The faithful — whether Christian, Jew or Muslim — share a belief that the hereafter offers a realm of blissful reward, perfection and eternal life.
But who gets that ticket to heaven? Do good works deliver the desired destination? Is grace good enough? Or is it just the luck of the divine draw that decides a paradisiacal fate? Answers from clerics and scholars to those questions may surprise you — in both their commonality and their variety.
Commonly held is the belief that the forgiven, the virtuous and the humble graduate from mortality to blessed immortality. What does eternity look like? Teachings about the next life’s metaphysical landscape are mined with competing scriptures, traditions, visions and revelations.
Consider Christianity’s two oldest expressions, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, which between them account for roughly 1.6 billion of the planet’s estimated 2.3 billion Christians. Both assert an unbroken, often shared spiritual ancestry winding back two millennia to the apostles chosen by Jesus himself.
But today those faiths, one church until an 11th-century schism over issues of papal authority and doctrine, have starkly different beliefs about what comes after we die.
Monsignor M. Francis Mannion, of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, speaks of three destinations after death: heaven, purgatory and hell.
“When a Catholic dies in God’s grace, he or she either goes immediately to heaven or to purgatory; the body — but not the soul — ‘sleeps’ until the great resurrection at the end of time,” he says. “Those who have removed themselves radically from God’s grace go to hell.”
Purgatory is an “intermediate state” where not-quite-ready-for-heaven souls are purified during “an ongoing conversion to Christ,” Mannion explains. “Heaven is … where God and the angels and saints dwell; it is the consummation of all things, and is a condition of glory and magnificence.”
Eastern Orthodox Christians, who hold fast to their conviction of being the truest spiritual and apostolic heirs of the original, “ancient church,” reject purgatory as a post-schism Catholic innovation. Orthodox Christians do say prayers seeking mercy for the departed, but see post-grave perfection as an ongoing, eternal and loving progression toward union with the divine.
“There are only two ‘places’ to the afterlife — heaven and hell,” says the Rev. Andrew Stephen Damick, a nationally known Orthodox author, scholar and speaker. “[But] some Orthodox writers have described this in terms of just one ‘place,’ with ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ being everyone’s experience of God’s love, depending on whether they cooperated with it in this life or not.”
Embrace God’s love in this life, and you bask in the light of his love in the next; reject it, and that light is torment, with love and God’s presence rejected, Orthodoxy suggests.
Speculations about the hereafter vary even more within Protestantism, especially along the doctrinal divisions between older, mainline denominations and newer evangelical movements. Depending on which post-worldview is taught, heaven eventually will be populated by an elect remnant of true and worthy believers on one hand or, on the other, by most if not all of humanity.
The Rev. Curtis Price, pastor of Salt Lake City’s First Baptist Church, finds himself increasingly in the latter camp.
“The more I look at the writings of the New Testament, there is very little time spent on who goes to hell and who goes to heaven. So now, I leave that question out of it,” Price says. “There is a ton else [for a Christian] to be about.”
As for heaven specifically, that, too, is only vaguely described in scripture. He quotes St. Paul from 1 Cor. 13:12, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face. …”
“We have many pictures of heaven. [It’s] a city paved with gold, of mansions, paradise restored, heaven and earth coming together and such,” Price adds. “All of this is just an attempt to describe the indescribable … that the same God who has sustained us in this life will sustain us in the life to come.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, relying on its extra-biblical scriptures such as the Book of Mormon, as well as revelations penned by founder Joseph Smith and his successors, teaches a hereafter offering multiple levels of heaven, or “degrees of glory.”
“Except for those who defect to perdition, [Mormons believe] all will inherit a degree of glory hereafter,” says Robert Millet, an emeritus dean of religious education at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, author and frequent lecturer on his faith.
Mormon doctrine posits that the first stop will be the “postmortal spirit world,” where the faithful can offer the “fullness” of the LDS gospel to the unconverted. Eventually, depending on the levels of acceptance of those teachings and extent of repentance and obedience, souls move on to the highest, or “Celestial,” realm; a lesser, but still heavenly, “Terrestrial Kingdom”; or a “Telestial Kingdom” reserved for unbelievers and unrepentant sinners.
Still, Millet says, Latter-day Saints believe eternity offers the opportunity to “grow and develop and increase in light and knowledge [and to] progress infinitely within the kingdom of glory they inherit.”
Or, some Mormon thinkers argue, to advance to higher kingdoms, jumping from a lower domain to a holier one until — well into the eternities — all the penitent and persistent reach the Celestial sphere. Early LDS leaders preached this prospect, report LDS authors Fiona and Terryl Givens in their new book, “The Christ Who Heals,” and some later ones disputed the notion. The Utah-based faith “has never announced a definite doctrine on this point,” the writers note, so the debate lives on.
Either way, few in the Mormon afterlife go to hell, or “outer darkness.” That destination is reserved for Satan, his fallen angels and the truly evil who, after knowing God’s truth with surety, openly rebel against it.
Among the world’s estimated 1.8 billion Muslims, beliefs about the hereafter vary on specifics by sect, but generally they encompass a core of teachings accepted by all.
“Death is when the soul separates from the body. It goes into the heavens,” says Imam Shuaib ud-Din, of the Utah Islamic Center in Sandy. “On the Day of Judgment, the soul will fully return to the body, and then we will be held accountable before God.
“He, and he alone, will judge based upon a person’s faith and deeds, what our destination will be — paradise or hell,” the imam explains. “But we also believe in God’s mercy, that, ultimately, it is his mercy, not actions or good works, that can take a person to paradise.”
Who goes to hell? In Islam that, too, may be up for debate. More conservative Muslim clerics teach that those who “fully receive” the message, yet do not accept it, are barred from paradise. For them, hell — a particularly graphic, fiery, bottomless pit — awaits.
“Some say that [if a person only] believes in the oneness of God, the creator and maker of all, that would suffice [for paradise],” Shuaib explains. “Others say they have to believe in the prophets, including the Prophet Muhammad.”
Both Christianity and Islam, historically if not entirely theologically, grew from that trunk of the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism. But even within the ancient religion of the Hebrews, uniformity in afterlife expectations is elusive.
The Orthodox Jewish Hasidic Chabad movement offers the richest of Judaism’s eschatological traditions, weaving together scripture, rabbinical commentary and mystical teachings both ancient and more contemporary.
“Man is made up of body and soul,” says Rabbi Benny Zippel, of Chabad Lubavitch of Utah. “The body is to be returned to God, [for as the Torah says] from the earth you came and to the earth you return.
“[But] the soul is part of God’s very essence. Just as God is eternal and transcends time and space, so, too, does the soul,” he adds. “It is life after life, but in a spiritual form.”
Orthodox Judaism does not have a hell, in the sense of eternal punishment. Rather, Zippel speaks of “Gehinnom,” a temporary abode where souls are purged of earthly transgressions before entering paradise.
Further, souls who did not finish their specific, God-given missions on Earth may return in new bodies. As for the souls who remain unrepentant and utterly evil, destruction awaits.
“The intended destination for every soul is heaven,” Zippel says.
Jews of the Reform Movement avoid debate over what awaits us after death, says Rabbi David Levinsky of Park City’s Temple Har Shalom.
“While belief in an afterlife is traditional in Judaism, Reform Judaism focuses on our work to improve the world while we are alive,” he explains. “[We] support the rationally defensible position that we don’t know what happens after death.
“Since we don’t know,” Levinsky says, “ … we should do our best to improve this world.”
There is a yearning to create a heaven on Earth that echoes through all three faiths. That is particularly so within Christianity, suggests Colleen McDannell, a religious studies professor at the University of Utah.
In her book, “Heaven: A History,” McDannell writes of an evolving, multimillennia vision of the hereafter that stretches from a place of “theocentric” union with an inexplicable, holy creator to a more “anthropocentric” (human-focused) realm of reunion with departed loved ones under the gaze of a more comprehensible, loving God.
However, McDannell also writes, “There is a long tradition in Christian history which acknowledges that glimpses of heaven can be experienced on Earth: the quiet of meditation, the beauty of a cathedral, the drama of the Mass, or the fellowship of Christian community.”
Could it all be that simple — and profound? Perhaps. What does seem certain is that belief in life after life will persist.
And, McDannell proposes, not only will the idea of heaven survive but also “as new ideas about life everlasting emerge in the future, earlier views will be reassessed in fresh ways.”
News editor David Noyce contributed to this story.