The top branches of the other trees of the forest now peeped through the clouds; they, too, were growing, lifting themselves up to the sky, toward the sun. Bushes and flowers followed; some of them had freed themselves from the earth and were flying…
“But where are the little blue flowers from the pond?” shouted the oak tree. “And the red harebell and the little primrose?” The old oak did not want anyone to be forgotten.
“We are here, we are here!” sang voices all around it.
“But the woodruff from last summer and all the lilies of the valley from the summer before that, where are they? I remember the year when the wild apples bloomed so beautifully. Oh, so much beauty do I recall through all the years of my life! If it only were all alive now and could be with us!”
“We are, we are,” came cries from somewhere higher up; they must have flown there earlier.
“That is the most marvelous of all,” rejoiced the old oak tree. “Everything that I have known is here. Nothing has been forgotten, not the tiniest flower or the smallest bird. How is such joy possible? Where is such happiness conceivable?”
“In heaven it is possible,” sang the voices.
And the tree felt its roots loosen their grasp on the earth.
— from “The Old Oak Tree’s Last Dream” by Hans Christian Andersen
Modern readers are bound to be surprised at the prominence of heaven in so many of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories. “The Little Match Girl” has a vision of being reunited with her grandmother in heaven, and this adds some hope to an otherwise harrowing story of a little girl slowly freezing to death. “The Dead Child” comforts his grieving mother before returning to God in heaven. “The Little Mermaid” wants to become a human because she is in love with a prince, but most of all so she can have an immortal soul and spend eternity with God.
Modern Christians are clearly embarrassed by the idea of eternal beatitude, but this was not the case for our ancestors. Saint Augustine and his dying mother famously speculated on the joys of heaven. Pascal in Pensee 427 expresses astonishment that anyone could fail to find our fate after death the most important of topics. In contrast, the 20th century’s best-known apologetic work, C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, mostly confines discussion of heaven to a small chapter near the end on the virtue of hope. Lewis’ understanding of the desire for heaven is based on a rare sort of aesthetic experience, one I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced. Anglican theologian N. T. Wright wrote a book attacking the idea of heaven in popular piety. By the end of the 20th century, Christianity had returned to an Old Testament-style reticence about the afterlife.
Many atheists imagine that the promise of happiness after death is what attaches people to Christianity, that we put up with the metaphysics and the moral restrictions just so we can, as they would put it, cling to this absurd fantasy and avoid facing our mortality. In many cases, my own included, it’s quite the reverse. My continued existence after death is the one doctrine I can’t make myself really, viscerally believe. I accept it for the sake of the others, the doctrines about God, morality, and the sacraments that really recommend themselves to me. I certainly don’t look down on my ancestors for whom the hope of heaven was a natural part of their imaginative universe. I would not even scorn what are deemed vulgar visions of heaven, ones that mostly involved being reunited with lost family and friends. So many of our ancestors had to bury their own children.
In a sense, the atheists are right, and the Fathers of the Church would have agreed with them: this situation is bizarre. Of all the revealed truths one could downplay or discard, why turn against what should be the most attractive one?
Is it that modern people are materialists and can’t make sense of a “me” existing outside “my body”. A few of us may struggle with this, but for most, Cartesian dualism is alive and well. I know of many people, all self-consciously modern and scientific, who look forward to a day when the contents of men’s brains can be uploaded onto computers, and that by thus programming a computer to do a suitably convincing impression of his thoughts, a man will have in some meaningful sense have achieved immortality for himself. Now, to my way of thinking, anyone who believes this might as well start attending seances and rattling tables, but then I tend to be more anti-dualist than most moderns.
More interesting is why people don’t want to believe in heaven.
In times past, one powerful appeal in the idea of an afterlife was that if we just cease to exist when we die, then this life is absurd and meaningless. Today, I sense that more people have the reverse intuition, that a life after this one threatens to rob this one of its significance.
The acceptance of mortality–not only our own, but of everything we know–the realization that significance must be found in the face of impermanence, is the most forceful spiritual epiphany in the lives of many modern men. Such sentiments are quite common; one can find them in popular movies and television shows. Nor are they limited to atheists–and nor should they be, since there’s a great deal of truth in them. Robert Spaemann, who has recently done good work for orthodox Catholicism battling the Kasperite heresy, expresses the insight well in his book Persons (which I reviewed here).
“Significance” is meaning “toughened” by he consciousness of finitude–by which is understood that it asserts itself in the face of death, and is thus emancipated from time. To enjoy the company of a friend oer an evening meal with a glass of wine in the midst of beautiful scenery satisfies a number of elementary needs; entertainment for the eyes and palate, the presence of a trusted companion, the free flow of thought. The meaning of what satisfies needs is, the first instance, relative to those needs and therefore radically contingent. Now let us assume that this is a farewell meal in the expectation of death. Life has come to an end, and with it all that makes such an occasion meaningful. Soon everything will be as though it never was, and no memory will endure. One could say that the whole thing hardly repays the effort…
But an alternative response is possible. A different feeling might surface in the course of that last encounter, a sense of preciousness that lifts the occasion out of its contingency: “It is good so!” Such a feeling would not be threatened by the imminent end of life and the the meanings that derive from life, but would actually be awakened by it. “It is good so!” does not mean “It is good for me now, but the good will disappear when I do.” It means, “It is, and will remain, good that this fleeting moment occurred and that its significance is unveiled.” Meaning, together with the feeling it engenders, is pulled out of the contingent and relocated in the timelessness of significance…
From the point of view of vital meaning, it is absurd if someone loses his own life in a fruitless attempt to save someone else’s. The failure of the action robs it of the positive value it might have had as serving someone’s good. In the event nobody’s interest was serve. If we celebrate this deed all the same and honour its memory, that is because there is significance in the very fact that it occurred. It was a fine deed, once such as serves to justify the world. It will always be good that it occurred. The leap from vital meaning to significance corresponds to the leap from present tense to future perfect…
With the anticipation of death the whole of life is shifted into the timeless dimension of the future perfect tense…Persons exist by having their lives as a significant, and therefore precious, possession. Anticipation of the end penetrates life to its innermost core. It confers on us an experience of the significance of things which the “bad infinite” of temporal immortality would shatter, since if nothing were precious, nothing could be significant. If anything done once could be repeated endlessly, indefinite anticipation would suffocate every human relation from the word go, for our relations are those of finite beings. There could be no promising “forever”; there could be no promising at all, in fact, to engage our whole existence and bring our freedom to its height, if “forever” did not mean “till death”. Anticipating death puts us in the position to relate to our lives as a whole, the position in which we have our life. And that is how persons exist.
Even Christians feel we must distinguish the object of our hope from “temporal immortality”, meaning our ideas of heaven and hell must be very different from continued life in an ordinary sense, from an infinite sequence of post-life events. I admit that I find the Mormon idea of perpetual marriage more appealing than the orthodox Christian idea of family life limited to this life, if that means limiting it to an infinitesimal part of our whole existence. How can this not diminish its importance? (I don’t think I need to be embarrassed by this preference. C. S. Lewis himself, in his essay “Is Theology Poetry”, admitted that judged purely as mythology, he preferred Greek, Irish, and Norse myths to Christianity. Truth is, of course, another matter.)
This worry can be answered by recovering older generations’ sense of the afterlife. I was surprised when reading Dante’s Comedy that the souls blessed, damned, and in Purgatory were all still passionately interested in events on Earth. I had expected Star Trek-style eye rolling from the shades over us silly mortals with our trivial disputes and our trivial concerns. I had, in other words, expected the view from the next life to trivialize this one, but Dante never imagined such a thing. The Christian agrees that we only have one life. Heaven or hell is not another life, but the ultimate significance of this single life revealed and made definite. Thus, in my own apologetic work, I emphasize the doctrine of a final judgment, which provides a resolution, and hence a new level of intelligibility, to each life story.
In fact, there is another powerful intuition which supports orthodoxy and has nothing to do with wish fulfillment. We all strongly sense that a man’s spiritual state at death is a matter of utmost importance, in some ways even more important than the spiritual state he carried through most of his life. A wicked man who repents at the end transforms his whole life into a redemption story; a good man who goes bad at the end makes his whole life absurd. For a generally good man with one great sin unrepented and unconfessed, it makes all the difference that he confronts this last fault before the end. Interestingly, I don’t believe this as a deduction of my faith in a judgment followed by heaven or hell. The belief seems entirely primitive and serves rather to render the doctrines of judgment and the rest more plausible.
Men also prefer extinction for darker reasons. For all our boasting about the glories of man, we don’t really like our species that much. You have perhaps heard of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. This group believes that the humans should stop reproducing so that our species eventually ceases to exist. Why get rid of humanity? Because we’re bad for the environment and other species of animals, mainly. This is an extreme form of a common sentiment. Modernity preached that man is free to create himself by his sovereign will, unimpeded by any normative human nature. Thus the world was divided for the first time into a world of nature on the one hand, and a world of human artifice on the other, with we ourselves being the most artificial of all things in our artificial world. Emancipating ourselves from nature was supposed to elevate us. In fact, a being without a nature is not a god, but a monster. The beauty of each kind of being comes from its nature. Now that each of us is a monster whose very flesh is just raw material for his unguided will, it’s hard to like humanity very much or take any pleasure at the thought of its continued existence.
One day, I was thinking about the triumph of our enemies, the gay marriage advocates. Could it be that they have succeeded in permanently abolishing the significance of biological sex? Then a thought popped into my head, “Someday, the human race will be extinct, and what people believed won’t matter anymore. It will be as if we never existed.” Then a strange sense of peace came over me. I do believe in human nature, but the thought that of us permanently ordering our civilizations in defiance of it makes humanity hateful to me. I can’t help feeling that the world would indeed be be better without unnatural beings.
This may be the other reason modern men prefer not to believe in an afterlife, not even a pleasant one. A part of us likes the idea of humanity ceasing to exist altogether. The only cure to this is a recovery of the sense of humans as natural beings–and thus good and beautiful–or of heaven as the place of our ultimate reconciliation with nature.