About the author
Born in Australia, 1969, Chris Pennington lived for twenty years in the UK, gaining an honours degree in mathematics before returning to his homeland in 1993. In 2001, he was recognised amongst the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) Business Manager awards and currently works as a senior manager in the Australian business community.
Chris lives in Sydney and is married with two children.
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“I do not know what heaven is like, but I do know that I am going there; it will be nice and I will be happy!” Such steadfastly held views are still widely acclaimed across the intellectual spectrum. Yet, it seems perverse to maintain such blind faith without contemplating what possibilities might exist beyond the grave.
Just imagine living in heaven. How often do we pause and reflect on this thought? I invite you for a moment to ponder what life in heaven would really be like. Heaven by definition is “heavenly”, a wonderful, joyous place of happiness. For many, heaven is held out as a comfortable bastion of security, a sanctuary to which everlasting pleasure and peace will be delivered. It is held aloft, as a trophy, something that is full of wonder and amazement. Heaven is a promise of a better life. Nothing can surpass heaven; it is our final, everlasting reward.
But how often do we scratch beneath the promise? How often do we query the ultimate prize? Whilst some may question its very existence, there is a uniformly held view that heaven is a nice place. From an early age we are generally encouraged to accept, and hence not question, that heaven is a beautiful abode. Heaven is offered as a comfort to those too young to comprehend. In times of grief, when the mind is weak and the courage to question is suppressed, heaven is on hand to console us. It is presented as a refuge, a safe haven; giving reassurance that our loved ones are not gone, they have simply moved on. Heaven is that elusive place, that place we assure ourselves exists to overcome our fears. It gives us hope.
But is heaven all it is cracked up to be? What if it does not live up to the promise? What then?
Search the Bible for references to find out what heaven is actually like and the findings are thin. More is written about the wars, death and destruction on earth than of the beauty in heaven. The subject of heaven does not appear as a major tenet of the Christian Bible. Fleeting references are made to the “kingdom of God”, or “the home of our Lord”, but search for a description and you will be left wanting. John does give a brief account in Revelation 21:1-27 of a city whose walls are made of jasper and buildings made from gold and precious stone. A place with no need for sunlight or moonlight, for the glory of God is ample to provide all necessary illumination.
The Koran delves deeper and tells us that those who have faith and do good works will “dwell in gardens watered by running streams […] Wedded to chaste spouses, they shall abide therein forever”. Allah took what he created on earth and “fashioned it into seven heavens”, perhaps implying there is nothing more in heaven than what we see on Earth today. Maybe, seven iterations, each improving upon the last, were required to reach a utopian state or literally a “seventh heaven”. More fleeting descriptions of heaven are scattered throughout The Koran. It is interesting to note that as the reader progresses further into The Koran, it seems the greater the need arises to divulge more of heaven’s rewards. Presumably the gardens watered by streams were not sufficient to entice believers and hence God instructed Mohammed to increase the intrigue and appeal. Gold and silver are introduced; marvellous dwellings and rich robes are added. Finally, we are convinced of heaven’s beauty by gorgeous houris and virginal attendants. These statements can be found in various passages throughout The Koran, and the text is written in such a way that requires interpretation or translation. Of course, as with most scriptures, we are left to construe our own understanding of such statements. Meanings are hidden in obscurity or masked by poetry thus granting readers the defensible power to interpret at will. Nuggets of literature yield possibilities that champion selfish objectives. Self-professed religious guardians hold these gems aloft as though illuminating the night like a fiery torch. Presenting possible explanations, the flames of interpretation flicker against the dark sky. Light is cast near and far, and can be seen from many positions as the leader thrusts the torch into the air. Followers, lost in the dark, are drawn to the beacon and their eyes try to make sense of the imagery cast by the dim glow.
Bar a few obscure references, there is practically little written about heaven, and hence heaven is quite literally taken on faith. Heaven is thus the ultimate definition of faith itself. It is not a question of substantiating the facts; there are very few facts to review. Heaven has become an unfathomed, unquestioned, unexplored label. Heaven is an axiomatic enigma. It needs no definition. Heaven is a priori. QED. In this book, we will explore the possible avenues in more detail to examine what heaven could be like.
With precious little definition of God’s humble home, we must use some imagination to determine the nature of a heavenly sanctuary. We hold dear a romantic notion that all our dreams will be fulfilled in heaven. It is a place of continuous beauty and happiness. But what scant information we can glean from the Bible does little to enhance this imagery of beauty. Take for example the description of ‘The Rider on the White Horse’ given by John in Revelation 19:11-15. “I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dripped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down nations. “He will rule them with an iron sceptre.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty”. The passage continues to describe how the white rider (presumably Jesus) and the armies of heaven go on to wage war with Satan and the kings of Earth. Not quite the vision of grace, beauty and enduring happiness. With the exception of the fine white linen, it describes a scene that is more akin to hell than of an idyllic vision of heaven.
An army in heaven! It seems counter-productive to the ideals of paradise. What possible need is there for a military force in heaven? For starters, the heavenly wars must be dreadfully drawn-out and painful given that the warriors are immortal. Imagine a war where nobody dies. Maybe that is why Satan is still at large. Jesting aside, let us not diminish the magnificence of heaven at this early stage. We will assume that on the whole, the warring factions of angels and Satan have long since finished or are at the very least marginalised and allow our imagination to revert to the glory of a heavenly paradise.
Yet within this realm irony begins to arise. My definition of utopia may well differ from yours. How can we be sure that what I seek in heaven will match your expectation of a heavenly abode? If heaven is a perfect paradise in which we live in total harmony it will need to match each individuals’ own personal vision of perfection. But, can we reach agreement on Earth about what is beautiful? No, we cannot. Jackson Pollock, an American twentieth century abstract expressionist painter is a fine example of how differently we view the world. His fiercest critics dismissed his work as a joke. Yet in 2006, one of his paintings allegedly reaped $140 million, to become the most expensive painting ever to be sold to-date. Furthermore, our views of beauty can change over time. Continuing with the artistic analogy, most people today would appreciate and applaud the French impressionist artists such as Monet or Manet. But in 1863, the Academy of Fine Art rejected Manet’s work, leaving Napoleon III to bring it to prominence. He established the Salon des Refusés in opposition to the renowned art institutions and gave both publicity and credibility to Manet’s work. What some find irresistible, others attack with distain. What mimics nature is celebrated by some and criticised by others. What is presented as modern, contemporary and vogue, traditionalists shunned as shallow, worthless and cheap.
Pick almost any subject and it is virtually impossible that we will find consensus from everyone. Even in natural beauty we cannot agree what is most exquisite. Deserts, tropics, oceans, beaches, forests, alpines, tundra; the list is endless. Each environment has its own unique appeal. What may appear beautiful in one light can be unattractive when viewed from a different perspective. Imagine breathtaking vistas of snow-capped French Alps with the sun on your back; the crunch of fresh powder beneath your feet, the blue skies above. The scene turns to tragedy as we pan the picture to reveal more. A fresh blanket of snow laid waste upon the hillside, freshly spilt as though a river had run its course. The ripples are smooth and uniform but beneath the surface the avalanche has trapped its victims. Our feelings turn from joy to despair as we learn the fate of what we see. What first presented as beauty actually held a silent and sinister misery.
Sometimes in life, the closer we look, the more beauty we observe. What may seem ordinary can reveal wonder. What presents as breathtaking may be shallow and skin deep. As the cliché suggests; “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. What I picture as attractive, you may perceive to be ugly.
How then do we view heaven? Would it be a breathtaking landscape filled with immense wonder and intrigue? Is it a labyrinth of multi-dimensions presenting each observer with their own imagery? Would God really design his homeland to be a façade; a series of false pretences to cater for the whimsical desires of mere mortals? No, I do not think so. It would be far more likely for Him or Her to design a wondrous outlook with majestic beauty, holding each inhabitant in rapture. But so far the Bible has led us to believe it is a kitsch city whose walls are made from jasper and gold; a city with twelve pearl encrusted gates, filled with 144,000 celibate Jews redeemed from earth.
With little information to review, how do we formulate our ideas of heaven? To do so we must take a journey to explore heaven’s domain, traverse its boundaries, seek its quest and unearth its secrets. Let us imagine life in heaven, and decide if heaven is a living hell.
So what is heaven? Is it a spiritual haven? Is it a Garden of Eden? Is it a state of mind? Do we take a physical form in heaven? Is heaven simply a place filled with spirits? Though the references are scant, both the Bible and The Koran do depict heaven in a physical form. For example: John’s graphic recollections in Revelation, the final book in the New Testament, provides Christians with the most insight to heaven’s actual appearance. The book gives an eyewitness account by someone taken into the heart of the kingdom and then returned to earth. In the early days of writing the scriptures it was obviously necessary to define heaven in a corporeal state. The tangible descriptions were presumably easier for believers to comprehend.
Many of the teachings contained within holy texts, such as the Torah, the Bible, and The Koran, fail modern-day intellectual scrutiny. Thus allegorical interpretation is used to preserve the reverence offered in the scriptures, holy stories, and even prophet’s quotes. Moving with the times, it is important to recognise that the early religious prose was written at a particular point in history with messages relevant to those individuals at the time. Nonetheless, religions are fickle. Believers will pick out sayings or stories, choosing when to depict them allegorically and when to demand that they are taken factually.
However, in the twenty-first century, especially following many scientific explorations of space, it makes it difficult to comprehend a physical landscape hovering about our heads in the celestial skies. Throughout time, our perceptions change; nowadays many people would be more comfortable accepting the concept that heaven is the exclusive domain of the soul. An unimaginable, incomparable ‘space’ or ‘place’ filled with eternal spirits.
This raises the question – “does the soul exist?” And, if the soul does exist, does it survive when the physical body dies? Does the soul incorporate feelings and memories? What about the sense of pleasure and pain? We trust that our heavenly retreat will be filled with happiness. What constitutes happiness for our soul? Our earthly happiness is dominated by the pursuit for mental, physical and sensory gain. Debate may be waged concerning the boundaries of our mental capacity, our spirit and our soul; hence it is difficult to conclude whether we know what makes our soul content. The definitions may well be trapped in the illusion of our brain, deluding our minds that we think we know our soul.
Who can say what happens when our mortal existence is finally snuffed out? Many people throughout the ages have wished for the presence of an afterlife, either spiritual or physical. Each individual can harbour a vision of heaven. To avoid ridicule, it is increasingly preferable to maintain a definition of heaven that is beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. Elevating heaven’s description beyond the reach of mankind’s conceptual capability safely enshrines its sacred position.
In this book the exploration of heaven’s possibilities are more easily examined against the backdrop of a physical environment. In doing so, the sharper contrast of plausibility is examined. It would be too easy to play the esoteric card of incomprehensibility and thus shy away from even trying to pry into heaven’s secrets. All of us can defend our beliefs by claiming immunity through an inability to understand. Yet failing to explore an idea for fear of not being able to conceptualise the possibilities is failure in the first degree. Undoubtedly, the possibilities and imagination put forward in this book, despite being drawn from gospel texts, can be easily refuted and open to rebuttal. However, it will hopefully serve the purpose of opening the door, albeit slightly ajar, to question unexplained hurdles that must exist with the concept of heaven.
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