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The Bishop of Durham has recently suggested that a belief in heaven or hell is not a core
tenet of Christianity. This will be shocking news to those who imagine that the chief
function of religion is to give us intimations of immortality. Human beings are the only
animals who have to live with the knowledge of their inevitable demise. We are also
meaning-seeking creatures, and as soon as we fell out of the trees and became
recognisably human, we created religions at the same time as we began to produce
works of art, in order to convince ourselves that, despite the crushing burden of our
mortality, our lives had intrinsic meaning and value. What could be more consoling than
the knowledge that death is not the end, and that we will enjoy a richer and fuller
existence in the hereafter?
Yet, surprisingly perhaps, the panacea of eternal life has not been a feature of the
religious quest, which has generally focused on living more intensely and humanely here
on earth. In the ancient world, immortality was usually the prerogative of the gods.
Homer calls the Olympians the immortals, to distinguish these divine beings from
humans, who can expect only a shadowy, diminished existence in the underworld. In the
Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 1200BCE), the king of the city of Uruk, appalled by
the prospect of death, embarks on a search for eternal life but learns that only the gods
live forever. The only immortality Gilgamesh will enjoy is the magnificent fortification
that he must build around Uruk and the archives that will recount his deeds for future
generations. The prospect of an afterlife is a chimera that distracts us from our duties in
this world.
The old pagan religions were reformed in what the philosopher Karl Jaspers called the
Axial Age (c. 800-200BCE), because it proved pivotal to the spiritual development of
humanity. During this period, all the great world religions that have continued to
nourish men and women came into being: Confucianism and Taoism in China,
Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in the Middle East and Greek
This is our heaven - or hell
For the great religions, this world matters more than the next
Karen Armstrong
The Guardian, Saturday 18 October 2003 01.47 BST
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rationalism in Europe. But even in these more advanced religions, eternal life remained
a minority interest. In their pristine "axial" form, none of these traditions shows much
interest in eschatology.
Buddhists, for example, may have believed in reincarnation, but they regarded the
prospect of future lives as an intolerable burden. It was bad enough to have to endure
the pains of old age and death once, but to be compelled to do so again and again was an
appalling prospect. Instead, Buddhists sought liberation from samsara, the wearisome
cycle of death and rebirth. The attainment of nirvana (extinction) was not like going to
heaven. Enlightenment was the discovery of a sacred realm of peace in the depths of
one's own self and thus finding the strength to live creatively in this world of pain and
sorrow. The Buddha refused to speculate on the prospect of a future existence, seeing it
as an irrelevance to the problem of suffering here below.
Confucianism is also a this-worldly religion, designed to cultivate an enhanced and
more compassionate humanity in this life. Even the prophets of Israel, who created the
religion we know as Judaism, were more concerned with current events than with some
future paradisal state. They may have looked forward to a period of peace when the lion
and lamb would lie down together, but this utopia would be inaugurated in the earthly
city of Jerusalem, not in heaven. To this day the afterlife is not a major preoccupation in
When Jesus described the Kingdom of Heaven, he too expected its inauguration in this
world. Indeed, in St Mark's gospel, he began his mission with the news that the
Kingdom of God had already arrived. People would find it within themselves. St Paul
called it the Parousia, the presence of God, who would reveal himself irresistibly on
earth. Even the book of Revelation should probably not be read, as modern
fundamentalists do, as a timetable for Armageddon. It is an apocalypse, an unveiling
that enables us to see the divine dimension that is normally hidden, and at the end, the
New Jerusalem descends to earth.
Western theology has focused on the doctrine of original sin, which was framed by St
Augustine in the early fifth century. According to this interpretation of Christianity, the
sin of Adam damned us all to everlasting perdition and God became incarnate in Jesus
precisely to save us from hell and to enable us to live with him for ever in heaven. But
the Greek Orthodox tradition has a more Buddhist conception of the salvation wrought
by Christ. The great Byzantine theologian Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662) believed
that God would, in some sense, have become human even if Adam had not sinned. Just
as the Buddha was the first fully enlightened man in our historical era, Jesus was the
first deified human being, and Christians could also be suffused by divinity in the same
way, even in this life.
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Like the Buddha or Confucius, many of the great masters of the spiritual life remained
deliberately agnostic on the subject of personal immortality. As St Paul put it: "Eye hath
not seen, ear hath not heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man what things God
has prepared for those that love him." It is pointless to speak of it, because it is literally
beyond our ken. Even though many Christians have imagined highly detailed celestial
and infernal scenarios, the most insightful have always known that too great a
preoccupation with our eternal destiny is a waste of spiritual energy.
If properly understood and kept in proportion, a belief in the afterlife can be beneficial
to the religious quest. It expresses the important insight that each human being has a
sacred, transcendent value that goes beyond his or her material circumstances, and
must be treated accordingly. Those traditions that do look forward to a life after death
usually emphasise its relevance to this world - in particular, our behaviour to other
people. The imagery of judgment reminds us that our actions have crucial significance
and lasting consequences. The Koran warns Muslims that on the last day their wealth
and power will be no help. Every single human being will be asked why he or she has not
taken care of the orphans or attended to the needs of the poor. Why have they selfishly
accumulated personal fortunes and not shared their money fairly?
But all too often, the quest for immortality becomes profoundly unreligious. The great
world faiths all insist on the prime importance of compassion, humility and selflessness.
But some people would be appalled, on arrival in paradise, if they found everybody
there. Heaven would not be heaven if you could not peer over the celestial parapet to
watch the damned roasting below. If the good life becomes simply a means of getting
into heaven, it is no more religious than paying into one's retirement annuity to ensure a
comfortable existence in the hereafter. And religion is supposed to be about the loss of
ego, not its survival in optimum conditions.
! Karen Armstrong is the author of A History of God
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