Artists over the centuries have had a grand time with heaven. Usually there are lots of white fluffy clouds, cherubic figurines in Greco-Roman garb, and a male God, aged and chubby, lounging about. As a 14 year old once remarked: “Who’d want to live there!!?”
Our liberal Anglican tradition has shied away from being too specific about the after-life. Rather we have said that just as in life we are in God, so in death. Heaven is where God is. And God is everywhere, even here. In other words the tradition is somewhat agnostic about life after death – acknowledging that there is no certainty about it. Yet, it also affirms that God breaks the boundaries of normal and may break this one too.
The Bible is fuzzy on the specifics of what happens after death. Rather the writers paint verbal pictures of what it might be like.
Revelations 21, for example, describes a heavenly city, Jerusalem the Golden, walled with wonderful gates of precious stones. The streets are made of gold. The yellow brick road captures our imagination. There is something quite decadent about walking on wealth. The gates are always open. All are welcome to come or go.
For the poor and impoverished this vision of the after-life was very appealing. There was welcome and wealth. They might have imagined that this was God’s justice, making up for all their earthly hardships.
Another picture is John 14:2 “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” Heaven is envisioned as a huge hotel. There is room there for everyone, and everyone has a room. God cares for each individual person, providing them with their own suite. It also allows for diversity – we don’t all have to fit, be squeezed, into the same room. Physically, spiritually, and sexually we can be different, we can be ourselves.
For those who are homeless, who have never had a room of their own, who have been pushed about by government policies and sardined into the schemes of others… such a vision of space and respect has great appeal. Again they might have thought that God was making up for their earthly sufferings and giving them happiness they hadn’t previously known.
A third biblical picture of heaven is of a party. Isaiah 25: “On this mountain [God] will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines... and [God] will swallow up death and wipe away the tears.” This is a celebration. God has saved the people and now they are partying. Here the wealth is evident in the food and its abundance. Here all peoples are welcome, akin to the hotel picture. Here, unlike the former two pictures, there are people connecting with other people. Here food for the stomach and soul are shared.
There are other pictures of heaven presented in the Bible: the throne room, singing, white robes, judgement, and angels. The point is that the Bible doesn’t have one view of heaven as if someone had been to a literal place and taken snapshots. Instead the Bible includes different and various pictures in order to implicitly criticise the validity of any one picture. It is saying that the “dwelling” of God is bigger than our ideas of it, the canvas bigger than what we can possibly paint.
The vision of heaven as hope for the impoverished, homeless, and hungry has had an appeal down through the ages. Yet the vision was always broader than physical needs. As in Revelations 21, John 14, and Isaiah 25 it included welcome, individual respect and space, and connection with others. Happiness required more than the money, housing, and food.
The academic discipline called the School of Positive Psychology agrees with this. They have done numerous studies searching for the ingredients of happiness and have come up with three staples.
The first is that which caters for our body, appetites, and feelings of wellbeing. This is family, friends, relationships, money, cars, holidays, parties, sport, wine, overseas travel, good food, and coffee. It is the sensation of hearing beautiful music or skiing down a mountain. It is also the sensation of being loved and valued.
Many people make the mistake of thinking that this is all there is to happiness. ‘With wealth, health, relationships, and opportunities anyone and everyone will be happy.’ Well, they are certainly ingredients but not the whole cake.
The second staple of happiness is altruism. By that I mean being a part of something and contributing to something beyond our individual or familial needs. It is about doing something for the good of others and being part of something bigger than ourselves. In those slightly antiquated words like ‘service’ and ‘charity’ there is an important ingredient in our quest to find meaning and happiness. When we give, when we do something for others, when we nurture the wellspring of generosity within us, we nurture our own soul.
The third staple of happiness is purpose. The person who has a goal and the drive to fulfil it experiences another particular type of happiness. That purpose might be to create a supportive family, or build a house, or achieve in sport, or develop a project, or discover a cure. It is achievement focussed. Of course when a person has multiple goals, as many of us do, then frequently the time demands of the goals conflict – like being successful at work and successful at parenting. There is also the necessity and art of continually setting new goals and finding new purpose, such as around the time of retirement from paid work.
When purpose becomes purely the creation of wealth, and wealth is purely for personal enjoyment, then the potential for happiness is reduced. Happiness requires us to have or find meaning that is more than the satisfaction of our appetites.
The proponents of positive psychology say that we need all three ingredients in order to be happy. We need good feelings, to give to others, and to have purpose. This is why religions – which seek to do all three – are important in society.
It is also why discipline and self-restraint are important. Popular TV shows usually promote self-gratification. It’s all about body, booty, and babes. Yet happiness requires the discipline of giving your resources to a cause much bigger than ourselves and the discipline of focussing on a purpose. To feed the world we need to constrain our appetites.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn once wrote in reference to Western Society ‘one almost never sees voluntary restraint… Left without electric power for a few hours only all of a sudden crowds of citizens start looting and creating havoc. [This indicates] a social system quite unstable and unhealthy.’
In the political life of our nation it is timely to contemplate upon these things. ‘What can the Government give me?’ is not the only question. Nor is the question ‘What can I give to others?’ There are also questions about what is our communal purpose, what might we offer the world, and what might we have to do differently – even give up – in order to achieve it? I listen for what any politician or party might be saying about these important questions of vision, meaning, and ultimately happiness.
The biblical visions of heavenly happiness; of having a home, income, and food; of having respect, space, and connection with each other; continue to inform our vision of earthly happiness. Yet these need to be placed alongside the life of Jesus. For in him we see a life filled with friendship and fellowship, with generosity and self-giving, and with purpose and its discipline.
To the 14 year old who disdains the idea of a cloudy, white, heavenly after-life I offer the meaning, variety, and well-being of a Jesus-life for the now and any hereafter.