There are many theories about the afterlife. Some of them are literal and specific. Some of them are poetic and general. ALL of them are speculative and subjective. I see no conclusive evidence for an afterlife, nor does the idea of a literal afterlife solve any of the existential dilemas I ponder. Having said that, I find enormous meaning and power in the metaphor of heaven and feel very motivated by the many ways we can manifest heaven both in this life and beyond our life.
If you visit a website called www.reincarnationstation.com you can fill in a survey that tells you what you will reincarnate as in your next life. The site tells you that if you live a virtuous life you will reincarnate as a highly respected animal. Otherwise you can expect to come back as a lower creature. So I took the test and it turns out my next life will be spent as a Rhinoceros in Africa. I was quite pleased with that result. The Rhino is a very handsome and distinguished animal with few predators. It could have been worse. I could have reincarnated as a tapeworm. But then the survey told me that almost 27% of people will be reincarnated as a higher form of life than me. This was the summary statement, “You’re not perfect, but you’ve lead a better life than most. With a few changes now, your next life could be even better.” Well that’s encouraging at least.
Reincarnation is one of the many theories about what happens beyond death. It’s a popular view, even as I have discovered in progressive churches. It may be popular because it leaves people with the sense that there are more opportunities to improve your life beyond just one lifetime. The traditional teaching on heaven and hell asserts that you have to get it right in this life and that death is the end of your opportunities to improve your character. Most people I have spoken to who have moved beyond a belief in a literal heaven and hell either believe in some form of reincarnation or nothing at all beyond death. The whole question is usually presented as an either/or option. You either believe in a literal afterlife of some variety or you have no beliefs about the afterlife. In fact there are many other ways of thinking about life beyond death that walk a middle path between these two extremes.
The Sufi poet Rumi wrote a poem called To Him We Shall Return that could have been written by a modern day evolutionary biologist. This poem shows one aspect of this middle path.
“I died as mineral and became a plant,
I died as plant and rose to animal,
I died as animal and I was man.
Why should I fear?
When was I less by dying?”
Rumi, ‘To Him we shall return’ -Translated by A. J. Arberry
Evolutionary biology suggests that life is a never ending story. There are no absolute endings. All things continue in some form. A whale carcass at the ocean floor becomes home to all sorts of worms, clams and limpets, creating a new ecosystem that will live on for decades before splintering off into multiple other ecosystems. The human passes on DNA to offspring and the legacy lives on. The family tree goes forward indefinitely and it’s all connected. Whether it’s DNA or mindful actions and visions of a better world that outlast you or if it’s your body that becomes fertilizer for future manifestations of life, there are many reasons to think of your life as carrying on indefinitely.
Heaven doesn’t necessarily have to be a place in some other realm with buildings and harps and angels dressed in white. There are many other ways to think about heaven. The notion of heaven has a long and interesting history. It is helpful to understand the evolution of the notion of Heaven, beginning with the Genesis story and the Garden of Eden. Maybe the garden is the origin of the notion of heaven. The garden is not a place of escape. It is not an unchanging paradise of eternal reward. It is a place where you nurture seeds of growth and explore life. The garden is the place of potential. It is the inner realm of being and becoming.
In Hebrew culture, some of the early priests believed in a very specific and literal notion of the heavens, a pre-scientific notion. They believed there were literally seven heavens. The first shielded the light at night, the second housed the snow and the rain, the third housed righteous souls, and the fourth housed the angels, and so on. According to some traditions, at the giving of the law to Moses, the heavens were opened and the Israelites were able to gaze at the majesty of the seven heavens. Many Hebrew mystics however interpreted the seven heavens far more internally and symbolically, than literally. They interpreted heaven as depth of character, a process of going deeper within to greater self knowledge and clarity. The symbolic heavens are realizations of self awareness. Science has now affirmed what the mystics always knew to be true. The heavens were never literal places.
The Bible offers some clues about heaven, but not when taken literally. The Book of Revelation describes heaven as being a cube that is 1,500 miles on each side. That’s a massive structure. Based on population per square mile, that means that heaven could accommodate 83 billion people assuming that many of them are floating in the cube….and they WOULD be floating considering that gravity is greatly reduced in a giant cube. But of course there are unlikely to be many people there in any case, as the Bible also says that liars and cheaters are not going to make it to heaven. That counts out most of us, I’m sure.
The Bible doesn’t necessarily describe a literal heaven. But it does offer some beautiful poetry. This is what I find meaningful in the image of heaven as a giant cube, with its length the same size as its depth. For life to be meaningful, you have to live with as much depth as you live with height or reach. In other words, you need to match your outer growth and progress with an inner character. Let your life have a cube-like symmetry. Crisis or the sudden death of a loved one provides an opportunity. When growth or progress is slowed, you have time to reassess your inner world. What are your priorities? What are your friction points, when life becomes fearful and anxious? The idea of heaven within serves to ground you in your highest and deepest ideals.
There is a wonderful Jewish story that describes heaven from the inside out. A rabbi had a dream that he went to heaven. When he arrived in heaven, he was excited. He was taken to a room where there was a series of long tables. At the tables were some sages, who had lamps, and their heads buried in books. The rabbi was deeply disappointed, and said, “How could this be heaven? It’s just a bunch of old men studying.” A voice answered him, saying, “The sages aren’t in heaven, heaven is in the sages.” The sages were doing what sages do. Their study had found deep fulfilment, and heaven had arrived inside of them.
Heaven may not be some future promised land. It may be an experience in the here and now. Like the sages you don’t have to abandon your life or join a monastery to discover heaven. You discover heaven by doing what you do, but doing it with mindfulness and loving intention. Heaven as an experience within is experiencing life as it is, even and maybe especially when life appears to be changing rapidly. If you can stay grounded when things are changing all around you, you may have found the peace that people often associate with heaven and an afterlife.
As the Indian mystic Osho said, “Heaven and hell are not geographical. If you go in search of them you will never find them anywhere. They are within you, they are psychological.”
Ian has an upcoming book that explores an inclusive spiritual perspective on things such as God, prayer and the afterlife.