Heaven is a paradise promised to many cultures. It is something that humans look forward to, an end goal that our species can strive toward. It provides repose for the unknown end that occurs after death. All cultures have a concept of death, and consequently have a hypothesis of what may come after.
In Islam, heaven is an eternal existence. It is a place where all wishes are granted. In Chinese Confucianism, heaven holds a distinct power over those on Earth, as it grants rulers a certain authority to hold dominion. In Aztec tradition, the soul was granted special access to higher levels of heaven if the person was “good” during their time on Earth. As such, multiple cultures have some sort of conception of heaven. So why is it that this pattern repeats across so many communities?
Perhaps we constitute heaven and hell because we are afraid of the unknown. Our species is genetically predisposed to fearing what we don’t know, as what is unknown can be a danger to our own lives. This bias in our biology makes us particularly vulnerable, as we are always wary of what may lead us to die. In particular, there is always a fear of what may come after death, what follows, and whether or not there actually exists anything afterwards. Heaven quenches this fear, as it provides a replacement for the possible void or bleakness that death may actually result in. Consequently, human communities have adapted this idea of heaven to soothe the mind and inherent fear.
Or, possibly, we come up with such complex notions of the afterlife because as humans, we are constantly craving knowledge of anything and everything. Western philosophers such as Immanuel Kant have defined the defining feature of humans as being rational, and thus we may have a natural tendency to want to understand everything in the most reasonable and clear way. As a result, we strive to understand death and what follows it to the utmost degree, in a way that satisfies us as humans and our natural tendencies to know.
For me, the most probable reason for why humans construct theories of the afterlife is to provide a moral incentive for doing good while they are alive. As existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir says, “We are having a hard time living because we are so bent on outwitting death” (from “The Ethics of Ambiguity”). The mystery of what comes after death serves as an end to the hardships, sacrifices, and actions we engage in during life. As such, our religions and moral systems depend on how we can successfully mediate our lives on the basis of what may result after death. The afterlife serves as an incentive, as it drives our motivations for what we do in our short time on Earth. If we do what our religion or culture requires, we go to heaven. If we are don’t, then heaven becomes a fantasy. It’s thrillingly simple, yet its importance in determining morality for cultures has led it to be a crucial aspect of a community.
The concept of the afterlife provides humans with peace of mind. Conceptions of it are an attempt of our species to reach beyond the limits of what we know. Perhaps nothing truly does come after death, but in the meantime, heaven and such conceptions of the afterlife allow us to feel at ease.
About the Author
As a lover of both science and philosophy, Alisha Ahmed enjoys doing research and stressing over the metaphysical implications of said research. Other than contemplation, some of her interests include shopping impulsively and hiking.