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Heaven: A fool's paradise

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By Chris - Posted on 21 April 2010

Why do the majority of Britons still believe in life after death? Heaven isn't a wonderful place filled with light – it is a pernicious construct with a short and bloody history, writes Johann Hari

John Lennon urged us: "Imagine there's no heaven/It's easy if you try/No hell below us/Above us only sky." Yet the religious aren't turning to Lennonism any faster than Leninism. Today, according to a new book by Lisa Miller, Newsweek's religion correspondent, 81 per cent of Americans and 51 per cent of Brits say they believe in heaven – an increase of 10 per cent since a decade ago. Of those, 71 per cent say it is "an actual place". Indeed, 43 per cent believe their pets – cats, rats, and snakes – are headed into the hereafter with them to be stroked for eternity. So why can't humans get over the Pearly Gates?

In reality, the heaven you think you're headed to – a reunion with your relatives in the light – is a very recent invention, only a little older than Goldman Sachs. Most of the believers in heaven across history would find it unrecognisable. Miller's book, Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife, teases out the strange history of heaven – and shows it's not what you think.

Heaven is constantly shifting shape because it is a history of subconscious human longings. Show me your heaven, and I'll show you what's lacking in your life. The desert-dwellers who wrote the Bible and the Koran lived in thirst – so their heavens were forever running with rivers and fountains and springs. African-American slaves believed they were headed for a heaven where "the first would be last, and the last would be first" – so they would be the free men dominating white slaves. Today's Islamist suicide-bombers live in a society starved of sex, so their heaven is a 72-virgin gang-bang. Emily Dickinson wrote: " 'Heaven' – is what I cannot Reach!/The Apple on the Tree/Provided it do hopeless – hang/That – 'Heaven' is – to Me!"

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cinper's picture

I find any attempt to define heaven as ultimately looking like a better Earth. Even the Bible doesn't attempt it; no written or verbal work can adequately describe a place we cannot imagine.

I am reminded of the "Twilight Zone" episode "A Nice Place to Visit." In it, a lifelong criminal is shot by police and goes to what he thinks is heaven. He has everything he wants - wins at cards, craps, and slots all the time. Has women, booze, and cars to his heart's content, which, ironically, ultimately bores him. He needs a challenge. He then realizes he is in hell.

I hear a certain radio Bible Answer Man describe heaven as a place where "Paradise lost becomes Paradise restored," ultimately, upon Jesus' return. Well, I am a result of my life's experiences. "Me" includes everything, good and bad. In Heaven, where will the "bad" part of me go? Will I be a Stepford version of "me," with my "bad" parts removed? If so, then, I will cease to be "me." So, what's the point? See the problem? This is unresolvable ambiguity. It stems from trying to put earthly images and clothing on non-corporeal, spiritual things. The Bible uses language that evokes certain images in our heads, but these images are likely not the reality. The references are inadequate to describe the reality, even if they are meant to do so. Thus the Bible fails to convey the truth of what will actually be. This is because it is simply not possible to do otherwise; the writers could only write according to earthly references, just like any of us could.

So, what is heaven like? I have no idea.

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