Where is heaven? Religious leaders respond

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 lenses in tubes. The idea of God looking back down on us from above began to retreat, at least for some.

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."

He said a recent Ric Burns documentary on death and the Civil War has excellent commentary on Victorian views of heaven as a real place, where people went immediately after death and where friends and family would recognize one another.

But religious pluralism and the spirituality movement probably have made heaven less spatial and more of a union with the divine, Leonard said, "and perhaps even a dimension that is much closer to this world."

J. Edward Wright, a professor of Judaic studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson who has written extensively about heaven, said that dating to the second century Jews believed in an afterlife that was a place of reward. It was the Greeks in the fifth century who came up with a new way of looking at the cosmos as a pure spiritual realm as opposed to a physical one.

"The only way to get from this world to the heavenly world is to die and become a pure spirit to live in that spiritual world, and each group had ways to do that," Wright said.

Missouri's Kansas City Star newspaper recently explored with religious leaders where they believe 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 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," he said.

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.

None of the faith leaders offered a location of heaven — one quipped that he hoped it looked a lot like Hawaii — but all advised finding one's way there. Some of their observations:

Pastor Dan Wakefield of Abundant Life Assembly of God in Overland Park listed many biblical verses indicating heaven is a real place.

First, Jesus said it was a real place in John 14:2-3, he said. It states that "In my father's house are many mansions" and "I go to prepare a place for you."

"So either Jesus and the apostles were lying to us or telling us the absolute truth, and I believe they were telling the absolute truth."

Snorgrass said heaven is a literal place "where God, angels of heaven and all who have been saved abide. This is the place of eternal life, joy, peace, contentment."

Mormon spokesman Bruce Priday said his faith considers heaven an actual and "beautiful place where we will accordingly receive an eternal dwelling place in a specific kingdom of glory in heaven based on our faith and obedience."

Syed E. Hasan of the Midland Islamic Council said he has been researching the origins and end of the earth for nearly two years.

He said some verses in the Quran suggest that heaven will be on a "transformed earth, where the current laws of science will be very different from what we know, and this new world will be the everlasting place of rest for the faithful believers."

Much agreement exists between the Quranic revelation and astrophysical discoveries, Hasan, a geoscientist, said. The universe is expanding but will slow down and then stop, which will cause it to collapse "to form a singular entity where the known laws of physics, chemistry and maths will not be valid."

Hasan said the Quran states that "as we originated the first creation, so we shall bring it back again."

It also says, "On the day when earth is changed into different earth and heavens into different heavens, mankind shall stand before God, who conquers all."