Summary: Jewish views on the afterlife; Islamic views on heaven; Christian views on heaven and hell; Modern questions about life in heaven; No sex in the Christian heaven; Changes in how a person gets to heaven.
The Middle Eastern religions- Judaism, Christianity and Islam all believe in an afterlife in heaven.
Jewish views on the afterlife
The idea of heaven receives more attention in the New Testament of the Bible and in the Islamic Koran than in the Old Testament of the Bible. So because the Jewish religious text, the Torah, consists of the first five chapters of the Old Testament, the idea of the afterlife is less prominent in Judaism than it is Christianity and Islam.
An afterlife is part of the Jewish religion. But Jewish teachings are that the afterlife cannot occur until after humanity’s saviour, the Messiah, first comes to Earth. As Jews do not believe that Jesus Christ was the Messiah, they do not believe that Jews can go to heaven until after the Messiah finally comes. They have been waiting a long, long time.
Islamic views on heaven
Islam provides a more vivid specific picture of heaven than Christianity. It includes descriptions of wealth in heaven such as bracelets of gold and green garments of fine silk.
Perhaps the greatest difference in the description of the Islamic and Christian heaven is the clear description within Islam of the existence of sexual pleasure in heaven.
Famously, men in heaven will get to have sex with beautiful virgins. Men’s wives will be resurrected as virgins, full of love and well matched to the men who have achieved a place in heaven. But these men will also have relationships with other women known as ‘Houris”, which means “beautiful virgins”.
Islam seems to give clearer indications than the Bible that animals also go to heaven, saying that all creatures of the Earth are “summoned to their Lord”.
There is also plenty of food for people to enjoy in Islam’s heaven including rivers of milk and wine and “every kind of fruit”. And people will enjoy comfort, reclining on gold encrusted thrones. People will not get bored but will be “kept busy in joyful things”.
Christian views on heaven and hell
Christianity believes in the existence of an immortal soul that survives death. But some forms of Christianity, Catholicism in particular, also believe that the physical body is somehow “resurrected” after death and goes to heaven.
The official teaching of the Catholic Church is contained in the Catechism. The Catechism is very insistent that eventually a person’s soul is reunited with the body after death.
For most of its history the Catholic Church had a ban against cremation. This was because cremation was viewed as inconsistent with the belief that the body is resurrected after death. The Church apparently had difficulty with the idea that God, although all powerful, would have just as easy a time resurrecting a body from ashes as he would ressurecting a body that had decayed after burial.
In any event, the Pope lifted the Catholic ban on cremation in 1963.
Christian beliefs about heaven and hell have changed significantly over the course of history. The original concept of heaven was of a place much like Earth but without the suffering brought about by hard work, sickness and death. Christians commonly believed that human beings lost immortal life when Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s rule and ate from the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. So life in heaven might be much like life was in the Garden of Eden before human beings lost immortality. But life on Earth at the time of the early Christians was not democratic. Strict hierarchies were in place. And there was very little scientific knowledge about the nature of outer space.
Accordingly the early Christian concept of heaven, as revealed in artworks from the time, consisted of a number of layers, physically located beyond the clouds. In the most distant layer, far from sight, God reigned like a merciful and benevolent dictator, accompanied by angels. Scientific advances have not located any evidence of heaven existing beyond the clouds, or in any other physical part of the universe. And people today, at least those that have an expectation of democracy, are far less accepting of remote leaders or dictators however merciful. Changes in the way Christians lead their lives on Earth, seem to have led to changes in their concept of heaven.
Modern day Christians now commonly assert that heaven exists in a separate dimension, or as a “state of being”, rather than in some yet to be discovered physical location. They also tend to assert that each person who makes it there will enjoy a close personal relationship with God. Some Christians even assert that people in heaven will have a role in helping God to reign. Similarly, views about hell have changed. St. Augustine and Saint Gregory maintained that hell was located either on Earth or under it. It is now also more commonly regarded as a state of being.
One is drawn towards the conclusion that views of heaven and hell are not universal or divinely inspired visions at all. Instead they reflect very human hopes and Earthly aspirations.
Contemporary society is also far more complex and pluralistic than the early Christian societies. Once again, reflecting the nature of people’s Earthly existence, contemporary views about heaven among Christians are anything but uniform. The Internet is full of a huge variety of often conflicting views from different Christian groups or individuals on what heaven is actually like. But this inconsistency has not diminished the extraordinary confidence associated with the various predictions about the nature of everlasting life in heaven.
Modern questions about life in heaven
Various answers are given to a wide range of questions about life in heaven such as:
- How old people will be in heaven?
- Will there be children and heaven and will they continue to grow older?
- Will there be work and if so, what will it be like?
- Will there be animals in heaven, including the pets that people loved while on Earth?
- Will people need to eat, or will they be able to eat if they want to?
- Will people be able to eat as much as they like without becoming obese?
- Will people pursue hobbies they enjoyed on Earth or develop new hobbies?
- Will there be art, film, music or TV?
- Will there be sport or other competitions or games? And will everybody be equally as good as each other at them?
- Will people be able to observe life on Earth from heaven? Will they want to?
- How will people avoid boredom over the long period of eternal life?
- Will people have physical bodies or just spirits? And if they will have physical bodies will they the same body they had on Earth?
- Will people be married in heaven and can they have sex in heaven and if so with whom?
- Will there be gravity and time?
- Will there be different racial groups?
- How can a person be happy in heaven if someone he or she loved on Earth does not make it there?
Answers to most of these questions are not directly answered in the Bible. This is hardly surprising as many of the questions themselves reflect contemporary concerns. For example, the issue of whether the family pet makes it to heaven would not even have occurred to the authors of the Bible as being a matter of importance as the keeping of pets was not common.
No sex in the Christian heaven
One of the most interesting questions above is “Will people be married in heaven and can they have sex in heaven and if so with whom?” This issue does receive some direct attention in the Bible, from no lesser source than Jesus Christ himself.
Because many Christian Churches have strict views about marriage, family and sexual relationships, one might expect these strict arrangements would be maintained in heaven. Indeed most Christians might hope that by following the Christian commitment to relationships and sexual fidelity demanded by their religion on Earth that they might be rewarded through similar arrangements persisting in heaven, including sex between married couples. Indeed some Christians maintain that we will become more, not less, sexual in heaven because all earthly perversions of “true sexuality” will be overcome.
But surprisingly Biblical scripture seems to indicate that this will not be the case. The Bible recounts how Jesus was asked about a woman who had married seven times on Earth with each of her husbands having died. He was asked what might be regarded as the obvious question: Who would she be with in heaven? One might think his answer would be one of the most quoted passages of the Bible. It is not, for Jesus said:
The Bible is always open to interpretation. But it seems abundantly clear from this passage that Christians will not get to enjoy sex, even with their spouse, up in heaven. Unlike for Muslims, there is no sex for Christians in heaven. In the ressurection they are not married but are like angels. If they are sexy angels, which seems unlikely, then the angel sex occurs outside of marriage for they do not marry and are not given in marriage. Why then Christian teaching says sex should be restricted to the confines of marriage on Earth is anybody’s guess. God works in mysterious ways.
Changes in how a person gets to heaven
Just as the concept of what heaven is like is vague and has changed greatly over time, the methods by which a person can get to heaven have also changed. In 1095 promises of a place in heaven were given by Pope Urban II to those Christians who participated in crusades to free Jerusalem from the Muslims. And from about the year 1200, a new idea of a “waiting room” for heaven emerged. It was called purgatory.
Purgatory was a place where a person would go before it was finally determined whether they would go to heaven or hell. The Catholic Church began selling pardons, known as “indulgences” that could shorten a person’s wait in purgatory before they went to heaven.
Luther, the founder of the Protestant Churches opposed the selling of indulgences which he thought was corrupt.
The Catholic Church believes in purgatory to this day. Protestant Churches mostly still reject the idea.
For a substantial period of time physical torture was viewed as one way a person might be saved and get to heaven. During the Middle Ages some Christians openly supported torture of the sinful. Christ had been tortured to death by crucifixion, so torture was seen as a possible route to salvation and a place in heaven. It was around the same time when the idea of purgatory first emerged that the Catholic Church also issued new legal guidelines on the treatment of heretics.
Heretics of the time were mostly people who believed in God. These were times when non-belief in God hardly existed. But the heretics “sin” was that they did not strictly follow the official teachings of the Church. The new guidelines were that strict proof of heresy was no longer required in order to metre out punishment. Heretics who refused to change their beliefs were tortured, forced to confess their heretical views and then executed, often by burning at the stake. Thousands of people were tortured and killed.
This was the period known as the Inquisition and it lasted on and off for about five or six hundred years. Sometimes heretics could obtain more lenient treatment by freely confessing during a period known as the “period of grace”. But if they did not change their views during this period, torture and execution could follow. The Inquisition developed various creative forms of torture to compel heretics to confess.
The justification put forward for the torture was that confession would result in forgiveness from God for the sins of the heretic and therefore save them from eternal damnation in hell.
John Calvin (1509-1564) was one of founding fathers of Protestantism. Calvin believed that most human beings would not go to heaven. Heaven was reserved for a smallish group, the “elect” that had been chosen by God for a spot in heaven even before they were born.
In more our more democratic contemporary societies however, Christians commonly believe that all, or nearly all, Christians will be rewarded with a place in heaven, provided that they believe in God and live virtuous lives.
‘A Short History of Christianity’, by Geoffrey Blainey
‘A Short History of Myth’ by Karen Armstrong;