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.
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.
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.
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.
See also: Afterlife in Cross-Cultural Perspective; Buddhism; Catholicism; Hell; Hinduism; Immortality; Islam; Judaism; Near-Death Experiences; Purgatory
Bernstein, Alan. The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.
Hick, John D. Death and Eternal Life. London: Collins, 1976.
Himmelfarb, Martha. Ascent to Heaven in Jewish and Christian Apocalypses. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Kung, Hans. Eternal Life? Life after Death As a Medical, Philosophical, and Theological Problem. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1984.
LeGoff, Jacques. The Birth of Purgatory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
Nickelsburg, George W. E., Jr. Resurrection, Immortality, and Eternal Life in Intertestamental Judaism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972.
Russell, Jeffrey Burton. A History of Heaven. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.
Wright, J. Edward. The Early History of Heaven. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Zaleski, Carol. The Life of the World to Come. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Zaleski, Carol. Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Zaleski, Carol, and Philip Zaleski. The Book of Heaven: An Anthology of Writings to Ancient and Modern Times. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
JEFFREY BURTON RUSSELL
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.
SEE ALSO Hell; Religion
Kueng, Hans. 1984. Eternal Life? Life after Death as a Medical, Philosophical, and Theological Problem, trans. Edward Quinn. Garden City, New York: Doubleday.
Wright, J. Edward. 2000. The Early History of Heaven. New York: Oxford University Press.
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.
Martin E. Marty
Heaven is the general name given to an afterlife that is considered a place of eternal happiness and peace. It may be an actual physical place, or it may be a plane of existence separate from the known world. Heaven has often been described as a paradise of some kind, located above or beyond the limits of the ordinary world, perhaps high on a mountain peak or floating on a distant island. Over the centuries, traditional ideas have changed, and many people now think of heaven more in terms of a state of spiritual existence or salvation than as a precise though otherworldly place.
Buddhist View A version of Buddhism based on Amida or Amitabha (pronounced uh-mee-TAH-buh), the Buddha of Boundless Light, emerged in Japan in the 1100s. Followers of this sect believed in an eternal afterlife in a realm called the Pure Land or the Western Paradise. Anyone could enter the Pure Land through sincere spiritual devotion to Amida, who taught that the road to salvation lay in saving others from suffering. Other versions of Buddhism described the soul's ideal fate not as arriving in a heaven but as achieving nirvana (pronounced nur-VAH-nuh), a state of being in which individual desires have ceased to exist.
Chinese View Traditional Chinese religion and mythology included multiple concepts of heaven. Tian (pronounced tee-AHN), associated with the sky, was both heaven and a deity—or god—who was the supreme power over gods, men, and nature and the source of order in the universe. The Chinese believed that their rulers' authority came from Tian, and they called their king or emperor Tianzi, Son of Heaven.
The Taoist tradition of Chinese mythology spoke of Penglai (pronounced pang-LYE) Shan (Mount Penglai), a mountain with eight peaks. On each was perched the palace of one of eight beings that could live forever. Like many heavens, Penglai was described in terms of precious things: it had trees of coral that bore pearls instead of fruit. No human could enter Penglai because it was surrounded only by air.
Pre-Christian European View Before Christianity became the dominant religion of Europe, earlier cultures had various ideas about the dwelling places of the gods and the destinations of human souls after death. Some of these are comparable to heavens. In Norse mythology , for example, the gods lived in Asgard (pronounced AHS-gahrd), the highest realm of existence. Like the human world below, Asgard had farms, orchards, and estates. The souls of heroes who had died in battle went to Valhalla (pronounced val-HAL-uh), the “hall of the slain,” where they spent their afterlife in joyous fighting and feasting.
Myths of the Slavic peoples of eastern Europe mentioned a paradise called Buyan (pronounced BOO-yahn), described as either a silent and peaceful underwater city or an island washed by a river of healing. The Celtic peoples had myths of an island paradise called Avalon (pronounced AV-uh-lahn). Some legends say that King Arthur was carried there after he fell in battle. The Greeks imagined their deities as dwelling in a palatial heaven high above the mortal world on Mount Olympus (pronounced oh-LIM-puhs). The blessed dead, however, went to Elysium (pronounced eh-LEE-zee-um), or the Elysian Fields, a green garden-like afterworld.
Jewish View The ancient Hebrew religion featured an afterlife, but it did not include a heaven or a hell. By about 200 bce, however, the influence of other cultures had introduced the ideas of reward and punishment after death. Heaven came to be seen as a place where the righteous dead would dwell with God. Certain Jewish traditions pictured heaven as a mountain with seven tiers or layers. According to some accounts, King Solomon's throne, which had six steps leading to the throne itself, provided the model for the structure of heaven.
Christian View The Christian idea of heaven is based on the Jewish one. Although modern Christians are more likely to interpret heaven as spiritual union with God, earlier generations of believers placed that union in a physical setting that was often described in great detail. In the early 1300s, Italian poet Dante Alighieri created a vision of heaven in the Paradiso, the last section of The Divine Comedy, a long symbolic poem about the soul's journey after death. Drawing on both Christian and pre-Christian traditions, Dante portrayed paradise as high above the earthly world. It consisted of nine heavens, one inside the other, rotating around the earth. The tenth heaven, which included all the others, was the destination of blessed souls who were ranked in order of their virtue, the more virtuous being closer to God.
Artists and writers of the Renaissance developed three visions of heaven. The first, the realm beyond the skies, was the source of images of heaven as a place of clouds and winged angels. The second, the garden of paradise, was the natural world raised to the level of divine perfection—an image associated with the Garden of Eden , the lost paradise that once existed on earth. The third vision was that of the heavenly city, a symbol of perfect organization and harmony.
Islamic View Building on earlier Jewish and Christian traditions, Islamic mythology also envisioned a multilayered paradise. Heaven was a pyramid, cone, or mountain rising from the lowest level to the highest. Some interpretations include eight levels, while others specify seven levels. The phrase “seventh heaven,” meaning the highest happiness, comes from this image. The Muslim heavens are garden paradises of shade trees, flowing streams, and abundant pleasure. The various levels are associated with precious substances such as gold, silver, and pearls, but the highest level is made of pure, divine light and is devoted to the ceaseless, joyous praise of God.
Heaven and Immortality
The idea of heaven is bound up with that of eternal life. Descriptions of many heavens make a special point of mentioning immortality, whether of the gods or of human souls. In the Norse Asgard, for example, the gods guard a precious treasure—the golden apples of immortality. The apples of eternal life also grow on the Celtic island of Avalon, a name that means “apple isle.” In Penglai, one of the 108 different heavens in the Chinese Taoist tradition, the Dew of Eternal Life flows through streams and fountains, offering immortality to anyone who drinks it—but only insects, birds, and the gods can ever reach Penglai.
Heaven in Context
Heaven, as a sacred place or a state of being, appears in the myths and legends of cultures around the world. It can be the dwelling place of the god or gods, the place where people find their reward after death, or both. It offers a group or culture the comfort of knowing that some form of existence continues after death. In many cases, heaven is seen as a reward for living according to the standards and laws of the culture. Many religions include the idea of heaven as a place where people are rewarded for living a life of virtue or goodness. Some scholars have argued that, without this incentive for living according to established laws, humans would have no reason to keep from doing anything they desired, regardless of how it affected others.
The reward of heaven is a reflection of the culture in which it arises. For the Norse, the best heaven was Valhalla, a place of feasts that was earned by dying a glorious death in battle. Indeed, the ultimate reward for those in Valhalla was to once again fight, this time alongside Odin (pronounced OH-din) in the final battle between the gods and the giants. By contrast, heaven as found in Christianity and Islam is a place of eternal peace, love, and beauty. It serves as a reward for remaining faithful on earth even when these things were not to be found. For Buddhists, heaven is not an eternal place at all, but an endless sequence of higher levels of consciousness and existence. This reflects the Buddhist ideal of constant improvement and spiritual progress.
Heaven on Earth?
Life has been hard for most humans throughout history. War, disease, natural disasters, and the simple day-to-day struggle to get food all make for a poor quality of life. The suffering of mankind has led many philosophers through the ages to imagine a better world—not after death, but on Earth. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato wrote an influential book called The Republic in about 360 bce that outlined his ideas for a truly just society. In the fifth century, Christian philosopher Saint Augustine wrote The City of God explaining in detail his vision for a city filled with devout Christians devoted to piety. Sir Thomas More's Utopia is, like The Republic, a political work. It describes a sort of communal (in which resources are shared by all) paradise in which money has no practical meaning.
The idea of communal paradise gained popularity among nineteenth-century American thinkers, some of whom tried to put the idea into practice on Brook Farm in Massachusetts. This Utopian social experiment lasted from 1841 to 1847, and required all members to live and work together and share the produce of the farm. The Oneida commune, another Utopian group, existed in New York from 1848 to 1881. The idea of Utopian communes, now called intentional communities, experienced a surge in popularity in the 1960s during the “cultural revolution” in the United States. There are still thousands of such collectives in the United States, most devoted in one way or another to achieving, as far as is possible, a heaven on Earth.
Heaven in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
The subject of heaven has been a popular theme among artists and writers over the past several centuries. Painters such as Michelangelo and Hieronymus Bosch have painted their versions of heaven, and writers like Dante and John Milton have done the same through their poetry. More recently, Alice Sebold's novel The Lovely Bones (2002) featured a main character who resides in heaven. Heaven has also appeared as a place in many films, including What Dreams May Come (1998), Made in Heaven (1987), and Down to Earth (2001).
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Do you think the idea of heaven is the main reason people follow the rules of a given culture, so that they will be rewarded after death? Why or why not? Be sure to provide reasons and examples to support your opinion.
Heaven, as a sacred place or a state of being, appears in the myths and legends of cultures around the world. It can be the dwelling place of the god or gods, the place where people who have lived virtuously find their reward after death, or both. Heaven has often been described as a paradise of some kind, located above or beyond the limits of the ordinary world, perhaps high on a mountain peak or floating on a distant island. For example, the Hottentot god Tsuillgoab lives in a beautiful heaven in the clouds. Over the centuries, traditional ideas have changed, and many people now think of heaven more in terms of a state of spiritual existence or salvation than as a precise though otherworldly place.
Buddhist View. A version of Buddhism based on Amida or Amitabha, the Buddha of Boundless Light, emerged in Japan in the 1100s. Followers of this sect believed in an eternal afterlife in a realm called the Pure Land or the Western Paradise. Anyone could enter the Pure Land through sincere spiritual devotion to Amida, who taught that the road to salvation lay in saving others from suffering. Other versions of Buddhism described the soul's ideal fate not as arriving in a heaven but as achieving nirvana, a state of being in which individual desires have ceased to exist.
Chinese View. Traditional Chinese religion and mythology included multiple concepts of heaven. Tian, associated with the sky, was both heaven and a deity who was the supreme power over gods, men, and nature and the source of order in the universe. The Chinese believed that their rulers' authority came from Tian, and they called their king or emperor Tianzi, Son of Heaven.
The Taoist tradition of Chinese mythology spoke of Penglai Shan (Mount Penglai), a mountain with eight peaks. On each was perched the palace of one of eight immortal beings. Like many heavens, Penglai was described in terms of precious things: it had trees of coral that bore pearls instead of fruit. No human could enter Penglai because it was surrounded only by air.
Pre-Christian European View. Before Christianity became the dominant religion of Europe, pagan cultures had various ideas about the dwelling places of the gods and the destinations of human souls after death. Some of these are comparable to heavens. In Norse* mythology, for example, the gods lived in Asgard, the topmost realm of existence. Like the human world below, Asgard had farms, orchards, and estates. The souls of heroes who had died in battle went to Valhalla, the "hall of the slain," where they spent their afterlife in joyous fighting and feasting.
Myths of the Slavic peoples of eastern Europe mentioned a paradise called Buyan, described as either a silent and peaceful underwater city or an island washed by a river of healing. The Celtic* peoples had myths of an island paradise called Avalon. Some legends say that King Arthur was carried there after he fell in battle. The Greeks imagined their deities as dwelling in a palatial heaven high above the mortal world on Mount Olympus. The blessed dead, however, went to Elysium, or the Elysian Fields, a green gardenlike afterworld.
Jewish View. The ancient Hebrew religion featured an afterlife, but it did not include a heaven or a hell. By about 200 b.c., however, the influence of other cultures had introduced the ideas of reward and punishment after death. Heaven came to be seen as a place where the righteous dead would dwell with God. Certain Jewish traditions pictured heaven as a mountain with seven tiers or layers. According to some accounts, King Solomon's throne, which had six steps leading to the throne itself, provided the model for the structure of heaven.
deity god or goddess
immortal able to live forever
pagan term used by early Christians to describe non-Christians and non-Christia beliefs
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
Christian View. The Christian idea of heaven is based on the Jewish one. Although modern Christians are more likely to interpret heaven as spiritual union with God, earlier generations of believers placed that union in a physical setting that was often described in great detail. In the early 1300s, Italian poet Dante Alighieri created a vision of heaven in the Paradiso, the last section of The Divine Comedy, a long allegory about the soul's journey. Drawing on both Christian and pagan traditions, Dante portrayed paradise as high above the earthly world. It consisted of nine heavens, one inside the other, rotating around the earth. The tenth heaven, which included all the others, was the destination of blessed souls who were ranked in order of their virtue, the more virtuous being closer to God.
Artists and writers of the Renaissance developed three visions of heaven. The first, the realm beyond the skies, was the source of images of heaven as a place of clouds and winged angels. The second, the garden of paradise, was the natural world raised to the level of divine perfection—an image associated with the Garden of Eden, the lost paradise that once existed on earth. The third vision was that of the heavenly city, a symbol of perfect organization and harmony.
Heaven and Immortality
The idea of heaven is bound up with that of eternal life. Descriptions of many heavens make a special point of mentioning immortality, whether of the gods or of human souls. In the Norse Asgard, for example, the gods guard a precious treasure—the golden apples of immortality. The apples of eternal life also grow on the Celtic island of Avalon, a name that means "apple isle." In Penglai, one of the 108 different heavens in the Chinese Taoist tradition, the Dew of Eternal Life flows through streams and fountains, offering immortality to anyone who drinks it—but only insects, birds, and the gods can ever reach Penglai.
allegory literary and artistic device in which characters represent an idea or a religious or moral principle
Islamic View. Building on earlier Jewish and Christian traditions, Islamic mythology also envisioned a multilayered paradise. Heaven was a pyramid, cone, or mountain rising from the lowest level to the highest. Some interpretations include eight levels, some seven. The phrase "seventh heaven," meaning the highest happiness, comes from this image. The Muslim heavens are garden paradises of shade trees, flowing streams, and abundant pleasure. The various levels are associated with precious substances such as gold, silver, and pearls, but the highest level is made of pure, divine light and is devoted to the ceaseless, joyous praise of God.
See also Afterlife; Angels; Avalon; Eden, Garden of; Elysium; Hell; Valhalla.
Belief in heaven, a place of eternal bliss after death, in which the redeemed experience the presence of God, has long been a part of Christian doctrine. Christians believe that Jesus' own death and resurrection provide fulfillment of his promise "I go to prepare a place for you. . . . that where I am you may be also" ( John 14:3–4). The Nicene Creed and other early Christian confessions assert that Jesus "ascended into heaven from whence he shall come to judge the living and the dead."
Heaven was an important doctrine of the church in the Middle Ages, often linked with a belief in purgatory, an intermediate place for those not saintly enough to enter God's presence immediately, but not evil enough to go to hell. For many of the faithful, the eternal world was very near, linked through prayers for the dead and intercession by the saints.
The Reformation churches continued to emphasize the reality of heaven but rejected belief in purgatory and the saints, insisting that salvation be grounded sola fide —in faith alone as the sole criterion for heavenly citizenship.
Heaven is also closely related to the idea of the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven, a topic frequently addressed by Jesus. The Kingdom of God involves God's rule and reign in this world and the next. In this world the kingdom is always limited, a promise of things to come. In its future sense, the kingdom represents the ultimate victory of God over evil and suffering. When the kingdom comes in its fullness, then heaven is complete.
From the colonial era to the present, heaven has been an important emphasis of many American religious traditions. The contrast between the redeemed in heaven and the lost in hell was a frequent subject of evangelical preachers. Likewise, Catholic missioners (traveling priests) warned of the eternal consequences of sin and the loss of heaven. In a society where life expectancy was short and where infant mortality was high, the belief in heaven was a promise, not only of eternal life, but also of reunion with loved ones and friends lost too soon.
From the time of slavery, African-American Christians gave great attention to the promise of heaven. While whites often insisted that salvation changed only the slaves' eternal status, not their earthly condition, blacks understood heaven as a place of eternal redemption and justice. There, believers met Jesus "face to face," in liberation, peace, and deliverance. The promise of heaven was a powerful theme of African-American spirituals, evident in songs such as "Soon I Will Be Done with the Troubles of the World," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and "Everybody Talking About Heaven Ain't A-going There."
Heaven was a continuing theme of nineteenth-century evangelical hymnody as well. Hymns included lyrics such as "When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be" and "In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore." Shakers and other millennial groups believed that their communal societies were an earthly representation of the heavenly realm. They shared all things in common, practiced celibacy, created deep communal relationships, and communicated directly with the world to come through spirit songs and direct inspiration from those who had gone before them into "glory."
By the late twentieth century, many American Christians had minimized the idea of heaven, for a variety of reasons. First, some saw it as a doctrine of "pie in the sky by and by" sometimes used by political, economic, or religious establishments to keep certain exploited groups—slaves or laborers, for example—in their place. Second, theologians spoke less of the specifics of heavenly bliss than of the promise of hope that rested in God. Many challenged various expressions of popular piety that implied the immortality of souls, with a more Hebrew approach that stressed the wholeness of the person and the unity of body and spirit. The Greek idea of natural immortality was questioned in light of the idea that God alone is immortal and that eternal life for human beings is a gift from God. Third, movements for civil rights and other efforts at promoting social inequality called on people to work toward the experience of justice in the here and now, not in some deferred afterlife. Reformers such as Martin Luther King, Jr., did not reject the idea of heaven, but linked the promise of the kingdom with that of a "beloved community" that all Christians should work to bring about. Fourth, many who continued to affirm belief in an afterlife sought to distinguish it from a literal reading of symbolic language in the Bible, while suggesting that it was a state of union with God and the "communion of saints" of all the ages where justice, peace, and righteousness prevailed.
During the 1980s and 1990s popular attention to heaven and the afterlife captivated large segments of American culture inside and outside traditional religious boundaries. Numerous individuals published books recounting "near-death experiences" in which they claimed to have "crossed over" into eternity, returning, often with regret, to recount sensations of light, peace, and beauty. American popular culture witnessed a growing interest in angels and other spiritual beings, promoted in books, merchandise, and film. One such television series, Touched by an Angel, provided weekly stories of ways in which guardian angels visited and cared for persons in need. The death of popular heroes (e.g., Joe DiMaggio in 1999) provoked sentimental media speculation as to their heavenly entrance. The approaching millennium (the year 2000) increased speculation as to the possible return of Jesus Christ and the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven. Global awareness raised many questions for Christians about the inhabitants of heaven and whether non-Christians would be allowed to enter. Some insisted that God's grace would welcome all—Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and other faithful people—while others feared that such "universalism" would destroy the uniqueness of the Christian witness. Through it all, numerous evangelical subgroups continued to proclaim traditional doctrines of heaven as the blissful abode of those who are truly "born again."
Kennedy, E. E. "Heaven and Hell." in Dictionary of Christianity in America. 1990.
King, M. L., Jr. Strength to Love. 1964.
McDannell, C., and B. Lang. Heaven: AHistory. 1988.
Bill J. Leonard
Some theologians preferred allegorical interpretation for all the descriptions given in Qurʿān and ḥadīth. The Muʿtazilites in particular denied any form of ‘seeing’ Allāh; the Ashʿarites (al-Ashʿari) allowed for some form of divine vision, interpreted bi-lā kayf, without asking ‘how’. Sūfīs taught that although the joys of paradise would be real, the greatest of all would be the vision of Allāh.
Other Religionsfor approximate equivalents see LOKA; SVARGA; TUṢITA; VAIKUṆṬHA (BAIKUNTH); PURE LAND; SUKHĀVATĪ; SACH KHAṆḌ; T'IEN;
heav·en / ˈhevən/ • n. 1. a place regarded in various religions as the abode of God (or the gods) and the angels, and of the good after death, often traditionally depicted as being above the sky. ∎ God (or the gods): Constantine was persuaded that disunity in the Church was displeasing to heaven. ∎ Theol. a state of being eternally in the presence of God after death. ∎ inf. a place, state, or experience of supreme bliss: lying by the pool with a good book is my idea of heaven. ∎ used in various exclamations as a substitute for “God”: Heaven knows! good heavens! 2. (often heavens) poetic/lit. the sky, esp. perceived as a vault in which the sun, moon, stars, and planets are situated. Galileo used a telescope to observe the heavens. PHRASES: the heavens open it suddenly starts to rain heavily. in seventh heaven in a state of ecstasy. move heaven and earth to do something make extraordinary efforts to do a specified thing: if he had truly loved her he would have moved heaven and earth to get her back. stink (or smell) to high heaven have a very strong and unpleasant odor.DERIVATIVES: heav·en·ward / -wərd/ adj. & adv. heav·en·wards / -wərdz/ adv.
322. Heaven (See also Paradise.)
- Aaru abode of blessed dead and gods. [Egyptian Myth.: Benét, 1]
- Abraham’s bosom reward for the righteous. [N.T.: Luke 16:23]
- animals in heaven Jonah’s whale and Balaam’s ass are among the ten animals allowed to enter paradise. [Muslim Legend: Benét, 37]
- Anu (An ) Babylonian god of heaven. [Babyl. Myth.: Benét, 41]
- Asgard abode of the gods. [Norse Myth.: Walsh Classical, 34]
- Avalon the blissful otherworld of the dead. [Celtic Myth.: NCE, 194]
- Beulah allegorical name for Israel. [O.T.: Isaiah 62:4–5]
- Dilmun dwelling of gods where sun rose. [Sumerian Myth.: Gaster, 24]
- Elysian Fields home of the blessed after death. [Gk. Myth.: Kravitz, 88]
- Elysium abode of the blessed after death. [Gk. Myth.: Zimmer-man, 94; Gk. Lit.: Odyssey ]
- Fortunate Isles (Happy Isles ) otherworld for heroes favored by gods. [Gk. Myth.: NCE, 861]
- garden of the Hesperides in this garden grew a tree with golden apples. [Gk. Myth.: Zimmerman, 109]
- Happy Hunting Ground translation of Indian name for heaven. [North Am. Indian Myth.: Misc.]
- Holy City poetical name for heaven. [World Rel.: NCE, 1213]
- Land of the Leal abode of the blessed dead. [Scot. Myth.: Misc.]
- Mount Zion celestial city. [Br. Lit.: Pilgrim’s Progress ]
- New Jerusalem new paradise; dwelling of God among men. [N.T.: Revelation 21:2]
- Olympus abode of the chief gods. [Gk. Myth.: Espy, 22]
- Paradise poetic name for heaven. [World Rel.: NCE, 1213]
- seventh heaven formed of indescribable divine light; inhabitants are supremely happy, all chanting of God. [Islamic Religion: Benét, 449]
- Valhalla celestial banquet hall for departed war heroes. [Norse Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 1122]
Height (See GIANTISM , TALLNESS.)