Christian Concept of Heaven
Heaven may refer to the physical heavens, the Earths atmosphere, the solar system or the seemingly endless expanse of the universe beyond, though it is generally spoken of as a plane of existence (sometimes held to exist in our own universe) in religions and spiritual philosophies, typically described as the holiest possible place, accessible by people according to various standards of divinity (goodness, piety, etc.) Christians generally hold that it is the afterlife destination of those who have accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. In unusual instances, humans have claimed, according to many testimonies and traditions, personal knowledge of Heaven.
While there are abundant and varied sources for conceptions of Heaven, the typical believer's view appears to depend largely on his religious tradition and particular sect. Generally religions agree on the concept of Heaven as pertaining to some type of peaceful life after death related to the immortality of the soul. Heaven is generally construed as a place of happiness, sometimes eternal happiness. A psychological reading of sacred religious texts across cultures and throughout history would describe it as a term signifying a state of "full aliveness" or wholeness.
In ancient Judaism, the belief in Heaven and afterlife was connected with that of Sheol (mentioned in Isaiah 38:18, Psalms 6:5 and Job 7:7-10). Some scholars asserted that Sheol was an earlier concept, but this theory is not universally held. One later Jewish sect that maintained belief in a Resurrection of the dead was known as the Pharisees. Opposed to them were the Sadducees who denied the doctrine of Resurrection (Matt. 22:23). In Christianity, heaven is either an eternally blessed life after death or 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 and generally they believe this afterdeath reunion is accomplished through faith that Jesus Christ died for the sins of humanity on the cross, was resurrected and "bodily" ascended into heaven. Examples of the highly divergent terminology referencing the concept of "heaven," in the Christian Bible are:
the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3), the kingdom of the Father (Matthew 13:43), life (Matthew 7:14), life everlasting (Matthew 19:16), the joy of the Lord (Matthew 25:21), great reward (Matthew 5:12), the kingdom of God (Mark 9:46), the kingdom of Christ (Luke 22:30), the house of the Father (John 14:2), city of God, the heavenly Jerusalem (Hebr., xii), the holy place (Hebrews 9:12; D. V. holies), paradise (2 Corinthians 12:4), incorruptible crown (1 Corinthians 9:25), crown of life (James 1:12), crown of justice (II Timothy iv, 8), crown of glory (1 Peter 5:4)
The diversity of references make it probable that the term refers to a direct experience of full spiritual aliveness or unity with God.
In Eastern religions (and some Western traditions), with their emphasis on reincarnation and moksha (liberation), the concept of Heaven is not as prominent, but it still is present.
In Buddhism, for example, there are several heavens, all of which are still part of Samsara (illusionary reality). Those who accumulate good karma will be reborn in one of them. However, their stay in the heaven is not eternal eventually they will use up their good karma and will undergo a different rebirth into another realm, as humans, animals, or other beings. Because Heaven is temporary and part of Samsara, Buddhists focus more on escaping the cycle of rebirth and reaching enlightenment (Bodhi).
In the native Chinese Confucian traditions Heaven (Tian) 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 a transitory place for souls who did good deeds but whose actions are not enough for moksha or merging (union) with Brahman.
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 all of Christianity (see Swedenborgianism for a Christian related religion that does have this doctrine). Some of Christianity along with other major religions maintain 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", dimension, 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.
In Christianity it is believed that Heaven is a spiritual place, unreachable by humans and only to be entered after death. As a spiritual location it could be located somewhere within the known universe and as humans we would be unaware of its presence and unable to see it, or it could be located in another dimension or plane of existence.
Many of today's Biblical scholars, such as N.T. Wright, in tracing the concept of Heaven back to its Jewish roots, see Earth and Heaven as overlapping or interlocking. Heaven is known as God's space, his dimension, and is not a place that can be reached by human technology. This belief states that Heaven is where God lives and reigns whilst being active and working alongside people on Earth. One day when God restores all things, Heaven and Earth will be forever combined into the 'New Heavens' and 'New Earth'.
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). Catholicism and Anglican Christianity state, "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved." These religions also state that someone must repent (turn back) from sin in order to get to heaven. To get into Heaven you must be saved, meaning you must accept God into your heart, ask forgiveness for your sins, and believe that Jesus died on the cross for you.
A notable exception to this is the 'sola fide' belief of mainstream Protestantism, which takes emphasis off having lived a "good life" and teaches instead 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 will go to a place of punishment, Hell, which is eternal (see Annihilationism). Some religions believe that other afterlives exist in addition to Heaven and Hell, such as Purgatory. One religion, universalism, believes that everyone will go to Heaven eventually, no matter what they have done or believed on earth. Some sects of Chrisianity, including Jehovah's Witnesses, believe Hell to be the termination of the soul.
The Bahá'í Faith
The Bahá'í Faith regards the conventional description of heaven (and hell) as a specific place as symbolic. Instead the Bahá'í writings describe heaven as a "spiritual condition" where closeness to God is defined as heaven; conversely hell is seen as a state of remoteness from God. Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, has stated that the nature of the life of the soul in the afterlife is beyond comprehension in the physical plane, but has stated that the soul will retain its consciousness and individuality and remember its physical life; the soul will be able to recognize other souls and communicate with them. For Bahá'ís, entry into the next life has the potential to bring great joy.
Bahá'u'lláh likened death to the process of birth. He explains: "The world beyond is as different from this world as this world is different from that of the child while still in the womb of its mother." The analogy to the womb in many ways summarizes the Bahá'í view of earthly existence: just as the womb constitutes an important place for a person's initial physical development, the physical world provides for the development of the individual soul. Accordingly, Bahá'ís view life as a preparatory stage, where one can develop and perfect those qualities which will be needed in the next life.
The key to spiritual progress is to follow the path outlined by the current Manifestations of God, which Bahá'ís believe is currently Bahá'u'lláh. Bahá'u'lláh wrote, "Know thou, of a truth, that if the soul of man hath walked in the ways of God, it will, assuredly return and be gathered to the glory of the Beloved."
The Bahá'í teachings state that there exists a hierarchy of souls in the afterlife, where the merits of each soul determines their place in the hierarchy, and that souls lower in the hierarchy cannot completely understand the station of those above. Each soul can continue to progress in the afterlife, but the souls development is not dependent on their own conscious efforts, but instead on the grace of God, the prayers of others, and good deeds performed by others on Earth in the name of the person.
Historically, Christianity has taught "heaven" as a generalized concept, a place of eternal life, in that it is a shared plane to be attained by all the pious and elect (rather than an abstract experience related to individual concepts of the ideal). The Christian Church has been divided over how people gain this eternal life. From the 16th to the late 19th century, Christendom was divided between the Roman Catholic view, the Orthodox view, the Coptic view, the Jacobite view, the Abyssinian view and Protestant views.
Roman Catholics believe that entering Purgatory after death (physical rather than ego death) cleanses one of sin (period of suffering until one's nature is perfected), which makes one acceptable to enter heaven. This is valid for venial sin only, as mortal sins can be forgiven only through the act of reconciliation and repentance while on earth.
Some within the Anglican Church also hold to this belief, despite their separate history. However, in Oriental Orthodox Churches, it is only God who has the final say on who enters heaven. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, heaven is understood as union and communion with the Triune God (reunion of Father and Son through love). 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 to be perfected in the future.
In some Protestant Christian sects, eternal life depends upon the sinner receiving God's grace (unearned and undeserved blessing stemming from God's love) through faith in Jesus' death for their sins, his resurrection as the Christ, and accepting his Lordship (authority and guidance) over their lives. In other sects the process may or may not include a physical baptism, or obligatory process of transformation or experience of spiritual rebirth.
Generally, heaven is a "place" of perfect bliss entered into after the trials and difficulties of life if one believes in Jesus as the Son of God. Liberal Christians generally accept that the Bible, having evolved over the millennia in which it was compiled, is more spiritually significant in its metaphorical content - which far outweighs its lack of internal consistency - and believe it to be a guide to the spiritual life because metaphors by nature have their root in truth.