When we die, we don’t go to heaven—we leave heaven.
The survival instinct in human beings is so great that we cannot imagine, even conceptually, that there could come a time when we, personally, would no longer exist. We can accept that we did not exist before we were born, but somehow not to exist once we have begun to exist—once we have been born—seems unimaginable. It seems like such a waste and a tragedy for our life not to go on in some form, in some other place—perhaps some better place. So we may want to idealize what that place and experience would be like, or let others do it for us. Life that would be eternal is greatly to be wished for. But it is only a wish. Our celestial bounty is actually to be found and savored in the present, here on Earth.
Now comes the realization that we are already living in heaven. “How could that be?,” you may ask. This world with its troubles and travails is nothing like what we imagine heaven to be. Here, we have suffering and disappointment and sometimes unimaginable tragedy. No, it would seem that this life and many of our earthly experiences are not at all what we want to think of as “heaven.”
But I want to look at it a different way. The human experience in its totality—as well as each individual’s experience as a living entity—is miraculously unique in the cosmos. Our planet Earth alone seems to be potentially one of a kind in its gift of introducing and sustaining life—although logically the possibility must exist elsewhere in (perhaps other) universes too. Any ordinary human life anywhere on the planet is wondrously representative of the unique and evolutionary result of what it means to be a living human being. At any given time on this earth, “heavenly” experiences abound for anyone who is simply alive.
We need to give some thought to how the traditional concept of heaven would actually be experienced: endless and effortless rapture perhaps? And this would be our fate for millions of millions of millions of years everlasting? Maybe there would be nothing that needs to be attempted or accomplished, since we would be perfect and without needs. Could this lead to boredom? No doubt; as Oscar Wilde suggested, there is “that ennui that comes to those to whom life denies nothing.” Presumably so too an everlasting and perfected life leaves nothing to be done—ever! So perhaps in any subsequent permutations of the doctrine of heaven, some agenda could be devised to give us cosmic purposes to pursue and therefore avoid righteous boredom.
But back to heaven on Earth. With less imagination than it would take to posit some otherworldly heaven, we might just be able to see, if we are willing to, the heaven all around us. You could almost say that heaven exists inside us as well as all around us. There is the ongoing perfection of simple human functioning and existence the world over, relentlessly providing us with all that humans are capable of experiencing. Is it not heaven to see your baby’s face, to hear Beethoven, to smell lavender, to taste chocolate (my favorite), to feel your spouse’s body (my second favorite)? And these are just the sparse physical and sensory examples of the wonderment of any human life.
But this can’t be heaven, you say, because not everyone can have or enjoy these experiences. True enough, but even if all five of those kinds of experiences were to be denied to any given individual, are there not literally millions of other miraculous experiences in any basic human life—even at the lowest end of human existence—and do not these make us loath to give up what anyone would acknowledge is a less-than-perfect human life on this less-than-perfect Earth? Someone physically disabled—with blindness for example—can still hear children’s voices, taste food, and feel the sun’s warmth. Regardless of level of education, that person can still reason logically (if I hear the church bell ringing it must be Sunday, or else there is a funeral, and so on) and use language—a feat essentially exclusive to human beings. The brain alone can baffle and outrun the most sophisticated of our computers. A disabled person’s capacity for a rich emotional life might put the rest of us able-bodied persons to shame.
No, it is still heaven for such a person to be alive. Some people lack good health or circumstances, but others too have obstacles to perfect happiness. Human life is, by far, not a perfect heaven, but it is the only one we have.
Of the unfortunate but real suffering in this world, there would seem to be only three kinds, one of which can be absorbed into the other two. There is most definitely physical suffering and limitation; this seems profoundly evident and indisputable. Alas, our heaven on earth comes with the human condition and all its vulnerabilities, but the bad part does not replace the good whole. Life with whatever limitations it may possess is still almost always better than no life. Consider the overwhelming suffering and need across the globe and humanity at any given moment. Then consider that its only redress is through nature’s bounty and the efforts of humanity itself.
Then there is the idea of spiritual suffering, originating out of concepts such as sin, guilt, alienation, and having somehow chosen the tree of the knowledge of good and evil rather than wanting to remain ignorant (or maybe wanting to genetically modify our own trees). And this was done by a very distant relative for whom each of us is still somehow responsible and will be for generations to come, according to the dogma—the sometimes barbaric wisdom granted to us from the Iron Age. Is the petty issue of human “sin” truly what keeps the creator of the universe up at night? However, this spiritual suffering can be addressed and dismissed in about five ticks of the clock. It is a figment of someone’s imagination and not binding on you unless you choose it to be; it is entirely unnecessary and not pertinent to normal human life. And to think that such negative self-absorption is the only meaning some people get out of life! Strange that religions can be man-made and yet manage to be so anti-human!
Instead, I would suggest that the unnecessary burden of millennia of unwarranted spiritual suffering be replaced with something more relevant—moral suffering, the comeuppance we may experience when we realize that we have not treated others as we ourselves would like to be treated (a pre-biblical concept that is almost universal in even primitive codes of law). This concept acknowledges that it is people who need proper treatment, not God—after all, you couldn’t do much to hurt God even if there is one. But you can most certainly hurt other people—you probably have in the past and will do so in the future. So spiritual suffering becomes moral suffering: we transgress against others continually, even our dearest loved ones. That “something’s not quite right” feeling is between us and others, not between us and God. And we cannot make light of it; sometimes the transgression is most foul and reprehensible. We exist only among humans; there is no need for spirits, devils, angels, eternal damnations, or purported heavenly parents.
What then of our death? The death that ends our life is like our being a guest in someone’s very nice home, and no matter how good you are or how much you contribute or are appreciative, you know that sooner or later you will be asked to leave—probably suddenly and perhaps violently. Is not our present life an overwhelming good? Is not that why we are so reluctant to leave it, even for a hypothesized perfect and eternal alternative? With all its drawbacks, we seem to cherish the sublime cacophony of our simple, present human existence. Heaven could seem preferable only because we can make it anything we want it to be; it is entirely made-up.
So let us cherish and even relish all the beautiful music that is in this present life alone—remembering the silence of the grave. Also, don’t forget to enjoy heaven before you die! Our celestial bounty is to be found here on Earth.
James Davenport, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in southwest Chicago.