HEAVEN AND HELLSome conception of heaven and hell is found universally among the religions of the world. Descriptions of these abodes are often full of graphic and fanciful imagery, conveying in metaphor a reality that can hardly be part of the ordinary experience of mortals. Are these realms objectively real? The scriptures are unanimous in affirming they are. Yet they do not have any physical location: "up" or "down" is a matter of spiritual geography, not of astronomy or geology. The view found in some texts, that heaven or hell is derived from one's state of mind,1 does not make it any less real. For the attitudes and desires of people's hearts, which may be hidden by the external features of mortal life, are the equivalent of material reality in the realms of spirit.
A number of the Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist passages speak of Yama, the Indic god of the dead. Yama is not comparable to the devil or Satan who, in Christian belief, is the author of evil. In the Vedas, he presides over the bright realms and is the object of offerings and supplications for the benefit of the departed. As the lord of hell in Buddhism, his acts are strictly in accordance with divine law, meting out punishments according to people's karma, and in one Taoist text reprinted here he even gives an object lesson to turn people away from evil.
Some ambiguity plagues the descriptions of heaven and hell in the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which can be interpreted either to describe the state of the soul upon death or what will be after the future Resurrection. The Qur'anic passages collected here which describe the opening of Paradise and hell are a few of many which refer to the last judgment. Most Muslims, therefore, regard the dead to be sleeping in the grave awaiting that momentous event. Yet other passages, such as the hadith describing Muhammad's Night Journey,2 point to the present reality of Heaven as the dwelling place for the souls of the righteous. The biblical vision of Heaven from the Revelation and the passage from the same book about the lake of fire are visions of a future recompense after the tribulations of the Last Judgment. Those Christians who hold to a literal interpretation of these verses concur with their Muslim brothers and sisters that the souls of the dead are asleep in the grave, awaiting the future opening of Heaven and hell. But another strand of the Christian tradition, supported by biblical descriptions of the Sheol in Job 3.17-19, the heavenly Jerusalem in Hebrews 12.22-24, and the story of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16.19-31, teaches that upon death each person immediately enters his appointed place in Heaven or hell. The visions in Revelation are often interpreted in this way, and have spawned such classic descriptions as Dante's Divine Comedy. The concept of the World to Come in Rabbinic Jewish writings is similarly ambiguous: the World to Come may be a present Heaven or describe a future redemption on earth.3
1. E.g., Tibetan Book of the Dead, p. 343, Madaghishloka, p. 347, Sutra of Hui Neng 6, p. 348.
2. See Qur'an 2.154, p. 330, and 39.42, p. 333.
3. The resolution of these two doctrines comes at the eschatological time of redemption, when the realization of the Kingdom of God on earth brings with it a transformation of heaven: 'a new heaven and a new earth'--cf. Revelation 21.1-22.5, pp. 1118f; Isaiah 24.18-23, p. 1098; Qur'an 21.104-05, p. 1111; 69.13-17, pp. 1098f. The destruction of evil and the triumph of good, when God becomes all in all, effects liberation for the earthly realms and the spiritual realms alike. See also passages which teach that the words "life" and "death" often refer to a state of grace rather than physical life or death: Luke 9.60, p. 583; Qur'an 6.122, p. 583; Berakot 18ab, p. 583. In that light we can also understand resurrection to mean the enlivening and salvation of those in the spiritual realms as well as on earth.
The world's scriptures describe Heaven as a place of rest, or as an exalted spiritual state, full of divine splendor and communion with the Absolute. There are also descriptions using more graphic and materialistic imagery: gardens of delights, with riches and pleasures abounding. A number of texts describe it as a place of fellowship with the spirits of the departed or a fellowship of saints. We conclude with visions or tours of Heaven: the Buddhist description of the Pure Land, the vision of throngs surrounding the divine throne in the Book of Revelation, and Muhammad's Night Journey.
There the wicked cease from troubling,
and there the weary are at rest.
There the prisoners are at ease together;
they hear not the voice of the taskmaster.
The small and the great are there,
and the slave is free from his master.
1. Judaism and Christianity. Bible, Job 3.17-19
Chuang Tzu said, "Were I to prevail upon God to allow your body to be born again, and your bones and flesh to be renewed, so that you could return to your parents, to your wife, and to the friends of your youth, would you be willing?"
At this, the skull opened its eyes wide and knitted its brows and said, "How should I cast aside happiness greater than that of a king, and mingle once again in the toils and troubles of mortality?"
2. Taoism. Chuang Tzu 18
He in whom desire has been stilled suffers no rebirth. After death, having attained to the highest, desiring only the Self, he goes to no other world. Realizing Brahman, he becomes Brahman.
Freed from the body, he becomes one with the immortal spirit, Brahman, the Light eternal.
3. Hinduism. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.6-7
When a son of the Buddha fulfils his course,
In the world to come he becomes Buddha.
4. Buddhism. Lotus Sutra 2
To the highest regions, in due order, to those regions where there is no delusion, and to those regions which are full of light where the glorious gods dwell--who have long life, great power, great luster, can change their shape at will, are beautiful as on their first day, and have the brilliance of many suns--to such places go those who are trained in self-control and penance, both monks and householders who have obtained liberation by absence of passion.
5. Jainism. Uttaradhyayana Sutra 5.26-28
Not like this world is the World to Come. In the World to Come there is neither eating nor drinking, nor procreation of children or business transactions, no envy or hatred or rivalry; but the righteous sit enthroned, their crowns on their heads, and enjoy the luster of the Divine Splendor (Shechinah).
6. Judaism. Talmud, Berakot 17a
In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.
7. Christianity. Bible, Matthew 22.30
And those Foremost [in faith] will be Foremost [in the hereafter].
These will be those nearest to God;
In Gardens of Bliss;
A number of people from those of old,
and a few from those of later times.
They will be on thrones encrusted, reclining on them, facing each other.
Round about them will serve youths of perpetual freshness,
with goblets, shining beakers, and cups filled out of clear-flowing fountains;
No after-ache will they receive therefrom, nor will they suffer intoxication;
And with fruits, any that they may select,
And the flesh of fowls, any that they may desire.
And there will be companions with beautiful, big and lustrous eyes,
Like unto pearls well-guarded:
A reward for the deeds of their past life.
No frivolity will they hear therein, nor any taint of ill,
Only the saying "Peace! Peace!"
8. Islam. Qur'an 56.10-27
Lotus Sutra 2: The teaching of the Lotus Sutra at this point is paralleled in Hindu Vedanta, e.g., Mundaka Upanishad 3.2.8-9, p. 586; Chandogya Upanishad 6.8.7, p. 586, and related passages. To realize one's Buddhahood is comparable to discerning Brahman--the Absolute and Ultimate. No longer immersed in temporal phenomena, one becomes joined to eternal Reality. Berakot 17a: Cf. Hadith, p. 1113. Qur'an 56.10-27: Cf. Qur'an 9.72, p. 199; 69.20-24, pp. 1098f; 98.7-8, p. 581.
Higher than all stands the Realm of Grace--
None can have access there except heroes of supreme might,
Inspired by God-consciousness.
In that sphere abide numberless heroines like Sita of surpassing praise
And beauty indescribable.
Those to God united suffer not mortality nor delusion.
In that sphere abide devotees assembled from the various universes,
Cherishing the holy Eternal ever in their hearts.
In everlasting bliss.
The formless Supreme Being abides in the Realm of Eternity.
Over His creation He casts His glance of grace.
In that realm are contained all the continents and universes,
Exceeding in number all count.
Of creation, worlds upon worlds abide therein--
All obedient to His Will;
He watches over them in bliss,
And has each constantly in mind.
Saith Nanak, Such is that realm's [glory] that to try to describe it is to attempt the impossible.
9. Sikhism. Adi Granth, Japuji 37 M.1, p. 8
Make me immortal in the realm
where the son of Vivasvat [Yama] reigns,
where lies heaven's secret shrine, where
are those waters that are ever young.
For Indra, flow thou on, Indu!
Make me immortal in that realm
where movement is accordant to wish,
in the third region, the third heaven of heavens,
where the worlds are resplendent.
For Indra, flow thou on, Indu!
Make me immortal in that realm
where all wishes and longings go,
where spreads the Radiant One's region,
where holy bliss is, and happiness.
For Indra, flow thou on, Indu!
Make me immortal in that realm
where beatitude and joy and cheer
and transports of delight abound,
where the highest desires have been filled.
For Indra, flow thou on, Indu!
10. Hinduism. Rig Veda 9.113.8-11
Rig Veda 9.113.8-11: Cf. Rig Veda 10.14.2,8, p. 332.
What is heaven? Heaven is created by those people who love here on earth with unselfishness and an absolute, God-centered love. This is the most basic principle, and all other principles you learn are the expansion of this basic truth.
11. Unification Church. Sun Myung Moon, 4-18-77
Behold! between the worlds
of mortals and of gods
There is no difference!
To speak the truth is the world of gods;
To speak untruth, the mortal world.
Good works is heaven,
Bad works is hell;
You are the witness, O Lord.
12. Hinduism. Basavanna, Vacana 239
Rabbi Joseph, son of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, was ill and fell into a coma. When he recovered, his father asked him, "What did you see?" He replied, "I beheld a world the reverse of this one; those who are on top here were below there, and vice versa." He said to him, "My son, you have seen a corrected world. But what is the position of us students of Torah there?" He answered, "We are the same as here. I heard it stated, 'Happy is he who comes here possessed of learning;' and I further heard it said that martyrs occupy an eminence which nobody else can attain."
13. Judaism. Talmud, Pesahim 50a
Once Hatthaka, son of a deva [one reborn in heaven after death], when night was waning, lit up the whole of Jeta Grove with exceeding splendor and approached the Exalted One....
Then said the Exalted One, "Well, Hatthaka, do things go on now just the same as before, when you were in human shape?"
"Yes, Lord, they do. But there are also some things now going on which I did not experience when I was in human shape. Just as, Lord, the Exalted One now dwells surrounded by brethren and sisters, by lay-brothers and lay-sisters, by royalties and ministers, by sectarians and their followers--just so do I dwell surrounded by sons of devas. Even from a distance, Lord, do sons of the devas come saying, 'We'll hear the Norm from the lips of Hatthaka, son of a deva.'
"Of three things, Lord, I never got enough. I died regretful of three things. What were they? I never had enough of beholding the Exalted One. I died regretting it. I never had enough of hearing the good Norm. I died regretting it. I never had enough of serving the Order of Brethren. I died regretting it."
14. Buddhism. Anguttara Nikaya i.279
Sun Myung Moon, 4-18-77: Cf. Sun Myung Moon, 12-18-85, p. 323. 1 Corinthians 13, p. 237. Vacana 239: Cf. Katha Upanishad 2.1.10, p. 323. Pesahim 50a: Cf. 1 Samuel 2.4-9, pp. 545f; Hadith of Bukhari, p. 911. Anguttara Nikaya 1.279: Regret is a powerful emotion in the world beyond; it can create hell or spur one to self-betterment.
Where men of goodwill and good deeds rejoice,
Their bodies now made free from all disease,
Their limbs made whole from lameness or defect--
In that heaven may we behold our parents and our sons!
15. Hinduism. Atharva Veda 6.120.3
All who obey God and the Apostle are in the company of those on whom is the grace of God--of the Prophets who teach, the sincere lovers of Truth, the witnesses [martyrs] who testify, and the righteous who do good: Ah! what a beautiful fellowship!
16. Islam. Qur'an 4.69
You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant.
17. Christianity. Bible, Hebrews 12.22-24
Komashtam'ho instructed the people in the nature of death, "When you die, you will be again with those you love who have gone before you. Again you will be young and strong, though you might have been old and feeble on the day you died. In the spirit land the corn will grow and all will be happy, whether they were good or bad when they were alive. So death is not something to be afraid of."
18. Native American Religions. Yuma Tradition
For [the ancestors] Soma is purified,
some accept the molten butter;
to the company of those, for
whom the honey flows, let him go!
To the company of those who
are invincible by spiritual discipline (tapas),
and through spiritual discipline have gone to heaven,
to men of great spiritual fire, let him go!
To the company of those who
fight contested battles, heroes
who cast away their lives, to those who
made a thousand gifts, let him go!
To those ancient followers
of the Law, steadfast in the Law,
who furthered the Law, to the Fathers, Yama,
great in their spiritual fire, let him go!
To the sage-poets, the leaders
of thousands, those who protect the sun,
to the Rishis of great spiritual discipline,
born of spiritual discipline, Yama! let him go!
19. Hinduism. Rig Veda 10.154.1-5
Atharva Veda 6.120.3: Cf. Atharva Veda 12.2.26-27, p. 543. Qur'an 4.69: Cf. Gleanings 81, p. 371. Hebrews 12.22-24: Cf. Revelation 21.1-2, pp. 1112f; Isaiah 51.11, p. 1117. Yuma Tradition: Cf. Zuni Prayer, p. 246; Hopi Tradition, p. 348, Ghost Dance, p. 1117.
O Ananda, the world called Sukhavati (the Pure Land), which is the world system of the Lord Amitabha, is rich and prosperous, comfortable, fertile, delightful, and crowded with many gods and men. And in this world, Ananda, there are no hells, no animals, no ghosts, no devils, and no inauspicious places of rebirth. And there do not appear in this world such gems as are known in the world Sukhavati.
And that world Sukhavati, Ananda, is fragrant with many sweet-smelling odors, rich in manifold flowers and fruits, adorned with jewel trees, and frequented by flocks of various birds with sweet voices, which have been produced by the miraculous power of the Tathagata. The jewel trees have various colors, many colors, many hundreds of thousands of colors. They are composed of varying combinations of the seven precious things: gold, silver, beryl, crystal, coral, red pearls, and emerald... Their roots, trunks, branches, leaves, flowers, and fruits are pleasant to touch, and fragrant. And when these trees, are moved by the wind, a sweet and delightful sound proceeds from them, which one never tires of hearing. Such jewel trees, and clusters of banana trees and rows of palm trees, all made of precious gems, grow everywhere in this Buddha-land. On all sides it is surrounded with golden nets, and all round covered with lotus flowers made of all the precious things. Some of the lotus flowers are half a mile in circumference, others up to ten miles. And from each jewel lotus issue thirty-six hundred thousand billions of rays of light. And at the end of each ray issue thirty-six hundred thousand billions of Buddhas, with golden-colored bodies, who bear the thirty-two marks of the great man, and who, in all the ten directions, go into the countless [lower] realms and there teach the Law.
And many kinds of rivers flow along in this Pure Land. There are great rivers there, one mile broad, and up to fifty miles broad and twelve miles deep. All these rivers flow along calmly; their water is fragrant with manifold agreeable odors, and in them are bunches of flowers to which various jewels adhere, and they resound with various sweet sounds. And the sound which issues from these great rivers is as pleasant as that of a musical instrument consisting of hundreds of thousands of billions of parts, and which, skillfully played, emits a heavenly music. It is deep, commanding, distinct, clear, pleasant to the ear, touching the heart, delightful, and one never tires of hearing it, as if it always said, "Impermanent, peaceful, calm, and not-self." Such is the sound that reaches the ears of those beings. And, Ananda, both banks of those great rivers are lined with variously scented jewel trees, and from them bunches of flowers, leaves, and branches of all kinds hang down. And if those beings wish to indulge in sports full of heavenly delights on those river-banks, then, after they have stepped into the water, the water in each case rises as high as they wish it to--up to the ankles, or to the knees, or to the hips, or to their sides, or to their ears. And heavenly delights arise. Again, if beings wish the water to be cold, for them it becomes cold; if they wish it to be hot, for them it becomes hot; if they wish it to be hot and cold, for them it becomes hot and cold, to suit their pleasure. And those rivers flow along, full of water scented with the best perfumes, covered with lilies, lotus, and all manner of beautiful flowers, resounding with the sounds of peacocks, sparrows, parrots, ducks, geese, herons, cranes, swans, and others, with small islands inhabited by flocks of birds, easy to ford, free from mud, and with golden sand on the bottom. And all the wishes those beings may think of, they will be fulfilled, as long as they are rightful.
20. Buddhism. Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra 15-18
Rig Veda 10.154.5: This is a prayer to Yama, the judge of the dead, to allow the deceased to enter the higher realms. Cf. Tibetan Book of the Dead, p. 347.
After this I looked, and lo, in heaven an open door! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, "Come up hither, and I will show you what must take place after this." At once I was in the Spirit, and lo, a throne stood in heaven, with One seated on the throne! And he who sat there appeared like jasper and carnelian, and round the throne was a rainbow that looked like an emerald. Round the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clad in white garments, with golden crowns upon their heads. From the throne issue flashes of lightning, and voices and peals of thunder, and before the throne burn seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God; and before the throne there is as it were a sea of glass, like crystal.
And round the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes round about and within, and day and night they never cease to sing,
Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
who was and is and is to come!
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb [Christ], clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!"...
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, clothed in white robes, and whence have they come?" I said to him, "Sir, you know." And he said to me, "These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
Therefore they are before the throne of God,
and serve him day and night within his temple;
and he who sits upon the throne will shelter them with his presence.
They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more;
the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of living water;
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."
21. Christianity. Bible, Revelation 4.1-8; 7.9-17
Glory be to Him, who carried His servant by night from the Holy Mosque to the Further Mosque, the precincts of which We have blessed, that We might show him some of Our signs.
22. Islam. Qur'an 17.1
Anas ibn Malik said, "Abu Dharr recounted that the Messenger of God said, 'While I was at Mecca, the roof of my house opened and Gabriel entered. He opened my chest, washed me with the water of Zamzam, brought a golden basin full of faith and wisdom and emptied all of it into my chest. After that he closed it, took me by the hand and raised me towards the lowest heaven. When I arrived at the lowest heaven, Gabriel said to the door-keeper "Open." "Who is there?" he asked. "Gabriel," the angel replied. "Is there anyone with you?" responded the door-keeper. "Yes," replied Gabriel, "Muhammad is with me." "Has he been commanded?" added the door-keeper. "Yes," said the angel. When the door-keeper had opened to us, we rose up within the lowest heaven, and suddenly we saw a man sitting, having some spirits on his right and others on his left. Every time he looked to the right he smiled, but as soon as he looked to the left he wept. He said, "Welcome virtuous prophet and virtuous son." "Who is this?" I asked Gabriel. "This man," he replied, "is Adam, and those spirits on the right are destined to Paradise, while the spirits on his left are destined to hell. That is why, when he looks to the right, he smiles, and when he looks to the left, he weeps."
"'Then Gabriel raised me up to the second heaven and said to the door-keeper, "Open." He asked the same questions as the first, and then opened to us.'" Anas recounted that Abu Dharr said that the Prophet found in the various heavens Adam, Idris, Moses, Jesus, and Abraham, but he was not certain which were the positions they occupied. What he does say is that Muhammad found Adam in the lowest heaven and Abraham in the sixth heaven.
Anas adds, "When Gabriel came with the Prophet into the presence of Idris, the latter said, 'Welcome virtuous prophet.'" "When I asked 'Who is this?'" the Prophet went on, "Gabriel answered me, 'It is Idris.' Then I went into the presence of Moses, who said, 'Welcome virtuous prophet and virtuous brother.' 'Who is this?' I asked. 'Moses' replied the angel. I then went into the presence of Jesus, who exclaimed, 'Welcome virtuous prophet and virtuous brother.' 'Who is it?' I said. 'Jesus' replied Gabriel. I went after that into the presence of Abraham, who said, 'Welcome virtuous prophet and virtuous brother.' 'Who is it?' I asked. 'It is Abraham,' the angel said to me."
Ibn Hazm records that Ibn `Abbas and Abu Habba al-Ansari said that the Prophet used the following words, "Then the angel raised me until he brought me to a height where I heard the beating of wings.... Then Gabriel led me away and brought me to the lote-tree of the Boundary, which is covered with unspeakably beautiful colors. Next I entered Paradise. There are domes of pearls, and the sun there is made of musk."
23. Islam. Hadith of Bukhari
Revelation 7.9-17: Cf. Revelation 21-22, pp. 1118f; Ezekiel 1.3-28, pp. 100f; Doctrine and Covenants 76.54-93, p. 322. Qur'an 17.1: This is the Night Journey (Mi`raj) of Muhammad, where he was transported from the 'Holy Mosque' at Mecca to the 'Further Mosque' in Jerusalem, and then taken on a tour of the seven heavens, even to the throne of God. The following hadith gives details of the latter part of the journey. Hadith of Bukhari: An episode from this description of the Mi`raj where God prescribes for Muslims fifty prayers a day and Muhammad, on Moses' advice, bargains with God to reduce their number to five, omitted here, may be found on pp. 785f.