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What If Heaven Is Not For Real?

An 1870 engraving by Gustave Dore depicts the vision of the golden ladder, a scene from Dante's <em>Paradiso</em>.
D. Walker
An 1870 engraving by Gustave Dore depicts the vision of the golden ladder, a scene from Dante's Paradiso.

Last week, a young man named Alex Malarkey made news when he publicly retracted his story that he'd been to heaven. This, understandably, may not seem like news to some people. But Malarkey's story, based on the tragedy of an auto accident when he was just 6 years old, became a best-selling book called The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven.

More important, his book, along with others such as Heaven Is for Real — written by Todd Burpo based on the story of his then-young son, Colton — have come to form their own literary genre. Sometimes called "heavenly tourism," these volumes have proven quite lucrative for their publishers. The details of Malarkey's religiously motivated decision to tell the truth can be found elsewhere. But for me, his story raises a deep question about the origins of humanity's very deep anxiety about what happens after death.

It's easy to see Malarkey's case as an example of how religion can be used by the unscrupulous to fool people (of course, lots of things can be used by the unscrupulous to fool people). Thinking more broadly, however, what the story really highlights is how deeply we human beings fear the end of our lives — and lengths we'll go for solutions to that fear.

The elaborate descriptions of winged angels and heavenly architecture in these books are just a modern manifestation of something people have been doing for a long time — imagining a better life after the end of this one. Given the depth of suffering this life can entail, it's not hard to imagine where that impulse comes from. And, again given the depth of this life's suffering, those of us not inclined to wish for a heavenly afterward might keep our compassion open enough to understand the impulse leading so many others to do so.

But while ending suffering is one thing, ending existence is another. That is where my question about our anxiety over death and the need for an afterlife really begins.

For many folks, what's most terrifying about death is the ending of their own being. Each of us is, naturally, at the center of a remarkably vivid life. We're center stage in our own dramas of love and hardship, victory and defeat. The idea that it could just end, that we could just end, evokes nothing short of horror for many people. As Woody Allen famously put it: "Life is full of misery, loneliness and suffering — and it's all over much too soon."

This kind of existential terror never made a lot of sense to me. To explain why, I need you to know that when I was 9, my older brother was killed in an automobile accident. I saw him that afternoon, and he waved to me from across a field. Then I never saw him again. I was already an astronomically inclined kid, and that event, the most significant of my entire life, propelled me even deeper to questions about existence and time. Through all the grief and the questioning, one thought about death has always stayed with me:

I'm not concerned about the many years of my nonexistence before birth. Why then should I be concerned about the many years of my nonexistence that will follow death?

In other words, even though none of us existed 1,000 years ago, you don't find many people worrying about their nonexistence during the Dark Ages. Our not-being in the past doesn't worry us. So, why does our not-being in the future freak us out so much?

I am on record as being militantly agnostic about consciousness and death. I tend toward the "it's all over when it's over" camp, but that, for me, is more of a hunch than a scientific position. Still, no matter how the universe is constructed with regard to death and its aftermath, empirically I think we can conclude that dread in any form is an unnecessary response. When it comes to our impending nonexistence, all we need do is let the past be our guide.

Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described "evangelist of science." You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Adam Frank was a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. A professor at the University of Rochester, Frank is a theoretical/computational astrophysicist and currently heads a research group developing supercomputer code to study the formation and death of stars. Frank's research has also explored the evolution of newly born planets and the structure of clouds in the interstellar medium. Recently, he has begun work in the fields of astrobiology and network theory/data science. Frank also holds a joint appointment at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, a Department of Energy fusion lab.