Heaven Research Paper

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Heaven is one of the most common names for a positive location or situation for humans in the afterlife. Different religions use different names for such an otherworldly circumstance, but few fail to minister to the human impulse and need to imagine and realize some sort of continuation or transformation of life after physical death. Until recent times life expectancy was very brief. People had to see their parents die young and, healthcare being what it was, they often saw their children die as well. In the face of this sense of loss, it was only natural that human yearning for meaning and reward focused on some sort of heaven. Participants in various faith communities (i.e., “religions”) have often borrowed details of heaven envisioned by other faith communities.

At other times, visionaries within one religious tradition might reject the heaven in other traditions, as they vied for supremacy. These competing visions of heaven were both natural and useful; natural because human life took on more value with the promise that it would be extended or transformed, and useful because claims about heaven attracted new adherents and could not be disproved by rival claims. Seers, prophets, revealers, and authors of holy books could claim to have come from or visited other realms, but in normal human experience people did not have neighbors or fellow worshipers who had returned to earth or come back from the dead to report on the place that was their reward and destiny. The absence of certifiable signs did not mean the end of heaven; if anything, it stimulated imaginations. Heaven came to be a major aspect of revelation in most holy books.

Ideas of heaven that can be traced to ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations have been highly influential on Western conceptions of the afterlife. These cultures did not leave written descriptions of heaven, but their conceptions of the afterlife can be deduced from temples, tombs, and monuments. Egyptian heaven, judging from representations in art adorning pyramids and tombs, was an attractive stage or place for pharaohs and other exalted humans, who needed sustenance and comfort and were served by slaves in the life to come. In Mesopotamia, evidence suggests, people believed that heaven was “above,” and references to a vertical dimension are present in many depictions of ritual found in tombs. “Heaven” was less often found on the horizontal level, though some paradises were pictured as bountiful and blessed utopias established here on earth. “Heaven” was still less frequently “below,” and what lay there was usually a shadowy nether existence or a place of eternal misery. Even in the modern world, believers in many faiths picture a literal place “up there”; all but instinctively, people look up or point up to locate heaven.

Among the Semitic peoples, who were most influential in the development of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the dominant concepts of the afterlife originated in Israel and in the Hebrew Scriptures. It surprises many whose faith derives from Hebrew scriptures that no very vivid heaven is promised or pictured in them. The abode of the dead was Sheol, a largely featureless and limited place. In later Judaism, as a reaction to captivity, military defeats, and other disasters, many in Israel did begin to make apocalyptic predictions. Many of these predictions were of coming catastrophes, but some foresaw the arrival of the Creator, the God of Israel, and a coming heaven on earth. In this environment, Jesus of Nazareth could take for granted contemporary pictures of heaven, fostered mainly by the party of the Pharisees, just as he could point to another school, the Sadducees, as being deficient because they did not believe in an afterlife.

The New Testament offers many promises and pictures of paradise or heaven, the reward of those who properly follow Christ, or the gift to those who believe in him. For Christians, Paradise meant being in the presence of God, along with angelic beings and other “saints,” amid pleasures revealed in parables or vividly described in the visionary biblical books. During Christianity’s first three centuries, many Christians endured persecution, which proved a great stimulus to the paradisiacal imagination. When Christianity began to prosper and become established, Christian images of heaven and its promises took on triumphal and lavish elements.

In the modern world, in the face of new understandings of the physical universe, heaven as a place “above” survived only metaphorically and was regarded by many as an obsolete concept. At the same time, opinion polls continually found clear majorities believing in some sort of heaven. As people became aware of cultures other than their own, they also learned of the vision of heaven in other religions. Muslims and Christians, especially when in conflict, came to be aware of each other’s promises. In the Qur’an, poetic language and lavish promises of paradise inspired Muslims to devotion, but also often inspired jihad (“holy cause”) and even martyrdom. Anti-Muslim propagandists publicized and exaggerated some references in the Qur’an to virgins who would be at the command of martyrs in heaven.

Buddhism teaches the concept of Nirvana, a means by which or a place where one is removed from the travails and suffering of this world, though Buddhists do not equate Nirvana with heaven. Hindus in their many texts and religious expressions have imagined many benign and blissful versions of an afterlife, including a kind of heaven, Swarga loka, where one remains only temporarily. In Hinduism, revealed and foreseen heavens tended to be paired, as they are in other faiths, with prescriptions on how to live in order to attain them.

For all the belief in heaven, it must be said that often it has become recessive in religious teaching. Karl Marx thought of religion as the opium of the people, offering a haven in a heartless world and what critics colloquially dismissed as “pie in the sky by and by.” Many of the faithful professed that they were not believers in God in order to get such rewards, but for intrinsic reasons. If the belief in heaven as a reward survives, it must be said that for many this belief is casual, minimal, not a primary motivating force. At the same time, as funeral liturgies and sermons in some religions, notably Christianity, suggest, preaching about an angel-filled heaven of bliss serves as a comfort to millions who mourn a departed loved one.

Bibliography:

  1. Emerson, Jan S., and Hugh Feiss, eds. 2000. Imagining Heaven in the Middle Ages. New York: Garland.
  2. Kueng, Hans. 1984. Eternal Life? Life after Death as a Medical, Philosophical, and Theological Problem, trans. Edward Quinn. Garden City, New York: Doubleday.
  3. McDannell, Colleen, and Bernhard Lang. 1988. Heaven: A History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  4. Wright, J. Edward. 2000. The Early History of Heaven. New York: Oxford University Press.
  5. Zaleski, Carol. 1996. The Life of the World to Come: Near-Death Experience and Christian Hope: The Albert Cardinal Meyer Lectures. New York: Oxford University Press.

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