields. And sing catchy spirituals while I do. But there is one thing you will never know.
You will never know if I am singing them ironically. Hah!
I believe I can live with that. Now sir, I have one question for you.
Shoot! Though not in the literal sense.
Were you just stalling right now, so you wouldn’t have to go to work?
Why, Master! Heaven forbid!
AS THEY HEAD OUT TO THE FIELDS.
CONVERTED CHRISTIAN SLAVE: You actually believe this is okay, don’t you?
CHRISTIAN SLAVE OWNER: “This is God’s Plan. God’s Plan is perfect. This plan is perfect.”
CONVERTED CHRISTIAN SLAVE: Wow, that almost persuaded me. No wait. It didn’t.