Together Forever: God, Suffering, and the Paradox of Heaven

The omnipotence paradox in the philosophy of religion is meant to be a logical exploration of what makes sense to say of a being who is all-powerful (a primary requisite of godhood for classical theism). Different versions of this are something like, “Can God create a stone so heavy God can’t lift it?” Or, “Can God create a burrito so hot that even God can’t eat it?”

Responses to this always hinge on what one means by “God” or “power.” Philosophers like Descartes argued that since God created everything out of nothing, that includes logic itself. Being prior to logic, God is not subject to the law of non-contradiction, so God could create that kind of stone or burrito in a way that we cannot understand with our finite, logic-addled minds. BH Roberts insisted that being “all-powerful” didn’t mean you had all the power there is, but all power that an eternal being in the midst of other eternal beings and conditioned by other beings could have. (Similarly, being omniscient does not mean knowing everything, but knowing all that is known).

In the abstract, questions like this aren’t very relevant to most believers, but the thought that God–if God exists–must be all-powerful feels vital because otherwise we could not trust that God had the ability to spiritually save us or physically help us. It’s not only too much to consider that something could overcome or trip up God, but it’s incoherent, because by definition God is the being that all the “omnis” apply to. If there’s some being to whom the omnis better apply, then that being would be God. And if there is no being to which they apply, then there is no God.

I think there’s an underlying anxiety beneath these abstractions and language games that makes the form of the paradox much more personally existential, which is: “Can God create a heaven that can genuinely compensate for the many ways which the world hurts and breaks us? For the horrendous suffering so many people experience? Can God create a place and a life that makes living in this world actually worth it?” It becomes a matter of faith that yes, God can do that, and in fact it is this that God’s worship-worthiness hinges on. The God who can do this, so it will be asserted, is the only God worthy of the name.

If we are serious about the kinds of incomprehensible suffering so many people endure, the psychological destruction so many have experienced on account of prolonged pain that is virtually unspeakable; if we’re willing and able to keep our eyes fixed on that kind of suffering and let it be what it is in all its horror, then if we still insist that God can create a future where all suffering will not only end forever but be fully compensated and entirely “worth it,” then we either have not done conceptual and honest justice to suffering, or we must revert to the faith of Descartes, that God is beyond all logic and sense, that God can erase the law of non-contradiction and will annihilate and restructure the meaning of practically everything we know about existing as conscious beings in the universe in order to create a place that defies all possible comprehension or possibility.

I know that a lot believers will say, “Yes, exactly. That’s what it means to be a God. I will always have faith in that kind of a future for me and my family.” But this take-no-prisoners conception of God–that God is that being that regularly violates our categories of understanding and our faith is by definition faith in that which opposes reason–also produces a lot of casualties. There are a lot of reasons people who formerly believed become atheists, but one reason is that such a God not only logically but morally violates everything they know about or experience in the world. “What kind of heaven could possibly justify prolonged child abuse? Or physical and psychological torture and violation when someone loses their mind from pain? And, possibly worse, why is it so arbitrary? Why some people and not others? Why did God supposedly intervene to help a sick child in Utah when child sex slavery continues unabated for decades in Thailand?” Faced with the only option of a God so overwhelmingly powerful that those horrors will simply be made subsumed in the joys of another world, some people feel like they are being subjected to the longest confidence trick ever perpetrated on humanity.

Unless, maybe, there are other ways to think about God (and there are). And other ways to think about power (also). What if what Jesus did and said are exemplary of the only things that God can really say and do? And if there is a continuation of this life, what if all of that is the eternal life of a God? Feeding the hungry, healing the sick, lifting up the hands that hang down, weeping that we can’t do anymore but realizing that there is still more to be done, always more to be done? Injustice to make right, in this eternal present, not a future of fantastical bliss?

What if God gets down in the dirt with a shovel and a determination to do what can be done, and that’s what God does forever? Perhaps God gets a body that can’t get sick and die. Maybe God lives with God’s family (us) forever. But what if the work that they do together and the love that they radiate –trying to persuade us to be better, love a little more deeply, help those in need–what if that is all there is and all there ever will be? And what if together their hearts swell in agony, and their bowels yearn for justice, and as a family they weep over the sufferings and deaths of their little ones, who will one day be doing that same work with them, shoulder to shoulder, engaged in in that eternal, terrible, joyful soulwork, and all we can do here is the same?

I’m sure we’d never think that such a place could be heaven. That’s not a heaven that can compensate. No, it’s really not.  But look around. Look at all the suffering before us. Look at the appalling injustice of the world. Look at those who need us to mourn with them and to comfort them. Could we ever live in distant bliss knowing that there are those such as these who need us?

The only thing that could qualify such a place as heaven is the thought–the hope–that we would all be there together. Heaven has never been and will never be more than that.

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One thought on “Together Forever: God, Suffering, and the Paradox of Heaven

  1. I appreciate your thoughts and agree. I will say that there is at least something of interest to me in the fact that this heaven that would make everything worth it is described by you as nothing more than a continuation of this life. And I suspect that even if there was no heaven, life might still be “worth it.” Even if we knew there was no heaven, I don’t think we would legalize suicide. So if life is worth it even without a heaven, what makes it so hard to make life worth it if there is a heaven? Just the idea that someone is responsible. Blame is what makes it abhorrent. That’s just interesting to me. Thanks.

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