Why Do People Believe in Heaven?
According to a recent Pew Research study, as American culture becomes increasingly secularized, professing Christendom may soon exist in the minority.1 A growing number of its citizens have already departed from embracing basic Christian doctrine to hold to atheism, agnosticism or to just plain indifference. At the current rate, 31% of professing Christians depart from their beliefs between the ages of 15 and 29, while another 7% leave after the age of 30 — a significant decline, even considering that 21% of non-church people profess Christianity during the same timeframe.
Secularism is on the rise. Perhaps heaven has been secularized.
One would think that if Americans are wont to rid God from the culture, they would also want to rid heaven, God’s dwelling place, from their minds. Yet this is not the case. Americans have not waned in their view of life after death in this secular age. Nearly seven of 10 people living in this nation believe in a literal heaven, while six of 10 affirm the existence of a literal hell. Not surprisingly, the older segment of the population is even more convinced of the existence of both heaven (8/10) and hell (7/10). Add to this the 7% of Americans who hold to some alternative view of the afterlife such as reincarnation, and the result is an overwhelming majority of people who believe that death is not the end for humans.2
Although I do believe that Western culture has in many ways adopted a God-less view of both heaven and hell — for instance, a view that is devoid of personal responsibility — that is not my purpose here. I would rather like to explore why man is not capable of shaking off his basic belief that there is something after death. Second, I propose that Christians should utilize this reality in personal witness.
He has made everything beautiful in its time.
Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart,
Yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end (ESV).
The writer of Ecclesiastes, or Qoheleth as he is often called, presents what I believe to be the reason people have a persistent belief that there is something beyond death for all humans. God has placed within man a deep-rooted conviction that humans must reckon with an afterlife, whatever that looks like. Although the atheist protests against this view in the same way that he denies the existence of natural revelation (Rom. 1:18-20) or man’s conscience (Rom. 2:15) as having divine origin, it is nonetheless the common experience of all people.
Since I am proposing that Ecclesiastes 3:11 is the foundational text for this idea, it is important to note that the second line of the verse presents an interpretive challenge. Once this line is understood, then the logical connection with line 3 becomes clearer. The biggest challenge is to ascertain what the term eternity (‘olam) means, as it may also be translated as “world,” or “duration.” Which meaning did Qoheleth intend?
The Message of Ecclesiastes
Qoheleth presents the first development of the theme of his treatise in the first three verses (1:1-3). After identifying himself as the “speaker of an assembly” (1:1), he presents what will be his first major proposition: life, as it is seen under the sun, does not make sense. Man’s accomplishments, in and of themselves, possess no real value. This theme is demonstrated in 1:4-11 through a listing of natural examples that show that life is a drudgery, cycling through the same phases again and again. There are no truly “new” things, and the “old” things have little value, for they are soon forgotten. Qoheleth paints the picture of a thoroughly monotonous existence.
One might say that humans can transcend this monotony, however. Qoheleth demonstrates (by experience) how this is not so. He explored the joys of wisdom but found only futility (1:12-18). Pleasure yielded the same outcome (2:1-11). Qoheleth’s absorption in his work brought about pure frustration (2:12-23). In the end, he hated life along with all his accomplishments (2:17-18). The reader of Ecclesiastes grows all too accustomed to hearing the words, “This too is vanity.”
Therefore, one might ask, “What is the root cause of this meaninglessness that Qoheleth describes?” It would seem that the author achieved significant levels of personal accomplishment and understanding. How could this be vain? The answer to this question is the essence of the human predicament.
First, man is incapable of producing truly new things (1:4-9). Only God produces something out of nothing. Second, man’s existence is always held in check by his transitoriness. Whatever his accomplishments may be, they are cut short by death (1:11; 2:14-23). Third, many achievements contain an unexpected negative outcome. For instance, with the attainment of wisdom comes the knowledge of painful things (1:17-18). This may all be summarized as human limitation. Man is limited in understanding, power and especially longevity.
Thus, Qoheleth proposes a solution, which is the next key proposition in the book: man should enjoy the things that God gives to him in life (2:24-26). All these things come from the hand of God. However, who can find any enjoyment in life without God (2:25)? This point is reiterated five more times in Ecclesiastes: 3:12-13; 3:22; 5:18-19; 8:15; and 9:7-9. Life may contain many perplexing matters that God does not explain, but man must see his existence on earth as a gift.
Man and Time, Ecclesiastes 3
The opening statement of chapter 3 assumes the meticulous sovereignty of God: “For everything there is a season.” God provides guidance in the longer periods of time, appropriately rendered “season” in the English Standard Version. However, individual events are under his control as well: “and a time for every matter under heaven.” Thus begins a string of opposing events in the next seven verses that describe the whole gamut of human existence, each prefaced with the word time. To summarize, God is sovereign over periods of men’s lives, and he is sovereign over individual events.
Qoheleth closes this section with a refrain, echoing the original thesis: “What gain has the worker from his toil” (3:9)? It is at this point that the preacher provides insight regarding man and time (3:10-22). This commentary on time is structured by Qoheleth’s first person perceptions: “I have seen,” “I know,” and “I said to myself.” “I have seen” introduces key observations that Qoheleth has made in reference to time. “I know” proposes his conclusions based on the foregoing observations. Finally, “I said to myself” introduces personal reflections regarding these truths.
I have seen, 3:10
I know, 3:12
I know, 3:14
I have seen, 3:16
I said to myself, 3:17
I said to myself, 3:18
I have seen, 3:22
Therefore, 3:10-22 may be divided into three “I have seen” sections. In each of these sections, the preacher makes a statement relating to time, man and God. The three sections may be seen as follows:
I have seen the work which God has given to man; everything is appropriate in its time (3:10-15).
I have seen wickedness in the place of justice, and righteousness in the place of wickedness; God will judge both in time (3:16-21).
I have seen that nothing is better than if man rejoices in his activities. Who knows the future (3:22)? (God, of course, does.)
We may conclude that Ecclesiastes 3 is predominately about time. Qoheleth teaches his listeners to have a wise perspective on one of God’s most precious gifts: time. In addition, the topic of time is always about man’s assigned task, in conjunction with God’s inexplicable work.
“Eternity” or “Duration”
Whatever else may be said regarding ‘olam in Ecclesiastes 3:11, it should be clear that it has something to do with time, so that rules out translating this term as “world.” The question remains, then, does Qoheleth refer to eternity, or to a duration of time? The following represents the possible interpretations of the verse in the arrangement suggested above.
Line 1. God has assigned every person a place in history.
Line 2. However, he has also given man an impulse that takes him beyond temporal concerns.
Line 3. Yet man still is incapable of understanding the work of God.
Line 1. He has assigned every person a place in history.
Line 2. He has also placed a sense of duration in their hearts (they can see a period of time, but not further).
Line 3. So that they cannot find out the work of God.
I favor the rendering “eternity” in Ecclesiastes for the following reasons:
- By placing ‘olam (“eternity”) alongside of ‘eth (“time”), it is clear that Qoheleth intends some sort of contrast. The gloss “duration” does not seem to provide the necessary contrast to “appointed times.”
- It is not necessary to see “eternity” as some sort of “eternal perspective” that God provides to all men. Rather, in keeping with the mood of the book, man is driven to seek beyond the ordinary events of life to a deeper reality, to what existence is all about, only to fall short “so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” Thus, man under the sun comes up frustratingly short once again.
All men live day by day under the weight of the knowledge that there must be something to human existence that extends beyond the grave. Yet he cannot figure God out. He must turn to Scripture to find the true meaning of human existence.
What does this have to do with evangelism? The question, so often posed, targets man’s basic understanding of his temporal condition: “If you were to die today, do you know where you would go?”
As discussed by Neal Cushman on The Steve Noble Show on May 4
1 “Modeling the Future of Religion in America,” Sept 13, 2022, https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2022/09/13/modeling-the-future-of-religion-in-america/, accessed May 2, 2023.
2 “Views on the Afterlife,” Nov 23, 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/11/23/views-on-the-afterlife/, accessed May 2, 2023.