September 16, 2016

About Heaven

Introduction

The concept of heaven can be found in many theological traditions and religious doctrines. A discussion about heaven is usually more optimistic than our thoughts about hell. We seek it as a destination in the afterlife. Thoughts about heaven are usually inspirational constructive and positive. By contrast, our fears about hell tend to be event or place specific, unpleasantly negative, and self-destructive.

Western theology favors the concept our soul, and our body in an altered form, continue to exist after our physical death. At the time of death we are judged by a divine being who assigns us to a specific realm based on the quality of our thoughts and deeds while we were among the living. Worthy souls are sent to heaven, or to a purgatory which prepares us for heaven. The sinful soul is sent to hell for punishment and purification. Christian, Islamic, Jewish and Zoroastrian belief systems also anticipate that at some time in the future, all of the worthy dead will be brought back to life through a process of resurrection. 

Eastern philosophy, by contrast, frequently emphasizes that after our physical death we are reborn into this physical world to begin a new life cycle. This cycle of birth, death and rebirth continues until we become one with the ultimate spiritual experience. The physical form of each reincarnation is determined by the purity of our thoughts and deeds in a prior life. Sinners are reborn to a lower form of life. Worthy individuals are reborn to a higher plane of existence. There is no divine judgment. The determination of our fate is based on our accumulated Karma.

The concept of seven heavens is one of the more interesting concepts of religious cosmology. Ancient astrologists identified seven heavenly objects (the planets) which they envisioned traveled in seven different concentric circles around the earth. The number seven became to symbolize perfect completion (a week has seven days, for example). After death, the soul ascends upward through the seven heavens. Each one is a place of learning. This experience continues until the soul is united with God in the highest heaven. A variation of this belief found its way into Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism.
 

Historical Evolution

First: A note.
Most religions are a collection of related beliefs. Individual faithful may have differing philosophical points of view. Thus, within every religious experience, one may find multiple views of heaven. What follows is a brief comparison of typical beliefs within each religious philosophy. It is NOT meant to be a complete analysis of religious philosophy or spiritual theology (which would take several volumes).

Eastern Mediterranean

Early Egyptians (after 2400 B.C.) worshiped Osiris, the Lord of the Dead, who offered eternal life in his Kingdom of the Dead to those who were judged worthy. A belief in life after death was a driving force for elaborate funeral preparations. Eternal life would only be given to persons who had been given a proper funeral, mummified, and entombed.
Life has purpose. The divine dwells within us. One must combine the spiritual (symbolized by the heart) with the physical (actions symbolized by the tongue). Death was considered to be a temporary condition. Entrance to the Kingdom of the Dead demanded a sin free heart, memorization of text from the Book of the Dead, and passing the test of admission. When a person died, a portion of the soul in the form of a body double and a person’s personality were taken to the Kingdom of the Dead. In the Hall of Two Truths, the deceased’s heart was placed on a scale. It must weigh less than the feather of truth and justice, which was placed on the other side of the scale. If the heart was heavier, the soul would be devoured by a demon.

If a person passed the test of the Underworld, and the weighing of the heart, they would meet Osiris and live forever with the Gods in the Fields of Reeds. Ordinary people paid their respects to the Gods, and worked in the fields or fished in the river to provide the deceased with food. There was no change to the division of social classes. The Pharaohs maintained their social status as Gods.

Ancient Greeks believed most souls must cross the river Styx to reach the cold, dark tomb of Hades after death. The soul continued to exist without any body. Later mythology included the concept of judgment. Sinners were sent to the Asphodel Fields, the Fields of Punishment, or Tartarus (hell) according to the gravity of their misdeeds. Only those who are pure of heart are allowed to enter the Elysian Fields, a paradise of warm sunshine, green fields, and beautiful mountains.

It is worth noting the Zoroastrians believed in a single universal God, and that newly purified souls cold achieve a perfect unity with God. They also believed the last purification of the earth at the end of time would include the destruction of evil by a savior-figure. These ancient Persian (Iranian) religious concepts would find their way into Jewish, Christian, and Islamic theology.

Hebrew

The Torah and the Talmud describe the afterlife in vague terms. There does not appear to be a cohesive and generally accepted view of heaven among the various Jewish sects. But two themes recur in Jewish theology.

The rabbinic concept of resurrection appears to have entered Jewish theology after the Torah was completed. There is conscious life after death. On the Day of Judgment, righteous people enter heaven (the Garden of Eden), a place of joy and peace. The wicked are doomed to hell. Those who are neither righteous nor wicked go through a period of instruction in order to gain sufficient wisdom to appreciate God. During the period of instruction, one experiences emotional and spiritual discomfort for past sins. At the end of this period, no longer than a year, the soul takes its place in heaven. 
  
A belief in reincarnation is not uncommon among contemporary Jews. Reincarnation became a popular concept in ancient Jewish theology, and references can be found in the Yiddish literature of the Ashkenazi Jews.  These ideas are also found in a number of Kabbalistic works from the 1200s, and among the mystics of the late 1500s.

It was originally believed the Cosmos included three elements: heaven, earth and the underworld. Heaven was the home of God, and in later literature, the dwelling place of righteous dead. Around 300 CE, this three tier view of the Cosmos was replaced by a newer model in which the earth was the center of several heavens. According to the Talmud, the universe includes seven heavens (or seven levels of heaven). After death, the soul ascends through these heavens to its original home.

Christianity

Christianity inherited its belief that heaven is the home of God from the Old Testament. Although Christian views of heaven vary from denomination to denomination, most Christians believe in some kind of heaven where believers are made one with God and are liberated from suffering and sin. Only the pure of faith are allowed to enter heaven. Deism, which gained popularity during the enlightenment, taught that the expectation of a reward or a punishment in the afterlife motivated moral behavior.

Among Christians, the idea that heaven is a reward for good behavior coexists with the concept that entrance into heaven is solely determined by the grace of God. We will be judged. Entrance to heaven is also made possible by accepting Jesus as one’s savior. The idea that one can “earn” a place in heaven by making charitable donations and other good works (popular 1200 – 1600 AD) is discouraged. Existing theological emphasis is placed on the immortality of the soul.

Although the Christian concept of resurrection is based on earlier Jewish canon, the idea that the body is not separated from the soul at the time of death appears to be based on later Greek concepts of immortality. But some Christian theologians teach that the soul dies with the body and will not live again until resurrected when Jesus returns to earth, while others believe all human souls will eventually be reconciled with God and admitted to heaven.

In Roman Catholicism, the largest relatively cohesive congregation of Christians, the soul is judged after the body dies. A righteous person who is free of sin goes directly to heaven. Unrepentant sinners are sent to purgatory for the purification of their souls before going on to heaven. Through resurrection, the body is transformed into a spiritual and imperishable being.

Most Christians believe Jesus Christ will eventually return to earth. During His Second Coming he will destroy the forces of evil, rid the world of sin, establish peace on earth, resurrect the dead, and reward His followers with life everlasting. 

Unfortunately, the Bible reveals few specific details about heaven, its location, or the process by which one ascends into heaven. The New Testament does teach Christians Jesus is the path to salvation: 

John 3:16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
John 3:36 “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
Romans 6:23 "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord"
John 14:6 "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

Islam

Allah created the earth and the heavens. The purpose of life is to worship Allah because he will provide a path to heaven for the worthy. Faith is incomplete without a belief in heaven.
All humans are born pure. Individuals have a direct relationship with God. Being faithful to Allah qualifies one to enter heaven in the afterlife and – rarely – some may enter heaven while still alive. Those who have only worshiped Allah, faithfully practiced the five pillars of Islam, and performed righteous deeds while alive are qualified to enter heaven. The five pillars of Islam are:
1.        Have an unshakeable faith in one God, Allah.
2.       Turn toward Mecca (Islam’s holiest city), to pray five times a day (dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and evening), and attend a congregational service every Friday.
3.       Give alms to assist with the welfare of the community equal to 2.5% of an individual’s net worth excluding family obligations. Social responsibility is a service to Allah.
4.       During the month of Ramadan, one must seek a deeper and richer personal perception of God by fasting.
5.       At least once in one’s lifetime, make a pilgrimage (the Hajj) to Mecca as a sign of faith and Islamic unity.

There are additional rituals within the different sects of Islam.

Life on this earth is thus a test to determine whether we are destined to go to heaven, or will be condemned to hell. Unless Allah intercedes, both are everlasting. There are seven levels (or layers) of heavens, each one above the other. Those who are sent to heaven go to a level appropriate for their worthiness. In heaven one is rewarded with an existence of riches and happiness. Only Muhammad is close enough to Allah to be admitted to the seventh heaven.

The Qur'an, 2:29  “It is He Who created everything on the earth for you and then directed His attention up to heaven and arranged it into seven regular heavens. He has knowledge of all things."
The Qur’an 71:15-16  “See you not how Allah has created the seven heavens one above another, and made the moon a light in their midst, and made the Sun a Lamp?”

Buddhism

Religions that follow the theological philosophy of Abraham characterize life as having a beginning and an end. Birth is followed by death. At the time of death, God makes a judgment that commits one to either hell or heaven. By contrast, eastern theology describes life as a continuous experience through a series of planes. There is birth, death, and rebirth. Each plane offers a new experience. If we are wise, we create our own heaven in this (human) life. If we are foolish, we create our own human hell. Rebirth in any plane below Nirvana is viewed as a process of purification. Buddhist texts describe ten planes (or states of existence) in the universe. Four are below the human plane, and are places of suffering. As one ascends to higher planes, there is an ever greater sense of tranquility. One does not exist on a plane forever, and upward or downward movement from plane to plane is governed by one’s accumulated karma (actions, deeds or thoughts). 

Reincarnation is an essential principle of Buddhism. The levels of heaven and hell exist in both our perceived world, and in places that are beyond this world. But they do not describe physical locations. Rather, they describe a state of being. Wherever there is suffering, that place is a hell to those who suffer. Humans suffer the physical and mental fires of hell by experiencing lust, hatred, illusion, sickness, decay, death, worry, lamentation, pain, melancholy and grief. Existence in heaven brings sensual pleasure. Entering hell brings physical and mental suffering. Existence on any plane is temporary. One must be continuously reborn, sometime to a higher plane, sometimes to a lower plane, until reaching the ultimate peace and happiness (enlightenment) of Nirvana. There is no divine judgment that leads to punishment (or heaven), and although one’s existence on any plane may be for a very long time, it is not eternal. Every individual moves from plane to plane according to one’s accumulated karma. 

The Buddha taught a non-aggressive moral philosophy (Dhamma) that advocates the practice of a golden mean which will bring us to supreme wisdom and freedom from all evil. Heaven and hell exist in many worlds, including this one. As he said: “The wise man makes his own heaven while the foolish man creates his own hell here and hereafter.”  Where there is more pain and suffering, there is hell. Where there is more pleasure or happiness, there is heaven. Human existence is a mix of both conditions.

Each state of rebirth is temporary. Existence is a repetitious process that continues until one eventually arrives at the “Right View” which can then lead to the ultimate happiness of Nibbana.

If during our life in this realm we are compassionate, generous, loving, and seek to meld knowledge with wisdom, then we can expect to be reborn in a higher plane. The higher we go, plane by plane, the greater our sense of spiritual tranquility.

The Sutta Nipata is a Buddhist scripture from the Khuddaka Nikaya collection, part of the Pali Canon of monastic Theravada Buddhism.  It is among the oldest parts of the Pali Buddhist canon. 

From the Sutta Nipata

Discourse on Good Will

May all beings be filled with joy and peace.
May all beings everywhere,
The strong and the weak,
The great and the small,
The mean and the powerful,
The short and the long,
The subtle and the gross:

May all beings everywhere,
Seen and unseen,
Dwelling far off or nearby,
Being or waiting to become:
May all be filled with lasting joy.

Let no one deceive another,
Let no one anywhere despise another,
Let no one out of anger or resentment
Wish suffering on anyone at all.

Just as a mother with her own life
Protects her child, her only child, from harm,
So within yourself let grow
A boundless love for all creatures.

Let your love flow outward through the universe,
To its height, its depth, its broad extent,
A limitless love, without hatred or enmity.

Then, as you stand or walk,
Sit or lie down,
As long as you are awake,
Strive for this with a one-pointed mind;
Your life will bring heaven to earth.

Hinduism

It is likely that Hinduism is the world’s oldest religion, spanning a lifetime of more than 4,000 years. Aside from a belief in the unifying principle of Brahman, Hindus may be followers of Shiva or Vishnu (the one true God), or they may look inward to the divine self.

From the Garuda Purana we learn the body is merely a shell for the soul. The soul, which is indestructible, lives multiple lives in a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Upon death, the soul leaves the body and is reincarnated in another body. If one has accumulated “good” Karma by living a good and righteous life, then after death one is rewarded for a time in a joyous heaven. Upon returning to earth, the soul with good Karma acquires a new body that will live a better life after the next rebirth. Conversely, if one has accumulated “bad” Karma, then one may suffer for a period of time in hell, and then go on to live in the body of an animal or other lower creature. The bad deeds of the prior life will haunt the soul until its newly acquired body eventually dies. There is a repetitive cycle of death and rebirth until the accumulation of good Karma allows the soul to merge with the greatest soul (god).    

Hindu beliefs also include the concept of seven heavens. There are fourteen worlds, seven higher ones (the heavens), and seven lower ones (the underworlds). God lives in the highest (seventh) heaven.

Taoism

Taoism (Daoism) emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao (Dao) which means “the way”, or the “path”. The Tao is the source and driving force for everything in our universe. In the "The Treatise of the Exalted One on Response and Retribution", death is neither feared nor desired. Life is eternal. Birth is not a beginning, nor is death an end of existence. The afterlife is within life. The longer one lives, the closer one is presumed to have become one with the Tao. Eventually, one hopes to achieve Tao - to be in harmony with the universe.

Where Is Heaven?

There is a problem with our traditional thoughts about heaven... It’s not “up there”.
Popular mythology often describes heaven as a place somewhere in the clouds. There is a set of “Pearly Gates” through which one must pass in order to enter heaven. Like a stern school master, St. Peter carefully looks up the record of our life in order to determine if will be permitted to enter heaven, or sent “down” to hell. Elsewhere in the clouds, God sits and watches over human events as they unfold on earth.

But heaven obviously does not exist “in the clouds” or in the space between the planets. Its physical existence would obviously be far too large to hide in the clouds, or for that matter, anywhere in our universe. Although one could imagine heaven exists out there “somewhere” in the vast reaches of outer space, perhaps many light years away, such a probability raises the same problems we contemplate when we ask the question: where is heaven?

Both heaven and hell exist, and they are located very close to us.

 

Heaven Exists

We just need to look.  Let us start with the world we know.

Most of us yearn for a life after death. No matter how tough life has been for us, no matter how many sorrows and frustrations, we want a life after death that is free of the physical and emotional tribulations of this physical universe. Most of us wish for the experience of heaven in this life. No matter how tough life has been for us, no matter how many sorrows and frustrations, we would like to experience moments that are free of the physical and emotional tribulations of our physical existence. We yearn for happiness and peace.

Here, on this earth, in this life, we are able to experience moments of heaven: the joy of love; the peace and contentment of companionship; and the warmth of friendship. Paradise is fulfillment. Our emotional and physical needs are completely satisfied. God gives us the opportunity to create the experience of heaven in this life.

After death, the worthy find their way to heaven. It is not a reward. We have already been judged while we are alive. Our fault or innocence has already been established by our peers and the observation of an omnipresent and omniscient God. Passage into heaven is a continuation of our spiritual existence. Our soul embraces a new tangible form.

Those who are worthy are encouraged to find the Angels’ Footpath. It leads us to the golden portal of heaven. Step through it, and we pass from this physical universe to the realm of another dimension.


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