“I don’t believe in an afterlife, although I am bringing a change of underwear.” (Woody Allen)
And you may wonder if there really is a heaven, is religion of any relevance? You ask “Can’t I get to heaven my way? Why should my beliefs make any difference to my fate?” If you haven’t killed anyone or done anything really bad why worry about it?
Inner character needed to go to heaven?
As a child I used to believe that whoever does more good things than bad things will go to heaven. So I wanted to keep a tally of right and wrong things that I was doing. However, later I came to understand that the afterlife is not a reward or punishment for the kind of life one lives on earth: instead one’s eternal destiny can be thought of as the fulfillment of what already has begun to grow in one.
In other words inner personality is defined by the intentions behind behaviour; the motives that have grown through life and come to rule the heart. It is not necessarily what comes into your mind what reveals this true character but rather what you do with those thoughts or would like to if you could. The conclusion to this line of thought is that this spiritual state is what determines whether you are suited to go to heaven — suited to a heavenly life consisting of mutual goodwill and fairness is personal dealings.
And so those who can enter into the heavenly sphere after death are those who have allowed the heavenly state to come into their lives on earth: who, perhaps unknowingly, have been undergoing a process of spiritual growth by being liberated from their self-centred materialistic tendencies.
Religious beliefs needed to go to heaven?
If what one feels with the heart and does with the hands, is at least as important as what one believes with the head, then religious belief can be seen as only one dimension to religiosity.
Jesus Christ claimed “I am the way and the truth and the life.” (John 14:6)
And I happen to think that praying to my personal deity helps my spiritual orientation to life. For me, religion points to an aspect of life that rises above the usual preoccupations with individual self, transcending worldly needs and desires, when we look at things from a broader, less self-centred, more universal perspective. It has the perspective of eternity. It offers me an understanding of the deeper problems around with meaningful answers to questions concerning suffering and evil that point me to a heavenly supernatural realm of being beyond our ordinary experience — in other words to go to heaven when I die.
Jesus also suggested that religious belief is insufficient for heaven. In his sermon on the Mount, he said:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 7:21)
According to Swedenborg you are already in heaven in the spiritual, subconscious level of your mind when you recognise and acknowledge what is Divine. Consciously, you may have taken on all sorts of beliefs and yet have a kind of inner perception and following of spiritual principles which means you have not been hateful, selfish, nor lived in other bad ways. A rational humanist or an agnostic may live a better life than those who are affiliated with a religion. Swedenborg wrote that after death, for those who are willing to learn, and this is their free choice, there will be a time of preparation when mistaken religious and notions can be amended by what is more deeply good and true so that they can see in heavenly light. Then one can go to heaven.
“I am not sure exactly what heaven will be like, but I know that when we die and it comes time for God to judge us, he will not ask, ‘How many good things have you done in your life?’ rather he will ask, ‘How much love did you put into what you did?” (Mother Teresa)
Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems