Of course, owing to our religious upbringing, we are usually provided with a conception of Heaven before we have a chance to imagine one for ourselves, and thus the imaginings of others may impose themselves on us before we have a chance to make a significant contribution of our own. Those who are independent enough in their thinking to reject the conception of Heaven acquired in childhood and replace it with their own are independent enough in their thinking not to believe in Heaven at all. And yet, in some way or other, Heaven has been imagined by different peoples at different times, and so, it would seem that in some way or other the different conceptions of an afterlife must be suited to us.
There are four different conceptions of Heaven. The first is that it is a refuge from the pain and suffering of this world. All of us have suffered at one time or other, and in such circumstances, relief from that suffering is all we care about. And so, the more suffering there is for a people, the more likely they are to conceive of Heaven in this way. But a lot of us are fortunate enough to live lives that are relatively pleasant, and thus this conception of Heaven as a place of refuge does not hold much appeal.
The second is that it is place where one exacts an imaginary revenge on those one hates. St. Thomas Aquinas said that the saints in Heaven will be able to witness the suffering of the damned so that their bliss will be more delightful for them. But most of us do not hate that much, which is why many people who are religious do not have a Hell as part of their conception of an afterlife. At most, they have a Heck. Consequently, Heaven conceived in conjunction with Hell as places where divine justice is meted out no longer appeals to us either.
The third conception is that it is a continuation of the life we presently have. We find this sort of thing in the Elysian Fields of Greek mythology and in the Asgard of Norse mythology. In the movie Hud (1963), after the funeral service for his grandfather, Lonnie (Brandon de Wilde) says, “He ain’t in any loaf-around eternal life. He’s the way he always was, enjoying his good horses, looking after the land, trying to figure out ways to beat the dry weather and wind.” While this conception might be more suitable for those of us who have been fortunate enough to find life worth living, we have difficulty taking it seriously. In particular, it makes no sense that a rancher would worry about the dry weather and wind in Heaven when there would be plenty of food for everyone, assuming people eat in Heaven, which is unlikely. In general, most of what we do on Earth makes sense only when done on Earth. In Heaven, such Earthly activity would be lacking in purpose. About the only way to make sense of this idea is that his grandfather would be suspended in an ideal state, with no sense that he had died, looking over his land and his livestock in perpetuity. Perhaps that was the idea behind the river Lethe of Greek mythology, to drink from which would cause forgetfulness. His grandfather would have no sense of the passage of time, because in each succeeding moment, he would forget the moment that came before it.
But this is a false happiness, which appeals to us and repels us at the same time. Lonnie may want to think of his grandfather that way, but is it something he would really want for himself? In any event, Lonnie apparently does not take his sentimental notions seriously either, given what follows. When the preacher tries to console him by saying that his grandfather has gone to a better place, Lonnie replies, “I don’t think so. Not unless dirt is a better place than air,” thereby contradicting what he said just moments before.
The fourth conception is the adolescent’s Heaven, a place where one can party all the time, get drunk, get laid. This conception is not confined to adolescents, of course, for Islam promises the men that are faithful that they will have seventy-two virgins in Paradise. And yet, as delightful a sensual afterlife seems to be, it seldom appeals to the mature mind. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that such delights are often deemed sinful, and thus there is a disconnect between condemning them here on Earth while praising them in Heaven. More likely it is the fact that while most of us enjoy that sort of thing once in a while, an eternity of such goings-on seems a little pointless.
In short, none of these conceptions of Heaven really appeals to us. And this is strange, because, as noted above, Heaven can be whatever we imagine it to be. As evidence that these conceptions do not appeal to us, we might note the way movies portray Heaven. Movies, even when they are about life on Earth, are products of the imagination, so all the more so are they suited to presenting depictions of Heaven.
The movie The Green Pastures (1936) is a movie that depicts Heaven as imagined by African Americans, specifically, rural blacks living in the South, and it fits into the third category. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that the movie depicts Heaven as white people imagined that southern, rural blacks would imagine it. White audiences were comfortable with this depiction of Heaven, because they could smile condescendingly at what they regarded as the naïve notions of the black race. This attitude is underscored by having the camera close in on the eyes of black children in Sunday School just before Heaven is portrayed on the screen, making it doubly clear that what we are watching is a childlike portrayal of Heaven. In other words, white audiences were not asked to take this view of Heaven seriously.
To a certain extent, The Green Pastures also belongs in the fourth category, in that Heaven seems to be one long picnic. Angels fish for pleasure, eat good food, smoke cigars, and go dancing on Saturday night. There is no explicit mention of sex, but with all the little cherubs about and references to mammies, one gathers that angels get married and have children. On the other hand, things in Heaven are pretty tame compared to the drinking, gambling, and philandering taking place on Earth just before the Flood, so the Heaven in this movie does not quite realize the adolescent’s conception of Paradise.
My next example is the movie Heaven Can Wait (1943). This is a comedy in which a man, Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche), dies and is resigned to go to Hell for his sins, all of which are of a sexual nature, such as cheating on his wife. He is in luck, though, for the Devil (Laird Cregar) is most pleasant and understanding. In fact, with a Devil like that, there would seem to be no need for a God. After hearing of Henry’s infidelities, the Devil decides that Henry is not suitable for Hell and will spend eternity in Heaven. In the original ending, Henry gets on the elevator and tells the operator he is going up. At the next floor, however, a beautiful woman gets on, saying she is going down. The operator looks at Henry, who says, “That’s OK. Heaven can wait.”
The implication is that Henry is not in much of a hurry to get to Heaven, where he will probably have to spend eternity being faithful to his wife, assuming they even have sex in Heaven, which is doubtful. Therefore, he decides to see if he can get a little on the side just one more time before being condemned to Heaven. Unfortunately, that original ending met with objections and was deleted, which not only resulted in a lesser movie, but also left people wondering what the title meant.
This movie is not to be confused, of course, with a movie of the same name made in 1978, which was a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941). For simplicity’s sake, I will discuss Heaven Can Wait (1978) only, for the two movies are basically alike. Joe Pendleton (Warren Beatty) is a professional football player who dies in an accident. But when he gets to Heaven, instead of meeting the traditional St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, he meets Mr. Jordan (James Mason), who realizes that Joe was not supposed to die just yet. But since Joe’s body has already been cremated, a new body will have to be found for him belonging to someone recently deceased.
What is striking about this movie is that though Joe has just learned that there is God and a Heaven, yet all he cares about is getting a body that will allow him to play in the Super Bowl. Now, if I found out I would have to go back to Earth, the first question I would have asked Mr. Jordan would be, “Is there a Hell, and if so, what do I have to do to stay out of it?” There is no more important question one could possibly want an answer to than that. And whatever the answer to that question was, I would never again be able to concern myself with worldly goods like football, but would be spiritually transformed.
But that aside, the point is that Joe doesn’t care about Heaven. Granted, when he finally gets the body he needs, his memory is wiped clean of all that took place between the accident and his winning the Super Bowl. But during the time in between, he is totally indifferent to Heaven (or the Hell that I would be worried about). The implicit message of this movie, as well as the original on which it was based, is that life on Earth is worth more than an afterlife in Heaven.
A movie with the opposite structure is Stairway to Heaven (1946). Whereas in the movie just discussed, a man dies who was not supposed to, in this movie, a man who was supposed to die does not. Actually, the movie begins with a disclaimer, saying that the movie is a story of two worlds, the first of which is that of our life here on Earth; the second, in the mind of a young airman. It then goes on to deny “any resemblance between this imaginary world and any other world, known or unknown.” But whether the Heaven depicted is the imagination of this British World War II pilot, Peter Carter (David Niven), or is supposed to be the real Heaven as imagined by those who produced the movie, the result is the same: the Heaven so imagined is the pits. Not surprisingly, then, Peter does not want to go to Heaven as he was supposed to, but wants to continue to live on Earth, especially since he just fell in love. This results in the need to have a trial to see whether Peter gets to stay on Earth or must go to Heaven.
Heaven is undesirable for four reasons. First, it is colorless, both literally and figuratively, with only the scenes on Earth being in color. Second, it is lifeless, both literally and figuratively, for with the exception of the new arrivals (who are in such a jolly good mood, they get on your nerves), everyone else in Heaven is lethargic and dull. Third, souls in Heaven are prudish beyond all reason. We all know that there is no sin in Heaven, which is part of what makes it so boring, but in this Heaven, you are not even allowed to say, “Holy smoke!” Fourth, there is no love in Heaven, but there is hate. Conductor 71, having dismissed love as the feeling of the moment, says that the prosecutor in Peter’s case hates Peter’s guts, as part of a hatred for the British that has lasted for two centuries, on account of his having been an American killed by the British during the American Revolution. This hatred turns out to be petty and spiteful beyond belief.
Apparently, Heaven in this movie is really caught up in World War II, because they have a special Aircrew Section just for the pilots of the Allied forces. We never get to see the Aircrew Section for the Axis Powers for some reason. The receptionist, or whatever she is, shows a newly arrived pilot where they keep the files on everyone on Earth: Russian, Chinese, black or white, Republican or Democrat. She doesn’t mention anything about the files of Germans, Japanese, or Italians. Gosh! You don’t suppose they all went to Hell, do you?
Just about the time we have settled into the idea that this business about Heaven is the hallucination of a man who has jumped out of a plane without a parachute, it turns out that his hallucinations are caused by a brain tumor, the symptoms of which began six months before he jumped. So, it is ambiguous as to whether the tumor is the hallucination of a man who is falling to his death, or the leap out of a burning plane is the hallucination of a man with a brain tumor.
Anyway, brain surgery is performed on Peter while his trial is taking place in Heaven. Ultimately, it comes down to a question of which should prevail, the Law of Heaven, or love on Earth. Finally, June (Kim Hunter), the woman Peter loves, is willing to die in Peter’s place, thereby proving that she loves him, the result of which is that they both get to live. The judge quotes Sir Walter Scott’s poem about how love conquers all, the last line of which says, “For love is heaven, and heaven is love,” an assertion that stands in contradiction to all that has come before. At the same time, the surgery back down on Earth proves to be a success. So, Peter and June will get married and live happily ever after. Or rather, they will be happy until they die. Then they will go to Heaven and have to exist in that dreadful place for eternity.
Regardless of whichever conception of Heaven one imagines or is seen in the movies, one thing that always bothers me is the lack of privacy. Now, I realize that there is no need for bedrooms or bathrooms in Heaven, since there typically is no sex in Heaven and certainly no need to excrete waste material. But I would still find it maddening not be to be able to get away by myself once in a while. And yet, in any depiction you have ever seen of Heaven, you never see someone walk into his own little room and close the door behind him.
Because Heaven does not seem to have much appeal, it is understandable that people would turn to reincarnation as an alternative. That would make sense. If life is so much better than Heaven, then the best thing is just to keep being reincarnated. The movie that makes this point is What Dreams May Come (1998), in which the connection between Heaven and the imagination is even more explicit than the preceding one.
A lot of people used to believe that marriages were made in Heaven. Today, people speak of being soul mates. Whatever expression one uses, that is the idea behind the marriage of Chris (Robin Williams) and Annie (Annabella Sciorra). They have two children who die in a car crash, leading Annie to have a mental breakdown. They almost get a divorce. A year later, Chris also dies in a car accident.
He eventually makes it to Heaven, which is a wonderful place shaped by the imagination. But since Heaven is created by the imagination, so too is Hell. According to traditional Christianity, people who commit suicide go to Hell, and New Age philosophy is apparently in agreement on this point, if this movie is any indication, where people do not go to Hell because they are evil, but because they got confused and committed suicide. In other words, life is so wonderful that suicide cannot possibly be a rational act, no matter how miserable one is, so anyone who hates life enough to commit suicide must be confused. When Annie kills herself, she is trapped in Hell by her confusion. Chris manages to rescue her, but all the other suicides remain in Hell for eternity. Too bad for them.
Anyway, Chris and Annie make it to Heaven where they are safe. But Chris suggests that they be reincarnated so that they can meet each other again and experience another life together. Of course, that means taking a chance of becoming confused, committing suicide, and going to Hell, with little likelihood of there being another rescue. Who in his right mind would chance it? But the idea is that life is so wonderful that it is even better than Heaven, even worth the risk of committing suicide and being eternally damned.
Of course, that wonderful life involves such things as having your children die in a car accident, having the marriage deteriorate to the point of almost getting a divorce, and then having a husband die in an accident. Who wouldn’t want the chance to experience something like that again? Who wouldn’t forgo Heaven and risk Hell to experience such misery and suffering once more?
The thrust of all these movies is that life on Earth is preferable to an eternity in Heaven, even if that life turns out to be pretty miserable. How are we to make sense of this? I can think of only two possible explanations. The first is that human nature is suited for life on Earth, which means a life filled with struggle, even if it is a struggle we often lose, causing us misery and pain. Regardless of whether life is worth living, or whether it would have been better had we never been born, it is all we know. We simply are not constitutionally suited for Heaven, and thus the idea of it makes us uncomfortable. The other reason is that even people who are religious only half believe it, like Lonnie in the movie Hud, and thus are inclined to cling to the only existence they are sure of rather than waste their lives worrying about something that may well be nothing but a product of their imagination.