Heaven in Christianity: History, Views, Theology, Scriptures

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Paradiso by Gustave Canto

Christians believe that when someone dies, they are judged by God. The righteous go to Heaven and the sinners go to Hell. Christians believe that Hell is the separation from the love of God: They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified by his saints. — 2 Thessalonians 1:9-10 [Source: BBC]

Like the neo-Platonists, early Christians of the A.D. 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries believed the soul was something lighter than air that tended to rise towards heaven but sometimes became damp and heavy in the earth’s atmosphere and weighted down by passions until it was brought down to earth. Those laden with passions were dragged down to hell. Christians have traditionally placed a great deal of emphasis on heaven as a reward for faith but conceptualizations of what heaven is like has changed greatly over time, with interest in it often peaking in times of stress and chaos. The idea of heaven as a garden, a temple of God, or a kingdom with streets of gold and precious stones, palm trees, ladders and people in white clothing playing harps emerged after Jesus's death.

Eschatology is doctrine concerning the end of the world, including the Second Coming of Christ, God's judgment, heaven, and hell. According to a 2002 Newsweek poll, 76 percent of Americans believe that heaven exists and, of those, 71 percent think it is an actual place, 13 percent thinks it like a garden, 13 says it looks like a city, and 17 percent don’t know.

Bart D. Ehrman, a University of North Carolina professor, a leading New Testament scholar, and an evangelical-turned-agnostic, wrote in Time: “There are over two billion Christians in the world, the vast majority of whom believe in heaven and hell. You die and your soul goes either to everlasting bliss or torment (or purgatory en route)." In the U.S., "regardless of religious persuasion, 72 percent believe in a literal heaven, 58 percent in a literal hell. The vast majority of these people naturally assume this is what Jesus himself taught. But that is not true. Neither Jesus, nor the Hebrew Bible he interpreted, endorsed the view that departed souls go to paradise or everlasting pain. [Source: Bart D. Ehrman, Time magazine, May 9, 2020]

Websites and Resources on Christianity BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ; Candida Moss at the Daily Beast Daily Beast Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Internet Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Christian Denominations: Holy See w2.vatican.va ; Catholic Online catholic.org ; Catholic Encyclopedia newadvent.org ; World Council of Churches, main world body for mainline Protestant churches oikoumene.org ; Online Orthodox Catechism published by the Russian Orthodox Church orthodoxeurope.org

Heaven in Ancient Times

The Christian concept of heaven and resurrection was shaped by the Jewish concept of Sheol (see Jews), the Greek ideas of Hades and the Elysian Fields (see Greeks) and the personal beliefs of Christian followers. From the Jews came beliefs about resurrection. From the Greeks and later the Romans came the ideas of dualism between the soul and the world and an Underworld for bad people and paradise for good people. The notion of Heaven espoused by early Christians differed from that of the Greeks and Hebrews in that the afterlife was viewed as a resurrection of a person in the flesh to live with a living God.

Bart D. Ehrman wrote in Time: “The fear'" of death "is as ancient as civilization’s oldest surviving records. The hero of the Epic of Gilgamesh writhes in agony at the prospect of spending eternity groveling in dust being eaten by worms. Few people today may share Gilgamesh’s terror of consciously living forever in the dirt. Plenty, however, tremble before the possibility of eternal misery. Possibly this is a good time to help people realize that it simply will not be that way. [Source: Bart D. Ehrman,, Time magazine, May 9, 2020]

Unlike most Greeks, ancient Jews traditionally did not believe the soul could exist at all apart from the body. On the contrary, for them, the soul was more like the “breath.” The first human God created, Adam, began as a lump of clay; then God “breathed” life into him (Genesis 2: 7). Adam remained alive until he stopped breathing. Then it was dust to dust, ashes to ashes. Ancient Jews thought that was true of us all. When we stop breathing, our breath doesn’t go anywhere. It just stops. So too the “soul” doesn’t continue on outside the body, subject to postmortem pleasure or pain. It doesn’t exist any longer. The Hebrew Bible itself assumes that the dead are simply dead — that their body lies in the grave, and there is no consciousness, ever again.

It is true that some poetic authors, for example in the Psalms, use the mysterious term “Sheol” to describe a person’s new location. But in most instances Sheol is simply a synonym for “tomb” or “grave.” It’s not a place where someone actually goes. And so, traditional Israelites did not believe in life after death, only death after death. That is what made death so mournful: nothing could make an afterlife existence sweet, since there was no life at all, and thus no family, friends, conversations, food, drink — no communion even with God. God would forget the person and the person could not even worship. The most one could hope for was a good and particularly long life here and now. But Jews began to change their view over time, although it too never involved imagining a heaven or hell. About two hundred years before Jesus, Jewish thinkers began to believe that there had to be something beyond death — a kind of justice to come.

Zoroastrian Beliefs on Heaven and Hell

20120508-heaven Paradiselubok.jpg The concept of heaven and hell was adapted by Zoroastrianism and passed on to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Zoroastrians believe that individuals are responsible for their own souls and their fate in the afterlife is determined by the good and evil deeds they perform while they are alive. After a person dies the soul remains bound to the earth for three days. On the forth day the soul rise with the sun to the Chinvat Bridge, the Zoroastrian equivalent of a Judgement Day.

For people who have performed mostly bad deeds the bridge narrows to a razor’s edge and they fall into the House of Lies, a place ruled by Ahriman. The Zoroastrian concept of hell was adapted in part from views about places of afterlife punishment for sinners that had been around for a long time in religions in Egypt, Persia, India and other places.

People who have performed mostly good deeds cross the bridge, escorted by an attractive member of the opposite ex, to one of the seven garden-like, heaven-like paradises near the sun. The Persian word “pairi-daeza”, or enclose, is the source of the word paradise. Zoroastrians regard judgement, heaven and hell as metaphorical places that can bring great bliss or pain but are largely incomprehensible to the living.

In addition to heaven (Behesht) and hell (Dozakh) Zoroastrians have a place in the middle (Hamestegan), a realm with no joy but only mild suffering. Here they wait in a kind of twilight until resurrection at the end of time. It was not like purgatory in that one could not work one’s way to heaven.

Zoroastrians also have an end of the world scenario ushered in by arrival of a final Messiah. When this occurs all souls are resurrected and the mountains turn to river of molten metal. During a final judgment everyone is immersed in the molten rivers. For the pure it feels like a warm bath. For wicked they endure horrific suffering as their skin and flesh melts off their bones. In early Zoroastrian text the souls of the wicked were destroyed forever. In later texts, the wicked were thus purified and allowed to dwell in paradise.

Descriptions in the Bible of Heaven and the Kingdom of God

In the Old Testament, there is the story of Jacob's dream in Genesis 28:10-19 in which Jacob has a dream in which he sees a ladder reaching from earth to heaven, with angels ascending and descending on it. God stands at the top and reaffirms His covenant with Jacob.

Daniel 2:44 “In the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed. And this kingdom will not be passed on to any other people. It will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, and it alone will stand forever”.

John 14:2 :My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?

Revelation 21:3: And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God."

Revelation 21:21: The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass.

Revelation 22:3: No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.

Revelation 19:6-7: Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, "Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready."

Revelation 7:9-10: After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!"

Heaven in the New Testament

The New Testament doesn’t really say anything about heaven as it is popularly imagined today. According to Time magazine: One of the central stories of the Bible, many people believe, is that there is a heaven and an earth and that human souls have been exiled from heaven and are serving out time here on earth until they can return. Indeed, for most modern Christians, the idea of “going to heaven when you die” is not simply one belief among others, but the one that seems to give a point to it all. But the people who believed in that kind of “heaven” when the New Testament was written were not the early Christians. They were Greek “Middle Platonists”. [Source: Time, December 17, 2019]

Jesus did not talk specifically about heaven other than to say heaven was like a "treasure hidden in a field" and "a pearl of great price." In Luke there is a description of Lazarus being “carried up to be with Abraham.”

Jesus talked repeatedly about a kingdom of God as a kind of reward that awaited those who were saved. In his first sermon Jesus said, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." This kingdom is commonly seen as a place within an individual where worldly concerns are left behind and replaced with a state generated by faith in God. When asked, “When will the kingdom of God come?” Jesus replied. “You cannot tell by observation when the kingdom of God comes. There will be no saying, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘there it is’ of in fact the kingdom of God is within you.”

The most vivid descriptions of heaven come from Revelation, in which John describes it as a place where God sits on a throne of jasper, fronted by a sea of crystal and outlined by a rainbow. He is attended by 24 elders dressed in white and eternally lauded by four-winged beasts who "rest not day and night, saying Holy, holy, holy, Lord Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come." All around are angels, "ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands." Revelation was written at a time when the Christians were facing persecution by the Romans. Some scholars believe that the visions of a paradise-like heaven was encouraged so that Christians would remain faithful in a time of great distress. At that time heaven was regarded as place for a only few people who opposed “the world.”

Jesus and the Kingdom of God

In Christianity, Kingdom of God is a spiritual realm over which God reigns as king, or the fulfillment on Earth of God’s will. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica: The phrase occurs frequently in the New Testament, primarily used by Jesus Christ in the first three Gospels. It is generally considered to be the central theme of Jesus’ teaching, but widely differing views have been held about Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God and its relation to the developed view of the church.

Though the phrase itself rarely occurs in pre-Christian Jewish literature, the idea of God as king was fundamental to Judaism, and Jewish ideas on the subject undoubtedly underlie, and to some extent determine, the New Testament usage. To most Jews of Jesus’ time the world seemed so completely alienated from God that nothing would deal with the situation short of direct divine intervention on a cosmic scale. The details were variously conceived, but it was widely expected that God would send a Messiah, whose functions would include a judgment to decide who was worthy to “inherit the Kingdom,” an expression which emphasizes that the Kingdom was thought of as a divine gift, not a human achievement.

The impression was that Kingdom of God would be something brought by God to Earth suddenly rather people transferring to a heaven in the sky after they die. According to the first three Gospels, most of Jesus’ miraculous actions are to be understood as prophetic symbols of the coming of the Kingdom, and his teaching was concerned with the right response to the crisis of its coming. The nationalistic tone of much of the Jewish expectation is absent from the teaching of Jesus. Scholarly opinion is divided on the question as to whether Jesus taught that the Kingdom had actually arrived during his lifetime.

Bart D. Ehrman wrote: ““Most people today would be surprised to learn that Jesus believed in a bodily eternal life here on earth, instead of eternal bliss for souls...The view of the coming resurrection dominated the view of Jewish thought in the days of Jesus. It was also the view he himself embraced and proclaimed. The end of time is coming soon. The earthly Kingdom of God is “at hand” (Mark 1:15). God will soon destroy everything and everyone opposed to him and establish a new order on earth. Those who enter this kingdom will enjoy a utopian existence for all time. All others will be annihilated. [Source: Bart D. Ehrman,, Time, May 9, 2020]

“But Jesus put his own twist on the idea. Contrary to what other Jewish leaders taught, Jesus preached that no one will inherit the glorious future kingdom by stringently observing all the Jewish laws in their most intimate details; or by meticulously following the rules of worship involving sacrifice, prayer, and observance of holy days; or by pursuing one’s own purity through escaping the vile world and the tainting influence of sinful others. Instead, for Jesus, the earthly utopia will come to those who are fully dedicated to the most pervasive and dominant teachings of God’s law. Put most simply, that involves loving God above all things despite personal hardship, and working diligently for the welfare of others, even when it is exceedingly difficult. People who have not been living lives of complete unselfish love need to repent and return to the two “greatest commandments” of Jewish Scripture: deep love of God (Deuteronomy 6:4-6) and committed love of neighbor (Leviticus 19:18).

Professor John Dominic Crossan told PBS: “The core of Jesus' preaching is the kingdom of God. And the difficulty is for us to hear that term as 100 percent political and 100 percent religious. Not one, not the other. In the first century those were inextricably intertwined.... "The kingdom," if you use that expression in the first century, would have meant the Roman kingdom, it meant the Roman Empire. When you talked about the Kingdom of God..., you were making a very caustic criticism of the Roman Empire, and you were saying that its system was not the system of God. [Source: John Dominic Crossan, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies DePaul University, PBS, April 1998]

Paul on the Kingdom of God

St. Paul (A.D. 10? to A.D. 64?) was one of the most important figures of the early Christian period. Regarded as a fiery, charismatic orator and a passionate and tireless activist, he helped spread Christianity and wrote the earliest known documents on Christianity. Acts 28:31 reads: “He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!” Paul defined the Kingdom of God in his letter to the church in Rome: "For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit."

Paul described a man who was "caught up to the third heaven" but failed to give any details as to what his experience was like. In I Corinthians 2:9: "But, as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard...the things which God hath prepared for them that loved him." In I Thessalonians, Paul described a resurrection in which “the Lord himself will descend from heaven: first the Christian dead will rise, then we who are left alive will join them, caught up in clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord.”

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “It's clear that one of the concerns that keep showing up throughout this period of Paul's ministry is when is this kingdom going to arrive. What's going to happen? How soon? From a fairly early stage we know that almost from the moment that Paul began preaching in the Greek world that people assumed that the kingdom would have to arrive soon. Paul's very first letter, the earliest, single writing that we have in the New Testament is First Thessalonians and already in First Thessalonians Paul is having to console them when people are starting to die within the congregation and the kingdom hasn't arrived yet. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

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Heronimus Bosch's Four Last Things (Paradise)

Evolution of the Christian View of Heaven

Joanne M. Pierce of the College of the Holy Cross: The earliest Christians believed that Jesus Christ, risen from the dead after his crucifixion, would soon return, to complete what he had begun by his preaching: the establishment of the Kingdom of God. This Second Coming of Christ would bring an end to the effort of unification of all humanity in Christ and result in a final resurrection of the dead and moral judgment of all human beings. Christians believe, when Christ returns, the dead too will rise in renewed bodies. [Source: Joanne M. Pierce, Professor of Religious Studies, College of the Holy Cross, The Conversation, April 26, 2021]

In antiquity, the first centuries of the Common Era, Christian heaven shared certain characteristics with both Judaism and Hellenistic religious thought on the afterlife of the virtuous. One was that of an almost physical rest and refreshment as after a desert journey, often accompanied by descriptions of banquets, fountains or rivers. In the Bible’s Book of Revelation, a symbolic description of the end of the world, the river running through God’s New Jerusalem was called the river “of the water of life.” However, in the Gospel of Luke, the damned were tormented by thirst. Another was the image of light. Romans and Jews thought of the abode of the wicked as a place of darkness and shadows, but the divine dwelling place was filled with bright light. Heaven was also charged with positive emotions: peace, joy, love, and the bliss of spiritual fulfillment that Christians came to refer to as the Beatific Vision, the presence of God. [Source: Joanne M. Pierce, Professor of Religious Studies, College of the Holy Cross, The Conversation, April 26, 2021]

By the middle of the first century A.D., Christians became concerned about the fate of members of their churches who had already died before this Second Coming. Some of the earliest documents in the Christian New Testament, epistles or letters written by the apostle Paul, offered an answer. The dead have simply fallen asleep, they explained. When Christ returns, the dead, too, would rise in renewed bodies, and be judged by Christ himself. Afterwards, they would be united with him forever. A few theologians in the early centuries of Christianity agreed. But a growing consensus developed that the souls of the dead were held in a kind of waiting state until the end of the world, when they would be once again reunited with their bodies, resurrected in a more perfected form.

After Christianity became the official religion of Rome in the A.D. 4th century, and millions converted across the Roman Empire, the concept of heaven began to change. In the A.D. 5th century, St. Augustine described a “City of God,” filled with buildings and naked people (as God created them) who could marry and have sex. He also described a Beatific Vision in which saints had blissful direct communion with God.

Pierce wrote: “Based on the Gospels, bishops and theologians emphasized that the promise of eternal life in heaven was open only to the baptized — that is, those who had undergone the ritual immersion in water which cleansed the soul from sin and marked one’s entrance into the church. All others were damned to eternal separation from God and punishment for sin. In this new Christian empire, baptism was increasingly administered to infants. Some theologians challenged this practice, since infants could not yet commit sins. But in the Christian west, the belief in “original sin” — the sin of Adam and Eve when they disobeyed God’s command in the Garden of Eden (the “Fall”) — predominated. Following the teachings of the fourth century saint Augustine, Western theologians in the fifth century A.D. believed that even infants were born with the sin of Adam and Eve marring their spirit and will. But this doctrine raised a troubling question: What of those infants who died before baptism could be administered? At first, theologians taught that their souls went to Hell, but suffered very little if at all. The concept of Limbo developed from this idea. Popes and theologians in the 13th century taught that the souls of unbaptized babies or young children enjoyed a state of natural happiness on the “edge” of Hell, but, like those punished more severely in Hell itself, were denied the bliss of the presence of God.

Image of Heaven in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

In the Middle Ages, rural people envisioned heaven as natural place like the Garden of Eden while urban people tended to see it as a structured, hierarchal place with castles and courts and people in robes with Mary as the Queen of Heaven. Beginning in the 11th century, the Crusaders believed that they would go to heaven as a reward for fighting. As interest in science grew and Western universities emerged heaven began to take on a more cosmological and metaphysical character. In the 13th century, the theologian Thomas Aquinas argued that heaven was not an earthly paradise but rather an abstract communion with God filled with light and knowledge.

Visionaries and poets used a variety of additional images: flowering meadows, colors beyond description, trees filled with fruit, company and conversation with family or white-robed others among the blessed. Bright angels stood behind the dazzling throne of God and sang praise in exquisite melodies. [Source: Joanne M. Pierce, Professor of Religious Studies, College of the Holy Cross, The Conversation, April 26, 2021]

Renaissance Catholics described heaven as a more human place presided over by the Virgin Mary. The concept of purgatory developed so that majority of people could reach heaven. Dante gave a vivid vision of Heaven, which was sort like a rose-shaped stadium filled with people, with God as the center as a brilliant light and nine concentric spheres of angels swirling about. Each sphere was associated with a heavenly virtue and a planet. These in turn were surrounded by two shells — The Heaven of the Fixed Stars and the Primum Mobile. Beyond was the Empyrean. How close you approached God depended on your capacity for love and joy. Milton also gave us elaborate visions of Heaven and Hell.

Heaven and Hell in the 14th Century

Benedictus Deus (On the Beatific Vision of God) by Pope Benedict XII (Apostolic Constitution issued in 1336) says: According to the general disposition of God, the souls of all the saints who departed from this world before the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ and also of the holy apostles, martyrs, confessors, virgins and other faithful who died after receiving the holy baptism of Christ—provided they were not in need of any purification when they died, or will not be in need of any when they die in the future, or else, if they then needed or will need some purification, after they have been purified after death—and again the souls of children who have been reborn by the same baptism of Christ or will be when baptism is conferred on them, if they die before attaining the use of free will: all these souls, immediately (mox) after death and, in the case of those in need of purification, after the purification mentioned above, since the ascension of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ into heaven, already before they take up their bodies again and before the general judgment, have been, are and will be with Christ in heaven, in the heavenly kingdom and paradise, joined to the company of the holy angels.

Since the passion and death of the Lord Jesus Christ, these souls have seen and see the divine essence with an intuitive vision and even face to face, without the mediation of any creature by way of object of vision; rather the divine essence immediately manifests itself to them, plainly, clearly and openly, and in this vision they enjoy the divine essence . Moreover, by this vision and enjoyment the souls of those who have already died are truly blessed and have eternal life and rest. Also the souls of those who will die in the future will see the same divine essence and will enjoy it before the general judgment.

Francesco Botticini's The Assumption of the Virgin

Such a vision and enjoyment of the divine essence do away with the acts of faith and hope in these souls, inasmuch as faith and hope are properly theological virtues. And after such intuitive and face-to-face vision and enjoyment has or will have begun for these souls, the same vision and enjoyment has continued and will continue without any interruption and without end until the last Judgment and from then on forever.

“Moreover we define that according to the general disposition of God, the souls of those who die in actual mortal sin go down into hell immediately (mox) after death and there suffer the pain of hell. Nevertheless, on the day of judgment all men will appear with their bodies "before the judgment seat of Christ" to give an account of their personal deeds, "so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body" (2 Cor. 5.10). [Source: "The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church", published by Alba House, Eternal Word Television Network, sourcebooks.fordham.edu]

Modern Views About Heaven

The Protestant Reformation, begun in 1517, would break sharply with the Roman Catholic Church in Western Europe in the 16th century. While both sides would argue about the existence of Purgatory, or whether only some were predestined by God to enter heaven, the existence and general nature of heaven itself was not an issue. In the mid 1700s, the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg claimed to have visited heaven. He wrote a series of popular books that described heaven in great detail. He said heaven wasn’t all that different from earth: people ate and drank and went about every day life, often not realizing the were dead. Visions of heaven popular around this time pictured it as a place with material pleasure, romantic love and spiritual growth.

In the 1868 bestseller “The Gates Ajar” , Elizabeth Stuart Phelps described heaven as a place where people enjoyed garden parties and were reunited with their friends and relatives. "We stopped before a small and quiet house built of curiously inlaid woods...So exquisite was the carving and coloring, that on a larger scale the effect might have interfered with the solidity of the building, but so modest were the proportions of this charming house that its divinity was only enhanced by its delicacy...There were flowers — not so many; birds; and I noticed a fine dog sunning himself upon the steps."

In the 20th century, material views of heaven still predominate. Heaven has been the subject of films like “ It’s a Wonderful Life” , “Heaven Can Wait”. Pierce wrote: Today, theologians offer a variety of opinions about the nature of heaven. The Anglican C. S. Lewis wrote that even one’s pets might be admitted, united in love with their owners as the owners are united in Christ through baptism. Following the nineteenth-century Pope Pius IX, Jesuit Karl Rahner taught that even non-Christians and non-believers could still be saved through Christ if they lived according to similar values, an idea now found in the Catholic Catechism. The Catholic Church itself has dropped the idea of Limbo, leaving the fate of unbaptized infants to “the mercy of God.” One theme remains constant, however: Heaven is the presence of God, in the company of others who have responded to God’s call in their own lives. [Source: Joanne M. Pierce, Professor of Religious Studies, College of the Holy Cross, The Conversation, April 26, 2021]

Views of Heaven by by Different Christian Denominations

The Catholic Church teaches that "heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness". In heaven one experiences the beatific vision. The church holds that, by his death and Resurrection, Jesus Christ has 'opened' heaven to us. Renaissance Catholic described heaven as a more human place presided over by the Virgin Mary. Catholics accept the concept of purgatory (See Below) but most Christian denominations don't Many Catholic believe when Christ comes to earth for the second time, all humans will be resurrected bodily and Christ will sit in judgment of them.

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, different saints had visions of heaven. The Orthodox concept of life in heaven is described in one of the prayers for the dead: "a place of light, a place of green pasture, a place of repose, from whence all sickness, sorrow and sighing are fled away". In the Eastern Orthodox Church, heaven is “theosis” (parcel of deification). This means to acquire a divine nature via christlike behavior thanks to Jesus having made human entry into heaven possible by his incarnation. [Source: Wikipedia]

In Protestantism, some denominations teach that one enters heaven at the moment of death, while others teach that this occurs later in time at the Last Judgment. Otherwise, Protestant beliefs concerning the afterlife and salvation are diverse and multifaceted, encompassing various viewpoints on how one attains salvation and what awaits them in the afterlife, reflecting the evolving nature of theological thought within Protestantism. Some Protestants now view heaven and hell metaphorically. Heaven symbolizes blessedness or a divine relationship in this life, while hell represents living in the absence of God in the earthly realm. These metaphorical interpretations reflect evolving perspectives on the afterlife within Protestantism. [Source: Patheos.com]

Buddhist Heaven

Buddha descending from heaven Heaven has traditionally been viewed as a stop on the way to enlightenment not an end to itself. Beings in heaven have not yet achieved enlightenment and are subject to rebirth. In the view of some they are anxious to get out. One 6th century Chinese monk wrote they “dwell in seven jeweled places, and have fine objects, smells, tastes and sensations, yet they do not regard this as pleasure...[and] seek only to leave that place."

Buddhists have different views about heaven. Some Buddhists believe that there are an infinite number of world's, each with it own Buddha and its own Mt. Meru and it own multiple heavens and hells. Other say each person who achieves enlightenment does so in their own heaven. Tibetan Buddhists believe that above Mt. Meru are 16 heavens. Members of one Buddhist sect believe in an underground paradise called Agharta that was reportedly founded by a holy man who escaped from a disaster by digging a hole in the earth and who now rules from the underground capital of Shamballah.

The Wheel of Life defines six different realms a person can person can be reborn into. See the Wheel of Life. Followers of Pure Land Buddhism believe in a primal heaven or Western Paradise called Sukhavati, presided over by a Buddha named Amitabha, where the inhabitants “desire cloaks of different colors and many hundred thousand colors, the with these very best cloaks the whole Buddha country shines." It was also described as place with no disease, no beasts, no ghosts and no women

Muslim Heaven

Islam has a concept of heaven and hell similar to that of Christianity and Judaism and has its roots in Zoroastrianism. Heaven is usually referred to as "paradise," or the “Gardens of Delight,” a place of physical and spiritual pleasure, where all of one's wishes and desires are fulfilled. The word "paradise" comes from the Persian word “ pairidaeza” .

In its description of paradise the Qur’an says: "No soul knoweth that is kept hid from them — of joy as a reward for what they used to do...God promiseth to believers, men and women, gardens underth which rivulets flow, wherein they will abide — blessed dwellings in Garden of Eden — and the pleasure of God is grander still; that is the supreme triumph."

"What is Paradise?" a man asked Muhammad. The Prophet replied "It is what the eyes hath not seen, nor the ear heard, nor ever flashed across the mind of man...When the people meriting Paradise have entered it, God will tell them: 'Ask Me what else I add to you? People will wonder having been honored, given Paradise and saved from Hell, and will not know what else to ask for. Thereupon God will remove the veil, and nothing would lovelier than gazing at the Lord."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ccel.org , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Live Science, Encyclopedia.com, Archaeology magazine, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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