I put in several hours last night watching a recording of Barbara Walters Tuesday special: “Heaven: Where is it? How do we get there?” Unfortunately, none of her guests said that watching a spiritually-oriented TV show garnered good heaven-karma. Otherwise, opinions were all over the map concerning Walters’ central questions.
The head of an atheist society expressed her firm opinion that we weren’t alive before we were born and we won’t be alive after we’re dead. Several Christian clergy were just as sure that those who believe in Jesus and have been “born again” (whatever that means) are absolutely, positively entering heaven after death.
Buddhists seemed to be split. The Dalai Lama said that according to Buddhist teachings heavens and hells do exist, though these generally are temporary habitations prior to being reincarnated. Nirvana, the ultimate goal, is worlds apart from either heaven or hell.
On the other hand, Richard Gere—a long-time Buddhist—thought that heaven and hell are what we make for ourselves right here on earth, and said he didn’t spend much time thinking about what would happen after he died.
The most annoying guests, not surprisingly, were the Christian true believers. They were the most judgmental and sanctimonious, by far. Heaven’s gates are closed to anyone who doesn’t accept Jesus, God’s sacrificial lamb. Jewish spokesmen were easier on the ears, having more of a Gereish attitude that how we live our life now should be our main focus, not anticipating the goodies that will be enjoyed in heaven.
Christians, Jews, and Muslims all agreed that heaven is a super wonderful place. “No problems, mate” is the watchword. You get to spend quality time with loved ones who died before you, can eat whatever you want without getting fat, and, I assume, never hook or slice your drive on the Pearly Gates Golf Course.
It’s sort of strange that Islam, the most repressive of the Western monotheistic religions, offers up the most sensual description of heaven. A suicide bomber in an Israeli prison (who was unsuccessful, obviously) was the creepiest Walters guest. He would smile as he’d speak about dying as a martyr, as would he, less surprisingly, when he talked about the 72 virgins who were expected to be awaiting him if his bomb had detonated as planned.
I’ve always wondered about where the precise figure, 72, came from. A Muslim scholar explained that this entire virgin notion comes from the hadith, sayings attributed to Mohammed, and not from the Koran itself. He also said that in Arabic the phrase “seventy two” means “a lot,” sort of like when we say in English, “You don’t need to bring any extra plates to the potluck; we’ve got a hundred of them.”
I’m not sure what to think about this whole heaven deal. As a scientist pointed out to Walters, there is strong evidence of what he calls a “God gene” that makes some people more prone to believe in heaven—and religion in general. He theorized that there must be something about such a belief that offers an evolutionary advantage or the gene wouldn’t have been passed down to us modern humans.
Death is scary. Since believing in a good life after death takes some of the edge off that primal fear, maybe this lessened anxiety confers some sort of survival advantage. Heaven-believers are out and about fearlessly hunting saber-toothed tigers while heaven-deniers are fretting in the cave, Woody Allen-like, existentially pondering their uncertain future.
The atheist woman had a good point, though. If heaven is believed to be so much better than this life, she said, we all should grab a rope and hang ourselves. Touché. This is one of the many religious tenets that is intellectually accepted to a much greater extent than it is actually lived—notwithstanding the historical evidence of faithful who have gone to their deaths courageously and cheerfully.
I enjoyed the stories of those who had had near-death experiences. At least these tales of what heaven is supposed to be like sprang from direct vision, not distant theologies. Interestingly, not a single near-death experiencer mentioned seeing a traditional religious figure. No Jesus, no Buddha, no God, no Allah. Just love and light and warmth and the feeling, “I never want to leave this place.”
I hope this also is what I’ll experience when I die. But who knows? I certainly don’t. It will be a big adventure, for sure. Maybe an extremely short adventure—one quick psychic step into nothingness—maybe not.
Of all the people who appeared in the show, the Dalai Lama was my favorite. I loved his infectious laugh, evident humility, and lack of pretension. When Barbara Walters asked the Dalai Lama if he was God, he said something like, “Oh, no! I’ve got a problem with my eye today. Would God have a sore eye?”
The Dalai Lama’s complete embrace of his humanity is the best evidence, I’d say, that he is more than human. One sincere “I’m just like you” Dalai Lama is worth hundreds of holier-than-thou religious pretenders, of whom there is no shortage in the world.
I found myself thinking “Huh?” when I heard author Mitch Albom (who wrote “The Five People You’ll Meet in Heaven”) say that even though heaven may not be real, a belief in heaven makes someone a better person while he or she is alive. I don’t think so.
Albom seemed to believe that the promise of heaven encourages people to live an exemplary life, doing good to others and practicing an exalted morality. The suicide bomber argues against that theory. As do the countless other religious fundamentalists whose belief in a sectarian heaven leads them to hate, judge, chastise, condemn, and look down upon other people who don’t accept that particular theology.
I’m with John Lennon on this one. If acting hellishly here on earth really is how you get to heaven, I think I’ll pass on that journey.