For many years, I thought that heaven was an abstract and irrelevant concept. At most it was a comforting and vague belief, carried forward from my childhood with no certainty or specificity. As for the future, I thought that only good people get into heaven, while hoping and assuming that I was one of the chosen. Such hopes required ignoring my less stellar behaviors, as well as the limited and occasional relationship I had with the Divine.
Since my epiphany experience, heaven has been the moment-to-moment basis of my life.
Twenty-five years ago, I was going through a time of personal crisis. While praying in meeting for worship, I was lifted to heaven and into the presence of God for ten minutes. Those minutes transformed my life. I have since been blessed with other spiritual encounters, but was in heaven only once. I took away from that brief time two certainties: God is perfect love, and heaven is forever.
Neither of these is a unique concept. I had long thought that God was loving, and had assumed the afterlife was eternal. Seeing God—being immersed, saturated, and consumed in that great love—was far more wonderful than I could have imagined. A glimpse of eternity was greater than any concept I had held, greater than I could comprehend or communicate. All these years later, I am confounded and comforted by the expansive enormity of eternity.
Having encountered perfect love, I have since looked forward to dying and returning to heaven. Some Friends have told me this is an unhealthy attitude. For me, it is the basis of a joyful life. How could it be otherwise, knowing the love that awaits me? Following my peak experience, I know God exists, loves me, and waits for me.
After my epiphany, I pondered many questions in light of what I knew of God’s love. I wondered why there seems to be little justice in this world, and what happens after death. My answers reflect decades of prayer and thought, and not what I had directly experienced. Thus, “insights” is an accurate term. I don’t know if they are true, but they are my understanding.
I’ve concluded that everyone goes to heaven; that we will spend eternity with those we have loved, helped, and harmed; and that we will be confronted with the consequences of all we have done.
There are a number of passages in the Bible that refer to some exclusivity about getting into heaven, and that those who don’t make it end up in hell where they encounter the Devil. The only evil I have encountered in my spiritual life is the potential that resides in me.
I don’t believe that humans are inherently sinful. Instead, we are souls temporarily wrapped in the skin of an animal. If I were to let loose the hungers that arise from my being an animal, I would cause great harm. When joined by other people, I could be part of horrific actions. As for hell, I can’t conceive of perfect love condemning anyone to eternal, impossible-to-rectify misery.
On the other hand, I also can’t understand how humans—limited and flawed as we are—can convince ourselves that we will spend eternity in perpetual bliss. None of us deserves that. We have all acted in ways that are contrary to the example of perfect love. God loves us not because we have earned or deserve it, but because God is infinitely merciful. Time and again, I have fallen on my face and crawled to God asking for forgiveness, and I am forgiven.
I cannot, however, fool myself that God’s forgiveness means that all is forgotten: forgiven, yes; forgotten, no. I am convinced that there is justice in eternity.
The central reality in heaven is our immersion in love. When I experienced it, God’s love for me was greater than the love all mothers throughout the history of the world have felt for their children. This great love waits for each of us and will be our central reality, the ground of our being. Resting in this love, our eyes will be opened. As humans, we see and understand little. Our only infinite capacity is self-justification. In heaven, the blinders come off, and we will see our actions and their widespread consequences.
Some of these sights will be wonderful. I have seen the souls of my father and grandfather waiting for me on a pine-studded shore, where we canoed together. Joyful reunions will start eternal celebrations of loving relationships. The results of our compassionate acts while on earth will be revealed, many of them traveling far further than we realized.
Other sights will be very painful. Whether deliberate or thoughtless, we will see the full effects of the harm we caused. The outcomes of our participation in societal and national actions will be undeniable. The willful ignorance of injustice, suffering, poverty, starvation, and illness that so many in affluent countries practice will be seen.
I expect that in addition to those I loved and helped that I will spend eternity with the souls of those I hurt and harmed. I have an image of spending that time with the soul of a child from the developing world who died of disease or malnutrition on my lap. I did not cause the death, but didn’t do enough to prevent it.
The judgment that I fear after death is not God’s or St. Peter’s, but mine. Our time on earth is an opportunity to grow in holiness, acting as agents of God’s mercy. I am sobered by the thought of forever facing what I could have done when alive. This reality propels me to grow in compassion and generosity while always humbly seeking God’s will.
This is not a vision of heaven that many want to hear, but how can it be otherwise? Many mystics have stated that we are all one, joined together in God’s heart before we were born, and again when we die. It is only when we’re on earth that we’re oblivious.
My understanding of heaven influences my daily life. I am filled with spiritual joy and gratitude. What’s the worst that could happen in any given circumstance? I could die and go to heaven. It also determines my view of others. There is no “us and them,” not even a “you and me”; we are all one. What hurts or helps you, hurts or helps me. I must spend my life loving God and my fellow humans, while carrying out the tasks put before me. I live in the knowledge that I am loved, now and forever.