In religious cultures that have evolved beyond the mythic worldview, and in secular society, belief in heaven and hell as literal places where God gathers in the faithful or punishes the unfaithful, is a relic of old time religion. But we’re naive if we think that the underlying yearning that is captured by these metaphors simply vanishes at higher levels of consciousness.
Heaven is a symbolic expression of two complementary yearnings: the longing for perfection in this world, and union with the divine. We are drawn by the promise of perfection. On an interior level this is felt as the promise of perfect love, happiness, and the ideal relationship. The Olympic Games, despite the dark political shadow they may cast, is really about fascination with the possibility of physical perfection. Utopian dreams of a perfect society will always pop back up in the human imagination. This is because the intuition of perfection is a reflection of the divine Heart and Mind that is within us and all of creation.
The idea of hell is essentially a symbolic yearning for a moral order in which the good are rewarded and the bad are punished. The box office success of revenge movies like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven indicates that this need for a moral universe is primordial, exerting a tug at even higher levels of consciousness. Who doesn’t feel a flush of satisfaction when the evil sheriff, played magnificently by Gene Hackman, takes a bullet in the head?
This often unconscious yearning for perfection is interpreted across multiple stages of consciousness and worldviews. The traditional/mythic religious worldview — which most of scripture was written —is the only one at which heaven and hell are believed in literally. If God is just, then the good must be rewarded and the evil punished. The enemy will indeed get his comeuppance, if not in this life, then the next. The faithful in this life may get the short end of the stick, but there will be compensation — the reward of eternal life in heaven.
Beyond this worldview “heaven” becomes a metaphor that describes the ideal condition of humanity — “heaven on earth”. Hell is more often than not portrayed as the disastrous aspects of other worldviews, which is the basis for the adage “hell is other people”.
With the emergence of modernist consciousness, characterized by a fascination with human potential unfettered by myth and superstition (religious belief), as well as an evidence-based view of reality, the dream of perfection shifts to focus on this world, not the next. Here, “heaven” involves harnessing human intelligence and the earth’s resources to create more freedom for individuals to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. As with every emergent worldview, the modernist pursuit of heaven on earth issues in both dignities (improved lifestyle, increased lifespan, medical and technological advances) and disasters (the degradation of Earth’s biosystems and wealth disparity). Hell is superstitious believers who live to blow up or convert non-believers.
The modernist agenda was anticipated in the biblical story of the tower of Babel — an immortality project executed by humans experimenting with the full extent of their engineering intelligence to build a tower into the heavens — motivated by an intuition that they could touch into heaven on their own, here and now.
At postmodernist consciousness “heaven” arises as radical empathy for those human beings and non-human creatures who are left behind by the modernist dream of perfection. The dream of perfection is impeded by the social, economic, and political systems that privilege the wealthy and powerful, and which strongly resist the deconstruction. Heaven is a dream of full democratic participation, the end of poverty, the education of the poor, and a sustainable economic system that factors in costs to Earth in its product invention, manufacturing, and accounting. This is the commonwealth (Kingdom) of God. Hell is a world populated by modernist achievers ignorant of their impact upon the vast majority of the human species and Earth’s creatures and biosystems.
In an emergent, post post-modern worldview, perfection itself is re-imagined. There is an awareness of an implicit perfection of the bio-social-psychological evolutionary process itself. Each of these emergent worldviews represent humanity’s best attempt to respond to shifting life conditions, inside and out. There are disastrous aspects to each, to be sure, which I have briefly alluded to. But this needn’t blind us to the inherent dignity of the mythic passion for moral order, the awakening to our modernist promise of human potential, or the compassionate privileging of the left-behinds in a postmodernist culture. Withering judgment is replaced by compassion in recognition that our best attempts have unanticipated consequences. Hell is the ongoing culture clashes between traditional, modern, and postmodern worldviews.
A true and pragmatic pluralistic perspective taking is emerging. Heaven on earth consists of honoring multiple perspectives as a strategy for solving the problems of this one-earth community. Here, radical hope is reawakened by the awareness that within an evolutionary worldview, crises provoke new, adaptive intelligences. The Christian affirms that the divine is with us in the crisis, and in the adaptive response: “Behold, I am doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it?” Heaven is tapping into the adaptive resilience of the cosmos itself, and becoming the personal and collective presence of the sacred evolutionary impulse to usher in the divine commonwealth — in, through, and as us. The Heart and Mind of the cosmos that emerged in Jesus of Nazareth is also present in those who claim his lineage and who are open to his spirit.
At this wave of consciousness, eternal life is simply a given. Eternal Being is the flip side of glorious drama of becoming. As well as a becoming dimension to our lives, we live, move and have our being in an unchanging, unconditioned, Absolute Matrix giving birth to this world of becoming at every moment. This is our original face before we were born, and before the universe emerged. “Before Abraham was”, says Jesus, “I am”.
Eternal life is not a reward for the faithful, and you don’t need to wait until after you die to experience it. It is a quality of existence here and now. There is only one life, one reality, one universe, one Mind and one Heart, assuming, in Darwin’s turn of phrase “forms most glorious”. We can experience ourselves as the presence of this Unity at any moment, and when we do we realize that death is not the absolute end. It is, and always has been, the cosmic recycling program for physical bodies in the service of Life. But consciousness isn’t going anywhere. It is preserved for eternity. The accomplishments and advances of all species, including our own, form the foundation upon which future generations can continue to manifest this undying dream of perfection. We are always, already one with the divine. There is no need to wait until after death to know this or to behave properly to earn it. Before Sarah was, you were!
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