Johann Hari has written a powerful piece that describes when, who, how and why we created heaven.
John Lennon urged us: “Imagine there’s no heaven/It’s easy if you try/No hell below us/Above us only sky.” Yet the religious aren’t turning to Lennonism any faster than Leninism. Today, according to a new book by Lisa Miller, Newsweek’s religion correspondent, 81 per cent of Americans and 51 per cent of Brits say they believe in heaven – an increase of 10 per cent since a decade ago. Of those, 71 per cent say it is “an actual place”. Indeed, 43 per cent believe their pets – cats, rats, and snakes – are headed into the hereafter with them to be stroked for eternity. So why can’t humans get over the Pearly Gates?
In reality, the heaven you think you’re headed to – a reunion with your relatives in the light – is a very recent invention, only a little older than Goldman Sachs. Most of the believers in heaven across history would find it unrecognisable. Miller’s book, Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife, teases out the strange history of heaven – and shows it’s not what you think.
Heaven is constantly shifting shape because it is a history of subconscious human longings. Show me your heaven, and I’ll show you what’s lacking in your life. The desert-dwellers who wrote the Bible and the Koran lived in thirst – so their heavens were forever running with rivers and fountains and springs. African-American slaves believed they were headed for a heaven where “the first would be last, and the last would be first” – so they would be the free men dominating white slaves. Today’s Islamist suicide-bombers live in a society starved of sex, so their heaven is a 72-virgin gang-bang. Emily Dickinson wrote: ” ‘Heaven’ – is what I cannot Reach!/The Apple on the Tree/Provided it do hopeless – hang/That – ‘Heaven’ is – to Me!” …
We know precisely when this story of projecting our lack into the sky began: 165BC, patented by the ancient Jews. Until then, heaven – shamayim – was the home of God and his angels. Occasionally God descended from it to give orders and indulge in a little light smiting, but there was a strict no-dead-people door policy. Humans didn’t get in, and they didn’t expect to. The best you could hope for was for your bones to be buried with your people in a shared tomb and for your story to carry on through your descendants. It was a realistic, humanistic approach to death. You go, but your people live on.
So how did the idea of heaven – as a perfect place where God lives and where you end up if you live right – rupture this reality? The different components had been floating around “in the atmosphere of Jerusalem, looking for a home”, as Miller puts it, for a while. The Greeks believed there was an eternal soul that ascended when you die. The Zoroastrians believed you would be judged in the end-time for your actions on earth. The Jews believed in an almighty Yahweh.
But it took a big bloody bang to fuse them. In the run up to heaven’s invention, the Jews were engaged in a long civil war over whether to open up to the Greeks and their commerce or to remain sealed away, insular and pure. With no winner in sight, King Antiochus got fed up. He invaded and tried to wipe out the Jewish religion entirely, replacing it with worship of Zeus. The Jews saw all that was most sacred to them shattered: they were ordered to sacrifice swine before a statue of Zeus that now dominated their Temple. The Jews who refused were hacked down in the streets.
Many young men fled into the hills of Palestine to stage a guerrilla assault – now remembered as the Hanukkah story. The old Jewish tale about how you continue after you die was itself dying: your bones couldn’t be gathered by your ancestors anymore with so many Jews scattered and on the run. So suddenly death took on a new terror. Was this it? Were all these lives ending forever, for nothing? One of the young fighters – known to history only as Daniel – announced that the martyred Jews would receive a great reward. “Many of those who sleep in the dust shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt,” he wrote and launched us on the road to the best-selling 1990s trash 90 Minutes in Heaven. Daniel’s idea was wildly successful. Within a century, most Jews believed in heaven, and the idea has never died.
But while the key components of heaven were in place, it was not the kumbaya holiday camp it has become today. It was a place where you and God and the angels sat – but Jesus warned “there is no marriage in heaven”. You didn’t join your relatives. It was you and God and eternal prayer. It was paradise, but not as we know it.
… So yes, there is pain in seeing the truth about Heaven – but there is also a liberation in seeing beyond the childhood myths of our species. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, written in Babylon 4,000 years ago, the eponymous hero travels into the gardens of the gods in an attempt to discover the secret of eternal life. His guide tells him the secret – there is no secret. This is it. This is all we’re going to get. This life. This time. Once. “Enjoy your life,” the goddess Siduri tells him. “Love the child who holds you by the hand, and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.” … Gilgamesh returns to the world and lives more intensely and truly and deeply than before, knowing there is no celestial after-party and no forever. After all this time, can’t we finally follow Gilgamesh to a world beyond heaven?