“What is Heaven?”
Recently my husband and I were discussing this question, along with “where is Heaven?”, “Is Heaven a place to go?”, and, “Can Heaven be a place on Earth?”. Not typical fare for our daily conversation, but as my sweetheart was preparing to present the topic at an upcoming retreat, he thought he’d bounce some ideas off me and pick my brain a little. Surprisingly, what began as a conversation starter developed into a thoughtful research project for me and an opportunity for discovery. This is the first in a series of eight articles that explores concepts of Heaven shared by many faiths and philosophies, and how these beliefs can shape our lives in the present moment.
Ideas About Heaven
When I became interested to explore Heaven as a topic, I wanted to get a picture of what people believed about it. In our popular culture I could easily list the well-known and often “comical” aspects of Heaven: angels with wings and halos on clouds playing harp music as Saint Peter awaits incoming residents at the pearly gates, (“Why are they pearly?” my husband wonders) checking to see if they are on the list. Of course Heaven is somewhere “up there” (hence the clouds) and the Other Place is “down there” (deep in the molten earth, thanks, in part, to Dante and his Divine Comedy). These are the images we are used to hearing about in jokes and seeing in television commercials, comic strips and cartoons. We don’t really question where the images come from, we accept that they represent a place we eventually want to be invited.
Once I considered the pop culture images of Heaven, I began to wonder what people of various religious faiths and philosophies really believe about Heaven, if they believe at all. Gathering information from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, various Chinese religions/philosophies, Native American and Australian Aboriginal cultures, I learned that while there are some shared beliefs, there are many differences and variations on the five W’s of Heaven. To give an example, let’s take the first W: Who. If you were to ask a diverse group of religious practitioners, “Who is in Heaven?” or “Who gets into Heaven?” you would hear a variety of answers from “God” and “people who are born again” to “people who have lived a good life” to “the Elect.” It would seem that the criteria for getting in is different depending on what faith tradition you subscribe to.
But these were just details. I was looking for bold characteristics to identify what Heaven is all about. So, getting back to my initial questions, “What is Heaven?” and “Can Heaven be a place on Earth?”, I reviewed all the information I gathered and compiled a list of seven identifying characteristics of Heaven. Not a mystical Heaven, but a practical, tangible one that could be reached in the here and now. In this Heaven on Earth, it is not necessary to subscribe to a religion; all you need is the desire to live thoughtfully and with care for yourself, others, and the world around you.
Next Post: Identifying the Characteristics of Heaven: Living in Community