Where is Heaven? How does it look? Who lives there now? These are questions that have plagued mankind for millenniums. The debate on the true meaning of the heaven described in scriptures has raged since Man developed a cranium capacity large enough to accommodate the symbolic and invisible thought that prayer requires.
However, more specific study puts the genesis of this debate in the same age set as the Neanderthal man; the one who built dwellings using animal bones, lived in social groups, and is proven to have performed religious rituals.
The only thing that has changed is who is arguing and how the concept of Heaven has evolved. Homo erectus probably looked at the skies and wondered: “What in the name of Mu-Mu (language was not well developed then) is this blue thing?”
The Neanderthal man looked at the same sky while performing a ritual and hoped that the smoke from a burning piece of meat would go directly to the sun while he mumbled incomprehensibles. Then came Homo sapiens, Man as we know him, and the debate took an intellectual turn.
Justin Wavinya, waiting to see a priest at Holy Family Basilica, Nairobi, looks surprised when drawn into that age-old debate.
“I don’t know where Heaven is,” she says. “I can’t say whether it is up there in the skies or down here on Earth.”
But, after thinking for a minute about the question, Wavinya lights up: “Heaven is a place where people’s souls go to meet God after they die,” she says with a sense finality.
Wavinya has been a Catholic throughout her life. She reads the Bible regularly, attends Mass, visits the confessional whenever she feels burdened by sin, and studies liturgical teachings. She is, you could say, not a “ceremonial Christian”, but a devout follower of the teachings of her faith.
Yet, despite all that religious dedication, she seems — sounds — a bit unsure about the concept of Heaven, and is in fact contradicted by a nun at the church, who says “Heaven is here on Earth”.
“You can make your Heaven while here,” the nun advises, “by being responsible enough to live in harmony with other people and the environment.”
Away from the church, the question elicits even more fascinating responses on the streets. “Heaven is a state of being; a concept that is directionless and formless,” a man explains. “One can’t possibly say that it is a place.” But his view is different from that of yet another, who says Heaven is above, but does not know exactly where.
For children, Heaven is a beautiful and happy place where you float amid angels and lions live happily with lambs. But when those children grow up, Heaven becomes the place out of this world where your soul goes when you die if you were a believer. Some of those adults go on to carve a belief that your Heaven is here on earth as you live your mortal life, and that, when you die, that is the end.
To yet another group, Heaven is here on earth, but it exists in the afterlife, after death and resurrection. Still, others believe Heaven is a state of being.
So, what is the truth?
As it turns out, we can only speculate. The concept of Heaven and the afterlife has changed over the years. When Man first started raising these questions, he wallowed in ignorance and doubt-filled guesses before knowledge stepped in, followed by confusion and, now, doubt again.
The perception changes at different stages of life and in different circumstances. That is why the concept of Heaven and the afterlife takes different forms and meanings among believers and non-believers the world over.
To understand what the confusion is all about, one has to start by studying the growth of religion and spirituality because it is within these that the concept of Heaven came into being.
Dr Stephen Akaranga, the chairman of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Nairobi, says religion has passed through six phases over the years; the primitive, archaic, historical, early modern, modern, and the post-modern periods, in that order.
In the primitive phase, no one gave thought to life, they lived and died and that was the end of it. In the archaic stage, they had a monistic view of the world but started having the idea that there were powers beyond human ability that controlled the occurrences in their lives like lightning, the rising of the sun, and rain.
They personified these powers into things that they could see, and eventually started paying homage to the sun, moon, or rain. They also started asking questions about the afterlife.
The historical phase came into the picture soon, and it is during this time that the world’s major religious groups — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — emerged. All these religious groups tried to answer three questions: Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going?
Reformists like Jesus and Mohammed emerged during this period and the Scriptures were enhanced. Heaven was clarified and salvation introduced.
The early modern phase was marked by rebellion, questioning of religious authority, and the emergence of protestant movements. Salvation at this point was espoused as a question of personal faith.
In the modern phase, science has stepped in to question religious beliefs, doctrines, and dogma as it tries to make sense of the world. The postmodern phase lays emphasis on new spirituality, where neo-Pentecostalism preaches Heaven as being here on earth.
But Dr Akaranga insists that, in all these phases, except in the first, the concept of a higher power and Heaven and the afterlife have endured.
“Heaven is metaphysical, relative even,” Dr Akaranga says. “You can create your own Heaven by ensuring that you are at peace with yourself... the trilogy of body, mind, and soul in complete harmony.”
In most African societies, belief in the afterlife has existed for eons. Our forefathers held that when one died, they moved to join the living dead. However, this afterlife was here on earth. The Bukusu, for instance, buried some of their dead sitting so that the departed could keep abreast of what is going on.
Among the Luo, when people mourned their dead, they asked the person to pass their greetings to others who had died before them, advancing the notion that the dead congregated somewhere.
Today, Fr Kanja Wachira of St Paul’s Catholic in Nairobi says, based on the Scriptures, Heaven is “a true dwelling place where the righteous will live together with God”.
This view is shared by the Archbishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kenya, Walter Obare, who says he believes Man was created “to live with God, in eternity, in Heaven”.
Scholars support this view. Rev Paul Wawire of the East African School of Theology concurs that Heaven is the abode of the righteous, and points to a scripture in the New Testament that quotes Jesus as saying: “There are many rooms in my father’s house, and I am going to prepare a place for you.”
Rev Wawire explains that the Hebrew word for heaven — shamayim — means “heights”, and marom means “high place”, pointing to the direction of Heaven as above. To cement his arguments, he quotes another scripture in the New Testament (Revelation 21) that talks of Heaven as coming from above.
This view that Heaven is above, a separate place from Earth, makes one wonder where that leaves the likes of the nun and Dr Akaranga, who believe that you can create your Heaven where you live. Or those who hold the view that Heaven will come down to Earth and the righteous will live eternally with God down here.
Dr Akaranga and the nun, however, take solace in numbers, for they are not alone. There are major world religions — and millions of non-believers — who espouse the view that Heaven is here on earth.
Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance, believe in God and their teachings are based on the Bible. But the unique qualities that the religious group stresses are justice, love, power, and wisdom. To them, life is lived here on earth... and lived to the fullest; that when you die, you cease to be.
Their beliefs are based on parts of the Scripture that proves that Man’s soul is not immortal, hence cannot survive when a person stops breathing. Nonetheless, they still hold that death is not the final end.
In Japan is a religious group by the name of Shinto that has no single sacred scripture, meaning different people in the same religion may have divergent opinions but are still accepted within the order. Shinto takes a keen interest and pushes for devotion to life in this world while emphasising Man’s goodness here on earth and how that “uprightness” can create a perceived heaven.
In the same Heaven-on-earth group are Scientologists, who believe in the promise and belief of “a civilisation without insanity, without criminals, and without war, where the able can prosper and honest beings can have rights and where Man is free to rise to greater heights”.
The Church of Scientology was founded by an American fiction writer and is determinedly vague on God and the concept of Heaven. In fact, they are more into mathematics, physics, and psychotherapy in seeking answers to life’s problems.
Archbishop Obare says that if the world were to operate as God intended it to, the experience on Earth would be close to that of Heaven. But since man is sinful, there is a separation between Heaven and Earth.
Fr Kanja is also of the same view, drawing from Christianity’s most famous supplication, the Lord’s prayer: Let your will be done here on Earth as it is in Heaven.
This, he says, shows that whatever is going on in Heaven is different from what goes on Earth, but if the world were to operate as God intended, where virtues like peace, love, kindness, and justice would be exalted, then the earth would offer a glimpse of what Heaven feels like.
Just a glimpse, not the whole thing.
These varying ideologies of the abstract idea of Heaven may excite the passions of Scientologists and non-believers, but the most controversial statement about God, Heaven, and the afterlife may have come from Mahatma Gandhi, the pre-eminent advocate of Indian nationalism who was assassinated in 1948.
“I worship God as truth only,” Gandhi once said. “I have not yet found Him, but I am seeking after Him.”
Yet Gandhi shared the beliefs of Hinduism, which most people in his country practise, and which are built on faith in a supreme God who can have different forms and expressions.
One of those forms is the cow, of which Gandhi once said: “I worship it, and I shall defend its worship against the whole world. The central fact of Hinduism is cow protection.”
Upon death, Hindus believe, since human beings possess an eternal self in the form of a spirit, they are transmigrated to another form, human or otherwise.
Hinduism proposes that the existence of Man is a cycle of birth, death, and re-birth, commonly known as reincarnation. The main goal is salvation from this cycle by abandoning all earthly desires and becoming one with the universe.
The same idea of reincarnation is present among Buddhists, who work towards a deep insight into the true nature of life. The religion stresses personal spiritual development and a belief that life is endless. They may get reincarnated, but their ultimate goal is to break that cycle and achieve a nirvana.
As it is, Heaven could be existing and the afterlife could be there. But what happens to all the people who believe in the non-existence of Heaven, or those who have brought Heaven to the “here and now” on earth?
More interestingly, what if they are right?
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