Heaven has served as an inspiration for humans for thousands of years. In this short film, we see some of the many ways the qualities of a perfect place have been imagined and described. The film explores descriptions of heaven found in the religious books of the Torah, the Bible and the Quran and explores ways of understanding these texts.
The film asks us: What might heaven look like, sound like, feel like?
In Religious Studies we are interested in what people have understood heaven to be and the real-world effects of these beliefs.
What does a particular vision of a more perfect world inspire people to do and create?
Infamously, promises of paradise have motivated Islamic fighters to desire martyrdom. For example, potential recruits into Lashkar-e Taiba, a Pakistani group trying to ‘liberate’ their fellow Muslims in Kashmir from violence and discrimination, are known to pester their parents for permission to leave for Kashmir by asking ‘You want to prevent me going to Paradise… If in the meantime I die in an accident, what will you answer on the Day of Judgement?’ (Zahab 2007: 144). Historically, Christians have been likewise motivated by promises of paradise after death to fight in ‘just wars.’
Buddhism aims to liberate the individual from endless cycles of suffering and rebirth – and also incorporates the idea of heavenly realms. For example, a famous episode in the Pali Canon explains how Nanda, a younger relative of the Buddha, desired to be married but instead, under the Buddha’s influence, became a monk. Nanda was not happy as a monk. Confessing the root of his unhappiness to the Buddha, the Buddha reportedly took Nanda to visit a heavenly world with many beautiful maidens. The Buddha promised Nanda that these women could all be his if he lived under the Buddha’s guidance, perhaps in his next lifetime. With this incentive, Nanda applied himself to the Buddha’s teaching. He eventually renounced worldly desires and achieved enlightenment. But when Nanda achieved nirvana, he also abandoned any desire for women. Thereby the Buddha provided a necessary incentive for Nanda’s liberation, although the promised women and heavenly realm were not the result of Nanda’s efforts (Nanda Sutta).
In each case the promise of heaven can be seen to inspire different courses of action which have actual effects. The possible deception involved in each of these examples has inspired ethical debate for centuries.
But heaven need not be a place promised after death. While some strive to create the suitable environment for heaven on earth, others try to create the right conditions for an experience of heaven within themselves.
Famously the Dominican friar Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) preached a sermon based on Luke 21 where Jesus is recorded as saying that ‘The kingdom of God is within you.’ This placed heaven inside human experience, and Eckhart suggested that developing universal, selfless love could be a path towards this internal experience of heaven.
Many centuries later, Leo Tolstoy took up this theme as the title of a book The Kingdom of God Is Within You first published in German and English (1894) in which he outlined principles of non-violent resistance in the face of violence. Mohandas Gandhi was deeply moved by reading this work and corresponded directly with Tolstoy on the principles of non-violent resistance as a means for transforming India into an independent nation (Murthy 1987).
Searching for heaven within an individual has also served to inspire many Europeans to seek for meaning outside of the structures of institutional Christianity, stimulating spiritual exploration with a focus on personal experience.
Through studying how people have understood heaven in various times and places one discovers a multiplicity of visions and views of the world. Reflecting upon the imagery of heaven gives us an opportunity to think about what motivates our actions in the world, and our highest aspirations.
Luke 21, The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
Murthy, B. S. (ed.) (1987) Mahatma Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy Letter. Long Beach Publications.
Tolstly, Leo (1894) The Kingdom of God is Within You: or Christianity not as a Mystical Doctrine, but as a New Life Conception. London: Walter Scott.
Zahab, M.A. (2007) ‘“I shall be waiting for you at the door of paradise”: the Pakistani martyrs of the Lashkar-e Taiba (Army of the Pure)’ in Rao, A., Bollig, M. and Böck, M. (eds) The Practice of War: Production, Reproduction and Communication of Armed Violence, New York and Oxford, Berghahn Books, pp. 133-158.