“What if this is as good as it gets?” Jack Nicholson moans as his world falls apart in the comedy As Good As It Gets. I think he has a point. What if the next life isn’t much better than this one? As Mormons we know that there are also going to be tears and trials in heaven, as Terryl Givens posits in his “weeping God of Mormonism.” Mormons even believe in “wars in heaven,” wars so terrible that we’ve lost as much as a third of the heavenly population. Even if Joseph Smith claims that heaven is “beyond comprehension” in it’s glory, how great can it be if it is also filled with war and tears?
“Heaven is now” is the idea that heaven is not necessarily any place in particular, but rather an inner state of being. Jesus said, “neither shall they say, Lo, here! or, There! for lo, the kingdom of God is within you.” We all know people here in this life who seem to be filled with heavenly happiness even if they seem poor by worldly standards. They live as Jack Kerouac once recommended, “Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now.” Conversely, we know people living in a personal hell, even when they may be blessed by worldly standards. Moroni said that heaven is a hell to those who are unprepared for it. “You would be more miserable to dwell with a just and holy God under the consciousness of your filthiness before him, than you would be to dwell with the damned souls in hell.” This scripture reminds me of one of my favorite moments in Wuthering Heights, where Catherine dreams she was taken up into the heavens:
I dreamt once that I was there……heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out, into the middle of the heath on top of Wuthering Heights, where I woke up sobbing for joy.
So maybe this really is as good as it gets. Heaven is a reflection of the inner state of our hearts. We can never escape ourselves. Emmanuel Swedenborg taught:
It can in no sense be said that heaven is outside of any one; it is within him. For it is in accordance with the heaven that is within him that each angel receives the heaven that is outside of him. Unless heaven is within one, nothing of the heaven that is outside can flow in and be received. There are many spirits who have this idea. Because of this belief they have been taken up into heaven; but when they came there, because their interior life was contrary to the angelic life, their intellectual faculties began to be blinded…There are as many degrees of life in man as there are heavens, and these are opened after death in accordance with his life. Heaven is in man. Therefore he that has received heaven into himself in the world, comes into heaven after death…One ascending from a lower heaven is seized with distress even to anguish, and is unable to see those who are there, still less to talk with them; while one descending from a higher heaven is deprived of his wisdom, stammers in his speech, and is in despair.
Heaven is a Journey, not a Destination
Mormons, along with Eastern religions, believe in the concept of eternal progression. When progression is eternal, there can be no ultimate point of arrival. We are not striving for the Celestial Kingdom as a final resting place, for even within the Celestial Kingdom we continue to progress. Elder Uchtorf waxed philosophical on this point in his sermon “Always in the Middle.”
When things occur in our lives, we are always in the middle. What’s more, we will forever be in the middle…Yes, there will be moments of beginnings and moments of endings throughout our lives, but these are only markers along the way of the great middle of our eternal lives.
We Build Heaven Ourselves
Brigham Young taught “when we have streets paved with gold, we will have placed it there ourselves.” He saw heaven as a collective work project. We build and design our own heavenly mansions and collectively we create our own kingdoms. Brigham Young lived this vision even in his earthly life. He built seven houses with his own hands over the course of his lifetime and designed and carved the Lion House’s ornate woodwork himself. He was the prophet of a kingdom that expanded throughout Mountain West and he personally employed over a thousand men in his businesses, and had 55 wives and 57 children. Whether or not we agree with Brigham Young, we cannot speculate on whether he got to heaven or not. He created his own heaven on earth and lived like a god. Would we expect any less of him in his next state?
The only heaven for you is that which you make yourselves. My heaven is here (laying his hand upon his heart). I carry it with me.
Embracing Heaven Now
In Sam Mendes’s classic film American Beauty, Lester Burnham, a lecherous suburban dad experiences a profound epiphany near the end of the film which suddenly and mysteriously transforms everything about his life. Then he is unexpectedly murdered. His final monologue from the Spirit World evokes T.S. Elliot’s beautiful phrase: “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
I had always heard your entire life flashes in front of your eyes the second before you die. First of all, that one second isn’t a second at all, it stretches on forever, like an ocean of time… For me, it was lying on my back at Boy Scout camp, watching falling stars… And yellow leaves, from the maple trees that lined our streets…Or my grandmother’s hands, and the way her skin seemed like paper… And the first time I saw my cousin Tony’s brand new Firebird… And Janie… And Janie… And… Carolyn.
I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me… but it’s hard to stay mad when there is so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst… And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life… You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry… you will someday.
“It’s hard to stay mad when there is so much beauty in the world.” I think this is the essence of heaven, whether in this life or the next: to feel an intense gratitude for just how beautiful life really is. It explains why traditional Christianity defines heaven as a place where we continually sing praises to God for His marvelous works.
- What does heaven mean to you?
- Do you agree that this life is as good as it gets?
- Is heaven a gift of God, or the result of our own creation?
- How can we embrace heaven now when we don’t feel it?