6 Versions of Heaven
Ah, heaven. Marx called it the carrot used by the wealthy to keep us working hard for little money. After all, the real rewards are supposed to come much later. But despite what Marx had to say, the notion of a happy afterlife won’t quite go away. Here are six pleasant resorts the righteous can look forward to in afterlife.
1. Heaven: Judaism
As one of the oldest and most influential religions in existence, Judaism might be expected to be the source of our most profound notions of heaven, but it isn’t. In fact, there is no clear indication of a heaven or afterlife in the Jewish scriptures at all, which leads to a lot of debate on the subject. Two typical positions are those of the Pharisees, who believed that there was an implied notion of an afterlife, and the Sadducees, who pointed out that there was no biblical evidence of such. Over the millennia, Jews have come to believe in various versions of heaven, some of which occur after the Messiah comes and involve the righteous dead coming back to life. Still, overall, Judaism is more concerned with life in the here and now.
2. Paradise: Zoroastrianism
It was the ancient Persians who gave us the word paradise, which means a walled garden or park, and Zoroastrianism in particular gave us notions of the afterlife that were adopted and/or adapted by the Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Zoroastrianism is also interesting because, unlike other religions, it claims that everyone will eventually get into heaven, though it might take a while. The paradise of Zoroastrianism is attained the fourth day after death by crossing the Bridge of the Separator, which widens when the righteous approach it. (see the next section for what happens to the wicked.) The righteous soul crosses the bridge and is met by a beautiful maiden who is the physical and feminine embodiment of all his good works on earth. He is then escorted into the House of Song to await the Last Day. On this day, everyone will be purified and live in a new world absent of evil and full of youthful rejoicing.
3. Heaven: Christianity
The Christian notion of heaven is one of singing and rejoicing before God in a “new heaven and a new earth.” It also reflects Christianity’s roots in Judaism because this new heaven contains a city called New Jerusalem. There are elaborate descriptions of the city in the Book of Revelation. New Jerusalem has a wall and 12 gates, and on each gate is the name of one of the tribes of Israel along with an angel. There are also 12 foundations, 1 each for the 12 apostles. In fact, we even know the size of the New Jerusalem: 1400 miles square with a 200-foot wall. The structure itself is made of all kinds of precious stones, some of which have not yet been identified on this earth. There is a river of “the water of life,” which flows from God’s throne, and trees of life line the banks of the river and produce fruit every month. Believers will have God’s name written on their foreheads, and all pain, tears, and death will disappear forever.
4. Paradise: Islam
The Islamic version of heaven is a paradise for those whose good works have outweighed the bad as determined by the straight path laid out in the Quran. Heaven is a garden where the faithful lie upon couches in a climate-controlled environment surrounded by “bashful, dark-eyed virgins, chaste as the sheltered eggs of ostriches.” They will drink from crystal goblets and silver vessels as “immortal youths” hover about them looking like “scattered pearls.” The believers will be clothed in green silk and brocade and will wear silver bracelets, and they will “drink a pure draught” drawn from Allah’s own source as a reward for their striving and patience.
5. Moksha: Hinduism
Eastern religions don’t really have notions of heaven like those in the West. Instead, they usually offer some kind of release from illusion and suffering in the present world. The Hindu Upanishads are philosophical portions of the Vedas, Hinduism’s oldest sacred text, and in them the notions of the self and afterlife are developed. According to the Upanishads, our actions connect us to this world of appearances, which is in fact illusory. What is real is Brahman, the ultimate reality that transcends our sensory experiences. Unfortunately, we live in ignorance of Brahman and act according to our illusions. This action (karma) causes us to participate in the cycle of death and rebirth (samsara – see next section) from which it’s difficult to escape. Thus, if you can escape your ignorance and realize that ultimately you are not you but Brahman itself, then you can achieve release from the cycle of death and rebirth. This release is called moksha.
6. Nirvana: Buddhism
One of the four noble truths of the Buddha is that suffering is caused by desire, the desire to have but also the desire to be. Desire is tanha, or a burning that keeps us caught in the web of illusion that is our ego. The Buddha taught that desire is a flame that burns us, causes suffering, and keeps us tied to the cycle of death and rebirth because the flame continues burning into the next life. What we hope for is Nirvana, or the extinguishing of that flame, which is also the end of suffering.
Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here: 7 Versions of Hell
Walt Whitman wrote that “the fear of hell is little or nothing to me,” but he was Walt Whitman. For most religious people, the fear of hell is a powerful motivation to believe in a faith, avoid sin, and generally behave. Here are seven pretty effective motivational scenarios.
1. Hell: Judaism
As with their view of heaven, Jews have an ambiguous version of hell. The Hebrew Bible makes little mention of it except as a place where the spirits of the dead reside (Sheol). There is, however, the term Gehinnom, which refers to a valley in which children were reportedly sacrificed to the god Molech. Eventually, this valley became a refuse dump that was constantly burning, which provided a powerful metaphor for a place to send sinners. In later Judaism, hell is a place of punishment for unbelievers, but according to the rabbinical texts, they will probably stay there for no more than a year.
2. The Chinvat Bridge: Zoroastrianism
The Bridge of Separation, as it’s also known, is the one that all people must walk after they die. For the righteous it broadens and leads to a beautiful maiden, but for the less than righteous, it turns on its side and becomes like a razor. The ancient god Mithra is there with a scale to balance the good and evil deeds done during one’s lifetime, and if evil deeds prevail, then the soul is tormented by an old hag before it falls off the bridge into hell. The torments of the evil go well beyond Dante’s imagination and focus on punishment directly related to their evil deeds. Zoroastrian hell may be the most horrific of all, and a text called the Vision of Arda Viraf describes it in all its gory glory. Fortunately, everyone eventually leaves Zoroastrian hell. They are purified and join the righteous in the reign of the god Ahura Mazda.
3. Hades: Greek
Hades is actually the name of the lord of the dead and ruler of the netherworld, but the name became so associated with the place that the two merged, so Hades is also the place the dead go. Hades rules this world with Persephone – whom he abducted from the earth-goddess Demeter – and a number of other figures such as Thanatos, Hypnos, Charon, and Cerberus. Hades represents the place of eternal punishment for evildoers, where the sinners are put on horrifying display. Such example include Tityos bound while a vulture eats his liver, Tantalus thirsty and hungry but unable to eat the fruit just above his head or drink the water at his feet, and Sisyphus forced to push a rock up a hill only to have it roll back again for eternity.
4. Hell: Christianity
Christian hells seems at one level to be a combination of the Jewish idea of Gehinnom, where there is eternal burning, and Hades, where there is eternal punishment. In fact, the Greek word for hell in the New Testament is often hades, and Jesus used the word Gehenna (a version of Gehinnom) to indicate the place for sinners where the fire is not quenched and the worm does not die. The Book of Revelation indicates that those whose name are not found written in the Book of Life are thrown into the lake of fire. In fact, Death and Hades themselves are thrown into the lake of fire in the end. In addition to these texts, Dante did much to embellish the Christian notion of hell in his Inferno.
5. Hell: Islam
The Quran, the sacred text of Islam, usually speak of heaven and hell in the same passage, perhaps in order to provide a dramatic contrast. Hell is often described as “an evil resting place” and the “Fire.” But fire is just the beginning of the torment in hell because the fire is like a wall enclosing the wicked, and when they cry out, they are showered with water as “hot as molten brass,” which scalds their faces. It gets worse. The unbelievers wear garments of fire and are lashed with rods of iron, and if they try to escape, they are dragged back and told to “taste the torment of the Conflagration.”
6. Samsara: Hinduism
Again, the Eastern religions have a very different notion of the afterlife, although in some sects of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, there are heavens and hells that are similar to Western ideas of the same. Hindu hell, however, is traditionally a continuation of life on earth called samsara. Samsara is the endless cycle of death and rebirth that is the result of our ignorance of the ultimate reality of the universe. The word means “to wander across,” as in lifetimes, and samsara is the result of karma or actions taken in this life that will determine the nature of one’s rebirth and the caste one is born into.
7. The Bardo: Tibetan Buddhism
One of the most detailed and elaborate depictions of the afterlife is from the Tibetan Buddhist text Bardo Thodol, or the Tibetan Book of the Dead. As the title suggests, the book deals with dying or, more accurately, with the state of Between, and there are many “betweens”: birth and death, sleeping and waking, walking and trance, and three others within the death-rebirth between. The Bardo Thodol teaches that after death, the soul exists in the Bardo for 49 days in a between that can lead to Nirvana or back into rebirth. One of the factors that influences the soul’s ultimate location is the dying itself. A good death tends to push the soul toward enlightenment, while a bad death can move it toward rebirth in the world. Tibetan Buddhists thus spend a lot of time and energy in helping the dying.
From mental_floss' book Condensed Knowledge: A deliciously Irreverent Guide to Feeling Smart Again, published in Neatorama with permission.
Original articles written by Greg Salyer, who teaches English at Longwood University in Farmville, VA. Salyer has also taught literature, philosophy, and religion for twelve years. He is the editor of Literature and Theology at Century's End.
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