The Non-Expert

Heaven Can Wait

Experts answer what they know. The Non-Expert answers anything. This week, advice for a lovelorn atheist who wants to know if a Christian could love him back.

Meredith Allen, Atlantic Avenue (bugs bunny), 2000. Courtesy the artist and Lesley Heller Workspace.

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Question: This girl I like, I’ll call her Stacy, is a Christian. She’s also one of the kindest people I’ve ever met and I’m head-over-heels in love with her. I’d do anything for her. Unfortunately, I’m an atheist. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t display my lack of faith to the public much, I like to keep it to myself for the most part, but I don’t lie about it. Stacy has this set of guidelines that she wants to follow when she wants to date someone. One of them is that she wants to date someone who’s Christian, and I would not be willing to convert for her, sorry. What can I do to prove that I care and that I’m not just some other atheist? —Colin

Answer: What do you see when you sit on the bench by the river across from the city? Zeppelins moored to the masts of skyscrapers. Men with beards pushing carts filled with rags or fruit. You smell spices, garbage, and tar.

Stacy is seated to your right, and she sees something more than zeppelins. She sees the spires of two dozen churches poking out between the towers. When she was born the spires were the tallest buildings in the city.

That hasn’t been true for years. But still there are invisible wires between them. Signals travel between the churches. They call people to services. Pastors with wiry hair and threadbare robes. Some teeth are missing from the parishioners, who nonetheless are clean and smell like soap.

You see now that you and she live in two cities? Your city carries you until it cannot carry you any more and then it lets you go. It is the city of time. Hers is a city of God.

You cannot live in this city together. You must create a new city. Or if not a whole city at least a small space.

We’ll call it POSITION. You can call it: Home, or Rivermouth, or Illyria. You both have to agree that the space between you is real, and that you will populate it.

As everyone agrees, creating mutual imaginary spaces is hard work. For right now just think of a cube 12 feet on a side. You can change the dimensions later. But where is it located? Some suggestions: along a river or beach; or hung from a skyhook; or floating in a very large bathtub. Roof: thatched, tiled, or coated in bitumen and painted silver? Windows? Skylight? Bathroom? Kitchenette? Take all the time in the world to work this out. Go for walks and sketch lines in sand. Don’t skimp on the details. It’s easy time spent, walking along, inventing a place. Expose the brick. Install a sink.


As everyone agrees, consciousness arises because of our human need to simulate one another. Monkey A, call him George, sees Monkey B, call her Gracie, taking a left when she usually takes a right.

“That’s odd,” thinks George. “There might be something worth seeing over to the left.”

He races in ahead of Gracie and—bananas! A minute later Gracie shows up and her bananas are all gone. However, a tiger has been attracted. George, sated with bananas, watches from a nearby branch as Gracie is eaten. It is sad but not uninteresting.

Later, George mates like crazy. His children inherit the mental abilities that allow them to simulate other monkeys. Eventually, thus, us.


We do it all the time. We create other people in our minds and talk to them. We imagine: What would it be like to meet Steve Jobs? What would I say to Scarlett Johannsen if I saw her at Chili’s? Does Patrick Stewart wear black jeans? Because we are entranced by the power that they have. We want to be close to that power, figure it out.

The opposite is true, of course. These people want us thinking about them. Some hire publicists so we don’t forget to think about them. It’s incredibly important to the functioning of society that their names remain on our lips.

Ask her about the spires. Line the walls with velvet. Put in another window.

And it works. As everyone knows, we become very committed to the people we construct in our minds and very disappointed and excited when they turn out otherwise. Their marriages fall apart. Their love was false.

This is why you need to develop POSITION. Inside of POSITION all persuasion or compulsion is forbidden. Sit on the couch with Stacy, hold hands, and close your eyes. Let her ask you anything.

Ask her about the spires.

Line the walls with velvet.

Put in another window.

Ask her about how she feels when she contemplates the presence of a benevolent God. What is God wearing?

Put some odd minerals in the corners. Quartz or pyrite or a chunk of hematite. Don’t make it into a museum. But try to liven the place up. One idea: pink curtains.

You must not colonize POSITION. You cannot make it a place of persuasion or compulsion. You can’t mount a bust of Darwin, and she can’t hang a cross. But music is allowed. An old spinet is fine.

If she wants to know, tell her that after you die there will be nothing. Explain that you do fear death but not what comes after.

Tell her that you believe that love, not faith, is the key to a moral life.

Find out if she is forgiven, and what the state of forgiveness is like.

And in this emptiness build your church, and let no one else prevail against it.


TMN Contributing Writer Paul Ford is the author of Gary Benchley, Rock Star, a novel that was originally serialized here on TMN. He was formerly an editor at Harper’s Magazine, was an occasional commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered, and is now sole proprietor of (which has a Facebook group). More by Paul Ford