Instant gratification is pretty much how people live these days. We correspond by e-mail and phone rather than waiting weeks for a letter to arrive on the boat from America; we can order a pizza and have it at the door, or take it out of the freezer and cook it in the microwave rather than going out back and killing the pig or grinding the wheat; we can see what’s happening on the other side of the world right now. Patience is still a virtue, but you don’t need nearly so much of it as you used to. So nobody’s going to seriously base how they behave today on what might happen to them when they’re dead. That’s far too far away. And anyway, they’ll be dead.
And then there’s the geography. In the middle ages, it was quite reasonable for people to believe that heaven was literally beyond the stars, and hell beneath the ground. Now we know otherwise, so where does that leave heaven? On a different plane, or a parallel universe, or maybe it’s just a state of mind. If you don’t believe in different planes or parallel universes, and you think states of mind are all in the mind, then you’ve a bit of a logistical theological difficulty.
All this said, I have no doubt that when my parents die, I will pray. And I’ll take comfort from the notion of an afterlife. I won’t be able to contemplate the idea of them just ceasing to be, in any form, so I will imagine them watching over me, seeing what I do, seeing their grandchildren, hearing me prattle on. I’ll need that. But on another level, ever since my grandmother died when I was 17 I’ve recognised that the idea of heaven is much more important for the people who are left behind than for the dead person, who is, after all, not in a position to be worrying about anything any more. (If I turn out to have to eat my words when I’m dead, so be it. That’s fine with me.) Heaven is a buffer zone we use to help us mourn; the area we put them in our minds when they’re no longer alive but we don’t want to understand that they’re gone for good. It’s as if they’re on a cruise where they can’t be contacted – only better, because they can see what we’re doing, or be reunited with dead loved ones. A family reunion cruise, then.
I think I can quite reasonably believe and not believe simultaneously. I can, after all, believe up to three impossible things before breakfast.