Is heaven ‘out there’ or in us? Religious leaders offer views of afterlife as a place or state of being

This illustration released by NASA depicts a view of the night sky just before the predicted merger between our Milky Way galaxy, left, and the neighboring Andromeda galaxy. About 3.75 billion years from now, Andromeda's disk fills the field of view and its gravity begins to create tidal distortions in the Milky Way. The view is inspired by dynamical computer modeling of the future collision between the two galaxies. The two galaxies collide about 4 billion years from now and merge to form a single galaxy about 6 billion years from now. Astronomers in a Thursday, May 31, 2012, NASA news conference announced that observations from the Hubble Space Telescope detail a long-anticipated galactic smash-up. Astronomers had seen the Andromeda galaxy coming at us, but thought there was a chance that its sideways motion would make it miss or graze the Milky Way. Hubble readings say there's no chance of that.(AP Photo/NASA)

The Hubble space telescope has spotted many wonderful things but none that can be identified yet as heaven.

The question of “what is heaven” has occupied religious thinking for centuries, often leaving the “where” for Renaissance artists, who covered their canvases with a lot of clouds, and Sunday school teachers, who had to wing it.

Going back to at least the ancient Egyptians, the place of a happy afterlife has been “up” there somewhere. This idea has been reinforced by the corresponding theme that if undeserving, one goes “down” to the other place.

Our language, too, equated the heavens with sky and space. Genesis noted how God created them along with Earth, but does that imply he was working from another platform?

Medieval church spires began reaching higher and higher into the sky, reinforcing the connection to heaven. But the Age of Reason arrived and with it the scanning of space by folks with newfangled lens in tubes. The idea of God looking back down on us from above began to retreat, at least for some.

Religious leaders were asked where they believed heaven might be.

The Bible talks about three heavens, responded the Rev. William Snorgrass: The first is the air where the birds fly, the second is space where the planets and stars are, and the third heaven is where God dwells.

The Kansas City pastor of Progressive Missionary Baptist Church described the place with the help of Revelation. “God himself will be the light so there’s no sun or moon, and it’s light all the time. It’s a place where there are mansions; there is singing and worship of God.”

To the Rev. Vincent Rogers of St. Andrew the Apostle Catholic Church in Gladstone, Mo. “Heaven is not so much a ‘place’ as we understand it, but the state of being forever with God and also being with the angels and all the people who are saved.”

The space-time continuum that helps along so many “Star Trek” plots? It cannot corral God or place boundaries on his abode, according to the personal belief of Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz of Kehilath Israel Synagogue in Overland Park, Kan.

“The afterlife is a spiritual existence that transcends time and space as we know it.”

Nothing new here. For many believers, faith always trumps science.

Never mind that some recent quantum physics theories of new dimensions might work very well in keeping unseen angels close, although it might make obsolete their need for wings.

To the Rev. Kendyl Gibbons of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Kansas City, there might be a place for science: neuroscience.

“To whatever extent heaven exists, it exists in our current experience,” Gibbons said. “The spiritual realm is not out there but in us,” and “the science that is most likely to tell us about heaven is the understanding of the brain.”

But it’s hard to paint a picture or write a hymn about brain circuits.

“When the roll is called up yonder,” goes the song, and it was not referring to Green Bay, “When his chosen ones shall gather to their home beyond the skies, I’ll be there.”

Surveys consistently put the percentage of Americans who believe in heaven at around 80 percent.

“In American religious life, one of the major conduits to beliefs in heaven and hell came through revivals through much of the 20th century,” said Bill J. Leonard, church history and religion professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. “The promise of heaven, the warning of hell was a major part in many evangelical conversions during that time.”

He said a recent Ric Burns documentary on death and the Civil War has excellent commentary on Victorian views of heaven as a real place, where people went immediately after death and where friends and family would recognize one another.

But religious pluralism and the spirituality movement probably have made heaven less spatial and more of a union with the divine, Leonard said, “and perhaps even a dimension that is much closer to this world.”

J. Edward Wright, professor of Judaic studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson, who has written extensively about heaven, said that dating to the second century Jews believed in an afterlife that was a place of reward. It was the Greeks in the fifth century who came up with a new way of looking at the cosmos as a pure spiritual realm as opposed to a physical one.

“The only way to get from this world to the heavenly world is to die and become a pure spirit to live in that spiritual world, and each group had ways to do that,” Wright said.

None of the local faith leaders offered a location of heaven — one quipped that he hoped it looked a lot like Hawaii — but all advised finding one’s way there. Some of their observations:

Pastor Dan Wakefield of Abundant Life Assembly of God in Overland Park, Kan., listed many biblical verses indicating heaven is a real place.

First, Jesus said it was a real place in John 14:2-3, he said. It states that, “In my Father’s house are many mansions,” and, “I go to prepare a place for you.”

“So either Jesus and the apostles were lying to us or telling us the absolute truth, and I believe they were telling the absolute truth.”

Snorgrass said heaven is a literal place “where God, angels of heaven and all who have been saved abide. This is the place of eternal life, joy, peace, contentment.”

“Imagine no police, no military, never any wars, no dumps, everything is perfect, pure and clean. There is no discrimination, prejudices, no doctors, lawyers, hospitals, funerals, no disease of any kind.”

Mormon spokesman Bruce Priday said his faith considers heaven an actual and “beautiful place where we will accordingly receive an eternal dwelling place in a specific kingdom of glory in heaven based on our faith and obedience.”

It’s harder to pin down where it is, he said, adding that Ezra Taft Benson, a former church president, taught that the spirits of those who have died are not far from us.

Another past president, David D. McKay, said: “It’s possible to make home a bit of heaven. Indeed, I picture heaven as a continuation of the ideal home,” Priday quoted.

Rogers knocked down some old stereotypes. “Since heaven is outside our universe of time and space, it’s not ‘in the sky’ or ‘in space’ any more than it is any other place.

“Since being in the presence of God is far beyond our earthly human experience, we can no more imagine what heaven ‘looks like’ than an unborn child can understand what the outside world looks like — perhaps less so, if that’s possible.”

The Rev. Rick Power of College Church of the Nazarene in Olathe, Kan., agreed: “We couldn’t travel there by spacecraft, but the destination is very real.”

According to the Book of Revelation, God’s plan is to bring heaven to Earth, he said, as a dwelling place for redeemed people. God said his creation was very good, he explained. “He’s not going to throw it away, but restore it at the end of time.”

This somewhat resembles the Islamic vision.

Syed E. Hasan of the Midland Islamic Council said he has been researching the origins and end of the earth for nearly two years.

He said some verses in the Quran suggest that heaven will be on a “transformed earth, where the current laws of science will be very different from what we know, and this new world will be the everlasting place of rest for the faithful believers.”

Much agreement exists between the Quranic revelation and astrophysical discoveries, Hasan, a geoscientist, said. The universe is expanding but will slow down and then stop, which will cause it to collapse “to form a singular entity where the known laws of physics, chemistry and maths will not be valid.”

Hasan said the Quran states that “as we originated the first creation, so we shall bring it back again.”

It also says, “On the day when earth is changed into different earth and heavens into different heavens, mankind shall stand before God, who conquers all.”

Anand Bhattacharyya, an active Hindu, noted how Scriptures talk about heaven being somewhere in the cosmos.

“According to the theory of karma and reincarnation, heaven is the place where noble souls, who have performed good karma in their lives, go after death to enjoy the rewards of their good karma. After exhausting the rewards, they are reborn again and start a new life. This process continues until the ultimate liberation is achieved.”

Rebirth is an element, as well, of Buddism, a faith of several heavens that are temporary.

Gibbons said when she heard people of other faiths talk about heaven as a physical place, “it just sounded like a made-up fairy tale.”

“The existence of loved ones when they die is in our memories and the impact they had on the world,” she said. “We just don’t know where we are going when we die. What makes more sense to me is that consciousness ceases with our physical life.”

The Talmud does not discuss heaven much.

Rabbi Yanklowitz still believes “all righteous people from any faith have a place there.”

“If one has cultivated one’s eternal, spiritual self, then that part of the self will continue,” he said. “If one has not, when one’s body is finished, one’s whole self is finished.”

Wright said that rabbis today seldom talk about heaven and hell but may talk about the next world simply because Christians focus so much on heaven and hell. “If there is a heavenly world, I cannot confirm it exists. I live in a physical world, and heaven is a supernatural world. So I can’t confirm or deny it.”