Despite the recent aggressive push of some atheists, most people still believe in heaven. One of the practical difficulties in evangelism is not trying to get people to believe in the afterlife, but convincing them that heaven is not for everyone when they die and that Christianity is not just another of the many theories.
So where did you get the idea there is a heaven? Where did it come from? The “heaven” concept comes in handy when the family pet dog, poor old Rover, rolls over. What do you tell the kids? “It’s OK, Rover went to doggie heaven.” All the while we really know Rover is just a couple of feet below providing food for the worms!
Are we any better at a funeral when we try to comfort each other with: “Well, he’s in a better place now.” He or she is “sitting up there, smiling down on us from heaven”. We see it at the celebrity funeral. Some of the fiercest sceptics of religion suddenly become theologians! They are all so certain not only that heaven exists, but that the one who has just died has qualified to have gone there… “up there playing their music or sport up in the sky”.
How do they know that? Where does this idea of heaven come from?
Some say near-death experiences prove heaven. Dr Maurice Rawlings, a specialist in cardiovascular diseases, was chief of cardiology at Frankfurt General Hospital, Germany. He was able to collect enough data to show that NDEs are not universal. In his book To Hell and Back, Rawlings documents the fact that as many as half of NDEs are negative experiences. Perhaps one of the most damning facts against NDEs being able to provide any certainty about heaven is that some people who have had more than one NDE have experienced both positive NDEs and very negative ones (heaven and hell as it were, but on separate occasions).
So where did you get the idea of heaven? Surely the answer must be religion. After all, don’t all the different religions believe in heaven? When we say at the funeral that he or she is “up there smiling down on us”, aren’t we just echoing a kind of universal human subconscious knowledge that world religions have always understood?
Despite the thousands of religions and sects, there are actually only five major world religions that have had a worldwide impact and have stood the test of time. They are the origin of most contemporary religions. Nevertheless, when we look at these religions, the idea of heaven as an ongoing personal and permanent existence is far from something on which they all agree.
Both Buddhism and Hinduism believe in reincarnation. This is not a personal ongoing existence, as we understand heaven. In fact, the final hope of the afterlife for the Hindu and the Buddhist is not reincarnation itself. Reincarnation is the concept of being born back into this world for the purpose of punishment. As the Buddhist scriptures say: “All birth into this world, whether among animals, or above or below them, tends to ill and not to ease.”
“If heaven is a permanent place where you continue on in bliss as yourself, then Hindus and Buddhists don’t believe in heaven at all.”
The end goal for the Buddhist is finally to be set free from this judgment cycle of reincarnation. Only when (and if) you escape being born back into this world are you delivered. But is this deliverance heaven as we normally define it? A place where you have permanent and personal ongoing existence as yourself? No, rather, the goal is to be released from the self. As the Buddhist scriptures teach: “Is final deliverance then possible outside this Dharma, [teaching] and can it be won on the basis of non-Buddhist doctrines? – No it cannot, for all other teachings are corrupted by false ideas about a ‘self’.”
The idea of heaven, (a personal ongoing self in the afterlife), is corrupt and false according to Buddhism. Similarly, the Hindu hope is to be finally “at one” with the great reality, Brahman, but not in a personal ongoing way. There are many various stopover existences (heavens or hells) but none of these are permanent. In Buddhism, “final deliverance’ is nirvana, which literally means ‘extinction’: extinction from ‘thirst’ or desire and, importantly, extinction from the self. Nirvana has been described as ‘a drop of water merging into the ocean’. As the Lankavatara Sutra says, ‘Nirvana is where the thinking-mind with all its discriminations, attachments, aversions and egoism is forever put away’.”
So Nirvana is a release from personal existence and delusion of the “self ”. No self-identity. No happy-chappy smiling down from heaven on us. No reuniting with others. So those people at the funeral who believe their lost loved one has gone on to be reunited with their friends are denying essential Buddhist teaching.“Delusion alone ties one person to another … Over a number of lives a person is no more firmly associated with his own people than birds who flock together at the close of day, some here, some there. Relatives are no more closely united than travellers who for a while meet at an inn, and then part again, losing sight of each other … no one really belongs to anyone else.”
If heaven is a permanent place where you go when you die and continue on in bliss as yourself and reunite with others, then Hindus and Buddhists don’t believe in heaven at all. We might ask why are so many people trying to push those poor Buddhists where they don’t want to go!
Muslims, certainly believe in heaven but where did Islam get the idea of heaven? Muhammad claimed to be the last and greatest of all the Biblical prophets, following on from the prophets of the Jews and Christians. In fact there are dozens of verses in the Koran assuring the reader that the Bible of the Jews and Christians is in fact the word of God and that Muhammad’s revelation was simply picking up where the Bible left off. Muhammad would have openly claimed that the foundational concept of heaven first came from the Bible.
Orthodox Jews believe the Old Testament of the Bible to be the word of God. The concept of heaven is far from fully developed in the Old Testament, but it is there in a shadowy form. It is only when we come to the teaching of Jesus in the New Testament of the Bible that we really learn about what we describe today as that “better place” we call heaven. Jesus spoke about heaven as a personal existence where people are reunited with one another. “I go to prepare a place for you.” “God will wipe away every tear”. “Many will join the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
Jesus even answers that classic old sceptical question about heaven: “How could anyone really know if there is a heaven unless someone had been there and come back?” Answer: Jesus says, “I have!” “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven – the Son of Man (John 3:13)”.
So this place we call heaven, this beautiful picture of the afterlife where we have joyful personal ongoing existence, in the company of God and others … where did you get the idea?
You got the idea from Jesus!
So if Jesus is the source of heaven, and if you think you are going to heaven when you die, wouldn’t it be a good idea to at least check with the owner of the place before you presume you have your room booked?
Bill Medley is the minister at Frankston Presbyterian Church, Vic, and author of Heaven? Where Did You Get That Idea?