Heaven – Overview

HeavenHeaven, in many religions, the abode of God or the gods, as well as of angels, deified humans, the blessed dead, and other celestial beings. It is often conceived as an expanse that overarches the earth, stretching overhead like a canopy, dome, or vault and encompassing the sky and upper atmosphere; the Sun, Moon, and stars; and the transcendent realm beyond.

In most cultures, heaven is synonymous with order: it contains the blueprints for creation, the mandate by which earthly rulers govern, and the standards by which to measure beauty, goodness, and truth. In religious thought and poetic fancy, heaven is not only a place but also a state of being. As such it is characterized negatively as freedom from hunger, thirst, pain, deprivation, disease, ignorance, and strife and positively as complete contentment, perfect knowledge, everlasting rest, ineffable peace, communion with God, and rapturous joy. Heaven is also understood as the reward for a life well lived, the fulfillment of the heart’s deepest desire, and the ultimate reference point for all human striving and hope.

In ancient cosmologies, heaven is situated in the extreme west or east, on a faraway island or mountaintop, or in astral realms. Plurality and even redundancy is the rule, as multiple heavens overlap with earthly paradises and astronomical spheres. Many myths of the origin of heaven recount that in the beginning heaven and earth were closely wedded; the present condition of estrangement, marked by the withdrawal of the gods and by suffering, sin, and death, is the result of a catastrophic event for which human ancestors or rival heavenly powers are to blame. A desire to recapture lost intimacy with heaven suffuses the literature of the world’s religions, but there is enormous variety in how different traditions conceive of the longed-for realization of human hopes.

World mythology abounds in stories of attempts to invade heaven, such as the flight of Icarus, the Hindu legend of the conquest of heaven by the asura (demon) king Bali, and countless variations on the story of Babel, a man-made tower reaching to heaven (Genesis 11:1–9). Such attempts almost always come to a bad end. Shamans, prophets, kings, and visionaries may visit heaven by way of a dream, trance, or extraordinary summons, but the usual route is by death. Most cultures see the road to heaven as fraught with dangers and trials, such as bridges that narrow to a razor’s edge, rivers filled with waters of death, and hostile powers who seek to block the soul’s ascent. All such ordeals are open to moral and psychological interpretation. In world literature the drama of the perilous journey to heaven has appeared in many forms, including epic, allegory, satire, science fiction, and fantasy. Notable examples are Dante’s masterpiece, The Divine Comedy (early 14th century), the 16th-century Chinese comic novel Xiyouji (“The Journey to the West”), John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), Mark Twain’s Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven (1909), and C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra (1943).

Earning a place in heaven usually requires meritorious activity, such as almsgiving, caring for the sick, performing sacrifices or other sacramental rites pleasing to the heavenly powers, exhibiting heroic virtue as a warrior, ascetic, or martyr, or enduring great suffering. Some traditions believe that merit can be transferred by means of pious actions performed on behalf of the dead. Yet many take the view that heaven is attainable only as the free gift of a divine being. Adherents of Pure Land Buddhism, for example, rely upon the vow of Amitabha Buddha to bring to Sukhavati (the Pure Land, or Western Paradise) all who sincerely call upon his name; the Lutheran trusts in justification by faith alone; and popular piety in general looks to the protection of powerful heavenly patrons.

Descriptions of heaven vie for superlatives, for here everything must be the best imaginable: from the delectable boar that feeds the crowds of Valhalla (the heavenly abode in Norse mythology), boiled every day and coming alive again every evening, to the perfumed paradise extolled by the Buddhist Sukhavati-vyuha sutras, which coruscates with precious stones, peacocks, parasols, and lotus blossoms, never knowing extremes of climate nor discord of any kind. Heaven may be characterized as a garden (nature perfected) or a city (society perfected) or both at once; it may be a realm of mystical tranquility or of heightened activity. In broad strokes the imagery is universal, with light being the privileged symbol; yet the details are often culture-specific, with the occupations most valued by a given society receiving pride of place, as in the hunters’ paradises of Australian Aboriginal mythology, the Platonic heaven for contemplatives, the bureaucratic heavens of imperial China, and the rabbinic Heavenly Academy.

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