Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens. – David Byrne[i]
Heaven is a peculiar idea. Nobody has ever visited and come back with a report; for all we know, it’s a myth like Atlantis. Nevertheless, lots of people are planning to reside there, and even brag about it. The general consensus about heaven seems to be that you’ll like it, as in always be happy. But that assumes a non-existent consensus about the types of things that make us happy. The Christian version, in particular, does not seem like much fun. A lot of people think they’ll be reunited with family, but they might want to be careful what they wish for. That eternal family reunion could turn into Sartre’s depiction of hell, where you’re stuck forever in a room with relatives you find annoying.
The ancient Egyptians thought heaven, known as Aaru, was a perfected version of this world. Whatever you did here, you’d did there, only with wonderful results. If you were a farmer, the harvests would always be great, plus, you got to eat all you wanted, drink beer without weight gain or hangovers, and have heavenly sex.
For some, exclusivity seems to be important. Not everybody gets in. The most selective version I know belongs to the Jehovah Witnesses, who say only 144,000 will dwell in the heavenly realm. Many Christians believe that only Christians get in; many Muslims believe the same about Muslims. Christians and Muslims even divide into groups, claiming that members of rival factions won’t have access. Heaven will be populated with people like themselves, a discriminating country club where they won’t have to associate with the riffraff and rabble.
Perfection seems to be a common denominator, even if people have very different ideas about what perfection means. Something has to be perfect somewhere, we think, because it certainly doesn’t exist down here. The concept is very reminiscent of Plato and his notion of the Ideals. There was a realm of the perfect, which held the ideal forms of everything that physically existed, just as everything that physically existed was an imperfect approximation of the Ideal. The more closely something approximated the ideal, the more beautiful it was. That’s why heaven is always thought to be beautiful.
The only problem with all this is that little thought is given to what it means to be perfect. What is perfection? What is it like to be in the realm of the Ideal? Since we admit to having no direct experience with an ideal life in an ideal world, how do we even define it? It seems to me that perfection might not be what we are looking for.
In a perfect universe, for example, there would be no growth or change because none is necessary. Everything is perfect as is. There would be no movement, because movement is basically instability, which will not exist where everything is perfectly structured. There would be no distinctions within species, because all members will reflect the ideal species form. Everyone will be beautiful, but not in their own way, since “in their own way” equals divergence from the ideal.
Of course, it is also possible that all the different ideal forms are manifestations of a higher ideal. Individual forms of life are differentiated aspects of Life, and, in perfection, Life is all there is. Self-awareness will disappear because there is nothing to know, since nothing will call attention to itself. The idea is reminiscent of Buddhism, where emptiness and fullness mean essentially the same thing. Such is perfection.
But that’s not what the pursuers of heaven generally have in mind. Essentially, our visions of heaven are a desire for perfection that allows us to retain our imperfections, or at least some of them. If you’re blind, you won’t be that way in heaven, but you’ll still be recognizable with your large ears and pointy nose. We’ll still have some kind of body, only without all the inconveniences. We definitely want to be conscious, aware of our perfected self in a perfected land, because what use is being perfect if you’re not aware of it?
Who knows? Perhaps it is wise to approach the ultimate mystery of our end with more humility. It seems likely, to me, that the Great Beyond, if there is one, is not what we imagine, because it is something we can’t imagine at all. Our limited, earth-bound minds have no legitimate frame of reference.
Instead, we can simply approach the coming unknown with a sense of wonder and trust. I don’t know there is a life after this one; I believe it to be true. As a matter of faith, it shapes my approach to living.
I have a vision of a small house set on a hillside overlooking a field. At the bottom of the field is a stream flanked with trees. A mild wind blows in the trees; the field is always green and doesn’t need mowing; trout fill the stream, where I can fish and catch three pound brookies. The fish don’t die and return unharmed to the water. Except for my partner, and a select list of others, visiting will be by appointment.
Everyone has their own comforting dream, but that’s all they are. Better to leave our minds free, expecting nothing, requiring nothing, ready to give ourselves over to the Source from whence we came, an expression of love for the Creator.
[i] David Byrne, Heaven, Fear of Music, 1979
Photo by Tim Mossholder: https://www.pexels.com/photo/scenic-landscape-with-a-view-of-a-mountain-range-13440857/