Why go to heaven? When you consider the popular “Family Circus” image — sitting on clouds, playing harps, singing hymns, and watching the doings on earth as if they were some reality-based TV show — you may rightly ask, why would anyone want to? Earth seems to be where the real action is. Two recent films, What Dreams May Come and City of Angels, both involve a descent from up there to down here, since up there was lacking something. So why go?
Is it fear, a failure of nerve in the face of oblivion, born of a natural self-love — “I like myself, at least enough to want to keep on existing indefinitely”? Is it fear of the eternal torments of hell, for those who believe in that sort of thing? Is it desire for pleasure, propped up by Mommy’s promise that in heaven, you’ll get all the ice cream you can eat, any time, any flavor, and you’ll never gain a pound or get sick? Is it weariness with the suffering of this world, a longing for a place where we can just sit back and relax, without aching feet and breaking hearts? Is it something else?
One’s view of heaven, and of its ability to attract, will be influenced by one’s view of who or what God is. It will also be influenced, more or less explicitly, by one’s view of what humanity is. If heaven is a place where we’ll be happy, then to know heaven, it helps to know human happiness. I asked people from six different denominations and faiths — Lutheran, Catholic, Hare Krishna, Swedenborgian, Mormon, and Jehovah’s Witness — about what heaven is, how to get there, and why we’ll be happy there. I also spoke to representatives of Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and the Baptist denomination of Christianity, but I did not include the results of these conversations. The accounts either lacked specificity or were very similar to those offered by others.
Where I could, I talked not to theologians or teachers, but to ministers, those who tended the faithful flock. I asked them to describe, from personal belief if not from doctrine, certain details about heavenly life. I asked about our relations with God and one another; in particular, about marriage, the most intimate earthly friendship many people attain.
These latter questions are helpful to the man who longs for heaven, or at least thinks he ought to long for it, because it is true that the more you know of a good thing, the more you are able to love it. As its wonders unfold, your devotion is fanned. The converse is also true — you cannot truly love what you do not in some way know.
When I was a child, I told my father, with a seriousness bordering on solemnity, that I didn’t want to go to heaven. My reason had to do with the inconceivable — to me, at least — quality of eternity. I was afraid of being eternally bored. I did not want my life to end, but the prospect of day after day after day forever did not appeal to me either. There was in it a tinge of drudgery, or perhaps the bloated feeling that comes at the end of a vacation that has gone on too long.
That fear of boredom was rooted in my fear of the infinite. I took a strange comfort in the security of knowing that this life would end one day, that it had a natural progression of growing up and growing old, all leading to a conclusion in death. Life outside those boundaries was scary in a way that left me as deeply shaken as a boy thinking about eternity can be.
One way to ease this fear is to ignore it. The world offers a host of methods by which we can distract ourselves from something so seemingly abstract and far-off as heaven: Family, friends, the pursuit of virtue and material goods, even holiness in our earthly conduct — all worthwhile and occupying of our minds and time.
This approach is a popular one, even among those who believe. Author and publisher Frank Sheed once remarked, “You’d think that people whose belief is that heaven is their destiny, and that the reason why they exist is to get there, would be more curious about it.” But many of us aren’t. We are satisfied with the promise of happiness, whatever that happiness may consist in.
Lutheran minister Rev. Gloria Espeseth, pastor at the tiny Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Serra Mesa, offers some explanation for this, saying that heaven is largely unknowable — that heaven, like God, is an object of faith. “The only thing we can say is metaphorical. I have to think of the highest good, the most peaceful, the most whole. I have to find terms like that. I have no words for it, just metaphors. There is no curtain anymore. We are face to face in wholeness. We are fully in the presence of God. Whatever that means, I trust it.”
The Bible, her first reference on the subject, uses “different images. It uses pastoral images, rural images of paradise. Then there’s the image of the New Jerusalem, which is an urban image. It’s interesting, with the Jerusalem image, that the New Jerusalem comes down. This creation is renewed in a way. Other images talk about this creation disappearing in a ball of fire. So the Biblical texts do not offer us a coherent, comprehensive doctrine of heaven. Different traditions vary because they will emphasize one more than another.
“But what’s common to all of them, I would say, is that it’s a place where God and the universe are in full apprehension of one another. It’s life with God. It’s where God is. It’s that place where there is no separation between the creator and the creation, where ultimate reality is available to everyone at every moment. Where God exists in all of God’s fullness.”