Most Americans agree that yes, everybody goes to heaven after they die. Not buying it? The part about most Americans agreeing that everybody goes to heaven? Here’s the empirical evidence. A few months ago, a study conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (mentioned by Charles Blow in a New York Times editorial) showed that 70 percent of Americans believe religions other than theirs could lead to eternal life.
So it’s true, 70% of Americans agree–everybody goes to heaven.
Still not buying the poll data? Evangelicals didn’t buy it, because they argued that the respondents had obviously not understood the question. After all, Jesus clearly states in the gospel of John, “I am the way, the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” In other words, there’s a segregationist sign posted over the only gate into heaven. It says: Christians only. To believe otherwise is a heresy called universalism.
So Pew decided to ask the question again. The results, released in December 2008, confirmed their initial findings. Sixty-five percent said that yes, other religions could lead to eternal life. Just to make sure no one was confused, Pew also asked its respondents to specify which religion(s) could lead to eternal life. The sixty-five percent yes-sayers threw open heaven’s gate to pretty much every religion. Fifty percent even said atheists would pass muster, and people with no religious faith, too. How’s that for generous? So tear down that sign, Mr. Evangelical.
Okay, so the majority of 21st century Americans agree that almost everyone goes heaven after they die.
But if God doesn’t hold us accountable in the afterlife, is it okay to set aside meaningful discussions about moral requirements in this life?
That’s not a rhetorical question, since polls show that religious Americans, whether affiliated with a specific faith tradition or not, whether liberal or conservative, are shearing moral requirements from their theologies (see Post #23 for more on this topic).
The mystic and universalist, Julian of Norwich, offers an intriguing answer to balancing a belief in an all-loving God with the impulse to make people accountable in the afterlife for the harm they’ve caused in this life. Julian, a woman who sought God actively, was rewarded in 1373, when she was a little over thirty years old, by several mystical experiences that she called showings.
Try as she might to find the Church’s ‘fatherly,’ angry, and punishing God, she found only a God who “is the goodness that cannot be angry, for he is nothing but goodness.” The fact that any of us exists, Julian reasoned, is proof that God isn’t an a punishing God. Since everyone commits sins of commission or omission, if God could become angry, we’d all be gonners. According to Julian, human beings, not God, are the ones who judge whether a deed is well done or is evil. As far as God is concerned, even our “lowest deed is done as well as the best”. And since God is nothing but goodness, Julian concluded that we’re all heaven-bound.
How does she balance a loving God with moral requirements? Julian handles this difficult theological quandary by finding a sneaky way to introduce a system of reward. Based on her showings, she identifies a sliding scale of heavenly bliss. The first and lowest degree of bliss in heaven is God’s gratitude for our service, a gratitude that is “so exalted and so glorious that it would seem to fill the soul.” The second degree of bliss in heaven indulges our pride because God makes a public announcement to all the souls in heaven, praising our good deeds. The third degree of bliss is a pleasure that remains forever “as new and delightful” as it did when we first felt it.
To assign the appropriate degree of bliss, God uses a formula mostly based on time and length of service. The formula favors those who “willingly and freely offered their youth”, as well as those who, even for one day, served “with the wish to serve forever.”
According to Julian then, everybody goes to heaven, everybody gets bliss, but depending on our deeds, we are eligible for one of three degrees of bliss. Her God is perched on the narrow edge of that judge’s bench in the sky but hasn’t been shoved off altogether. This all-about-love-God, to whom Julian prayed, sits in minimal judgment of us.
Like her, many religious Americans are quite sure that any God worthy of the name loves us and is too good to condemn us. The mercy-justice issue may continue to trouble us in spite of a creative solution like Julian’s. Is a three-bliss kind of God really the kind of God we want?
Because if we all end up blissed-out in heaven, is God just?
If God grants first-degree (or second or third-degree) bliss to the daughter who routinely calms her work-rage by pummeling her frail, elderly father, is that God just? Is that God fair?
If God grants bliss to the single mother who turns a blind eye while her boyfriend sexually assaults her ten-year old daughter, is that God just? Is that God fair?
But why dwell on this issue at all? Must we insist that God be fair when it comes to putting out the welcome mat at heaven’s door? No. We need not insist that God be fair.
Maybe Julian’s right and we get assigned one of three degrees of bliss. Right or not, we can agree with her conviction that “the more the loving soul sees…generosity in God, the gladder” we will be to serve God all of our days. Simply put: belief in a loving God leads us to be more loving ourselves. And if belief in a loving God leads us to be more loving ourselves–what’s not to love about that?
References: Charles Blow, “Heaven for the Godless?” The New York Times online edition, 26 December 2008; Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love LT, trans. Elizabeth Spearing (London: Penguin Books, 1998).