I was not supposed to be in church this morning. I was due instead to give my views on 'heaven' on the BBC One programme 'The Big Questions', but they let me know this week that there wasn’t room for me after all. Perhaps the Unitarian view is considered too challenging for a regular Sunday morning audience. Perhaps they were scared. Or more realistically, perhaps there just wasn’t enough room. I don’t know the real
Of course, for a topic such as ‘heaven’ there isn’t really a single Unitarian view; just as there isn’t a single view on many topics. But heaven really is a tricky one.
The topic for debate arose as a result of a recent Guardian interview with the scientist Stephen Hawking. In that interview, which you may have read or heard about, Hawking declared that he was certain that heaven did not exist. Heaven, or an afterlife, was, he said, a fairy story for those afraid of dying.
There was, you will not be surprised to hear, an outcry from the orthodox religious establishment; heaven must exist. Some took the age-old route of quoting scripture, the Bible, the Koran, and others. There was also much discussion on the supposed impossibility of the non-existence of the soul – we can’t explain it so perhaps it must continue.
Preparing for a debate with both sides of the argument – as ever I guessed I would need to sit on the fence, not least because the view is so much better from there – I began to consider what it is that I, a Unitarian, might think of the existence of, or the requirement for, heaven.
Many of us were brought up with an image of heaven as the place high in the clouds, very white décor, angels with harps, full of good people, having been judged by the old man with the long white beard, or God, just after passing through the Pearly gates guarded by St Peter. Welcome to Heaven.
Is this a true image? Can it possibly be the case? Well I’m not sure anyone is in a position to answer that question.
I find it incredibly unlikely that such a place exists and I never will know so long as I am alive and here on earth. There may be an afterlife of some form; I may consciously or unconsciously become part of a higher plane after this life. But I simply do not know. Rational belief, the balance of faith and doubt, cannot allow me to have any certainty of the nature of heaven, or even its existence.
The Western image of Heaven is drawn of course, as so much of our cultural identity is, from the writings of the tribes of Israel, collected together as the Bible. For the early peoples writing the very first books of the Bible, heaven was a realm in the sky – the place from which God created the world. Genesis tells of how God was perceived to have created the heavens and the earth – the heavens giving life through light, sun, and rain. It was only natural that the sky and the worlds beyond the sky were associated with a Creator God.
And for much of the Hebrew Bible, heaven was the place where God resided. Later in Genesis we get a glimpse of heaven as seen in a dream by Jacob. In that dream, Jacob sees a ladder stretching from earth to heaven, with the angels of the LORD ascending and descending. God stands with Jacob and makes promises about the ownership and belonging of the land to Jacob and his descendents.
And heaven appears as the home of God, of the LORD, throughout the Hebrew Bible. God is great , so heaven must be perfect, and the idea of the place in the sky, with clouds included, was a perfectly natural concept for a people that were grappling with the meaning and structure of life and creation.
Once we reach the New Testament, and the stories of Jesus refer again to heaven as the home of God, known to Jesus as, Father. Our Father, who art in heaven. And, of course, the later books of the New Testament tell of the ascension of Jesus to heaven, to sit at the right hand of God.
This has formed the basis of religious, Christian, belief in heaven as a destination for those who have lived and died in Christ. A reward for living a good, Christian life.
Islam and many other religions have a similar set of stories, with an afterlife in a perfect world for all those who lived a good, religious life here on Earth.
Many years ago, I recall listening to a comedy programme that used to be aired on Saturday afternoons, on Radio 2. I think it was called the News Huddlines. Certainly it was led and largely written by Roy Hudd.
I suspect I’ve forgotten every single sketch from that show. Bar one. I don’t know why it captured my attention, but perhaps it came at just that time in my teenage life where I was questioning the supposed certainties of my Church of England upbringing.
The sketch was set in heaven. People were arriving after their time on earth was over, and there were busy floorwalkers directing people to different places.
At one point, the pious Christian couple who have arrived in this holding area are telling everyone how often they had been to church, and how they had once met with the Archbishop of Canterbury. The floorwalker, having written down his notes, asks them to follow the other Christians to the down-escalator taking people to Hell. When questioned by the worried couple, the guide simply points out that ‘well, the Jews were right all along, now off you go’.
I think the reason this story stuck is that, for me, the very idea that heaven could only exist for followers of one religion is absurd. That the deciding factor on the nature of an afterlife were dependant on the cultural and geographical circumstances of my birth and upbringing just didn’t, and still doesn’t, make any sense.
For many religions, Heaven is a reward. Be good now, and you’ll go to heaven.
But is it true? Is it a reasonable belief?
I don’t know. But for me the idea of a perfect afterworld, looking much the same as this one, but straight out of the ‘World of Interiors’ perfect design magazine, is unlikely. There may be a biological or spiritual movement of my conscience or soul after my death – but I have no reason to believe it will be to a world of fluffy clouds. More importantly, I find it unlikely that there is any kind of supernatural judgement of the good and the bad after death. It may be true. But I cannot support that idea with my own reasoning.
So what purpose does heaven, or the notion of heaven, have to a Unitarian like me.
It was 1980s pop-star Belinda Carlisle that said, perhaps in the context of something else,
They say in heaven that love comes first
Let’s make heaven here on earth.
And whilst recognising the inherent danger of having a theology based on 1980s pop song lyrics, I do think this is a couplet to help us remember the purpose of heaven. Heaven is something we can work to create here on Earth.
I go back also to the prayer Jesus taught his disciples. The Lord’s Prayer. From the writings of Matthew, chapter 6, verse 10: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’.
Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
And from this, I can begin to see heaven as an aspiration for this world. The way we might try to make the here and now. In this prayer, Jesus of Nazareth did not tell his disciples to be good in this life in order to go to heaven at the end of it. No, rather in this most famous and memorable prayer, Jesus encouraged his followers to bring God’s will to earth. God is love. And in the previous Chapter, Matthew recorded Jesus’ exhortation to love all – not just our friends and relatives, but our enemies too. By bringing love to the world, we are helping to create a heaven on earth.
And for me, this is completely consistent with my understanding of God, of the transcendent, of that ineffable something that binds us together, that ties us to the world and the universe. That bond is always strengthened through love and compassion. By bringing love to this world, to our relationships with all, we are strengthening our world, we are bringing heaven that little bit closer to the world in which we live.
Unitarianism is built on a foundation of rational belief. That can be quite hard when it challenges beliefs that can otherwise bring comfort. We sometimes wonder therefore whether there is value or purpose in challenging the general consensus. The existence or otherwise of heaven is of course one such philosophical idea that can provide us all with some sense of comfort for an everlasting life – a promise that we will survive in some recognisable way after this life. That we shall reside in a form of heaven – although a Unitarian one where the milk and honey is replaced with coffee, carrot cake and grilled tofu. Or maybe not.
The existence of a true, physical heaven is something we perhaps cannot ever prove one way or the other. So maybe it’s not something we should spend too much time contemplating. Perhaps the value of heaven, or the notion of the perfect world, the world of peace that we might dream of, is instead to fashion the vision for our world here today. We do not surely need to promise of a perfect afterlife to encourage our right behaviours in this life. We are bound to this earth, and as Unitarians we celebrate our connectedness to each other and to everything through the giving of self, the giving of love, through good deeds.
The idea that we might need the promise of the perfect afterlife as a prime reason for living a life of love here on earth today is maybe superfluous. We love one another because we know deep in our hearts it is the right thing to do.
My idea of heaven is the aspiration of a world without conflict. A world in which each person can live without fear, without hunger and without poverty. A world in which love, generosity and respect are the order of the day.
They say that in heaven love comes first. Lets create a heaven here on earth.