Hebrew Scripture’s View of Life after Death
It wasn’t until after the Babylonian Exile that the Pharisees accepted the idea of heaven and the resurrection of the faithful, but the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the community of Qumran, who collected the Dead Sea Scrolls, refused to accept this concept.
Hebrew scriptures did consider heaven to be God’s dwelling-place and that being in God’s presence brought joy and rest for the weary.
What Does the New Testament Tell Us about Heaven?
Since Jesus was a Jew and the ancient Israelites did not have a strong belief about life after death, Jesus was not very concerned with life beyond death, either his own or that of others.
The Christian Scriptures tell us that heaven is:
• God’s dwelling-place (Matthew 6:9; 5:34; 5:45; 18:14 and Acts 7:49);
• that only the righteous will be in heaven (Matthew 5:20, 34; Galatians 5:21; Ephesians 5:5; Revelation 22:15);
• there will be continual praise and worship (Revelation 4:8, 7:11-12, 14:2-3; 15:3) (that does not sound like heaven to a lot of people);
• it will be a place of great joy and satisfaction because we will be in God’s presence (Matthew 5:8; 1 Thessalonians 4:17);
• people of all races, tongues and nations will be represented in heaven (Revelation 5:9, 7:9);
• marriage does not exist (Matthew 22:30; Luke 20:35) (that could be a plus or a minus depending on whether you had been married multiple times, and whether your marriage was good or bad);
• there will be no sickness or pain (Revelation 21:4);
• no sorrow, crying or mourning (Revelation 7:17, 21:4);
• no hunger or thirst (Revelation 7:16);
• and no more death (Revelation 21:4).
Heaven is not defined and there is no hell in Paul’s writings. He wrote that “life in Christ” is eternal, but life outside of Christ simply terminates in death. John’s gospel equated eternal life with “knowing Christ” or “believing in Christ.”
Mark Twain’s View of Heaven
In Letters from Earth, Mark Twain had Satan report back to God and his court on the human race. The following is my edited version of Satan’s report concerning heaven:
The human race invented a heaven out of its own head. Human beings place sexual intercourse far above all other joys, but they left it out of heaven! Men and women prize copulation above all other pleasures combined, yet it is not in their heaven; prayer takes its place.
In the human race’s heaven everybody sings! The man who did not sing on earth sings there; the man who could not sing on earth is able to do it there. The universal singing is not casual, not occasional, not relieved by intervals of quiet; it goes on, all day long, and every day, during a stretch of twelve hours. And everybody stays. The singing is of one hymn alone. The words are always the same; there is no rhyme, there is no poetry: “Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna, Lord God of Sabbaoth, ‘rah! ‘rah! ‘rah! siss! — boom! … a-a-ah!”
And every person is playing a harp – whereas not more than twenty in the thousand could play an instrument on the earth, or ever wanted to. Consider the deafening hurricane of sound — millions and millions of voices screaming at once and millions and millions of harps gritting their teeth at the same time!
Consider further: it is a praise service; a service of compliment, of flattery, of adulation! Do you ask who it is that is willing to endure this strange compliment, this insane compliment; and who not only endures it, but likes it, enjoys it, requires if, commands it? It is God! This race’s god, I mean. He sits on his throne and looks out over his miles and miles of tempestuous worshipers, and smiles, and purrs, and nods his satisfaction; as quaint and naive a spectacle as has yet been imagined in this universe. All sane people hate noise; yet they have tranquilly accepted this kind of heaven – without thinking, without reflection, without examination – and they actually want to go to it!
This service of praise takes the place of “church.” On earth these people cannot stand much church – an hour and a quarter is the limit, and they draw the line at once a week. One day in seven; and even then they do not look forward to it with longing. And so, consider what their heaven provides for them: “church” that lasts forever, and a Sabbath that has no end! They think they think they are going to enjoy it – with all their simple hearts they think they think they are going to be happy in it!
Their heaven empties into it all the nations of the earth, in one common jumble. All are on an equality absolute, no one of them outranking another; they have to mix together, pray together, harp together, Hosanna together — whites, blacks, Jews, everybody – there’s no distinction. Here on earth all nations hate each other. Yet every pious person adores that heaven and wants to get into it. And when he is in a holy rapture he thinks he thinks that if he were only there he would take all the populace to his heart, and hug, and hug, and hug!
Every man on the earth possesses some share of intellect, large or small; and be it large or be it small he takes pride in it. Also his heart swells at the mention of the names of the majestic intellectuals of his race and loves the tale of their splendid achievements. For he is of their blood and in honoring them, they have honored him. And then he contrived a heaven that hasn’t a rag of intellectuality in it anywhere! This sincere adorer of intellect and prodigal rewarder of its mighty services here on earth has invented a religion and a heaven which pay no compliments to intellect, offer it no distinctions, fling it no largess: in fact, never even mention it.
By this time you will have noticed that the human being’s heaven contains each and every imaginable thing that is repulsive to a man, and not a single thing he likes!
Dante’s View of Heaven
Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, written in the early 1300s, is made up of three parts: Inferno (Italian for “hell”), Purgatorio (purgatory) and Paradiso (heaven). His allegory follows Dante himself through those three regions of afterlife.
Dante is guided on his journey through heaven by Beatrice, who symbolizes theology. Paradise (or heaven) is depicted as a series of concentric spheres surrounding the Earth.
Dante’s journey begins at the top of Mount Purgatory, at noon on the Wednesday after Easter (he had arrived in purgatory on Easter Sunday).
While the structures of the Inferno, which will be presented later, and Purgatorio were based on different classifications of sin, the structure of Paradiso is based on the four cardinal virtues – prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude – and the three theological virtues – faith, hope and love.
When Dante and Beatrice visit the first sphere, the moon, Beatrice explains that the moon is inconstant – it waxes and wanes. Consequently, the sphere of the Moon is where souls who abandoned their vows abide; they are deficient in the virtue of fortitude. She also explains that a vow is a pact “drawn between a man and God,” so vows should be kept once given – unless keeping the vow would be a greater evil.
The second sphere is the planet Mercury. This section of Paradise is reserved for those who did good in order to obtain fame. Their good deeds were dimmed by their ambition for fame; they were deficient in the virtue of justice.
The third sphere is the planet Venus, which is traditionally associated with lovers. The lovers who reside here, however, are deficient in the virtue of temperance.
The fourth sphere, the sun, is reserved for the souls of the wise; those who illuminated the world intellectually.
The fifth sphere is the planet Mars, which Dante makes the home of the warriors of the Faith; people who gave their lives for God.
The sixth sphere is the planet Jupiter, which is traditionally associated with the king of the gods, so Dante makes this sphere the home of rulers who displayed justice.
The sphere of Saturn is reserved for the contemplatives who have insight into the truth of God.
The sphere of the Fixed Stars is the eighth sphere, which is reserved for those who exhibit faith, hope and love.
The last sphere is the Primum Mobile. This sphere is moved by God and its motion causes all the other spheres to move.
This is the sphere of the angels.
From the Primum Mobile, Dante climbs to a region beyond physical existence, the Empyrean, which is where God resides.
When Dante comes face-to-face with the Almighty, God appears as three equally large circles occupying the same space, representing the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The poem ends with Dante trying to understand how the circles fit together, and how the humanity of Jesus relates to the divinity of the Christ but, as Dante puts it, “that was not a flight for my wings.”
Is Heaven Our Home?
I’ve heard many conservative Christians talk and/or sing about heaven being their home. A nineteenth century hymn by Thomas R. Taylor, usually sung to a tune by the famous British composer Arthur Sullivan, claims that we are strangers to earth. Instead, heaven is our “fatherland” and our home.
Those same conservative Christians claim that they cannot wait to get to heaven. They appear to think that their present lives on earth are so bad that they yearn for death so they can go home to heaven to live forever with their Savior and Lord, Jesus. If there present life is so bad, can they be sure of their future in heaven? They claim they can because Jesus died for their sins.
Two scriptures that are among those quoted to support their contention include:
“But our citizenship is in heaven…” (Philippians 3:20)
“…they were strangers and foreigners on the earth… they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” (Hebrews 11:13,16)
This “heaven is my home” theology makes me uncomfortable. I love life; I love my family and I’m not in any hurry to leave this life. I consider this my home, so why would I want to leave it?
The “heaven is my home” theology also might have been one of the causes of our treating the earth so carelessly. If the earth is not “home” then we can treat it as we like and consume its resources without any concern for its renewal.
Comparing Christian Denominations’ Beliefs about Heaven
The Episcopal (or Anglican) Church’s Book of Common Prayer says, “By heaven, we mean eternal life in our enjoyment of God.”
The Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) believes heaven is eternal and is a state of never-ending blessedness. Christians will live forever in freedom from sin, death and every evil. They will experience the unending joy of being with God and in eternal communion with recognizable fellow believers. There will be degrees of glory corresponding to differences of work and fidelity here on earth.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, believed in an intermediate state between death and the final judgment, where those who rejected Christ would be aware of their coming doom. Believers would share in the “bosom of Abraham” or “paradise” and would continue to grow in holiness. This belief, however, is not formally affirmed in Methodist doctrinal standards, which reject the idea of purgatory. Wesley considered heaven a place of pleasure, not sensual, but the blessedness of being in the presence of God.
Presbyterians believe that when we die, our souls go to be with God, where we will enjoy God’s glory and wait for the final judgment when our bodies will be reunited with our souls and eternal rewards and punishments will be handed out.
The Assembly of God church contends that human language is inadequate to describe heaven (or hell, for that matter). The realities of both fall well beyond our most imaginative dreams. It is impossible to describe the glory and splendor of heaven… heaven enjoys the total presence of God.” They “believe and look forward to the perfect New Heavens and a New Earth that Christ is preparing for all people, for all time, who have accepted Him. Believers will live and dwell with Him there forever following his millennial reign on earth.
The Southern Baptist Church believes the righteous in their resurrected and glorified bodies will receive their reward and will dwell forever in heaven with the Lord.
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that “heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” and “to live in heaven is to be with Christ.”
My Idea of Life after Death
I would guess that a lot of people are going to discover that God’s idea of heaven and theirs is vastly different. And I think there are a lot of people who would find heaven to be one hell of a place.
My faith is rooted in God’s unending love and I assume God’s love is unstoppable, even by death. But how all of this happens, the logistics of afterlife, I leave entirely with God.
If I had to describe what I think happens after death, I would say our soul continues on spiritually. Although no one knows, certainly not me, I like to believe in a “stair-step afterlife,” not unlike Dante’s vision of heaven and hell in his Divine Comedy. I think God’s intent is that all souls should be in his presence, but when we die we are not all the same spiritually. Somehow the soul continues to grow toward complete union with God; as Wesley said it continues “to grow in holiness.” This “stair-step” approach is not limited to heaven. The more in tune we are with God, the more heaven we are in; the less, the more hell. If we’re judged after death by God (no other, in my opinion), I think we’re placed in some category of the presence or absence of God. And that could be here on earth, not necessary in some celestial realm.
Origen Adamantius, an early Christian scholar and theologian, and one of the most distinguished writers of the early church, thought Christians could ascend the chain of being step by step until they reached God. His “step by step” approach sounds similar to my “stair-step” idea.
Marcus Borg writes that “being Christian is not about meeting requirements for a future reward in an afterlife, and not very much about believing. Rather, the Christian life is about a relationship with God that transforms life in the present.”
Church of England Bishop N.T. Wright writes that “heaven is the place where God’s purposes for the future are stored up.” That doesn’t mean, he says, that we have to go to heaven to enjoy God’s planned future. Heaven is where God’s purposes for the future are stored until they become a reality on earth. So we don’t have to go home to heaven to enjoy God’s future.
Unfortunately, we have allowed folk religion to warp our theology of heaven. The early church fervently believed that God would bring heaven to earth. Jesus’ preaching about the kingdom of God was a union of God’s purposes (heaven) and our ordinary existence (earth). Heaven on earth is possible! If heaven is our home, it is here on earth – God’s kingdom realized.
I like the idea of “heaven on earth.” To the degree that we can make our will God’s will or are in his presence, then we can have that degree of heaven on earth. I don’t think God dwells any more in heaven than on earth, so we can have a slice of heaven here and now. Jesus repeatedly says, the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven (depending on which gospel writer you read), has arrived! It is near, here, at hand, among you! It’s not just about after we die; it’s about here, now, in this life!
So what’s heaven like? I have no idea! I sincerely hope it is not like an endless church service. And for most of people singing in the heavenly choir or playing a harp all the time would be hell.
Simply put, heaven is the presence of God, hell is the absence of God.