Our imagination always seems to be somewhat lacking when we try to describe what heaven would be like. We’re probably embarrassed to say the things we’d like to see in heaven: sex, booze, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, NASCAR accidents... basically everything that would get you kicked out of heaven in the first place. Muslims are less abashed about attributing their unseemly desires to paradise; what, with their seventy-two virgins, and all (or seventy-two white raisins, depending on which translator you trust). But we are talking about the rest of eternity here, and even race car wrecks and raisins can get boring after a while.
On the other hand, we have less trouble imagining eternal damnation, I think. Try it yourself: is there anything so great that it would keep you happy and entertained for even a couple hundred years, and never get boring? Conversely, can you imagine a pain and sorrow that lasts just as long? Even the great Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch seemed to be at his best when depicting, not the rewards of heaven, but the torments of hell.
Perhaps this is just human nature: an irremediably morbid curiosity.
For instance, I’ve read that early Christian author Tertullian imagined heaven as a place where you watch, and apparently take delight in, the sufferings of those who went to hell. A sort of celestial Circus Maximus, you might say. I guess this sort of rubbernecking was popular back in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. But I wonder if Tertullian considered what it would be like if one of his loved ones didn’t make the cut. Would it still be heaven if you had to watch your own mother raked over the coals for all eternity?
I’m quite sure many, perhaps most, Christians would deny that. Their idea of heaven is nothing like Tertullian’s. Heaven’s a happy place, full of bliss. Even if we do have difficulty imagining eternal bliss. But, again, what if a loved one went to the “bad place”? Would you be aware of their absence from heaven? Wouldn’t that put a damper on things?
Wouldn’t God be contractually obligated to include your evil loved ones in on the fun, if only for your sake? “Eric,” he might say to me, “I was this close to throwing you into the lake of fire, but your mother just couldn’t stand the idea of you getting hurt... I don’t know what she sees in you. You should get on your knees and thank Me that you have such a nice woman on your side.” Or, perhaps, he could send me to hell anyway, and make a doppleganger of me to trick my mom: “Son, you don’t seem yourself today... why, you haven’t even touched your manna.”
When British philosopher (and atheist) Bertrand Russell was asked what he would say if, after he died, he actually met God, and God asked why Russell was not a believer? Russell said, “Oh God, you did not give enough evidence.” Presumably God made Russell, which implies that God also made him to be of a skeptical nature. If that’s true, who’s really at fault for Russell not believing?
I’ve been told that God doesn’t send us to hell, we send ourselves to hell. And the most important step in not sending ourselves to hell is to have faith in God. But the faith must be offered here and now; it doesn’t count if you find out for sure after you die. Why is that? Why couldn’t this loving creator of the universe simply give us a stern talking-to after we die and then let us into the pearly gates or, if not that, send us back to Earth and give us a Mulligan? Why should eternal torture be the punishment for being a skeptic?