At the philosophy gathering I attended on Friday, one person told of a Quaker pastor she knows who preaches that everyone will go to heaven. We had an interesting discussion around the question, If that were true, would we have any reason to be good?
My opinion is that we would.
To see why, let’s start by considering this life only. Pretend there is no heaven at all.
I’ve already written about why someone who doesn’t believe in any afterlife at all could care about right and wrong and want to do right. The post was Why Care About Right and Wrong? and I can summarize it in one sentence: This life generally goes better if we do the right thing.
It’s one of the wondrous byproducts of my favorite twin concepts, evolution and emergence. Our genes, in their ever-selfish quest for replication, long ago stumbled upon the strategy of motivating their hosts (that’s us) to cooperate with other hosts that have the same genes (that’s not only our children but to some extent everyone we know). Over time, the selection pressures of evolution have locked us into this niche of intelligence and cooperation. Thus emerges evolution’s counter-intuitive result: altruism. We aren’t physically dangerous enough to survive any other way. If we were rattlesnakes, things would be different but we happen to have evolved into a niche of cooperation.
Success in this niche is most certain for those who consistently cooperate, for that makes other people trust you, which redounds to your benefit when you need it most.
Being trustworthy in treating others as you would want them to treat you is the foundation for all morality and ethics. So there you have it. Whether there’s a heaven or not, and whether it’s for everyone or not, the evolutionary pressures of this life have molded most of us into beings who want to be good (most of the time, anyway).
And then there’s the matter of living with ourselves. Most of us look in the mirror at least once a day and we want to like what we see. I wrote about this in Life as Art.
If none of this convinces you, then I ask you to peer into your own soul. Is it really true that you do good only because you want to be rewarded in heaven or avoid God’s punishment? Is it really true that you don’t care about the Good for its own sake? I believe better of you. I hope you believe better of yourself.
I hope I’ve succeeded in making the case that we have reason to be good if there is no heaven. What about if there is heaven in everyone’s future?
Let’s do a thought-experiment. Suppose that instead of treading this vale of tears for threescore and ten and then passing on to our eternal rest, it worked in the opposite order. Suppose we were living in heaven since eternity past and were birthed into this life as our final stage before we fizzle into nothingness. Wouldn’t every argument I made above still apply?
So what difference does it make if heaven is in the future or the past? It is still the same totality of life, is it not? Whatever diabolical calculation our putative villain could make would turn out the same. A million plus one is the same as one plus a million. If the bad man wants to mess up the “one” part of the sum, then his total Machiavellian calculation will turn out the same either way.
This has been fun to think about, but I admit it’s irrelevant. If one day I arrive in heaven (which I don’t expect) and find that Adolph Hitler himself got there first, I will not be upset. Would you? Really?