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Ask The Religion Experts: What Is Heaven?

Jan 6, 2005
Metro-Vancouver, B.C., Canada

July 3, 2011

Ask the Religion Experts: What is Heaven?

The Ottawa Citizen - July 3, 2011

Rev. GEOFFREY KERSLAKE is a priest of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Ottawa.

To be in heaven is to live the “perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity — this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed” (Catechism of the Catholic Church n. 1024). There are many misconceptions about heaven: that it is just like earth, that it exists on banks of clouds, or that it is a place where all of our physical wants are satisfied. But these misconceptions fall short of the splendid reality! Our imaginings about heaven can reveal something about where we are at in our own spiritual journey to God. If we recognize that the meaning of life consists in knowing, loving and serving God now, then we can see that the best thing we have to hope for is to be with Him and those who love Him forever. The Catechism reminds us: “Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfilment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” and “in the glory of heaven the blessed continue joyfully to fulfil God’s will in relation to other men and to all creation. Already they reign with Christ; with him “they shall reign for ever and ever” (CCC n. 1024,1029). At the end of time when Christ comes to judge the living and the dead, the whole cosmos will be transformed: “sacred Scripture calls this mysterious renewal, which will transform humanity and the world, “new heavens and a new earth.”” (CCC n. 1043 cf. 2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1.) Heaven is thus much more than a chance to enjoy ‘the good life’ forever: ultimately it is a state of true happiness in the abiding presence of our Good and Gracious God and those who love Him.

Rev. RAY INNEN PARCHELO is a novice Tendai priest and founder of the Red Maple Sangha, the first lay Buddhist community in Eastern Ontario.

Buddhism avoids dualities like heaven and hell or history as a straight line. Time has no end. We don’t teach a Judgment Day nor any eternal realm where humans reside forever.

Closest to heaven is the Wheel of Life (bhava-chakra). This proposes six transient ‘realms’ beings follow on their path to Awakening. According to one’s intentional actions, one inhabits an appropriate realm. This is karma. Many mistake karma as a cosmic bookkeeping system where actions give reward or punishment. Within our faith we teach all beings arise from/by unqualified compassion. This compassionate universe unfolds as this awareness. Karma is not reward or punishment, but the transformation of our lives into the most appropriate conditions to awaken to this Awareness. Consequences of intentioned action are dynamic adjustments directing us back to Awareness.

The realms include the higher realms — celestial deities, jealous deities or humans and lower — animals, hungry spirits, or “hell realms.” Some view these as physical realms, some as symbolic or psychological states. What might parallel to Heaven would be the first two. However, all realms are temporary and dwelling there is the outcome of intentioned actions. The highest realm is a place of harmony and enjoyment; crystalline light and beautiful music are everywhere. Its residents have all there needs met, however, they will witness themselves age and decay, moving to a realm appropriate to their intentioned actions.

It would be remiss not to mention the Pure Land of the Jodo Shin. This is a heaven-like place, where devotees await final re-birth before full Awakening. Those who praise Amida Buddha, the Supreme Buddha of Light and Love, will benefit from His grace, being reborn in His Pure Land. This Grace transcends karma, acting as divine fulfilment of Amida’s vow to save all who sincerely recite his name.

Finally, Part One of a famous Zen case: The warrior asks the Master — “What is heaven, what is hell?” The master replies: “What are you asking me for? That’s the stupidest question I ever heard.” The warrior draws his sword and holds it to the Master’s throat. Part Two next week.

KEVIN SMITH is on the board of directors for the Centre of Inquiry, Canada’s premier venue for humanists, skeptics and freethinkers.

Around age four, I had grandfather envy. My friends had granddads and I wanted to know where mine were. The answer was unexpected: one that shook the foundation of a child’s innocence. It was my first glimpse into the human condition, one that subconsciously consumes us and affects how we live from that day forward. I learned about death.

Coincidentally, it was the first time I heard about Heaven, which made my fears much more livable. At that age we have sponge-like brains. We absorb everything without analyzing, so I went on doing kid things, content that one day somewhere, somehow, I would meet up with my absentee papas.

It wasn’t until I reached the age where we develop logic that I revisited Heaven. I had never been on speaking terms with God, thinking of him much like characters out of childhood fables. By association, his house with many rooms was, for me, a mythical human creation that softened the finality of our existence. The truth hurts; reality bites, but what are you going to do? No one is getting out alive so I decided to enjoy this one life and hope — not pray — that I live to at least 110.

It baffles me that a select few will be burdened with guilt, denying themselves life’s simple pleasures in order to get front row seats in Paradise. I advise against this as life passes quickly and there are only two end games. The first, and more probable: Heaven is an irrational concept — death is final. The second and more threatening: picture your family, the ones you love unconditionally yet need time away from, and living with them for eternity. Either way, I know that this life is real and it’s wonderful. Heaven can wait.

Rabbi REUVEN BULKA is head of Congregation Machzikei Hadas in Ottawa and host of Sunday night with Rabbi Bulka on 580 CFRA.

Keep away from anyone who claims to know with absolute certainty the answer to this question. The only people who could know are those who have been there and have come back. That only happens in the movies, or in fictional literature.

The first ingredient we link to heaven is that it is the most desirable place to be, even though we should not be in a rush to get there. It is the place where all our questions will be answered, where the ultimate meaning of existence will become clear.

There are, as is to be expected, *differing views of what goes on in heaven.

Some see it as a purely spiritual place, wherein we bask in the ambience of God. Others picture heaven as the epitome of tranquillity and bliss, with nature in full bloom and its bounty in full supply.

Heaven is the reward for a life well lived, a life that justified being created and put on this Earth.

But is heaven restricted to heaven, or is it possible to have heaven on Earth?

The Talmud states that there are certain fulfilments in this world that surpass anything in the world-to-come, world-to-come being another way of referring to heaven.

Repentance and good deeds are better than the entirety of future life.

This is a nice way of saying that there are deeds that are even more heavenly than heaven.

Heaven is the end result of a value-filled life, but the value-filled life is more imbued with meaning, and hence preferable. The pro*duct is more important than the by*product.

So, even though we do not know with certainty what happens in heaven, there is a way, here on Earth, to actualize that which will make us feel even better than the feeling engendered by being in heaven.

Rev. KEVIN FLYNN is an Anglican priest and director of the Anglican studies program at Saint Paul University.

It’s not easy talking about heaven. The concept is bound up in many people’s minds with images of harps, clouds, angels and pearly gates, making it difficult to take seriously. Talk of heaven as a “reward” makes it seem as if it is little better than a wish fulfilment fantasy for the egocentric.

Heaven is not a reward for faith. Still less is it compensation for things given up for the sake of faith. Far from being a reward for a life of faith, hope and love, heaven is the end of such a life, the consummation of lives marked and directed by these virtues.

The great theme that runs from the first page of the Bible to the last is that of life. The living God is the faithful God, the one who will not *allow life to be brought to an end forever in death.

To speak of heaven, then, is to speak not so much of future happenings but rather of the God who gives us courage as we advance into the future.

The Christian’s courage comes from understanding that what life really means is now known only in light of the risen Christ (see e.g., 2 Corinthians 4:10ff).

In Christ, God’s faithfulness is shown to be a faithfulness in death and beyond death. There is no question here of reward, only of gift. Heaven might be said to be the reward for having been delivered from having to seek a reward! The “resurrection from the dead” that we proclaim in the creed means nothing else than that life is offered for an eternal future, a promise for the whole person.

Now we perceive God’s presence as “in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Heaven will be the direct enjoyment and awareness of God — the beatific vision.

ABDUL RASHID is a member of the Ottawa Muslim community, the Christian-Muslim Dialogue and the Capital Region Interfaith Council.

It is a fundamental article of faith among Muslims that this life is only a short sojourn and death is a way station towards a permanent abode in the Hereafter. There is hardly a page in the Muslim scripture, the Holy Koran, without a direct or indirect reference to this subject.

It is a composite belief that includes the concepts of resurrection, accountability of our actions in this world in the Divine court, final judgment and eternal life thereafter. The position of each person in that life will depend on his or her deeds in this world (60:3, 3:25). The reward for good deeds will be a place in heaven or paradise.

The Hereafter is metaphysical and our knowledge of life therein is limited to Divine revelations, which are often in terms of similes and allegories. The descriptions in the Holy Koran and the traditions of the Holy Prophet of Islam are vivid and cover almost all aspects of our likes and dislikes in this world.

Among the blessings of heaven is that our Merciful Creator has promised to reunite the family (and, by extension, friends) in the next world, provided they were righteous in this world: “Those who patiently persevere seeking the countenance of their Lord, establish regular prayer and spend, secretly and openly, out of what We have bestowed on them for their sustenance, and repel evil with good, for them is the attainment of the (eternal) home: gardens of perpetual bliss, which they shall enter together with the righteous from their parents, their spouses and their offspring” (13:22-23).

Those who understand the spirit of religion know that the true reward in the Hereafter is nearness to our Merciful Creator.

For believers, heaven will be: “Some faces will on that Day be bright with happiness, looking up to their Sustainer” (75:22).

is legal counsel and acting executive director for the World Sikh Organization of Canada.

The traditional conception of heaven is that of a place in which individuals are rewarded in the afterlife with pleasures and happiness. The Sikh faith teaches that true “heaven” is an awareness and union with God. This heaven is only available through meditation on naam or God’s name and is possible while living here on Earth.

The Sikh faith accepts that God’s creation is measureless and within it there are countless realms and “heavens” and “hells.” But for Sikhs, these are of no consequence. None of these places is permanent and a spiritual seeker should not desire such a heaven. Aiming for and desiring such a heaven is in fact considered a spiritual distraction.

The Sikh scripture, Sri Guru Granth Sahib, teaches that true and permanent happiness is only possible through being spiritually awakened and then realizing and experiencing God, both within the self and throughout creation. Spiritual awakening can only occur by meditation on naam and living a spiritual lifestyle. When one attains the state of spiritual awakening, heaven is everywhere because God’s light is seen and experienced everywhere. There is no higher state of bliss.

The Sikh faith has the concept of Sach Khand or the realm of truth which is God’s own realm and from which God’s light shines into creation. Spiritually awakened individuals who realize and become one with God’s light attain Sach Khand in life and reside there permanently after death. Rather than the traditional conception of heaven with gardens and rivers, etc., Sri Guru Granth Sahib teaches that describing this realm is beyond words. It is a place of light and spiritual bliss where the soul remains eternally immersed in God.

So, for Sikhs, heaven isn’t a concept that requires much thought or worry. Rather than waiting for death to experience complete happiness and pleasure, if one meditates on naam and lives a spiritual lifestyle, heaven is possible right here and right now.

JACK MCLEAN is a Bahá’í scholar, teacher, essayist and poet published in the fields of spirituality, Bahá’í theology and poetry.

In the Bahá’í view, heaven refers basically to two realities: the first experienced in this life and the second after death. The first is a supernal state of mind, i.e. achieving the good-pleasure of God in this life through righteous living, with all that it implies; the second refers to attaining a state of supreme and ineffable felicity after death.

The promise of heaven or life after death has been the promise of all the great holy books. Its most primitive expression was found in the ancient teaching of reincarnation, later in the resurrection of the body, and finally in the explicit promise of the soul’s beatitude after death.

The teachings on life after death have been greatly expanded in Bahá’í scripture, bringing renewed hope to believers that all we have known and loved will not be lost when the body dies.

Bahá’u’lláh (1817-1892), the Prophet-Founder of this youngest of the world’s great religions, has revealed: “O Son of the Supreme! I have made death a messenger of joy to thee. Wherefore dost thou grieve? I made the light to shed on thee its splendour. Why dost thou veil thyself therefrom?” (The Hidden Words, Arabic, no. 32).

In this life and the next, heaven is the realization of divine love: “O Son of Being! Thy Paradise is My love; thy heavenly home, reunion with Me. Enter therein and tarry not. This is that which hath been destined for thee in Our kingdom above and Our exalted dominion” (The Hidden Words, Arabic, no. 6).

Here is another explicit article of faith: “As to Paradise: It is a reality and there can be no doubt about it, and now in this world it is realized through love of Me and My good-pleasure. Whosoever attaineth unto it God will aid him in this world below, and after death He will enable him to gain admittance into Paradise whose vastness is as that of heaven and earth” (Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets, p. 188).

Like the child in the womb of its mother is not aware that soon it is born into a much vaster world, we are now in the “womb-world,” growing spiritual wings for flight in the next.

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen




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