Why is heaven such a cherished idea?
I don't think it's terribly complicated. The two things we fear most - death and suffering - are resolved and eradicated by the notion of heaven, which is a ready-made paradise of perpetual and eternal bliss, and the absence of all suffering. We are fond of the idea of immortality and eternal paradise.
It's hard to say if the idea of heaven would be a natural longing within a human being or if it is inculcated within us through the influence of religion. For example, would a 6-year-old who never went to church suddenly have a moment after launching a projectile with their Stomp Rocket and say, "Please, please, please - let there be a place of eternal perpetual bliss and the absence of all pain and suffering that I will go to when I die!"
If I'm watching television and I see a Taco Bell commercial, suddenly I feel a need a Nacho Doritos Locos Taco. If I go to church and hear about heaven every week, I become attached to the idea because of what it represents.
Heaven according to religion
The typical concept of heaven is that it's a ready-made place one arrives to.
The challenge, and perhaps the value, of religion is that it attempts to make the non-material, spiritual, metaphysical, transcendent dimension accessible, practical and relatable in human terms. God is anthropomorphised into a supreme being, evil is personified in Satan, eternal truth is encapsulated in a book (the Bible), and the two ultimate destinations are the consequence of our choices, which are represented by two locations - heaven and hell. The problem, however, is that over time we come to think of these metaphors, analogies and representations as real in a literal sense. This is where it is useful to use rational and critical thinking to evaluate these literal interpretations.
Is it rational to conclude that God is a human-like supreme being? Is it rational that evil is the result of a fallen angel, Satan? Is it rational that all transcendent truth is contained in one book? Is it rational that heaven is a location in the sky?
In my book, Inner Anarchy, I wrote:
"Heaven is the ace in the hole of the Christian religion. It’s the trump card. The promise of heaven is the hope that keeps Christians believing. No matter the hardships that befall their lives or the suffering they see in the world, believers derive a sense of comfort and justice from the idea that there will be a huge payoff in the end. Heaven is regarded as where things finally happen—where Christians’ hopes, rewards, and bliss will materialize. Heaven is the place where salvation is fulfilled and the good life begins—where all the believers are having a ball in their white nightgowns, walking up and down streets of gold and worshipping their God in glory. They have arrived!
Some things about this heaven just don’t add up. How can the “good news” be that we must endure a lifetime of difficulty, misery, and suffering only to get sick and die a miserable death so we can finally be happy and fulfilled? If you went to a restaurant that advertised exquisite cuisine, but said you had to first eat all the rotten food out of the back dumpster to get the good stuff, would you? I’m guessing not! Surely many people reach the end of their life and look back and wonder what the purpose of it was—especially as they leave all their grieving loved ones behind. That is cruel.
And there is something else that doesn’t add up about the Christian religion’s ideas of heaven. Up until now, no one has been there and come back and been able to authentically verify those ideas. While it is true that people have had near-death experiences and spoken of very real spiritual and mystical experiences, there is no scientific hard evidence that proves that heaven exists somewhere out there. It is still very much a theory that Christians cling to. If we were so certain that this belief of heaven as a perfect paradise is so infallible, then why not put a bullet in our heads and go there now?! Woo hoo! We are out of here! Christians should be racing each other to see who can get there first!
But, despite all the misery of the world, most of us don’t want to die. Instead, we do everything we can to slow down, hold off, and prevent death. We fight tooth and nail to cling to life for as long as we can here on earth—Christians as much as anyone. We spend billions and billions on medical research, doctors, and hospitals. Dying is the last activity we want to take part in."
Throughout history, just as religion was advancing the idea of heaven, many philosophers questioned it. 19th-century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach wrote:
“Christianity set itself the goal of fulfilling man’s unattainable desires, but for that very reason ignored his attainable desires. By promising man eternal life, it deprived him of temporal life, by teaching him to trust in God’s help it took away his trust in his own powers; by giving him faith in a better life in heaven, it destroyed his faith in a better life on earth and his striving to attain such a life. Christianity gave man what his imagination desires, but for that very reason failed to give him what he really and truly desires.”
Heaven is not a location
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote,
"The ‘kingdom of heaven’ is not something lying ‘above the earth’ or coming ‘after death’. It does not have a yesterday or a day after tomorrow, and it will not arrive in a ‘thousand years’. It is an experience of the heart. It is everywhere and it is nowhere."
In other words, Nietzsche was saying that the ideal and potential that heaven represents is not something that is located in some particular afterlife place, but is an ideal and potential that runs through the human heart and is meant to be manifested in the here and now on earth.
Nietzsche also wrote, “I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes."
What does "faithful to the earth" mean? It could include:
Becoming fully what we are
Actualizing our highest potentialities and possibilities
Preventing and alleviating human and planetary suffering
Aiding human and planetary flourishing
Honoring the gift of life by embracing it fully
What are these "otherworldly hopes"? Quite possibly they are:
Heaven as a place
Regarding the afterlife more highly than the herelife
Anticipating God to right every wrong and end all suffering
Promise of a future eternal paradise and perpetual happiness
Ludwig Feuerbach, in a series of lectures on religion, said the following:
“Man has many wishes that he does not really wish to fulfil, and it would be a misunderstanding to suppose the contrary. He wants them to remain wishes, they have value only in his imagination; their fulfilment would be a bitter disappointment to him. Such a desire is the desire for eternal life. If it were fulfilled, man would become thoroughly sick of living eternally, and yearn for death. In reality man wishes merely to avoid a premature, violent or gruesome death. Everything has its measure, says a pagan philosopher; in the end we weary of everything, even of life; a time comes when man desires death. Consequently, there is nothing frightening about a normal, natural death, the death of a man who has fulfilled himself and lived out his life. Old men often long for death. The German philosopher Kant could hardly wait to die, and not in order to resuscitate, but because he longed for the end. Only an unnatural, unfortunate death, the death of a child, a youth, a man in the prime of life, makes us revolt against death and wish for a new life. Such misfortunes are bitterly painful for the survivors; and yet they do not justify belief in a hereafter, if only because such abnormal cases – and they are abnormal even if they should be more frequent than natural death – could only have an abnormal hereafter as their consequence, a hereafter for those who have died too soon or by violence; but a special hereafter of this kind is an absurdity which no one could believe.”
1st Century Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus, in his monumental universal history Bibliotheca historica, wrote, “It is to the interest of states to be deceived in religion.” Roman historian, Livy, wrote in admiration of Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome, who “introduced the fear of the gods as the most efficacious means of controlling an ignorant and barbarous populace.” Roman philosopher, Seneca, added, “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.” And English philosopher, William Hazlitt, wrote, “The garb of religion is the best cloak for power.”
There are always two equally participating parties in a lie – the person who tells the lie and the person who believes it. Even as religion has been a means of control over people, it has also offered something people want. We have all heard the well-known line of Karl Marx, “Religion is the opium of the people.” Marx believed that religion had certain practical purposes in society that were similar to the function of opium in a sick or injured person: it reduced one's immediate suffering or distracted them from it by providing pleasant feelings and illusions. Marx saw religion as harmful and viewed the promise of heaven as a mechanism to distract people from seeing the class structure and oppression around them, and thus preventing the necessary revolution to change it.
To Marx, religion offered an escape from a grim and grinding world, typically caused by an oppressive ruling class. Religion tells people that God loves them as his own children, how he is in control of all things, will provide for and protect them, and how the faithful have a future eternal life of perfect happiness in heaven. Russian revolutionary, Mikhail Bakunin, wrote, “People go to church for the same reasons they go to a tavern: to stupefy themselves, to forget their misery, to imagine themselves, for a few minutes anyway, free and happy.”
But for those few hours of escape, religion commits the greatest injustice against humankind by corroding the part of us that is capable of accessing what human beings most deeply want and need. American psychologist, Abraham Maslow, developed the notion of the “hierarchy of needs,” which uses a triangle to convey the layers of fundamental needs all human beings have. On the bottom of the triangle are safety and security needs such as basic human survival. Maslow next identified needs of love, belonging and a stable self-respect and self-esteem. Nearing the top of the hierarchy, Maslow said human beings ultimately desire self-actualization and self-transcendence – reaching one’s full potential as an individual person, and meaningful engagement with a reality greater than oneself.
For a human being to consciously direct their lives in order to meet these essential needs they would have to have a strong sense of self-worth, self-trust and self-reliance. But these are the exact qualities that religion too often strips away from a person. Throughout history, religion has repeatedly discouraged people from thinking for themselves, dissuaded them from questioning what they’ve been told, and discredited their ability to direct their own lives. Religion weakens people’s relationship with themselves, and replaces it with a dependency on a particular belief-system, and the leaders and organization that represents it. Religion has often used this arrangement to control people and further its own self-serving ends.
There’s an insidious way that religion prevents a person from accepting reality. That’s why Marx said, "Religion is the opiate of the masses." We would rather be swept up in good-feeling illusions, than look reality square in the face and address it.
Too often religion’s idea of heaven lulls people into a mindset of...
not fully embracing the life you have now
not taking responsibility for your own happiness
accepting the unacceptable about your life and the world
The fundamental message of Christianity is: this life is hardship and suffering but it's only temporary, and enduring it gracefully will be rewarded by eternal paradise in heaven. To question this premise is to question God. To refuse the premise of current suffering and seek to eradicate it is a losing game and stands in opposition to the will and plan of God. God is the rescuer, fixer, saver, redeemer; not you.
This is why many non-religious people have happier lives than religious people; they are not holding-out for some better eternal future and instead, making the most of the life they have now. Jim Morrison was right, “No eternal reward will forgive us now for wasting the dawn.” In other words, it's unforgivable to squander the present because of some religious notion of the future.
God is not going to swoop down and solve our problems for us. Divine intervention is not the secret to a life of happiness. The gift you have already been given is the capability of consciously guiding your life in ways that are meaningful and fulfilling to you. You are responsible for your life.
This still leaves the question: Is heaven real?
This could be broken down into two questions:
Is heaven real?
In what way is heaven real?
People often speak of having transcendent, peak or heaven-like experiences. Consider the possibility that these are pointers to the way things could be. In other words, moments of deep love, peace, harmony, belonging, freedom and joy point to how things could be. Yes, hate, discord, alienation, oppression and suffering are rampant in our world. Does it have to be this way? Could it be a different way? And more importantly, could we create and produce that way?
How would things be if humankind got its act together and focused 100% of our time and energies working towards the good? We don't know. Maybe the sky's the limit, and then once we reach the limit of the sky, there's a sky beyond that and then another and another. Who knows where this goes! What are the limitations of the human being? Do we know?
The universe has been in a process of expansion, stretching back some 14 billion years. The evolution of living things on earth began 4.5 billion years ago. Human evolution has been a process of a meager 85 million years. Maybe the universe, living things, and human beings are only in the toddler stage of development, at best. Who's to say that there aren't other entire dimensions or realms of expansion and evolution that we haven't even gotten to yet? Maybe the current study of consciousness is a doorway into one of those new dimensions or realms.
Is it possible that heaven is meant to represent this realm or dimension of becoming?
Consider the possibility that the notion of "on earth as it is in heaven" is meant to convey that the next leap in the expansion and evolution of the cosmos exists right now in potential, waiting to be actualized. Maslow spoke of "self-actualization" as a step in individual human development, but what if it's also a decisive step in the process of an ever-advancing universe and the evolution of our collective reality as human beings and all living things.
Consider this interpretation of some of the biblical stories:
1. The Garden of Eden in Genesis represents the idea of a fully evolved and actualized universe in which all living things coexist in peace, harmony and flourishing.
2. Adam and Eve's eating of the forbidden fruit represents a monumental stage in the saga of the unfolding universe because human beings discover that we have the capacity to use our powers to create heaven or hell.
3. God is initially the primary agent calling the shots and overseeing human affairs while human beings fail miserably at executing their human agency and makes the world more like hell than heaven.
4. Around the time of Abraham, human beings are starting to get the hang of it, which marks a transition where God withdraws into the background, and more highly developed human beings take the reigns of guiding and directing human affairs.
5. Jesus, referred to as the "Second Adam", represents the fully actualized human being who is a synthesis of divine/heaven and human/earth, and capable of restoring what was represented in the paradise of Eden, which Jesus refers to as the "kingdom of heaven."
6. Jesus teaches that the "kingdom of heaven" is real and present in potential within every human being, waiting to be realized. Jesus also defines "eternal life" as "knowing God"; in other words, "eternal life" is accessing the transcendent dimension, which we experience through love, peace, harmony, equanimity, joy and well-being.
You could answer the two heaven questions this way:
Is heaven real? Yes.
In what was is heaven real? Heaven is real in potential.
What is "potential"? Potential is having the capacity to become something. You can't get any more real than that. A person may have the potential to become an NBA player. Not everyone has this potential. Out of those who have this potential, some number of them actualize that potential and in fact become NBA players. The point is to consider that heaven is real and exists as potential and that the nucleus of this potential is within each of us. Heaven exists as potential. This potential is represented in the Eden Paradise of peace, harmony, belonging, well-being and flourishing, and the absence of enmity and suffering. It's a potential we are capable of actualizing. In other words, heaven is not ready-made place you go to, it's a reality that you and I create and produce. We don't to to heaven, we make it.
Think of the biblical idea of "sin" as not living up to that potential. Sin is missing the mark and falling short of the potential that is available to each of us.
But there's also a stark warning in this. Hell is also real and exists as potential. The capacity to create the anguish, suffering, and torment of hell is also within us. We have seen this hell made real throughout history and is real today. This is what Adam and Eve discovered - the human condition and predicament is tricky; heaven and hell are both within us as a potential. We can create and produce either one.
Consider the possibility that heaven is not a read-made place you go to, but a real potential that we create in the world, and quite possibly representing the next stage in the expansion of the universe, evolution of our species, and the self-actualization of a new collective reality.
If heaven is real in potential; than you could say that heaven is a choice. If hell is real in potential, hell is a choice. Every choice we make in life is either creating heaven or creating hell. The choices we make in our personal life, in our relationships, in our work, in our interactions with others, what we care about, what matters to us, the beliefs, views and mindsets that govern our lives, our response to human suffering... every choice... is being made out of a heaven and hell that are real and exist as a potential within each of us. Heaven on earth is a choice you must make, not a place you must find.
You are heaven
Deeper still, consider the possibility that everything heaven represents exists right now as innate qualities of your innate nature and true self. If the word and concept of "God" points to ultimate reality, then "Imago Dei" means that each of us is a manifestation of one ultimate reality - ultimate wholeness, ultimate peace, ultimate happiness, ultimate wellbeing. Virtually every great spiritual master such as Jesus and Buddha taught that the heaven reality was not a place but a quality of being. The "kingdom of God" and "nirvana" are not future locations, but a present reality that is the ground of our very being. In other words, heaven is not a future location but is just another name for what you are in every moment. You have always been heaven (timeless and infinite wholeness, peace, harmony, happiness, serenity, absence of all suffering), you are always are heaven, you will always be heaven.
The Buddha's moment of enlightenment under the Bodhi tree was the realization that nothing fundamentally needed to change in order to know peace, serenity and freedom. In other words, there is nothing wrong with the way things truly are at its most real and fundamental level, and therefore there is nothing truly, factually or objectively preventing peace, serenity and freedom. Buddha's profound insight was that all is well and whole at the most fundamental level and that his underlying nature and essence was one with that wholeness.
Jesus would not have disagreed with any of these insights, but expressed them in different ways and focused on different things, namely the lie of separation between God and humankind, which Jesus believed was at the root of the kind of suffering and ignorance that Buddha spoke of.
Heaven can be attained here and now. We do not have to wait for death to reach it. The lived human experience is about translating this reality into our lived human experience. You are heaven. You cannot seek what you already are. You can only let go of what you are not.
There was once a group of very wise men who had each discovered the kingdom of God. Wanting it all for their themselves, they met and discussed where they could hide the Kingdom so ordinary people couldn’t find it.
One said, “Let’s hide it in the depths of the ocean.”
Another said, “No, let’s hide it in the farthest galaxies.”
The third replied, “No, people will surely look there. Let’s hide it in the most obvious place, a place where it will never occur to them to look because they’ll think it’s too simple. Let’s hide the kingdom of God inside of people. They’ll never look there!”