Do We Prefer Heaven to Hell?

Heaven might be defined as the place which men avoid.
- Thoreau

I had the amusing thought that the various visions of Heaven which I have come across have one thing in common. They are simultaneously less attractive and less interesting than a Club Mediterranee holiday! While descriptions of Hell are horrific alright, Heaven seems boring in a refined sort of way. Why is this so?

Heavenly notions

The ancient Greeks had the myth of Elysium and of the Islands of the Blest. Here is a composite picture from Hesiod and Pindar:
They lived like gods with a spirit free from care, far from toils and grief; neither did vile old age come upon them, but with unwithering limbs they rejoiced in festivity, away from all evils, and died as though subdued by sleep... Everywhere are girls dancing and the noise of lyres and the shrill whirlings of flutes; with their hair bound with golden bay they feast on joyfulness... Blissful heroes, for whom the life-giving earth thrice yearly bears its rich honey-sweet fruit... Where breezes from Okeanos blow around the Isles of the Blest, and golden flowers blaze out, some on land from glorious trees, others nurtured by the water.

Seeing that Heaven is the ultimate reward of the faithful and that Christians are exhorted to place more importance on life eternal than on earthly existence, one would expect that some explanation of what they could look forward to would be found. Using an index, I scoured the Bible for a description of Heaven. Though the Bible contains hundreds of references to Heaven, that is all most of them are. The only description I managed to locate is in Revelation, where there is a brief portrayal of the Heavenly Jerusalem. The city has jasper outer walls, with pearls for gates; its streets are of gold. The glory of God shines on all. The tree of life bears twelve fruits and its leaves heal. "They shall be His people, and God Himself will be with them and shall wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death shall be no longer, nor mourning, nor crying, nor any further pain." In Heaven, the faithful "seek glory, honour and immortality." Hardly rousing stuff.

Heaven is described as follows in the Koran. Men grace in the sight of Allah, whom they praise day and night unflaggingly. They recline on cushions or jewelled couches among fountains and streams of wine, milk and honey. High-bosomed, dark-eyed, bashful virgins attend to them. Mansions, fruit, non-intoxicating wine, gold cups and dishes, carpets, gold bracelets, and garments of fine green silk complete the picture.

As the above version exemplifies, Heaven is usually presented as a place where people dwell in luxury and idle comfort. Apart from these superficial things, little is offered the faithful believer, whether Buddhist, Christian or Moslem. Surely praising God and floating among clouds would become wearisome after the novelty of the first few days wore off. And Heaven is for keeps! Unlike in Hell, where one can always dread newer and more fiendish tortures, nothing seems to happen in Heaven. It is a place of static perfection. In fact the only event that occurred in the Christian Heaven was the rebellion and subsequent expulsion of Lucifer. The Devil was necessary to inject some interest.

The problem with the conventional idea of Heaven is that it is a place of passive enjoyment. I think a little reflection indicates that whether in love, friendship, sex, artistic or other creativity, sports, games, or work, the greatest joys of life (with admittedly a few exceptions) are experienced when we are actively involved in something, rather than passively soaking up pleasure. Perhaps the reader would like to think what their idea of Heaven is before reading my version at the end of this article.

Despite the ostensible attractiveness of the subject, the human imagination has been little exercised in constructing Heavens. Somehow the subject is not one that excites people's interest. In addition, many seem to be shy about constructing a wish-fulfilment scenario, probably because it seems self-indulgent. The ascetic wins our respect, whereas the epicure is suspect. I am tempted to say we subconsciously associate pleasure - or at least pleasure in large doses - with sin. Moreover, while it is easy to visualize the tortures and sufferings of Hell, pleasure and ecstasy are not so tangible. More fundamentally, I think that the impoverished nature of the Heavens invented by mankind indicates a basic human feature: how limited is our imagination.


By contrast with the nebulous portrayals of Heaven, visions of Hell are richly imagined and certainly no laughing matter. It is sufficient to compare a Bosch painting with one showing God among his angels to appreciate the sharpness of the contrast. (Though in fairness to the genius of Bosch, his vision of Heaven is also wonderfully imaginative.) Perhaps Heaven is more attractive if it remains vague, allowing each person to imagine that whatever they could want will be there waiting for them, without having to pin themselves down in any way.

Emotional asymmetry

How to account for this disparity between visions of Heaven and Hell? I think that the human mind is more drawn to the macabre, the tragic and the brutal aspects of existence than it is to their opposites. This is clearly seen in tabloid newspapers, which cater to our appetite for spectacular disasters, fear-mongering and tales of woe. "Mum watches daughter fall to death" is a headline that catches our interest. "Dad comes home to warm welcome of son" does not. We are not interested in knowing that ten million passengers arrived safely at their destinations. Instead, we want to hear about the fellow who fell under a train. When we drive past the scene of a road accident, our curiosity is powerfully drawn to the view, even though we are simultaneously repelled by the sight of injured or dead people.

Bad relationships are interesting, good ones are not. This is because conflict is essential to arouse our interest. The need to create conflict is the first rule of writing drama. One of the worst curses that one Jew could lay on another was, "May you live in interesting times." A person's faults are interesting in a way that their virtues are not. Agreement anaesthetises us, disputation fires us up. People tend to write letters to the editor when they violently disagree with something that was printed. I have contributed some fifty pages of writing to a particular newsletter. Rarely has anyone wanted to discuss a question raised by one of my articles. The spectacular exception was a mildly sexist joke I once included as a filler. This set off a storm of hostile reactions greater than anything provoked by all of my writing put together. Sad but true. I have also noticed that people more easily identify themselves as being against something they hate than in favour of something they like.

I have observed on many occasions, both in myself and others, the way the mind constructs 'worst case' scenarios. Thus if my partner is an hour late, I am prone to imagining that she has been killed in an accident, rather than that she went for a coffee with a friend, which is more probable. I refer to this activity of my mind as the "rat jumping into the sewer". Another example is when we notice a mole or cyst and immediately speculate that we may have cancer. It is amazing how active and imaginative are the minds of people - including those who claim to have 'no imagination' - at generating macabre scenarios. A related phenomenon is how virulently contagious fear is. When one person mentioned seeing a syringe lying on a beach, this was enough to stop a friend of mine from running on Bondi Beach. People who have never been to South America spread horrific tales of crime there. These stories, whether true or not, are passed on and create a skewed picture that intimidates would-be travellers. The easiest and most powerful way to generate excitement is through terror and fear.

Then there is the wider social context of negativity. I see the primary concern of Australian society as being a pre-occupation with security. In the Middle Ages people built great cathedrals that dwarfed all other buildings, now the insurance sky-scrapers dominate our city. The life of the middle-class person in an affluent society is ruled by an aspiration to security and stability. Accordingly, there is an ever greater emphasis on diminishing the remaining perceived sources of danger. New health and safety regulations are continually being brought in. Not to mention all the health scares that are the common coinage of journalism.

Another manifestation of the negative fixation of human thought is that most philosophers, whether secular or religious, have held that human nature is basically bad and needs to be redeemed by faith, discipline or submission. It is a measure of the greatness of Carl Rogers that he whole-heartedly rejected these notions and devised a psychotherapy based on the premise that every human being has an inbuilt and trustworthy tendency towards mental health.

Somehow, the high-points of life lack the sharpness of experience that we undergo in our lows. Success is never as uplifting as failure can be crushing. Or even if it is, the feeling of elation soon passes. (A female friend informed me that childbirth is an exception to this; I don't know.) A Chinese proverb expresses the imbalance more lyrically, "Happiness is like a sunbeam, which the least shadow intercepts, while adversity is often as the rain of spring." The poignant charm of failure and non-attainment (eg Romeo & Juliet) is not matched by our satisfaction at success. I once lost a piece of luggage and was deeply upset by its loss. Yet when I recovered it, my joy was disproportionately small. The same applies to longing for a beloved person over a period of weeks or months. When they return, the euphoria dissipates within hours or days. This is related to the psychological generalisation that things are most desired when they are absent. An Egyptian proverb observes, "Health is the crown on a well man's head that only the sick man can see."

On one occasion I caused my partner disappointment by tricking her into believing that I hadn't bought what she most wanted for her birthday, an amethyst cave. Her feeling of disappointment was spontaneous and acute. Later, when I surprised her by giving her the crystal, her pleasure at receiving it was much less sharp. Disappointment at a loss grows in our minds because we focus on it. By contrast, the joy at a gain tends to dissipate. The feeling of loss is an internal experience that is generated by our mind through repeated focus on the lack in question, whereas the gain is external and is not as easily magnified and re-experienced.

The philosopher Hegel believed that the master and his slave each possessed one half of freedom. One had the power to exercise it, the other had knowledge of its value.

Whereas annoying things niggle at us again and again, we get used to new comforts or luxuries quickly and soon forget about them. If we start to buy a tastier jam, we quickly become used to it. If we ever return to the inferior one, it is hard to be satisfied with it again.

A world-champion sports-person has nothing to look forward to except losing their crown. Chris Evert: "Billie Jean said ten or fifteen years ago that she hated to lose more than she loved to win. And you know, that's the truth. You hate to lose more than you love to win."

Janet Hawley wrote about Kerry Packer's love of gambling,

Packer hates losing and gets in a filthy mood when he does. But winning doesn't seem to provide him with more than momentary pleasure; he'll dispense large tips, then the boredom sets in as he looks for the next form of excitement.

Another aspect is that most of us tend to see the half glass that life presents us with as being half empty, rather than half full. In fact it is worse than that: in a situation that is 98% to our liking we tend to focus on the 2% that isn't. Ovid wrote, "There is no such thing as pure pleasure, some anxiety always goes with it." Like the princess with the pea, a hostess who cooks up a terrific meal for her guests will typically be preoccupied with the one detail that is not right. As a wise Ancient put it, "There is always one more ant in the kitchen." People on high incomes focus more on how much tax they pay than on how much they earn. If you compliment someone, they often brush it off, eg "I've had this for years" or "But it needs cutting" (referring to hair or hedge).

Though it may take tremendous ingenuity and lots of hard work to program a particular function into a computer program, it is unlikely the user will notice this effort. What is certain is that they'll notice if the program crashes in some unlikely circumstance the programmer has not catered for.

When I complained to a friend that he had failed to write to me for three months, he parried with, "Only the non-writing gets noticed!" Then there is what I call 'the banana peel syndrome', whereby we think that some awkward situation or bad luck only happens to us, not to others. Thus while waiting at the supermarket I think I always get into the slowest queue. What distorts my perceptions is that I remember the occasions when I queued up for a long time, not the times I slipped through quickly.

Daniel Kahneman sums things up nicely, "A single cockroach will completely wreck the appeal of a bowl of cherries, but a single cherry will do nothing at all for a bowl of cockroaches."

Creation vs destruction

There is more to it than the negative-seeking tendency of the human mind. It is also true, in an objective sense, that it is easier to destroy than to create. A work of art that takes years of painstaking labour can be obliterated in a split second. As one logger said to another about a redwood: "You stand proud and tall for a thousand years, then the next thing you know you are junk mail". To be destructive is extremely easy, as any small child demonstrates. To create is immeasurably harder. For example, the famous library at Alexandria was destroyed by a sudden fire. This imbalance is most obvious in warfare, where ever greater powers of destruction are developed, while methods of protection or armouring lag increasingly far behind. Millions of years of evolution could be obliterated by a sudden nuclear war. The imbalance between the positive and negative is also evident in the human body - it is easy to sprain an ankle or to break a bone, whereas the process of healing is always a slow one. In my experience, pleasure has never been as sharp as some of the physical pains I have felt.

Even the poorest person on earth is likely to have at least seven things, each worth more than ten million dollars. These are: eyesight, hearing, four limbs and a mind. Yet we take all these for granted and only value them when they are impaired or missing. The imbalance of positive versus negative is that whereas all seven of these precious gifts can be lost in the blink of an eye, comparable gains are not possible.

One writer suggests a scale of grading for human interactions, ranging from 1 to 100 for positive ones, and 1 to 1000 for negative interactions. The reason for the tenfold disparity is that negative interactions are potentially more powerful than positive ones: "People can yell and pound out their anger very loudly and powerfully, while love cannot be expressed so potently... no amount of love can equal the power of a death blow." In addition the survival instinct dictates that we respond to negative inputs with more immediacy and energy than to positive ones.

A single negative comment cancels ten compliments. Our minds focus on negative reactions, while down-playing positive ones. A negative comment is more hurtful than a positive one is uplifting for two reasons. Firstly because it is inherently stronger in most cases, and secondly because we are more sensitive to negatives, to what is wrong. In addition, we tend to think for some reason that criticism is more sincere than praise. Thus when a friend praised my photos from the Lakes District, but also observed that I had taken too many, the second comment completely overrode the positive one.

Saddam Hussein can be catapulted to world fame by brutally murdering people and by being, or appearing to be, a threat on a world scale. He cannot achieve similar renown through positive actions. Outside of religion, the most famous leaders in history, such as Napoleon, Alexander, Hitler, Caesar, Lenin were all either conquerors or enslavers of the human spirit.

In this context it is notable that the two greatest industries world-wide are respectively, the arms trade and the drug trade, both dedicated to the destruction of human beings. Politicians are always willing to spend big on "toys for the boys". Regardless of political hue, they are not similarly interested in helping the homeless and others most in need. Thus it could be argued that our species invests more energy in creating hell on earth than in doing the opposite.

Computer viruses - programs designed to remain hidden and to propagate themselves from one system to another while destroying the data on each computer - are an excellent illustration of the demonic dimension of the human mind. The computing industry is suffering considerable disruption, costing an estimated $1.9 billion world-wide, at the hands of people, who seem to have nothing to gain by writing virus programs and surreptitiously infiltrating them into unsuspecting sites. To make a computer virus requires considerable skill and creativity - what a waste of human resources! The phenomenon has spawned an industry no-one could have foreseen twenty years ago - the writing of anti-viral programs.

The disparity between the positive and the negative poles of experience is that sudden and irrevocable disasters (such as losing all the data on one's computer) can occur at any time, whereas great successes must be gradually attained with much effort. For example, it took five thousand years of history before the emergence of the first organisation labouring to preserve human rights irrespective of national boundaries. On the other hand, massacres and atrocities have dogged human history throughout the ages. Another obvious example is that whereas its attainment is infinitely harder, a fortune can easily be lost, as so many spectacular financial failures have shown. Life is like a railway system: long delays are possible, sudden arrivals are not.

Another example of asymmetry is that one can easily lose all one's chips at the casino - just place them all on a single number, and repeat if necessary. Winning a large amount is quite another matter. If one could gamble with one's losses, that would induce me to take up gambling!

Many jobs give little scope for showing excellence or creativity, yet no job is so simple that it cannot be messed up. Looking at human history it is hard to escape the pessimistic conclusion that even though genius is limited, idiocy has no bounds.

In our everyday experience we know that a single, thoughtlessly unkind remark has more staying power in our memory than does fulsome praise. Once said, a hurtful comment can never be unsaid, no matter how much the speaker may wish it. Likewise, it takes years to acquire a reputation or to build up someone's trust. Yet these can be lost in an instant. A chess-player may play brilliantly, each move strengthening their position, leading to apparently certain victory. Then just one small oversight and the results of hours of mental effort come crashing down, with no recourse possible. The same applies to walking a trail in the country: if you make a mistake early on in the walk then even if henceforth you consistently make the best possible choices, it is hard to correct for the original mistake. There are many other situations in which a single error made early is very difficult or impossible to correct for.

In the intellectual sphere any theory or belief can be pulled apart or reduced to absurdity by clever use of the intellect. It is virtually a defining characteristic of science that while a scientific theory can be disproved, it can never be proved. Whereas a program can be shown to have bugs it cannot be shown to be bug-free. A fool can ask many questions that no wise man can answer. In modern times the power of cynicism, scepticism and doubt seems greater than that of faith and trust.

It is hard to quibble with philosopher Thomas Nagel's view:

Even those who regard philosophy as real and important know that they are at a particular and, we may hope, early stage of its development, limited by their own primitive intellectual capacities, and relying on the partial insights of a few great figures of the past. As we judge their results to be mistaken in fundamental ways, so we must assume that even the best efforts of our time will come to seem blind eventually.

What do we want?

Apart from the negativity of our thinking, perhaps the vagueness of Heaven is explained by it being easier to know what we don't want - disease, pain, poverty, failure, rejection and so on - than what we do want.

What do we want, beyond our prosaic desires for material well-being, health, peaceful family life, success at work, and freedom from problems?

Every university student knows they don't want to fail in the exams, yet so many don't really know what they want to study or the right career for them. For many people it is hard to freely choose a life direction. Rather than just pursuing their inclinations and desires, many find that life takes over and presents problems to be solved.

I am reminded of the wisdom of HG Wells' question, "What on earth would a man do with himself if something did not stand in his way?"

AC Benson enlarges on this theme:

It is important that we should strive with all our might to eliminate the baser elements of life, yet we must be brave and wise enough to confess how much our best happiness is born of the fact that we have these elements to contend with.

Happiness has been defined as the condition of getting what you want and then still wanting it. Goethe expressed this paradox more poetically,
Happiness is a ball after which we run wherever it rolls, and we push it with our feet when it stops.

A personal heaven

I thought about my own idea of Heaven, and this is what I came up with. Even this version is no more than an extrapolation and augmentation of earthly joys.

Above all, Heaven would be a place where love of a depth unknown on earth would be the norm between all people. This would be in part due to perfect communication between all persons and their consequent feeling of connection. Love would emanate from the essence of one being and experience the other person in the essence of their being. Each person could meet their soul-mate, an experience rare on earth.

Secondly, it would be a place where each individual had tremendous scope for exploring their creativity, developing it far more than do the greatest artists on earth. This creativity could be used to construct entire worlds, including new animals, plants, mountains, and music. One could invent new colours, new art forms, new modes of communication, new forms of pleasure, and new modes of experience. Almost anything that a person could imagine they could also make real. This creativity would be spurred by the desire to share its products with others, giving them enjoyment and meaning.

Rather than a state of static perfection, there would be challenge and striving towards ever greater achievement and growth. Even in Heaven, not all things would be possible. One would need to make an effort to achieve a result but this effort would always be rewarded, if only partially. There would be no limits to learning.

Of course there would be tremendous natural and artificial beauty all around to delight every sense. There would be no chores, no ugliness, no wasted time, no disease, no unproductive conflict. In addition to greatly increased creativity, every person would have enormous physical, spiritual and intellectual capabilities, such as reading a book in an instant. It would be possible to learn anything about the past, about the natural world, or any other field of interest. One could meet and befriend Mozart, Alexander, Christ, or any other great human being of the past. One could visit the Athens of Pericles, the hanging gardens of Babylon, or Alpha Centauri. Another possibility would be to experience the life of an animal such as a condor, dolphin or cheetah. There would be safe adventures, like playing a role in a film, only real. Thus one could undergo any experience available to humans of either sex throughout history, as well as to live out any fantasy.

The ecstasy of mystical union would be freely available, as would any other emotion one could desire. One would also have the freshness of a child, experiencing everything as if anew. Unbounded enthusiasm would be the normal state of celestial residents.

Yet perhaps the most essential aspect of Heaven is that it would be fun. It would be a thoroughly light-hearted place with laughter predominating. There would be unlimited sports and games in which all could have their glory, in addition to myriad ways for people to get together and enjoy each other's company. Needless to say, fantastic sex would be an essential part of paradise.

It would be a place without morality. No being would want to hinder the self-realisation of another, since the gain of one would be directly experienced as the gain of all.

Finally, it would be a place of diversity, where every human being had unlimited opportunity to realise their unique potential and seek transcendence in the manner most congenial to their nature. Each would follow their deepest inclination, whether this involved doing things with others or in isolation. Some might choose to pursue corporal life; more rarefied beings might prefer to exist as pure consciousnesses with mental powers. Needless to say, there would be no obligation to do anything - those whose calling is indolence would follow their own path.

A concluding thought

In agreement with other mystics, the Taoist Chuang-tzu hints at why Heaven is so illusive: "Happiness is the absence of the striving for happiness."

Tad Boniecki

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