Heaven? Some see a place, others a state of being

By Helen T. Gray

The Kansas City Star (MCT)

Published: Thursday, Oct. 18 2012 8:00 p.m. MDT

The question of "what is heaven" has occupied religious thinking for centuries, often leaving the "where" for Renaissance artists, who covered their canvases with a lot of clouds, and Sunday school teachers, who had to wing it.

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The Hubble space telescope has spotted many wonderful things, but none that can be identified as yet as heaven.

The question of "what is heaven" has occupied religious thinking for centuries, often leaving the "where" for Renaissance artists, who covered their canvases with a lot of clouds, and Sunday school teachers, who had to wing it.

Going back to at least the ancient Egyptians, the place of a happy afterlife has been "up" there somewhere. This idea has been reinforced by the corresponding theme that if undeserving, one goes "down" to the other place.

Our language, too, equated the heavens with sky and space. Genesis noted how God created them along with earth — but does that imply he was working from another platform?

Medieval church spires began reaching higher and higher into the sky, reinforcing the connection to heaven. But the Age of Reason arrived and with it the scanning of space by folks with newfangled lens in tubes. The idea of God looking back down on us from above began to retreat, at least for some.

The Star explored with religious leaders where they believed heaven might be.

The Bible talks about three heavens, responded the Rev. William Snorgrass: The first is the air where the birds fly; the second is space where the planets and stars are, and the third heaven is where God dwells.

The Kansas City pastor of Progressive Missionary Baptist Church described the place with the help of Revelation. "God himself will be the light so there's no sun or moon, and it's light all the time. It's a place where there are mansions; there is singing and worship of God."

To the Rev. Vincent Rogers of St. Andrew the Apostle Catholic Church in Gladstone, Mo. "Heaven is not so much a 'place' as we understand it, but the state of being forever with God and also being with the angels and all the people who are saved."

The space-time continuum that helps along so many "Star Trek" plots? It cannot corral God or place boundaries on his abode, according to the personal belief of Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz of Kehilath Israel Synagogue in Overland Park, Kan.

"The afterlife is a spiritual existence that transcends time and space as we know it."

Nothing new here. For many believers, faith always trumps science.

Never mind that some recent quantum physics theories of new dimensions might work very well in keeping unseen angels close, although it might make obsolete their need for wings.

To the Rev. Kendyl Gibbons of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Kansas City, there might be a place for science — neuroscience.

"To whatever extent heaven exists, it exists in our current experience," Gibbons said. "The spiritual realm is not out there but in us," and "the science that is most likely to tell us about heaven is the understanding of the brain."

But it's hard to paint a picture or write a hymn about brain circuits.

"When the roll is called up yonder," goes the song, and it was not referring to Green Bay, "When his chosen ones shall gather to their home beyond the skies. I'll be there."

Surveys consistently put the percentage of Americans who believe in heaven at around 80 percent.

"In American religious life, one of the major conduits to beliefs in heaven and hell came through revivals through much of the 20th century," said Bill J. Leonard, church history and religion professor at Wake Forest University, in Winston-Salem, N.C. "The promise of heaven, the warning of hell was a major part in many evangelical conversions during that time."

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