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Imagine there’s no heaven.

John Lennon suggested that it’s easy if you try.

But what if it’s not? What if it’s not easy?

What if you are a mother who lost a child many years ago and is now losing her faith, but can’t let go of the hope of seeing her daughter in heaven?

What do you say to her?

That’s the dilemma I face today, having recently received a letter from this heartbroken mom after she saw one of my videos. Her basic question to me:

I just wondered if you had a simple answer about how you go from believing to not. I have a deceased child who I was told was in Heaven and will know me when it’s my turn to join her. It’s the only thing that has kept me going. That reunion. Her death was tragic and devastating. I can’t even breathe.

How do I tell her to focus on the moments and enjoy this one life we know we have? How do I tell her heaven is not real?

There is no simple answer. That’s the problem. There is no simple answer to how I went from believing to not. There is no simple answer that neatly encapsulates the paradox of the joys and heartbreaks of this life. Perhaps that’s why we create stories about an afterlife. We write songs and poems and books in a desperate attempt to explain what we see around us, to give definition to what we feel and think.

I could tell her to read my book. I could tell her to watch any of the dozens of videos of my talks, YouTube shows, and podcasts. I could tell her the answer is contained therein.

But that seems lazy, and somewhat heartless. This doesn’t seem like one of those times when logic and reason apply.

How can I dare say I’m sorry you lost your daughter, but wishing for a heavenly reunion won’t make it happen. Can’t I simply say to her, well, none of us really know, maybe she is there waiting on you.

Maybe she is.

Emily Dickinson wonders the same:

Going to heaven! I don’t know when—
Pray, do not ask me how! 
Indeed, I’m too astonished to think of answering you!
Going to heaven! How dim it sounds! And yet it will be done
As sure as flocks go home at night, unto the Shepherd's arm!

Perhaps you’re going too!
Who knows?
If you should get there first
Save just a little place for me
Close to the two I lost—
The smallest "Robe" will fit me
And just a bit of "Crown"—
For you know we do not mind our dress
When we are going home.

I’m glad I don’t believe it
For it would stop my breath,
And I’d like to look a little more
At such a curious Earth!
I am glad they did believe it
Whom I have never found
Since the might Autumn afternoon
I left them in the ground.

It seems that Emily was a bit ambiguous about the concept of heaven. “Who knows?“ reveals that she’s not sure about it. At one point she says she’s glad she doesn’t believe it, and in the same verse she is happy that someone who passed on before her did believe in heaven. It somehow made things better for them.

When I was an evangelical church leader, I had to know things. People expected it. People look to their pastors for certainty, for answers. They want things neatly tied together. Black and white, good and bad, right and wrong.

“I pay my tithes every Sunday so that I don’t have to think about things, I don’t have to wonder. It’s your job to tell me what the truth is! Make sense of all of this for me, and give me a happy ending.“

But that’s what’s great about being a freethought advocate. We don’t have to have the answers. We can settle in with questions, find nuance, and be comfortable with gray areas.

I am fine with this life being all there is. That’s enough for me.
But I don’t have to impose that belief on someone else.

Do I think there’s a heaven? No, I don’t. But I don’t feel the need to convince anyone else of that. There’s no one looking to me for that pat answer. I don’t have to convince anyone that I’m certain on that position. If I do, I have just traded one certainty for a different one.

This distraught mother is clinging to her faith, the only thing she’s known her whole life. Her experiences and questions have brought her to the brink of that faith, and she is looking over the edge. What’s out there? What can I depend upon if I don’t have my faith?

And can I give up hope of seeing my daughter again?

I can have my opinion about the afterlife. I am an atheist with a terminal illness, and I hold no hope for anything after this life. I am fine with this life being all there is. That’s enough for me.

But I don’t have to impose that belief on someone else. I’m not a parent who lost a two-year-old child, didn’t get to see her grow up, didn’t get to show her how the world works, watch her discover the wonders all around her. This mother was robbed of all of that.

And now she’s asking me for answers. She’s asking me to help her make sense of things that make no sense.

Can’t I just tell her I don’t know?

Can’t I just say whatever she needs to hear to help ease her pain? What’s more important: being right? Or maybe being a salve for someone’s indescribable pain?

I think that’s enough.

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Dave Warnock was caught up in the Jesus movement of the 70s and lived the bulk of his life as a Charismatic Evangelical, serving as a pastor for three different churches. Following several years of...