Here’s another update from the old Think Free. The original was repetitive and super stale. With this edit I tried to revive and better organize it. I’ll probably do a few more style tweaks over the next 24 hours or so but just wanted to get this out now! — MC
Heaven is a placeA place where nothing Nothing ever happens
If you’re old enough to remember that tune from the Talking Heads, you should know that it represents a sort of Zenlike view of ‘heaven’ but certainly not a Christian one.
Many different people from various backgrounds have speculated on and perhaps glimpsed aspects of heaven. And each person has their own unique story.
Heaven is difficult perhaps impossible to understand because normally one must die to experience its fullness in the afterlife. The body and mind are like a filter or limit that keeps us focused in our temporal world. But when we die, so many believe, we are free from those limitations and can enjoy the fullness of heaven.
Heaven in the Bible
The Hebrew Old Testament (OT) emphasizes a select few outstanding individuals who will see God “face to face.” And some passages indicate that God resides in a “high” place (Psalm 19:2-5). But the OT also says that the dead seem to, somewhat like the ancient Greek and Mesopotamian departed, meet their ancestors in an underworld (sheol).
The “heavens” (plural) in the OT is an inverted dome above the disc of the earth, separating the waters above and below (Genesis 1:6-9).
So the Jewish idea arguably differs from the Christian belief in heaven, even if the two religions are unified – some would say lumped together – from the perspective of the New Testament.
In the Christian New Testament, Jesus invites all of God’s chosen to join him “at the right hand of the Father” to enjoy a new vision of heaven where anyone is welcome.
Several NT passages speak directly to “losing one’s life” in this passing world to gain a lasting, true, and happy existence in heaven. And St. Paul tells us that we see “through a glass darkly” but eventually will see clearly in the afterlife.
What’s heaven like?
As for the constitution of heaven, Christ speaks in parables and metaphors because it’s too glorious to be described literally.
Throughout history, orthodox and unorthodox Christians have depicted countless types of heaven, some on the basis of mystical vision, others on the basis of speculation, and others, perhaps, on the basis of some combination of mystical experience and cultural filters.
Pseudo-Dionysus, or Dionysus the Areopagite, spoke of three levels of heaven, each inhabited by different kinds of spiritual beings. St. Thomas Aquinas notes that Dionysus’ view of heaven is supported by scripture. And the general Christian understanding is also scriptural. The NT says there are “many mansions” in God’s house (John 14:2).
For some saints and ascetic mystics, heaven may be partially experienced as a blessed union with God, united as ‘husband and wife.’ This may involve beholding the ‘face’ and being ‘illumined’ by the glory of God to become like an angel (Matthew 22:30, Mark: 12:25), “neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28).
The Islamic Koran speaks of a land of “flowing, crystal streams” that awaits God’s elect. Some say Islam has a simplistic view of heaven, while others maintain that the Koranic view is allegorical.
Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism all affirm the existence of various heavens but not as permanent abodes. By and large, the heavens of Asian religion are taken as stepping stones for the reincarnating soul whose ultimate aim is to achieve the unity of atman-brahman (Hinduism), nirvana (Buddhism) and jin (liberation in Jainism).
Many schools of Buddhism don’t posit any soul whatsoever, only the illusion of a soul. This matters if one understands heaven as a union of the personal, created self with the creator. For Buddhists, the self just disappears once one realizes it never was. What happens after that – experientially speaking – depends on which Buddhist school one believes in.
Some figures like Rael believe that aliens (ETs) are indistinguishable from angels. But most religious and spiritually-minded people do not uncritically believe that ETs come from heaven. The cosmic heavens of astronomical observations, I would argue, are of a far lower order than the heaven experienced by bona fide saints. Accordingly, angels are often said to reside in an entirely different place ‘above and beyond’ the observable universe.
Heaven is also said to surpass the so-called ‘astral’ realms where some New Age enthusiasts say energy beings exist.
From my perspective, it seems some folks might have a transcendental experience and assume it comes from the highest heaven when it does not. I think this happens quite often. Some mystics experience an ‘astral’ realm and assume it is the ultimate, highest reality when it’s not. Ditching all political correctness for the sake of meaningful dialog, I would suggest that perhaps some of those who believe in the ‘chakras’ and some form of ‘astrology’ might fit into this category.
The American mythographer, Joseph Campbell, argues in The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1968) that “heaven doesn’t exist” because it would take too long for the Virgin Mary, traveling at the speed of light, to get there. Here Campbell, despite his impressive achievements, entirely misses the point that heaven is above and beyond and yet immanent within the observable universe and its apparent ‘laws’ of space and time.
The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung had a NDE but didn’t experience heaven in the traditional Christian sense (Jung’s father was a Lutheran pastor). In his Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1963), Jung describes dying as something akin to “stepping out of a tight-fitting shoe.” After seeing the Earth from space and feeling deep serenity, Jung was resuscitated and unhappily returned to his body.
For many people with no particular religious belief, heaven is usually seen as a blissful, carefree environment where one reunites with deceased loved ones and is filled with a love supreme.
Contemporary reports about the existence and character of heaven also come from those who’ve undergone Near Death Experiences (NDE).
For Catholics, the saints in heaven are not sitting on their thumbs like the Talking Heads song mentioned at the outset. No, they are actively praying and interceding for us down here on Earth, so that we too may eventually join them and help out with the most essential work of all—namely, the work of salvation.