Secondarily in the purpose category is the satisfaction of divine justice. We looked at the negative aspect of justice in the hell chapter, but there is a positive aspect as well. For my pentecostal peers who had suffered much in this life--especially in the eschewing of fornication, alcohol, and swearing--eternity offered a reward in the form of paradise as deferred gratification. If you’re going to ask people to sacrifice in the short term, you’re going to need to offer some long term benefits. It’s an axiom in investing, and while it may be crass to compare spirituality to business, the analogy works here.
The pursuit of holiness was an investment. The church in Bowlegs was fond of discussing exactly how many jewels would be in a particular person’s crown upon arriving at her reward. A favorite expression was, “She’s going to need a wagon to drag her crown around.” Again, in a realm where jewels are used as construction material, their value is suspect. As with many things in fundamentalism, metaphors are misunderstood. Typically, they’re flattened to the point where their poetic flexibility is destroyed.
As for the houses in heaven, the size was related to the actual sacrifice. This metaphor makes sense within a community where people can barely afford adequate housing, which is to say that it was never a problem in mainstream churches; the brick and stone cathedrals were a testament to the affluence of the congregations, and any congregation that could afford a cathedral could certainly afford adequate housing. Not so for the pentecostals. Many met in shotgun shacks, clapboard sanctuaries, and rundown buildings. My grandmother’s house, in addition to being covered in tar and gravel shingles, listed so much to the east that I always felt I had to compensate westward to walk in a straight line from the living room to the kitchen.
Without dispute, the Apostle Paul is talking about a resurrection body in I Corinthians when he refers to a mansion, but that didn’t stop my spiritual mentors from singing I’ve Got a Mansion. In fact, speculation about heavenly rewards was the only allowable form of covetousness. Again, this makes sense within a community that believes they are sacrificing worldly pleasures, including wealth, for the sake of holiness in this life and reward in the next. No right-minded person would give up pleasures in this world without a promise of exponentially greater pleasures in the world to come.
That is, of course, the satisfaction of divine justice. Those who don’t sacrifice, especially those who don’t believe, are consigned to hell. Those who do believe receive the distributive justice they deserve. For those who are slightly faithful, a modest reward will be given. For the true saint, a mansion that rivals those inhabited by worldly billionaires is coming in the next life.
This does make a perverse sort of sense, especially when considering people who truly suffer injustice.
As I write this, I’m 45. Three years ago, I wrote my good-bye letter to Christianity. Nothing personal, Christians; I wrote the letter for all theists. Christianity just happened to qualify. Writing the letter seemed important, more as a way of clarifying for myself why I no longer woke up believing god would be present in my day than a way to organize my thoughts. One of the reasons I listed for walking away--and that’s a terrible euphemism, as any decision to leave a faith to which someone is deeply committed feels more like a catastrophic injury than a casual walk--was that I was only 42, but I was already tired. The idea that I would have to live 42 years plus eternity does not move me, except to despair.
The desire to live forever seems deeply ingrained in all of us, but I’ve found that the more I think about it, the more the idea needs to be parsed. Only the greatest masochist actually wants to live forever; what we want is not to die. The eradication of our identity, that kernel of greg-ness or joe-ness or susan-ness that we believe lies at the core of our nonphysical self, seems unthinkable. How can this glorious self ever pass away into nothing? How can I have a moment where I cease to be? How can I not know, be known, love, be loved? It is narcissism, of course, but the desire is either so axiomatic within our cultural and familial assumptions or so much a part of our evolutionary development--an extension of the instinct to survive--that we seldom consider the implications of living forever.
What is it that you love now more than anything? Honestly, the question only makes sense for a child. Favorite colors, favorite songs, favorite anything are the province of children. By the time I reached adulthood, it was apparent that there were entirely too many things and people in the world for me to love to have a favorite anything. But let’s assume for a minute that you have a favorite thing or activity: fishing, fucking, fighting, fondue, France, French whores, or NASCAR. It doesn’t matter. Pick something.
How many decades or centuries would you have to engage in that activity or eat that food or fornicate with your favorite French hooker before you came to loathe the very idea of it? Now, imagine doing it for eternity. This requires that heaven not be an extended, eternal worship service, and even when I believed in a god who would take me to heaven, I was pretty sure she wasn’t so insecure that she needed me to worship her forever. God, whatever else she may be, is not a slutty socialite.
I am no pre-suicidal, melancholy cynic. I love life, wife, friends, and wine, but I love them because there is a limit to my enjoyment of each, partly predicated on schedule and partly on limit of endurance. How long would it take to exhaust both my love and my interest in a million billion years plus eternity?
The common response here is that “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.” For my pentecostal brethren it was a house. A goddamn house. A big-ass house, but a house nonetheless.