Any survey of religious faiths will uncover a mind-boggling hotchpotch of differing conceptions of heaven and hell. Every culture has had something to say about the immortality of the soul and its progress after death to a more or less perfect existence. They are very ancient and persistent ideas. Consequently, our beliefs about the afterlife, and the various experiences we might have therein, have created an immense labyrinth from which it’s not easy to emerge with anything resembling the pure and simple truth. Perhaps the full truth on such matters cannot be communicated in words alone. And even if they could, these brief notes can’t cut through the maze entirely; but they can provide a clue.
There are aspects of all our main religions that reflect light into the minds of its followers. If properly understood and acted upon they open up for us wonderful opportunities to progress along the path to higher and healthier states of mind; they can help to free us from some of the worst aspects of our lives; they offer insights into the true nature of the afterlife; and they provide the wherewithal to develop the qualities we will need to advance heavenward once we have completed our life here. As long as we are good miners, and can get to grips with the various symbols employed by the original founders of our religions then there are still gems to be uncovered within each of our holy books and religious traditions.
Unfortunately however, cheek by jowl with these splendid articles of faith there are less helpful signposts, and of these we seekers on the way should be wary. Not all that has been said about heaven and hell can be true or anything approaching true. Most of the original teachings have been misunderstood by the tradition-keepers and reformers alike. Most have been taken too literally. Most have been distorted almost out of all recognition. But contention and conflict about such things is not the way. The bloody history of religious conflict suggests that it might be unwise to think that we can prove or disprove such beliefs, or impose our own creed on those who wish to believe otherwise. Better by far that we search within for the spirits of tolerance and sincerity, and keep them close as our companions on the way – for only thus can we count ourselves among the true seekers on the path to light.
It could be argued that the first of the signposts on the way is too obvious. Nevertheless it’s better said than not. So let’s be clear: when we say ‘heaven above’ and ‘hell below’ it has nothing to do with altitude. Rather, ‘above’ and ‘below’ refer to higher or lower states of perfection. From this perspective it’s also clear that life on earth involves us in conditions that are midway between heaven and hell.
These states or realms of being, higher or lower, are the origins of both ancient and more modern representations of heaven and hell. The highest of all states or realms – or in other words the highest of all heavens – is that in which the Perfection of God is manifest.
God manifests his Presence in various gradations of splendour, according to the sphere on which he shines; according to the knowledge and virtue in each sphere, so is His Light. Irrationality and utter darkness constitute the lowest hell: a chaos of confused and frantic existence, never blest with a ray of light. (Kenealy)
The ancient mystics say that in this life man stands in the midst of many forces: from above, from below, and from the earth itself where higher and lower influences appear to mingle. From the unseen realms above he receives assistance; and if he accepts such help he may be empowered to overcome the equally unseen affinities that connect him to the realms below, and so to the influences that ever threaten to destroy the goodness, wisdom and purity that are his birth right.
Life is a classroom, in which we learn, or fail to learn, the sometimes hard lessons that will lead us further on the path to heaven. Until the final lessons are complete then we will continue to return to life on earth, however many times it takes, until at last we are free for ever. While each of our lives provides us with the opportunity to develop the qualities needed to enter heaven we also have the freedom to slide back towards its opposite if our actions and inner propensities take us in that direction.
So stretched out before the seeker is a series of states or realms of being, each one more perfect, beautiful, splendid and heavenly than the one below it. Like rungs on a ladder, man can climb from earth to heaven if he knows how to and wishes to do so. However during life on earth, attached to a material body, it is the affinities that link him to earth and all things earthy that so often prove strongest, forming an apparent obstacle to the one who would otherwise be free to enter a higher and better state. Alas, the ability to fix our minds so that we are in perfect harmony with the higher realms is often beyond us. And nor should we be too quick to ‘pat ourselves on the back’ following the first flush of success. The path is long. We need perseverance and fortitude if we’re to win the true and final victory. For how often do we find that our thoughts are those of sadness and despondency? How often do we feel sluggish or lazy, lacking the energy to do that which deep within we all know we should do? How often do we forget that love and goodwill are the best of motives, and bring purity and power to all our actions? And how often do we fail to live according to the best of our ideals? For us as seekers on the way, just as it is for all but the very best of men, the answer to such questions is probably ‘too often, far, far too often’.
But whatever the difficulties we might face in life, to choose to ‘point’ the mind towards the heavenly realms of peace and joy and beauty is an important and necessary preparation for making further progress once this current life is over. By opening up our inner life to the influences that reach us from above, then we open ourselves up to the help and protection of heaven. And we will find that taking time to focus on the positive source of light, life and love also enriches and improves the quality of our lives in the day to day here and now. For anyone who connects with this wonderful idea does not do so by absolving themselves from their material duties. Rather, they do so by trying as best they can to bring their material lives into a healthier balance and harmony with heaven. If we do wish to connect then we must do so of our own free will. And it is we who must make the effort; we don’t ‘inherit the kingdom of heaven’ unless we deserve to. And so long as we choose instead to close ourselves off from the light of heaven then we remain vulnerable to the influences of those who have chosen to point their minds towards the darker side of human nature.
‘The question as to where the disembodied spirit dwells in between his earthly incarnations is not a matter of Judgment; of Salvation or Damnation; or of Heaven or Hell; but solely the operation of the Universal Law of Affinity and Attraction.’ (Michaud)
Of course there are those who deny the very existence of spirit in man. They do not look forward to spiritual awareness in the ‘fields of peace and happiness’ following their lives on earth; rather they bring to man the message of oblivion. They do not seek a higher light and life, but are resigned to the darkness of death. Yet the wise are clear: wherever we have put ourselves in tune with during life, wherever conditions are in accord with our inner state, wherever our affinities take us, that’s where we will find ourselves once our connection to the body is broken.
It should already be clear that heaven cannot be reached simply by counting oneself among the followers of this or that religion if we do not have peace in our hearts. Nor does it matter a jot how many mantras we chant or pilgrimages we undertake if we do not do something about ourselves. The only truly holy war is that waged within against whatever it is of our own nature that keeps us from the gates of heaven.
The light of God penetrates and gives life to all the realms of being. Each realm has its own qualities and conditions, the higher the realm the more perfect its beauty. Seers of all ages testify to the splendour of the realms above the earth.
“I have seen palaces in Heaven magnificent beyond description. Their upper parts were refulgent as if they were pure gold and their lower parts as if they were precious stones. Some were more splendid than others, and the splendour without was equalled by the magnificence within. The rooms were ornamented as neither language nor science can adequately describe. 0n the South were paradises in like manner glorious. In some the leaves of the trees were like silver, and the fruits like gold. The flowers in beds were like rainbows” (Swedenborg)
In one such realm a great centre of divine power and beauty has been established. It was, is and always will be the place where the victorious one – the seeker who has found the treasure at the end of the way – can joy in the light of God and with the Egyptian priests declare at last:
‘Homage to thee, O my divine father Osiris…I shall have my being, I shall live, I shall germinate, I shall wake up in peace’.
The ancients had many names for that place; and there are many distorted remnants and concealed references to that Heaven scattered throughout the best of our religious writing. But perhaps the best name of all is ‘The Eternal City of the Sun’. According to the wise, it is a place of beauty beyond all description. For all seekers on the ancient way that Heavenly City is the destination, and blessed be the man or woman who reaches there.
Just as the light and life of the one God were symbolised in ancient times by the sun, so can the seeker find the light of the best and highest part of himself in the very centre of his own universe within. Truly the kingdom of god is also within us, and without its sunny influence, which reaches us from heaven itself, how utterly hopeless life would be. The experiences of the mystics throughout history tell us that however lost we may have seemed in the darkness of the world, to finally reach the light within is as the dawning of a new day and the night and all its affinities are no more. For the light of heaven within destroys for us the twilight of earth and the darkness of hell.
Let us pray that with the assistance of the light of our higher selves we will find the straight way that, like the steeply slanting ray, leads right to the very source of light and life, and there find peace.