Our secular society seems to believe that if an afterlife exists, it is a uniformly pleasant one, and that with the possible exception of mass murderers, Nazis, child-molesters and a few others who commit monstrous deeds, everyone goes to heaven after they die. The technical and theological term for this happy view of the afterlife is “universalism”, but it is doubtful that most people devote enough thought for it to qualify as a theological view. It seems to be present in our culture as a simple assumption, an unreflected upon presupposition. Of course everyone goes to heaven when they die. Where else would they go? Belief in a hell has completely fallen out of our culture, probably at more or less the same time as did our sense of sin. Hell does not exist any more than the devil exists. Fundamentalists naturally believe in such primitive and barbaric superstitions, which are vestiges of the Dark Ages, tools which evil clergy used to keep people in their thrall. But nobody believes that stuff any more. So, there being no hell, of course everyone goes to heaven.
A minority report suggests reincarnation as a post-mortem fate, but the idea is too exotic for most, and leaves too many unanswered questions: do we come back as people in the next life? As animals? As mosquitoes? Careful then, don’t swat Uncle Jack. There is less comfort in the notion of reincarnation; its social utility is usually therefore confined to the fun of imagining what we were in a previous life, not where we might end up in the next one. All things being equal, it’s easier therefore to stay in the cultural west than to migrate to the cultural east, and to believe that everyone goes to heaven.
We see these happy assumptions come into play whenever a celebrity dies. The social media are then instantly filled with thoughts of the deceased celebrity strolling about in heaven. We even see this assumption in some popular songs: “If there’s a rock and roll heaven, you know they got a helluva band”, which band is said to include such popular rockers as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, whatever their faith (or lack of it) while they were alive. As far as wishes go for their eternal beatitude, of course such ideas are harmless, and even laudable. Who wouldn’t want them to be saved? And since we cannot be sure they will not be saved, we can, if inclined, include them in our prayers (as I regularly do for Marilyn Monroe). But in our culture the notion of their post-mortem bliss is not just a wish; it is an assumption. The idea that the deceased celebrity or the loved one may not actually be in heaven never dawns on anyone.
And sometimes the assumption that everyone goes to heaven when they die can have tragic results. Take for example the recent suicide of a young New York dietician, Tara Condell (pictured above). This dear young woman committed suicide at the age of 27. As she said in her suicide note, the only reason that she killed herself was because “I often felt detached while in a room full of my favorite people; I also felt absolutely nothing during what should have been the happiest and darkest times in my life…I have accepted hope is nothing more than delayed disappointment, and I am just plain old-fashioned tired of feeling tired.”
This seems to me an oddly insufficient reason for self-immolation. She felt that she was not happy, and assumed that when she died she would find the happiness she was unable to find in life. Thus her suicide note concluded with the words, “It’s selfishly time for me to be happy…I’m coming home, Dad. Make some room up on that cloud and turn the Motown up.”
That is, Ms. Condell assumed that when she died she would find herself in heaven on a cloud with her father, able to listen to the Motown music that they both loved. Perhaps the pain her suicide would cause her mother and her friends was adequately answered by the final words of her note, “I’m sorry mama”. That her mama found this an adequate answer may be doubted. And anyway, from a Christian perspective, Tara’s ultimate accountability was not owed to her mama, but to God, who gave her life through the physical agency of her mama and her dad.
The tragedy that Tara’s suicide represents throws into high relief the unproven assumption that all deaths end in heavenly bliss for the deceased who find their place upon a cloud along with those who have gone before. At the very least this hope remains unproven. The Old Testament Scriptures offer no such hope (see the survey of the Old Testament material in my book Unquenchable Fire or the book Shades of Sheol). The New Testament also offers no support to the notion that everyone who dies somehow immediately attains eternal bliss. Our Lord’s parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16 rather suggests that one’s state after death corresponds to the choices one made during this life. Nothing in the Bible offers assurance that everyone finds bliss upon closing one’s eyes in death regardless of whether or not they lived a life of obedient faith. The hope that “all dogs go to heaven” comes from Disney and their friends, not from the Bible.
Suicide always defies easy analysis. One cannot assert that everyone who takes his or her own life is damned. But equally one cannot assert that everyone who takes his or her own life will be saved and will find bliss upon a heavenly cloud with access to one’s favourite music. The venerable “canon against self-slaughter”, cited by Hamlet, makes such a course of action at least dubious and dangerous. A more sensible approach would be to acknowledge life as a gift of incalculable worth, and to resist the temptation to self-slaughter.
All dogs do not in fact go to heaven. Those choosing to defy this venerable canon and to end their life may not always be damned. The eternal fate of men lies with God alone, and guessing about the eternal fate of those who take their own life serves little purpose. But the magnitude of the gift of life that God gave us should at least cause us to stay the suicidal hand. Absence of feeling during the happiest or darkest times of one’s life is not a reason to takes one’s life. Rather it is a reason to seek the Lord who gave the gift of life in the first place. One’s place on the clouds is not automatic. It comes as the result of faith in God and the blood of Christ.