Jeffrey Burton Russell. Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. Editor: Robert Kastenbaum. Volume 1, Macmillan Reference USA, 2002.

Heaven is usually thought of as some sort of afterlife, a view provoking hopeful belief on the one hand and skepticism on the other. Yet heaven is much more complicated and diverse than that. Those influenced by Western civilizations generally think of heaven along Christian lines—or along caricatures of those lines, as in cartoons featuring harps, wings, and clouds. On a less crude level, heaven is often derided as part of a system of reward and punishment, a “pie in the sky” or “opiate” diverting people from attention to bettering their present, earthly lives. However, the essence of the word “heaven” worldwide is the transformation of chaos into order (from the Greek kosmos, meaning “ordered universe”), meaninglessness into meaning, and selfishness into compassion. Its attributes are usually joy, contentment, harmony, compassion, bliss, community, love, and a vision of God, or even union with God.

Different languages have different words for “heaven.” More than that, the concepts behind the words vary radically among different religions and even within each religion. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and innumerable other religions display a panoply of beliefs. Heaven is not necessarily an afterlife. The most universal meaning of the concept is a joyful existence beyond the plane of human ordinary thought, feelings, and perceptions: a “new life” or “different life.” To be sure, that concept is frequently expressed as afterlife, but it is also expressed as timeless or eternal life, transcendent life, and even as a state of existence in which humans can live a life free of illusion during their present lives. Heaven often means the realm of god(s), a distinctly different meaning from heaven as a goal for humans, but the two ideas readily merged.

Beliefs in a life different from what humans daily experience appeared at least as early as the Neolithic period. Primal religions number in the thousands and most were characterized by belief in a world other than, or beyond, physical life, a “place” or “time” (in Aborigine, “dreamtime”) of a different, often greater, reality than that of the physical world. Often this was accompanied by the belief that humans have contact with that other world both during life and after death. Shamans, oracles, and dreams could be consulted in order to be in touch with the other life. The spirits of the dead remained with us or else entered that other life where we would eventually join them. Burials included artifacts that the dead person would be able to use in the other world. The other world could be a place or a state of being. Often (but not necessarily) it was conceived as being “up” because of its early association with the sun, moon, and stars.

Another way of understanding heaven is what it is not. Many traditions worldwide affirmed that original cosmic order was somehow deformed by the actions of ignorant or malicious humans or deities. In Western religions this understanding was expressed in a chronological story: In the beginning was Paradise, where all was in harmony; a conscious choice was made by humanity (Adam and Eve) to reject that harmony, thereby disrupting cosmos; at the end of time, harmony would be restored. In that sense, Paradise was where humankind begins and heaven where humankind ends, but often the two were blended and taken as synonyms. Most religions perceived a perennial tension between the world as it originally was and was meant to be (the Golden Age), the world as it was now, and the world as it would be when chaos and evil were overcome and cosmos restored.

Ancient Ideas

In ancient Egypt, cosmic order and justice (ma’at) prevailed, but it could be temporarily distorted by human evil. The ka (spirit of the dead person) descends into the underworld to be judged by the gods (specifically Anubis). The unjust were tormented in scorching heat, while those living in accordance with ma’at rose into the eternal realm of the gods. Ancient Mesopotamian religion had little idea of heaven: The dead were doomed to unending gloom and wretchedness in the darkness beneath the earth, with the dubious consolation that the rich and powerful in earthly life would have a less miserable status in the afterlife.

In early Greco-Roman religion, the souls of the dead descended to the shadowy underworld of Hades; later, the spirits of heroes were believed to escape that fate and to rise instead into the Elysian Fields, which were variously located in an earthly garden, a mysterious “land” to the West, or among the stars. Elysium, wherever located, was a place of fulfillment of earthly delights. Greco-Roman philosophers focused on the virtue of intellect and on the perfect world of ideas, toward which humans attempt to strive but can never attain. Perfect being was always beyond human reach; still, Plato argued for the immortality of the soul, which consisted of a combination of the basic life force common to all creatures with mind (nous), which was unique to humans. Plato tended to view the fields of heaven as a temporary abode for the soul before it returned to the earth in a reincarnation. The cycle of reincarnation ended with the purification of the soul—losing its bodily needs and desires—and its final union with Being itself. Cicero (106-43 B.C.E.), the great Roman lawyer, linked the divine with justice and saw Elysium as a reward for those who served the Roman state. The Later Platonists of the third to fifth centuries C.E. taught that everything in the cosmos yearns for such union and that everything, once elevated beyond matter into pure spirit, will eventually attain that happy end.

Eastern Religions

The major Eastern religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism) had less-defined concepts of heaven and hell than the Abrahamic, monotheist religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), because their distinction between good and evil tended to be less sharp.

Hinduism. Hinduism is a modern name for a complex combination of traditions in India. The first great period of Hinduism was that of the Vedas, about 1500 to 1000 B.C.E. In Vedic religion, the dead, who retained personal consciousness, went to a lush green place with beautiful music. Those more devout and observant of ritual were closest to the gods; those lax in ritual farther away. Between about 700 and 100 B.C.E., the Upanishads (sacred scriptures) reshaped Hinduism. They taught that the essence of heaven was to be freed from maya (illusion), with which humans surrounded themselves in this earthly life, which blocked them from reality, and immersed them in the desire, pain, and suffering inherent in this life. Freedom from maya was obtained through knowledge, love, labor, and the spiritual disciplines known as yogas. Hinduism affirmed that souls, having entered the world, were bound to a long series of rebirths. The deeds of their lives formed a tendency of character, which they could improve or impair in future lives. Heaven became merely a transitory state between rebirths. Ritual remained central, however, and in the early C.E., bhakti (the practice of devotion to a particular god, such as Vishnu) became a way of escaping the cycle of rebirth. For true heaven was union with Brahman (the ultimate divine principle), a union in which consciousness of self disappeared. In this state, known as samadhi, one’s soul was reabsorbed into the unbounded “allness” of being as a drop of water being merged with the sea.

Buddhism. Buddhism, partly rooted in early Hindu culture, also posited a state of cyclical flux, samsara. Samsara might lead one into rebirth on the earth as a human or an animal, or it might pass one through a variety of temporary heavens. Until the cycle was broken, both the earth and heavens were intermediate states between one incarnation and the next, and each incarnation was characterized by dukkha (suffering), tankha (craving for worldly possessions), and anicca (impermanence). One’s actions (karma) would bear fruit in future lives, which could be improved through meritorious, compassionate deeds. Ultimate heaven was escape from the cycle into union with the deepest reality. This required the extended practice of meditation and detachment—from objects, from people, and from oneself—that constituted enlightenment and, ultimately, nirvana. Nirvana was the extinction of all concerns, desires, and fears of one’s finite self; it was complete union with ultimate reality beyond human comprehension.

Classical Buddhism had no concept of individual immortality: The atman (“soul”) is immortal but only as part of the world soul. The individual is simply as one candle flame that is a part of fire itself. One form of Buddhism, “Pure Land Buddhism,” originating about 500 C.E., resembled Western religions more by focusing on the saving power of a bodhisattva (a perfectly wise person whose life was dedicated to compassion for all living, suffering beings) who brought the compassionate into a heaven (“pure land”) with beautiful meadows, lakes, rivers, music, and ease. But even in this variety of Buddhism, the pure land was a prelude to the essential attainment of nirvana.

Taoism. Taoism was a syncretistic blend of philosophical, shamanistic, and popular religions, a tradition crystallized in the Tao Te Ching, a book attributed to Lao Tzu in the 600s B.C.E.Tao had three aspects: Tao as the ultimate underlying basis, reality, and wisdom of existence; Tao as the universe when it is in harmony with the higher Tao; Tao as human life on the earth in harmony with the other Taos. Virtue consisted in losing the false consciousness that the individual has any meaning apart from the whole society or even world. Philosophical Taoism, which believed in no other world beyond this one, influenced Confucianism (the teachings of Kung Fu-tzu in the 500s B.C.E.). Popular, religious Taoism had tales of journeys to heaven by immortal sages. Like Taoism, Confucianism (the dominant religion of China until it was replaced by Marxism), centered on harmony. Heaven was the underlying harmony of being, not a habitation for humans or even gods in the usual sense. The point of Confucian teaching was maintaining accord with that harmony in human society, particularly the family. Worldly as it was, however, Confucianism held an implicit belief in immortality in its worship of ancestors, who continued to be with their earthly family in their present life.

Secular Religions

A variety of modern secular religions arose in the past three centuries, including the Enlightenment cult of reason, the Romantic cult of nature, and, the most influential, Marxism. Marxism was a secular religion excluding all metaphysical realities (except, oddly, a semi-divine “history”). Marxist heaven, achieved through “socialism,” was the classless society that would emerge at the end of history, a secularization of Judeo-Christian traditions of the Messiah and the millennium. Its success in China was largely owing to its compatibility with the Confucian tradition that the individual is unimportant. Reductionism or “Scientism,” the belief that the only truth is scientific truth, suffused twentieth-century thought, adding to skepticism, since heaven is not locatable in the space-time continuum.

Judaism. The three great Western monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam— together accounted for at least one-third of the earth’s population at the beginning of the twenty-first century. To treat them in roughly chronological order, ancient Hebrew religion (whose origins are at least as old as the thirteenth century B.C.E.) was founded on belief in a transcendent deity— Yahweh or Adonai (the Lord). Heaven was the dwelling place of the Lord, not a place in which humans lived; humans’ only life was this earthly one. With extremely rare exceptions (such as the prophet Elijah) humans did not enter the transcendent plane. The “Kingdom of God,” like human life itself, was worked out in this present, earthly existence. The essence of Hebrew religion was that the Lord had made a covenant (contract) with his chosen people, Israel. Only Israelites could participate in that covenant, and only those who were faithful to the covenant as expressed in Torah (the first five books of the Bible) could enter the Kingdom of God. Israel cemented morality into religion. Death brought for most humans a shadowy existence in Sheol (similar to Greco-Roman Hades); for vicious violators of the covenant pain in the fires of the hellish Gehenna; for Israelites faithful to the covenant a blissful existence at the end of the world in the ‘olam ha-ba, the kingdom of God on the earth.

Between 250 B.C.E. and 100 C.E., Hebrew religion shifted its focus. Incessant persecutions by Syrians, Romans, and other conquerors made justice and mercy seem remote or lacking in earthly life, so attention shifted to another sort of life where those qualities, which one expected of the Lord, ruled. Still, that life was not perceived as an afterlife for individuals but instead as the future coming of a Messiah establishing a Kingdom of the Lord at the end of time on this earth. The old division between the Qehel Adonai (those Israelites faithful to the covenant) and those violating the covenant came to imply a divine judgment on each person’s life, either immediately at death or at the end of time. Those who lived at the time of the Messiah would live joyful lives together in the community of the Qehel. But what of the deceased? Justice seemed to require that the entire Qehel Adonai, including the dead, should live in the Kingdom when the Messiah came. And since this Kingdom would be a bodily existence on this earth, the dead would be resurrected at the end time, in Jerusalem, and in their own, personal, earthly bodies. This remains the teaching of Orthodox Jews, while the more “liberal” or “secular” tend not to look beyond the present life. In any Jewish scenario, a human being had only the one earthly life.

Dualism. Quite different religions and philosophies appeared around the eastern Mediterranean during late pre-Christian and early Christian eras. The most influential philosophy of the ancient Greeks was that of Plato (c. 400 B.C.E.). Platonism was strongly idealist and dualistic, affirming a dichotomy between spirit and matter, spirit being more worthy, essential, and eternal than matter. In the Neoplatonist thought of the early Common Era, pure spirit was defined as real and matter as lacking existence, teetering on the verge of unreality. The Iranian religion Mazdaism (or Zoroastrianism), along with its later successor Manicheism, was based on the belief that there were two almost equally powerful spirit gods. One spirit, Ohrmazd, was the spirit of light and goodness and being; the other spirit, Ahriman, was the spirit of darkness and evil and the void. The two struggled for sovereignty over the cosmos. At last Ohrmazd would destroy Ahriman and bring about the frashkart, the end of the corrupted world, and the restoration of the cosmos to its pristine perfection—or better, for there was no longer any potential for spoiling the shining world. Ohrmazd would judge humans and assign the followers of darkness to annihilation and the followers of light to eternal bliss. Meanwhile, at death, bodiless souls ascended toward Ohrmazd and “The Singing House” to the degree that they had transcended earthly concerns.

At the end of the pre-Christian era, Platonic and Mazdaist ideas converged in a movement known as Gnosticism, a variety of religious views. Gnostics, like Mazdaists, posited an eternal struggle between good and evil; like Platonists, they posited the eternal opposition of spirit and matter. Combining the two, they affirmed an eternal struggle between good spirit and evil matter. Whereas Platonists tended to see matter primarily as essentially lack of being, or nothingness, Gnostics saw matter as loathsome evil. The human body was the vile prison for the human spirit, which longed to escape its bondage in order to return to the spirit world with the triumphant Spirit of Good. Being that the Gnostics regarded the body as disgusting, they completely rejected the Jewish and Christian resurrection of the body, affirming instead the immortality of a “soul” defined as pure spirit.

Christianity. Early Christian thought, based in Hebrew religion yet influenced by the ambient Platonism of the time, found itself affirming the resurrection of the body yet also allowing for some sort of immortal “soul.” For Christian theology from Paul onward, however, “soul” did not mean pure spirit but rather a complete person, body and spirit inseparably together. The basic Christian idea of heaven derived from the Jewish idea of the Qehel Adonai, which Christianity translated and expanded into the salvation of the entire community (Jews and Gentiles together and alike) of those loyal to Christ. For Christianity, death became a moral matter more than a natural one, for the physical death at the end of one’s present life meant almost nothing in comparison to the “second death” or “inner death” of those rejecting the Lord. At the end time, the dead would all rise in the very same body they have today and would rejoice in the Kingdom of God announced by the Messiah, Jesus Christ, who would judge between those who love and those who reject love: the latter being in hell and the former in heaven. In some forms of Christianity, the Messiah would usher in and rule a thousand-year Kingdom of God on Earth before all time was dissolved. For Christians, like Jews, heaven meant essentially to be in the presence of the eternal God. Still, in popular belief Christians came to view it as a physical place other than on this earth.

Early Christian theologians bravely faced the problem posed by the undeniable delay between the physical death of an individual and the resurrection at the end of time. There seemed to be an interim period when spirit and body were separated while the spirit awaited resurrection. Once it was admitted that spirit and body could thus be separated even only temporarily, Christianity slid toward the concept (already promoted by Platonism) of an immortality of the “soul” defined as spirit. Even though theology always insisted on the resurrection of the body and downplayed the immortality of an incorporeal spirit, in popular Christian thought the latter idea gradually became prevalent.

Christian theology also seldom focused on reward and punishment. The hope was not to have God punish sinners, but to have them change their lives so that they could participate in the community of the saved, a heaven of mutual, selfless opening up in love between humans and God and among humans themselves. Again, popular, legend-creating, storytelling, picture-making Christianity preferred more colorful, concrete visions of immortal spirits being either delighted in heaven or else tormented in a hell of darkness and fire. From such popular vision, literature sprang the most celestial poem ever written, Paradiso, in Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321).

Islam. Founded in the 600s C.E., Islam was based upon the Qur’an (the written revelation to Prophet Muhammad). For Muslims the Qur’an was the dictated, “literal” word of God, yet influences of Judaism and Christianity were clearly present. Islam affirmed the judgment of individuals according to their deeds in this life and loyalty to the teachings of the Prophet, especially compassion and generosity. Islam focused on the formation of a just society on the earth, but the Qur’an was also explicit in affirming the resurrection of the body. At the end of the world, the resurrected dead were judged and then divided into the damned and the faithful, with the latter entering heaven. Heaven was another, better place than this earth, yet a distinctly physical one in its attributes, including elaborate gardens, carpets, banquets, cooling drinks, sex, and other bodily comforts. The Qur’an also permitted metaphorical readings, and al-Ghazali (Algazel) in the twelfth century C.E., along with other Muslim spiritual leaders and writers, such as the medieval Sufis, sensed a deeper reality, realizing that the human mind was incapable, even at its most sublime, of formulating concepts that, like heaven, were rooted in the ultimate and entire reality of the cosmos. For them, heaven meant being in the presence of the eternally just and merciful Allah (“the God”).

Concepts of heaven are thus so diverse that skepticism on the overt (literal) level is natural. Yet statements about heaven can be true if are they are taken, not as scientific or historical statements about space-time, but rather as metaphors for deeper and more diverse truths beyond that conceived by materialist reductionists (those maintaining that truth is exclusively to be found in the scientific observation of matter). Modern first-world affluence, encouraging faith in acquisition of objects and power, along with alienation from nature in huge urban conglomerations where the light of the stars and the green of the fields are blotted out, have caused heaven to fade. Yet it is the fulfillment of the deeply rooted human longing for meaning, for a greater understanding of the cosmos, of other people, and of the self, and for greater knowledge and love than are comprised in this present life. No human concept can possibly contain the fullness of reality, but truth is found more by opening out than by narrowing down. There is, and can be, no evidence against the existence of heaven, and hundreds of generations of wise, sensitive, and knowledgeable people have affirmed it and claimed to experience it.