Atheists and the Afterlife

One of the great ironies of life is just how much atheists talk about heaven and hell – things they vehemently deny that even exist. Of course this is not so surprising, since atheists also spend inordinate amounts of time talking about and railing against God – whom they also insist does not exist.

They seem awfully obsessed with God and the afterlife. The more they deny the existence of both, the more they seem to make it clear that deep down they may be not all that sure. They will not admit to such doubts of course, but one keeps being reminded of the line from Shakespeare, which I paraphrase, ‘The atheist doth protest too much, methinks’.

heaven-hellBut as long as they keep rambling on about God and the next world, I guess I am entitled to do the same, especially since I happen to believe in both. So let me simply mention what one rather representative atheist said to me recently on another post.

It was a discussion of how some Christians understand hell, and he wrote in with this comment: “Give me hell any day. At least the company will be better. An eternity spent in the presence of a bunch of self-righteous Christians is my idea of hell.”

This is an oft-heard statement from our atheist buddies. It is rather common, and is hardly a new way of thinking of course; we had similar thoughts expressed 400 years ago in Milton’s Paradise Lost where Satan says, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven”.

My reply to this fellow was this:

Thanks, but as atheist Jean-Paul Sartre observed, “Hell is other people”. The essence of sin is selfishness and total self-obsession. So hell will be populated not by pals and buddies enjoying each other’s company, but by angry, self-centred people who will hate each other. Not a good place to be.
And of course you misunderstand heaven as well. It is filled with sinners who knew full well that they had no righteousness of their own, and cast themselves on God’s great mercy, receiving the righteousness of Christ in the transaction. So there will not be one self-righteous person in heaven. They will all be in hell.

Let me tease this out a bit more. Sin as I say is all about self. Love, community, fellowship and comradery – the sorts of things we will find in heaven – are of course the opposite of selfishness and self-centredness. Giving, caring, loving and serving others, focusing outwardly instead of on self: these are the things of great relationships on earth, and the stuff of heaven.

But looking out for number one, insisting on your own rights, seeing others as a threat to self – these are the things of social discord and friction on earth, and the sum and substance of hell. So there will be no neat party scenes in hell with rebels celebrating together.

Instead it will be every man for himself, with everyone at each other’s throats. It will be a hellish experience indeed. Heaven of course will be the exact opposite. Sacrificial love characterises the work of Christ on earth, making real loving fellowship possible. That will be in good part what heaven is all about. Heaven really is other people.

As to self-righteousness, well, we know what Jesus thought about this. His main subjects of criticism were the Scribes and Pharisees, and the main thing he so often blasted was their self-righteousness. For Jesus, self-righteousness was the very opposite of what the Kingdom of God is all about.

So he constantly sided against it, reserving some of his strongest denunciations for it. Now there can of course be professing Christians who exhibit unlovely and unwanted self-righteousness. Some of these are merely nominal Christians.

But genuine disciples of Christ can of course display this as well, sadly. They are on a journey, seeking to become like Christ, and are hopefully moving away from self-righteousness in any form. So we can apologise ahead of time for such un-Christlike behaviour.

But we must remind the non-Christian that ultimately it is Christ they must look to. Christians can and will disappoint, although this is not meant to be a copout. When we sin – in terms of self-righteousness or anything else – it is wrong, and we must repent and move on.

At the end of the day, the atheist cannot use less than perfect Christians as an excuse for his rebellion and refusal to bow the knee to his Creator. Yes, believers must do all they can so that such excuses become less and less, but at the end of the day, those who reject God will not get off the hook because of the sometimes poor representation of Christianity by Christians.

It is God whom they are fully responsible to, and it is not the shortcomings of Christians that God will hold us to account, but to his own perfection and righteousness. We will all be judged by the standard of perfection – by God himself.

Since therefore atheists are thinking and talking so much about God and heaven and hell, at least think and talk in the proper and biblical way. A few quotes – as always – from C. S. Lewis will help round off this discussion. The first comes from The Problem of Pain:

“To enter heaven is to become more human than you ever succeeded in being on earth; to enter hell, is to be banished from humanity.”

And these two are taken from The Great Divorce:

“Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouth for food, or their eyes to see.”

“Son, he said, ye cannot in your present state understand eternity…That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say ‘Let me have but this and I’ll take the consequences’: little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why…the Blessed will say ‘We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,’ and the Lost, ‘We were always in Hell.’ And both will speak truly’.”

[1138 words]

12 Replies to “Atheists and the Afterlife”

  1. Hi Bill,
    With your broad reading you are likely qualified to answer a related point to your quote “So hell will be populated not by pals and buddies enjoying each other’s company”.

    We know that when a person dies their body stays in the grave.
    We also know from scripture that there will be a resurrection of the just and the unjust.
    We know from 1st Corinthians 15:44 that the justified get a new body.

    Do you think the unrighteous will have a body at all? I know the rich man in Jesus’ parable had a tongue but that was a parable.

    It seems that not having a body would somewhat put a dampener on people’s expectation of revelry in hell and it seems to be a possibility to me.

  2. Thanks Andrew. Various texts suggest a bodily resurrection of both the good and the evil, such as:

    John 5:28-29 “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out — those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.

    Acts 24:14-15 However, I admit that I worship the God of our fathers as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that agrees with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, and I have the same hope in God as these men, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked.

    Matthew 10:28 “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

  3. Not sure if the unbeliever will possess a body whilst in Hell – Certainly the believer will – Indeed a ‘Perfect Body’ – In fact even better than the Lord Jesus Christ himself (He will forever bear the scars from the cross) – Maybe one of the eternal punishments that Hell will afford, will be people (souls) without a carnal body with which to expiate the lusts and desires… who knows?

  4. I think Heaven is a place where the glory of God will be so overwhelming that we will not think of anything or anyone in a regretful or negative way ever. So we will not mourn over the prodigals.
    I believe that the presence of God in this world allows us to enjoy life – and even its trespasses to some measure. So hell is a place where God is absent, and every form of evil will be completely lacking any enjoyment or pleasure.
    God so respects us that He gives us what we want, and we spend eternity with our Lord. For some their Lord is Satan – and they get to spend eternity with Satan. If they enjoy lust – they will lust, but it will be totally devoid of any pleasure, so that it eats away at the soul.
    On earth we already see the dynamics of evil, but the influence of God’s Spirit has not allowed total 100% evil to exist yet on earth. One day He who restrains will be removed from the earth.
    The promise that the believer will one day stand faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy is beyond our appreciation. The glimpses of happiness in this life are just glimpses.
    What a glorious hope we have!

  5. I guess the atheist would say he is just speaking in jest, but it almost sounds like the atheist is trying to convince himself that he will be happy in hell. Maybe in a private moment they will admit to themselves that even the possibility of heaven is worth the risk of being open to and trying to get to know and love God. Revelation 21 sure sounds pretty good to me –

  6. Some “Christians” also say some incredibly strange things !
    In all innocence, I chose a library book by someone called Francis Spufford. —- Well !#**! — If I’d bought it I’d have burned it but I suppose I’ll have to return it to the library as it isn’t mine .
    This poor man is utterly deluded and in need of prayer in my view. I only read a little of the book as it was really just rubbish , not in the least edifying or enlightening. Sadly, it might deceive an honest searcher — Heaven forbid !

  7. Bill and Andrew, I have never read that passage in Luke 16:19-31 as parable. Jesus spoke in parables to hide the meaning behind what he was saying except to those who followed HIm.

    ““Why do You speak to them in parables?”

    11 He answered and said to them, “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. 13 Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 14 And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says:

    ‘Hearing you will hear and shall not understand,
    And seeing you will see and not perceive;”

    The meaning of Luke 16:19-31 would seem to be quite obvious, even to a non-believer. There isn’t any allegory to it; it is literal. Therefore I think it is quite reasonable to allow that the unrighteous will have a body.

  8. Hi Bill
    I’m reminded of the comedian Tim Hawkins who was musing on the types of hymns atheists sing in their churches.
    To the tune of “Shout to the Lord” he had:
    Shout to the void all the earth let us sing,
    Power and majesty, praise to nothing.

  9. Anna, that’s probably why it was in the library. If it was any good, it would have offended someone, and been withdrawn.

    Vic Trudeau +1 🙂

  10. The Bible mentions two places that are translated as “Hell” – Gehenna and Hades (Hebrew Sheole). Gehenna is the fire of the rubbish heap and is called “the second death” and Hades is literally being cut off from the light (I.e God, life, knowledge etc.). In Revelation 20, Hades gives up the dead (the bodily resurrection you mentioned) who are then condemned by their own works (in other scriptures by their own words) and are cast into the fire (the second death) then, interestingly, Hades itself is cast into the fire of Gehenna. It is clear that the devil will be tormented eternally in Gehenna but other scriptures suggest that for at least some humans, Gehenna may just destroy their soul (Eg. Mat 10:28 as you quoted). The term Tartaros or the deepest level of Hades as used in 2 Pet 2:4, shows that Hades has different levels.

    However you interpret the place Hell, I pray to God that none of us has to visit there and this, of course, is the promise of the Holy Spirit – we do not have to.

  11. Right on message Bill – I, like you find it funny unbelievers blame God for all their woes and those of the world – strange logic eh? They would certainly be a miserable lot “down below” – no sense of humour – plenty of laughter and joy “upstairs” I believe and Bill I’m sure there will be a good bottle of Red to welcome you as Christ shared red wine with his friends at the Last Supper and chose to use it as a symbol for His Body Blood which would be given up for us – when we Catholics go to Communion we really believe that at the consecration the wine offered truly becomes the blood of our Risen Lord so I’m sure there will be plenty of changing water into wine in Heaven. God love you always and may you have a very Happy and Holy Christmas. Patti

  12. A sobering, but much needed, article and comments section.

    One thing I did want to point out, related to Rob Merrells’ comment, is that the presence of Christ will be in hell. 2 Passages from 2 Thessalonians and Revelation 14:

    We are bound to thank God always for you, brethren, as it is fitting, because your faith grows exceedingly, and the love of every one of you all abounds toward each other, so that we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your patience and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations that you endure, which is manifest evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you also suffer; since it is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe,because our testimony among you was believed.

    Then a third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives his mark on his forehead or on his hand, he himself shall also drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out full strength into the cup of His indignation. He shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.”

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