How relevant to modern life are Heaven and Hell? Many religions hold that there are stages of Heaven and stages of Hell to which people are sent according to their good or bad deeds during life.
Egyptian tomb paintings from as early as 2500 BC show the jackal-headed god Anubis as the gatekeeper of the underworld. Anubis would determine a person’s worthiness by weighing the deceased heart against the feather of truth. The heart would be weighted down by bad deeds and lightened by good. When your life comes to an end, how will your heart measure up against the feather of truth?
The idea of judgment after death is found in many religious traditions. In Judaism the Jewish New Year is the time to reconcile your misdeeds so your name will be inscribed into the Book of Life. In Christianity, St. Peter is sometimes depicted as the keeper of Heaven’s Gate where people will be interviewed in order to be admitted to Heaven, damned to Hell or sent to Purgatory where they might purge or make up for their sins. In both Hinduism and Buddhism, it is believed that life is a wheel of successive reincarnations. Between reincarnations, people arrive in the hall of the ruler of the dead where people are judged according to their right or wrong actions. People are then rewarded or punished in one of many different heavens or hells before being reborn. Eastern religions emphasize the journey between lifetimes is one of consciousness.
There are many different visions of Heaven. Where the earth is chaotic and unpredictable, human beings look upward to the wheel of stars as a realm of immortality, order and harmony. Paradise is also portrayed as a verdant garden like Eden located somewhere on this earth. Explorers were driven to discover an idyllic place with a perfect climate and fertile land where people could live in harmony with the world of nature. Some believed it was an island without aging, disease, work, or private property.
Heaven is sometimes depicted as a land of endless pleasure with food, drink, frolicking and music. St. Paul countered that “The kingdom of God does not mean food and drink but righteousness and peace and the Holy Spirit.” Rabbi Rav of the third century AD wrote, “There is neither eating nor drinking, nor any begetting of children, no bargaining or jealousy or hatred or strife. All that the righteous do is sit with their crowns on their heads and enjoy the effulgence of the Presence.”
Where Heaven is a place of bliss and perfection, Hell is the opposite: a place of torment. Some theologians proclaim that a perk of Heaven is that you can see justice served by witnessing those who wronged you being punished.
I challenge you to consider your own views of Heaven and Hell. When you say, “Ah, Heaven!” what are you experiencing? Physical pleasure? Beauty? Material Security? Personal Achievement? Peace? Love? A sense of God’s presence? Harmony with the natural world? Here is the really tough question, do you receive satisfaction from the suffering of others especially those who you do not like or may have hurt you in some way?
When you say, “Oh, Hell!” what are you encountering? Physical pain? Ugliness? Loss? Failure? Frustration? Hatred? A sense of isolation?
As people of conscience, it is important to be mindful of what we hold as ideal for that is what motivates our actions. It is equally important to consider how sometimes our misplaced striving after that ideal leads to suffering and thereby creates our own hell. The ideal of a Paradise with a perfect climate, trees always bearing fruit, a place without aging, disease or work has not been abandoned. Consider how many modern conveniences, marketing campaigns, and resorts were born from those longings. Super-sized meals deficient of nutrients, people purchasing luxury items on credit, and attempts to mask signs of aging can lead to lives out of balance. Ironically, our desire for vengeance instead of reconciliation weighs on our hearts hurting us more than our enemies.
The mystery of death and the afterlife remains. However, no matter who makes the final judgment whether it is God or karma, our own conscience or our impact on others—there is one conclusion, our actions matter. Whether or not you believe in life after death or Heaven and Hell among us, all traditions teach the same lesson that our choices have consequences that can give rise to love or pain. The path to healing and wholeness is through nourishing others.