Chapter OneTHE MAKE-YOUR-OWN-HEAVEN
There are lots of different ideas about Heaven, and some
of them must be wrong.
If human beings were created for an eternal existence, nothing
could be more important than finding out what that eternal
future is all about and making sure that we are going in the right
direction. Yet we find ourselves today confronted with a broad
spectrum of beliefs about Heaven and Hell. In this chapter, we will
concentrate on the diverse views regarding Heaven.
Of course, some people don't believe in Heaven at all. To them
we ask one simple question: Do you believe in God? If you do, then
it shouldn't be too tough to believe in Heaven. If you don't believe
in God, nothing we can say about Heaven will make much sense to
you. The question of God's existence is logically prior to the question
of Heaven's existence. So we encourage those who don't yet
believe in God, or are unsure about God's existence, to examine the
evidence on that subject before tackling the issue of Heaven.
All our actions and thoughts must take such different courses, according
as there are or are not eternal joys to hope for, that it is impossible
to take one step with sense and judgment unless we regulate our course
by our view of this point which ought to be our ultimate end.
Modern and Postmodern Heavens
The history of modern views of Heaven begins with Emanuel
Swedenborg (1688-1772). Swedenborg was a brilliant if eccentric
thinker who distinguished himself in the sciences but left his most
influential (and controversial) mark in religion. Many of the features
of Swedenborg's theological system have made their way into
the views of Heaven in modern cults as well as the broad range of
Western (especially American) pop culture:
Angels are human beings who have died and become perfect.
There are "three heavens" corresponding to varying degrees
of closeness to God.
The highest of those three heavens has specific features
matched or duplicated in the physical world (such as having
an east, west, north, and south).
People of all religions will go to Heaven.
We can learn a lot about Heaven from modern reports of
personal visits to or from Heaven.
The last of these features has been especially important for
modern beliefs about Heaven. Swedenborg himself claims to have
had lengthy discussions with angels about both Heaven and Hell:
. it has been granted me to associate with angels and to talk with
them as man with man, also to see what is in the heavens and what
is in the hells, and this for thirteen years; so now from what I have
seen and heard it has been granted me to describe these, in the hope
that ignorance may thus be enlightened and unbelief dissipated.
Modern writers have often produced extremely detailed
descriptions of the spirit realm. In recent years we have seen a spate
of books telling about the authors' visits to Heaven, such as Betty
Eadie's Embraced by the Light.
In the nineteenth century, new religions combined some of the
above elements of Swedenborg's visions of Heaven (whether they
got them directly from him or not) with more traditional Christian
elements. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons)
teaches that people existed in Heaven as spirit children of
God the Father and were sent to Earth as a testing ground. Most
people, according to Mormonism, will end up in one of three heavens,
with only faithful Mormons (along with those who convert in
the spirit world and prove their worthiness there) returning to live
with God in the highest, "celestial" Heaven.
Jehovah's Witnesses teach that only 144,000 "anointed" Christians
will go to Heaven as spirit beings of the same nature as angels.
Most of the members of this "anointed class" will be either first-century
believers or Jehovah's Witnesses baptized before 1935. Most
of the rest of humanity (the "other sheep") will live on Earth during
the Millennium and then, if they prove themselves worthy, will
live forever as perfected human beings on a Paradise Earth. Like
another religion to emerge in the nineteenth century, the Seventh-day
Adventist Church (and numerous other Adventist groups),
Jehovah's Witnesses deny that the wicked will suffer unending
punishment. They claim that the Hell of the Bible is actually the
grave and that when people die, they cease to exist.
Another group of religions to emerge in the nineteenth century
were the mind sciences, which include Unity, New Thought, and
Christian Science. The mind sciences view Heaven as the unseen
present dimension or presence of the divine Mind in all things,
accessible to anyone who has learned to think properly. Mary Baker
Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, defined Heaven as follows:
"Harmony; the reign of Spirit; government spirituality; bliss; the
atmosphere of Soul." She explained, "Heaven is not a locality, but
a divine state of Mind in which all the manifestations of Mind are
harmonious and immortal."
This does not mean that the mind sciences deny life after death,
except insofar as some of them deny the reality of death! Rather, most
advocates of the mind sciences believe that our minds or spirits will
continue to progress after the death of our bodies (or what appears
to be death) and experience Heaven in a more complete way.
In the case of heaven, the "old news" of traditional Christianity is
infinitely more exciting, interesting, uplifting, and fun that anything
expounded by TV psychics or "new age" gurus.
Similar views are also found in the New Age movement, which
in significant ways is an outgrowth of the mind sciences. One interesting
difference is that many New Agers believe in reincarnation.
The idea of reincarnation was imported into Western society from
Hindu and Buddhist religious traditions in Asia and reinterpreted
to fit Western scientific thinking and cultural sensibilities. Reincarnation
functions in New Age thought as an alternate explanation
of how human spirits can perfect themselves and so attain to
In the second half of the twentieth century, numerous small
cults reinterpreted elements of traditional religion (usually Christianity)
as references to earthly interaction with UFOs. For these
cults, UFOs bring messages from Heaven, which may be viewed
as outer space or a particular planet, or as an extradimensional
Heaven: The Extremes
We find it helpful to think about these diverse views of Heaven
as fitting onto a spectrum. At one extreme end of the spectrum
are completely spiritualized notions of Heaven, such as the mind
science belief that Heaven is the harmony or inner perfection of
our present existence. Those who take this extreme position don't
think of Heaven as a reality distinct from our physical world. To
them, Heaven is here and now, if we have the faith or mindset to
At the other end of the spectrum are materialized notions of
Heaven. For example, some people believe that Heaven is another
planet or some other physical location in outer space. As we have
just noted, UFO cults typically take this view. Ironically, these
thoroughly materialistic views of Heaven also don't think of it as
a distinct reality. In other words, both extremely spiritualized and
extremely materialistic views of Heaven view it as indistinguishable
from physical reality.