Those who believe in heaven generally hold that it (or Hell) is the afterlife destination of many or all humans. In unusual instances, humans have had, according to many testimonies and traditions, personal knowledge of Heaven. They presume this is for the purpose of teaching the rest of humanity about life, Heaven, and God.
While there are abundant and varied sources for conceptions of Heaven, the typical believer’s view appears to depend largely on his particular religious tradition. Various religions have described Heaven as being populated by angels, demons, gods and goddesses, and/or heroes (especially in Greek mythology). Heaven is generally construed as a place of happiness, sometimes eternal happiness.
In Western religions, the belief in heaven appears to have supplanted the earlier concept of Sheol (mentioned in Isaiah 38:18, Psalms 6:5 and Job 7:7-10). Jewish converts to this concept of heaven and hell included the group known as the Pharisees. The larger, dogmatically conservative Sadducees maintained their belief in Sheol. While it was the Sadducees that represented the Jewish religious majority it was the Pharisees who best weathered Roman occupation, and their belief in Zoroaster’s heaven and hell was passed on to both Christianity and Islam (in which heaven is referred to as Jannah).
In Christianity, heaven is a return to the pre-fallen state of humanity, a second and new Garden of Eden, in which humanity is reunited with God in a perfect and natural state of eternal existence. Christians believe this reunion is accomplished through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ in having died for the sins of humanity on the cross.
In Eastern religions (and some Western traditions), with their emphasis on reincarnation and moksha or nirvana (ultimate salvation), the concept of Heaven is not as prominent, but it still is present. In Hinduism or Buddhism, for example, there are several heavens, and those who accumulate good karma will go to a heaven; however their stay in the heaven is not eternal — eventually they will use up their good karma and be reincarnated in another realm, as human, animal, or other beings. While heaven is temporary, the permanent state that members of these religions aspire to are Moksha or Nirvana. In the native Chinese Taoist traditions Heaven is an important concept, where the ancestors reside and from which emperors drew their mandate to rule in their dynastic propaganda, for example. In Hindu belief, likewise, heaven—called Swarga loka—is seen as transitory place for souls who did good deeds but whose actions are not enough for moksha or absolute bliss with God.
The popular belief of most faiths is that one enters heaven at the moment of death. This, however, is not part of the doctrine of most of Christianity (see Swedenborgianism for a Christian religion that does have this doctrine). It along with other major religions maintains that entry into Heaven awaits such time as, “When the form of this world has passed away.”
Two related and often confused concepts of heaven in Christianity are better described as the “resurrection of the body”, which is exclusively of Biblical origin, as contrasted with “the immortality of the soul”, which is also evident in the Greek tradition. In the first concept, the soul does not enter heaven until the last judgement or the “end of time” when it (along with the body) is resurrected and judged. In the second concept, the soul goes to a heaven on another plane immediately after death. These two concepts are generally combined in the doctrine of the double judgement where the soul is judged once at death and goes to a temporary heaven, while awaiting a second and final physical judgement at the end of the world.
The idea of Heaven as a physical place has existed since the dawn of religion and human civilization. In some early religions (such as the Ancient Egyptian faith), Heaven was a physical place far above the Earth in a “dark area” of space where there were no stars, basically beyond the Universe. Departed souls would undergo a literal journey to reach Heaven, along the way to which there could exist hazards and other entities attempting to deny the reaching of Heaven.
One popular medieval view of Heaven was that it existed as a physical place above the clouds and that God and the Angels were physically above, watching over man. With the dawn of the Age of Reason, science began to challenge this notion; however Heaven as a physical place survived in the concept that it was located far out into space, and that the stars were “lights shining through from heaven”.
Several works of written and filmed science fiction have plots in which Heaven can be reached by the living through technological means. An example is Disney film The Black Hole, in which a manned spacecraft found both Heaven and Hell located at the bottom of a Black Hole.
In the modern age of science and space flight the idea that Heaven is a physical place in the observable universe has largely been abandoned. Religious views, however, still hold Heaven as having a dual status as a concept of mind or heart, but also possibly still physically existing in some way on another “plane of existence”, or perhaps at a future time. According to science there are unobservable areas of the universe (everywhere beyond earth’s Particle horizon), although by their very nature it is not possible to observe them.
Getting into Heaven
Religions that teach about heaven differ on how (and if) one gets into it. In most, entrance to Heaven is conditional on having lived a “good life” (within the terms of the spiritual system). A notable exception to this is the ‘sola fide’ belief of mainstream Protestantism, which takes emphasis off having lived a “good life” and teaches that entrance to heaven is conditional on belief and acceptance of Jesus Christ assuming the guilt of the sinner, rather than any other good or bad ‘works’ one has participated in. Dual-covenant theology is a variant of this belief that exempts Jews from having to adopt Jesus as savior as a condition for entry to Heaven. Many religions state that those who do not go to heaven go to a place of punishment, Hell, which may or may not be eternal (see Annihilationism). A very few (the followers of universalism) believe that everyone will go to Heaven eventually, no matter what they have done or believed on earth.
In Orthodox Christianity
The teachings of the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox communions regarding the Kingdom of Heaven, or Kingdom of God, is basically taken from scripture, and thus many elements of this belief are held in common with other scriptural faiths and denominations. Some specific descriptions of this Kingdom as given in the canon of scripture include – (this list is by no means comprehensive):
- Peaceful Conditions on a New Earth – Is. 2:2-4, 9:7, 11:6-9, 27:13, 32:17-18, 33:20-21, 60:17-18, Ez. 34:25-28, 37:26, Zech 9:10, Matt. 5:3-5, Rev. 21
- Eternal Rule by a Messiah-King – Ps. 72, Jer 31:33-34, Zech 2:10-11, 8:3, 14:9, Matt 16:27, Rev 21:3-4
- – an heir of David, Is. 9:6-7, 11:1-5
- Bodily perfection – No hunger, thirst, death, or sickness; a pure language, etc. – Is. 1:25, 4:4, 33:24, 35:5-6, 49:10, 65:20-24, Jer. 31:12-13, Ez. 34:29, 36:29-30, Micah 4:6-7, Zeph. 3:9-19, Matt 13:43
- Ruined cities inhabited by people and flocks of sheep – Is. 32:14, 61:4-5, Ez. 36:10,33-38, Amos 9:14
In Protestant Christianity
Historically, Christianity has been divided over how people gain entry into Heaven. From the 16th to the late 19th century, Christendom was divided between the Roman Catholic view, the Orthodox view, and Protestant views.
Roman Catholics believe that entering Purgatory after death cleanses one of one’s sins and makes one acceptable to enter Heaven. Many within the Anglican Church also hold to this belief, despite their Protestant history. However, in Oriental Orthodox Churches, it is only God who has the final say on who enters Heaven. In the Orthodox Church, Heaven is understood as union and communion with the Triune God. Thus, Heaven is experienced by the Orthodox both as a reality inaugurated, anticipated and present here and now in the divine-human organism of the Christ’s Body, the Church, and also as something future.
In the Protestant traditions, entry into Heaven depends upon the Christian receiving God’s grace through faith in Jesus. Protestant theology holds strongly that when Jesus died on the cross, he took upon himself the punishment for the world’s sins. In contrast with the Catholic position (affirmed and described at the Council of Trent in the 16th century), most Protestants hold that salvation is obtained “sola gratia, sola fide” – by the grace of God alone, through faith in Christ alone – not through living a good life or through belonging to a particular church organisation. Therefore, any person who sincerely has faith in Christ and asks for God’s forgiveness will automatically be granted forgiveness for their sins and has the assurance of going to Heaven.
The Protestant tradition is divided into many different strands of thought, though most positions today can be categorised broadly as either Calvinist or Arminianist. Calvinism argues that entry into Heaven has already been predetermined by God – that all those who are Christians have in fact been chosen from the beginning of time to be saved. Faith in Christ is still essential, but the reason why a Christian has faith is because God has chosen them beforehand. Arminians hold a modified form of this doctrine. In this case, a person can choose to have faith in Christ out of their free will and is not compelled to by divine power. A detailed examination of the differences between these two protestant strands of thought are examined in their respective articles. Many critics of Protestant theology see a contradiction between the idea that a person obtains salvation through choosing to put his/her faith in Christ, and the idea that God predestined those who would enter heaven. However, neither the Apostle Paul nor Polycarp seemed to see a paradox between the true God’s sovereignty and mankind’s ability to perceive and choose. Many Protestants hold that both ideas are taught clearly in the Bible; they teach that eternal salvation in Heaven with God is a supreme free gift divine grace made available to “whosoever will” trust in the Lord Jesus Christ alone for His full payment.
While these divisions still exists within the Protestant church, since the early 20th century few Protestant churches have adopted a Universalist approach.
Although Protestants believe that eternal life, entering heaven, is granted by placing one’s faith in Christ alone, they still generally believe that people who have lived blatantly evil lives will be denied entry to heaven. It is widely believed that it is insufficient to simply belong to a faith and verbally express a belief in Christ, but one must also live by His teachings and live a good and decent life. Blatant disobedience to God and living an evil life is seen by some Protestants as evidence that a person was never really sincere in making a confession of faith in Jesus Christ, and by other Protestants as evidence that a person has ‘fallen away’ from their original confession of faith. The distinction between Catholic theology and Protestant theology here is that Catholism teaches that one can enter heaven by having faith in Christ and also living a good and decent life, while most streams of Protestant theology contend that salvation is by divine grace (alone) through faith (i.e. trust, alone) in the person and work of Jesus, alone, but that a person who doesn’t live a good and decent life probably doesn’t really have true, sincere faith in Christ. See also Salvation.
Heaven is an especially interesting doctrine in Christian thought, which has the resurrection of the body dominating the concept of afterlife. The intermediate state (between death and the resurrection) is unclear in Christian thought (see the article on psychopannychism). However the final state of believers is in an incorruptible, resurrected, and new body, living in the New Jerusalem, which descends from Heaven to the Creation. The person was never meant to be disembodied. Death is not a natural part of life, but was allowed to happen after Adam and Eve disobeyed God (see original sin) so that mankind would not live forever in a state of sin and thus a state of separation from God. The Greek “hê basileia tou ouranou”, usually translated as “the Kingdom of Heaven”, is indeed more literally “the rule of the skies”, with “the skies” a codeword for God.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reject the idea of heaven as the final hope and home for humanity; in their view only a few people including the Apostles (John 14:1-3; Rev. 5:9,10; 14:1-5) will go to Heaven to rule the remainder of good people (including David and John the Baptist), who will inherit the Earth to live forever (Beatitudes – Matt. 5:5 -; Acts 2:34; Rev. 21:3-5). Christadelphians believe that all who are saved will live on Earth for eternity after the resurrection.
Many Christians believe that the “wealth” of heaven is nonmaterial; its blessings are forever, and cannot be tarnished, destroyed or taken away. Some of these will be enjoyed by redeemed people after death such as enjoying the actual presence of God (Rev 22.3-4) and the absence of pain and sorrow (Rev 21.4), while some are enjoyed in the present life, such as peace (Ph 4.7) and joy (Jn 16.22).
In Catholicism Heaven is the physical Realm of God, His Mother, the angels and the Saints. According to the doctrine of Assumption of the Virgin Mary, the Virgin Mary “having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory”, which implies that heaven must have some facility to support human bodies as well as souls.
The Catholic teaching regarding Heaven is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Those who die in God’s grace and friendship and are perfectly purified live forever… This perfect life with [God]….is called heaven. [It] is the ultimate end and fulfilment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.” The Catholic Church teaches that only those baptized by water, blood, or desire may enter heaven who have died in a state of grace may enter heaven.
Upon dying, each soul goes to what is called “the particular judgement” where its own afterlife is decided (i.e. Heaven after Purgatory, straight to Heaven, or Hell.) This is different from “the general judgement” also known as “the Last judgement” which will occur when Christ returns to judge all the living and the dead.
It is a common Roman Catholic belief that St. Michael the Archangel carries the soul to Heaven. The belief that Saint Peter meets the soul at the “Pearly Gates” is an artistic application of the belief that Christ gave Peter, believed by Catholics to be the first Pope, the keys to Heaven.
As Heaven is a place where only the pure are permitted, no person who dies in a state of sin can enter Heaven. “Those who die in God’s grace and friendship and are perfectly purified live for ever with Christ. They are like God for ever, for they “see Him as he is,” face to face.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church §1023) “Those who die in God’s grace and friendship imperfectly purified, although they are assured of their eternal salvation, undergo a purification after death, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of God.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church §1054)
If one were baptized validly and then died, one would go directly to heaven (in the Roman Catholic belief, the sacrament of baptism dissolves the eternal and temporal punishment of all sins). If one never committed a mortal sin and were absolved of all his venial sins just before death, one would go directly to Heaven.
Most people who enter Heaven do so through Purgatory (or “place of purification”). In Purgatory, a soul pays off all temporal punishment one deserved for the sins he committed in life. This does not always happen though. If one receives the sacrament of Confession validly, as well as gains a plenary indulgence, and dies, one would directly go to heaven. There are many ways to get an indulgence, in various Papal decrees or publications . To receive a plenary indulgence, one must receive the sacrament of Confession validly, do one’s penance, validly receive Communion, say some specified number of Our Father s, Hail Mary s and Glory Be s for the intentions of the Pope, and then perform some act of gaining the indulgence. Of course, one must remain free from all sin, mortal and venial, while doing all these things.
Many people believe they need to gain many plenary indulgences so they will not have to spend as much time in purgatory. Many Catholic dissenters claim that if one is actually detached from all sin, one doesn’t need the indulgence anyway.
While the concept of heaven (malkuth hashamaim מלכות השמים – The Kingdom of Heaven) is well-defined within the Christian and Islamic religions, the Jewish concept of the afterlife, sometimes known as “olam haba”, the world to come, was never set forth in a systematic or official fashion as was done in Christianity and Islam. Jewish writings refer to a “new earth” as the abode of humanity following the resurrection of the dead. Judaism does, however, have a belief in Heaven, not as a future abode for “good souls”, but as the “place” where God “resides”. Jewish mysticism recognizes seven heavens.
- Facts About Heaven: An Audio Sermon about Heaven
- Catechism of the Catholic Church “I believe in Life Everlasting” Explanation of Catholic teaching about Heaven, Hell & Purgatory
- Salavation Versus Liberation, A Buddhist View of the Paradise or Heavenly Worlds
- Christian Theological Views of Heaven
- Personal Accounts (NDEs & Visions) of Heaven
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Heaven and Hell
- Heaven from In Our Time (BBC Radio 4)
- “Are You Good Enough to Go to Heaven?” tract by Ray Comfort of Living Waters Publications.