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Sense and Nonsense about Heaven and Hell
By Kenneth D. Boa Robert M. Bowman Jr.
ZondervanCopyright © 2007 Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman Jr.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE MAKE-YOUR-OWN-HEAVEN GAME
There are lots of different ideas about Heaven, and some of them must be wrong.
If human beings were created for an eternal existence, nothing could be more important than finding out what that eternal future is all about and making sure that we are going in the right direction. Yet we find ourselves today confronted with a broad spectrum of beliefs about Heaven and Hell. In this chapter, we will concentrate on the diverse views regarding Heaven.
Of course, some people don't believe in Heaven at all. To them we ask one simple question: Do you believe in God? If you do, then it shouldn't be too tough to believe in Heaven. If you don't believe in God, nothing we can say about Heaven will make much sense to you. The question of God's existence is logically prior to the question of Heaven's existence. So we encourage those who don't yet believe in God, or are unsure about God's existence, to examine the evidence on that subject before tackling the issue of Heaven.
All our actions and thoughts must take such different courses, according as there are or are not eternal joys to hope for, that it is impossible to take one step with sense and judgment unless we regulate our course by our view of this point which ought to be our ultimate end.
Modern and Postmodern Heavens
The history of modern views of Heaven begins with Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). Swedenborg was a brilliant if eccentric thinker who distinguished himself in the sciences but left his most influential (and controversial) mark in religion. Many of the features of Swedenborg's theological system have made their way into the views of Heaven in modern cults as well as the broad range of Western (especially American) pop culture:
Angels are human beings who have died and become perfect.
There are "three heavens" corresponding to varying degrees of closeness to God.
The highest of those three heavens has specific features matched or duplicated in the physical world (such as having an east, west, north, and south).
People of all religions will go to Heaven.
We can learn a lot about Heaven from modern reports of personal visits to or from Heaven.
The last of these features has been especially important for modern beliefs about Heaven. Swedenborg himself claims to have had lengthy discussions with angels about both Heaven and Hell:
... it has been granted me to associate with angels and to talk with them as man with man, also to see what is in the heavens and what is in the hells, and this for thirteen years; so now from what I have seen and heard it has been granted me to describe these, in the hope that ignorance may thus be enlightened and unbelief dissipated.
Modern writers have often produced extremely detailed descriptions of the spirit realm. In recent years we have seen a spate of books telling about the authors' visits to Heaven, such as Betty Eadie's Embraced by the Light.
In the nineteenth century, new religions combined some of the above elements of Swedenborg's visions of Heaven (whether they got them directly from him or not) with more traditional Christian elements. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) teaches that people existed in Heaven as spirit children of God the Father and were sent to Earth as a testing ground. Most people, according to Mormonism, will end up in one of three heavens, with only faithful Mormons (along with those who convert in the spirit world and prove their worthiness there) returning to live with God in the highest, "celestial" Heaven.
Jehovah's Witnesses teach that only 144,000 "anointed" Christians will go to Heaven as spirit beings of the same nature as angels. Most of the members of this "anointed class" will be either first-century believers or Jehovah's Witnesses baptized before 1935. Most of the rest of humanity (the "other sheep") will live on Earth during the Millennium and then, if they prove themselves worthy, will live forever as perfected human beings on a Paradise Earth. Like another religion to emerge in the nineteenth century, the Seventh-day Adventist Church (and numerous other Adventist groups), Jehovah's Witnesses deny that the wicked will suffer unending punishment. They claim that the Hell of the Bible is actually the grave and that when people die, they cease to exist.
Another group of religions to emerge in the nineteenth century were the mind sciences, which include Unity, New Thought, and Christian Science. The mind sciences view Heaven as the unseen present dimension or presence of the divine Mind in all things, accessible to anyone who has learned to think properly. Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, defined Heaven as follows: "Harmony; the reign of Spirit; government spirituality; bliss; the atmosphere of Soul." She explained, "Heaven is not a locality, but a divine state of Mind in which all the manifestations of Mind are harmonious and immortal."
This does not mean that the mind sciences deny life after death, except insofar as some of them deny the reality of death! Rather, most advocates of the mind sciences believe that our minds or spirits will continue to progress after the death of our bodies (or what appears to be death) and experience Heaven in a more complete way.
In the case of heaven, the "old news" of traditional Christianity is infinitely more exciting, interesting, uplifting, and fun that anything expounded by TV psychics or "new age" gurus. Similar views are also found in the New Age movement, which in significant ways is an outgrowth of the mind sciences. One interesting difference is that many New Agers believe in reincarnation. The idea of reincarnation was imported into Western society from Hindu and Buddhist religious traditions in Asia and reinterpreted to fit Western scientific thinking and cultural sensibilities. Reincarnation functions in New Age thought as an alternate explanation of how human spirits can perfect themselves and so attain to Heaven.
In the second half of the twentieth century, numerous small cults reinterpreted elements of traditional religion (usually Christianity) as references to earthly interaction with UFOs. For these cults, UFOs bring messages from Heaven, which may be viewed as outer space or a particular planet, or as an extradimensional realm.
Heaven: The Extremes
We find it helpful to think about these diverse views of Heaven as fitting onto a spectrum. At one extreme end of the spectrum are completely spiritualized notions of Heaven, such as the mind science belief that Heaven is the harmony or inner perfection of our present existence. Those who take this extreme position don't think of Heaven as a reality distinct from our physical world. To them, Heaven is here and now, if we have the faith or mindset to believe it.
At the other end of the spectrum are materialized notions of Heaven. For example, some people believe that Heaven is another planet or some other physical location in outer space. As we have just noted, UFO cults typically take this view. Ironically, these thoroughly materialistic views of Heaven also don't think of it as a distinct reality. In other words, both extremely spiritualized and extremely materialistic views of Heaven view it as indistinguishable from physical reality.
Excerpted from Sense and Nonsense about Heaven and Hell by Kenneth D. Boa Robert M. Bowman Jr. Copyright © 2007 by Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman Jr.. Excerpted by permission.
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