Jeremy Rifkin’s talk about empathy leads us to some interesting conclusions about heaven. Because empathy is about engaging with those who are other, and experiencing some of their pain, heaven – as traditionally seen – must be a place where there is no empathy, because pain cannot be experienced.
The typically Christian view of heaven is of a post-apocalyptic, post-judgemental place where the saved go to enjoy eternity, while the rest of humanity suffers in horrible pain. Taking what Rifkin says, those entering this heaven will have to leave their empathetic sensibilities at the Pearly Gates, because there cannot be empathy for those left behind. If there were, there would be regret and sadness, and these are not permitted.
That Christians should have an enduring sense of empathy thus leads us, I believe, to have to reject the traditional idea of heaven. It simply cannot be that God would call us to love the other – but only until a time when he sweeps us off, and tells us to forget them.
Instead, I’d want to propose an idea of ‘dirty heaven.’ I’m stealing this partly from Jay Winter’s concept of minor utopias, which, as I discuss in Other,
“sketch out a world very different from the one we live in, but from which not all social conflict or all oppression has been eliminated.”
We need to work to establish good places where there is peace and people can find wholeness. But we should never seek to isolate these into utopias or ‘heavens’ – and should always be looking to ‘leave heaven’ in order to engage with and empathise with the other. This is dirt work, and is exactly in the path that Jesus trod.