What is Heaven?
The Big Questions series
Is there an answer that offers definitive proof and we can reach out and touch it? Not really. For those who look for this type of evidence they are likely to find very little of it.
Life isn’t about things made of dirt and concrete. It’s about higher ideals such as interpersonal relations, justice, meaning, and purpose. The higher ideals are more spiritual in nature, and that’s the realm of heaven.
Something amusing: A man and a woman meet in heaven and fall in love. They walk up to God and ask to be married.
God says give me some time and I’ll get back to you.
Three or four years pass and God finally tells the man and woman that he can have them married.
A few more years pass and the man and woman fall out of love. They approach God once more and this time they ask for a divorce.
God responds, “It took me four years to find a priest in this place. How long do you think it’ll take me to find a lawyer?!”
It’s disappointing that a few think only in terms of what’s next instead of living life to the fullest. But for nearly everyone there is a strong desire to know there is a next for us.
The typical belief around the world from ancient Sumer around 3000 BCE to today is that Heaven is a place of magnificent beauty. It looks like Earth and familiar things. There are no physical needs, suffering, or pain there. There is peace, acceptance, and love. People are reunited with their loved ones.
There are some major exceptions to the belief in a better place after death.
Atheist views, who don’t believe there is a god, differ widely. Some believe there is nothing after death while some believe there is an afterlife without gods.
Ancient Judaism believed in Heaven as a place for gods but not for mortals (people). But belief in an afterlife grew in Judaism in the 300 to 500 years before Jesus.
In Buddhism, heaven is not a place where people go after they die, but rather a state of mind that can be achieved in this life. Buddhist beliefs also vary.
Hinduism – various religions in India and other places
In Hindu traditions, people are reincarnated until they have no adverse karma. Karma in Hinduism and Buddhism, that is religions with a Brahmanism background, is the sum of a person’s wrongdoing and good actions in this and previous states of existence. It is viewed as deciding their fate in future existences.
Hinduism says people reach the point of having no adverse Karma. They become free from attachments,” which means a state in which they have overcome their emotional attachment to or desire for “things.” I don’t believe this means free of love for others unless they are thought of as objects.
After attaining this state of being free from attachment and overcoming karma through virtuous deeds, they ascend to a Heaven that is like the typical view of Heaven. They can enjoy all the pleasures of life without negative consequences. Or put another way they go back to the Godhead, which means to reach life’s ultimate goal, which is to return the self to its original and permanent home in the spiritual world.
The Godhead means the divine, spiritual nature of the Supreme Person, Krishna, the ultimate source of all energies. It also refers to the kingdom of God, a luminous, ecstatic spiritual environment where everyone is extremely happily living with Krishna in varieties of loving relationships. This spiritual world is the soul’s natural environment.
Ancient Egypt and the balance scales
Ancient Egypt shared a similar view of judgment of both good and bad deeds. If the scale tipped into the adverse range rather than the favorable range, oops. Similar judgment views can be seen in some Christian Bible verses.
Native Americans view of Heaven
Native Americans’ early religious views varied widely. Many have adopted Christianity over the centuries. Early views are very similar to other views, but they also believe they will be in harmony with nature. They may believe they will be cleansed of their wrongdoings, start fresh in life with their spiritual tribe, and learn and grow spiritually.
Jewish views of Heaven
Jewish views about Heaven differ from person to person. One consistent theme is that Heaven is a reward for right moral conduct. Rewards in Heaven can take many forms.
Jewish belief emphasizes tikkun olam, or repairing the world. We are all responsible for making the world a better place. This responsibility does not end with death. In the afterlife, it is believed that we will continue to work to repair the world, and that we will be rewarded for our efforts.
Near Death Experience (NDE) view of Heaven
These are reports from people who have been clinically dead. This means there has been no brain activity for over 7 minutes. It also means that their impressions are in narrative (story) form and not the chaos that typically represents dying brains. These people awaken and have these stories to tell of what they experienced in Heaven.
These reports are probably the closest we have to real confirmation of what Heaven looks like in the absence of visiting there ourselves. These reports generally confirm the typical view of Heaven. It’s a beautiful place of peace, love, happiness, and reuniting with loved ones. Often people there seem to be busy, but they have a sense of joy and contentment.
Jesus’ view of Heaven as a Jew
Jesus was a Jew and had to address the deep questions of the time. Ancient Judaism had no official doctrine of life after death for people. Only God, angels, and other immortals existed in Heaven. But Jewish views were changing, probably because of centuries of exposure to other beliefs in the area and their own spiritual enlightenment.
Other views in the area include the ancient Assyrian, Zoroastrianism in ancient Iran, the Egyptian, all with views of the afterlife in Heaven.
To secure this belief in Judaism, Jesus spoke about heaven more than any other topic in the Bible. He described it as a place of peace, joy, and love. He also said that it is a place where people will be reunited with their loved ones who have died.
Jesus said our place in Heaven would be prepared for us. In John 14:2, Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”
Some who have had Near Death Experiences confirm that there is a unique place prepared for each of us.
Jesus introduced the concept of “The Kingdom of God.” It is here, now, and forever. It isn’t a place but a spiritual state of being. All forgiven people are in this spiritual kingdom and have eternal life in Heaven.
Jewish views of Jesus reject Christians’ divinity claims about Jesus. Judaism views divinity claims as blasphemous. Blasphemy is an act or offense of speaking as a violation or misuse of what is regarded as sacred. These claims of divinity led to Jesus being killed by Jewish and Roman auithorities as a troublemaker.
Christian view of Heaven
Christians believe that at some point after death there is a judgment. Some believe the future of a person’s soul is decided by this judgment and could bring the person to Heaven or to some form of eternal banishment or retribution. Heaven is considered the same as in other religions.
To prepare for eternal life in Christianity, similar to Hinduism’s ridding of attachments, people have to overcome things like love of money and other ruinous things that take the place of God in our lives, and also learn not to mistreat others but love them.
The role of forgiveness is a mediating one. Those who turn away from doing wrong things, ask God for forgiveness and try to do better, are forgiven and not judged. What they have done in the past is no longer remembered. They are then in the Kingdom of God which is here, now, and forever.
Some believe forgiveness and Heaven is exclusive to “born again” followers of Christ and excludes at least two-thirds of God’s creation. Others believe that the law that all people should follow, and love, are in people’s hearts and that Jesus sent this message of forgiveness to all the world. Forgiveness is open to everyone regardless of their faith because God loves everyone God created and wishes none to perish but have everlasting life.
Those without forgiveness are subject to judgment.
Levels of Heaven
Hindu traditions, Christianity, and Chinese Dao traditions have notions of levels in Heaven.
Hinduism conceives of nine levels arranged in order of increasing purity, with the highest level being the most pure.
The religions springing from Abraham, which are Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, conceive of seven levels arranged in order of increasing holiness. The highest level is closest to God.
The Chinese traditions of Taoism, or Daoism, emphasizes living in harmony with the Dao. Dao means the Way or Path. The Dao is generally defined as the source of everything and the ultimate principle underlying reality. They conceive of twelve levels arranged in order of increasing enlightenment, with the highest level being the most enlightened.
Most religions have similar concepts of Heaven, viewing it as a beautiful place of peace, love, acceptance, and rejoining loved ones. Most consider that Heaven has levels representing places for those who are more spiritually pure.
Most religions hold love and not wronging to others as high ideals.
Christianity emphasizes reconciliation with God as the primary purpose of Christianity, bringing everyone into a loving relationship in the spiritual kingdom that is now and forever in Heaven.
Many Native Americans believe we continue to learn and grow spiritually in Heaven.
Many Jews believe that in Heaven we continue the work of repairing the world.
I want to believe in all of these things.
Note that my research for this article-post utilized Google Bard to collect a lot of information from different religions, but it was written by me from my point of view. Bard performed very well.
You might also enjoy my podcast, Our Times today and tomorrow and article series on Substack, which delves more deeply into a wide variety of topics with a spirituality focus. My Patheos articles (posts, whatever) will also become a podcast or videocast. (It takes a lot of work.)
The Heaven joke is from Upjoke.com.
The standard of belief and conduct for Christianity is love. God is love. We’re asked to be like God.
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