I am not a theologian. (This bracket exists solely to allow medics the chance to revive readers who have fainted at that revelation. All done? Good. Let us move on.) In consequence the following is less an essay than a tentative inquiry, in which I grope my way through the theological jungle with no certainty at any stage that I shall not plunge irreversibly into the swamps of heresy.

Though before I start groping I can't help asking how anyone does get to be a theologian. Theology means literally the study of God, and since God is acknowledged to be the great unknowable, who moves in mysterious ways and who passes all understanding, there doesn't seem much to be gained from studying him (or her, or them, or indeed it). Furthermore I can see no fair way of setting or marking a theology exam. When a subject consists entirely of metaphysical guesswork there can be neither right nor wrong. If a candidate asserts, say, that God is a goat it's a brave marker who puts a cross in the margin and deducts a mark. He risks the butting wrath of Sky Billy.

Nevertheless it remains possible in the 21st century, and even in advanced secular societies such as this one, to acquire a masters degree in theology, and according to the internet such a degree opens up four possible areas of employment: teaching theology (which feels just a little circuitous), becoming a minister, becoming a missionary and, oh dear, oh dear, oh maximal dear, school teaching. Which immediately brings to mind an awful school I taught at for two terms where God was very high on the agenda for some of the staff but for none of the children. And I remember with a seething of the intestine the chaplain laying his hand on my forearm one afternoon when I was angry about some matter now forgotten and saying in a voice so unctuous you could have oiled a hinge with it, "Joe, this life is only a rehearsal".

That, fortunately, was a long time ago and in a foreign country, yet this afternoon I was driving the dog through the suburb of Heathcote when I passed a banner. It had been attached to a picket fence outside a little church. "Have a heavenly Heathcote Christmas" it said, and there was an illustration which I shall come to in a moment.

Advertisement

I was unaware until then that there was such a thing as a distinctively Heathcote Christmas, but what piqued my interest most was the word heavenly. I am aware, naturally, of the seductive influence of alliteration on many a writer of advertising slogans, and I am also aware of the colloquial use of heavenly to mean no more than nice. But I think it is reasonable to expect a more theologically rigorous use of the word when it pinned up outside a church.

As I understand it - and I welcome correction should I have any of this wrong - heaven is afterlife for the virtuous. It is the promise of peace, joy and justice post-mortem to compensate for grief, misery and injustice pre-mortem. But by definition, it is available only to the dead. So wishing passers-by a heavenly Christmas would seem to be something less than a kindness.

Heaven's converse is hell. It is the stick to heaven's carrot. But hell has fallen out of theological favour as being too nasty for this modern age, so perhaps heaven is following it into that grey theological hinterland in which what once was considered literal is now deemed metaphorical. If so it seems only a short step to deeming the afterlife in general to be metaphorical at which point one wonders whether there's any point in going on with the whole theology thing at all.

Heaven's converse is hell. It is the stick to heaven's carrot. Photo/Getty Images
Heaven's converse is hell. It is the stick to heaven's carrot. Photo/Getty Images

But, as promised, the illustration. At one end of the banner was a recognisable picture of a pukeko. Now, one of the many reasons I struggle with all the monotheistic religions is their disdain for the animal kingdom. Animals in the Bible are good only for eating, riding, deeming unclean, sacrificing and having their entrails read. So though my dogs, to take just one example, have never displayed any of the greed, vanity, cruelty, malice or mendacity that human beings are capable of, they can't go to heaven.

And neither can birds. So what is a pukeko doing on a banner promoting a heavenly Christmas? I have given the matter considerable thought and endeavoured to consider it from all sides, and the only rational explanation I have reached is that the Heathcote church, in a bid to forge a distinctive local Christmas tradition, is urging us all to roast one.