We pray. We read scriptures. We go to Church. We fulfill our callings. We obey our Church leaders. As much as we’d like to think that what we do is based on selfless, altruistic motives, I think an honest self-examination will reveal that many of our choices are motivated by our desire for an eternal reward in the hereafter, or to avoid an eternal punishment. But what exactly is the eternal reward we are seeking, and what is the eternal punishment we are trying to avoid?
In the scriptures, “Heaven” is the word most often used to describe the reward that the righteous will inherit in the next life. Joseph Smith once said that if you could gaze into Heaven for five minutes, you would know more about that subject than all that has been written about it. I used to interpret that quote as meaning that Heaven’s glory defies description and can only be comprehended by first-hand observation. But I think what Joseph may have been getting at was that there are precious few descriptions of Heaven in the scriptures. As a result, our eternal goal of Heaven is something we are largely left to speculate about and imagine.
When I was a child, my Primary teachers would often say something like, “if you do [x,y, or z], you can return and live forever with Heavenly Father in Heaven.” This was never a particularly effective form of motivation for me because I couldn’t remember what Heavenly Father was like, and I couldn’t remember Heaven. So the idea of living forever in an unfamiliar place with someone who was now a stranger to me was not particularly motivating. However, the more general idea of Heaven being a place where I’d be happy forever intrigued me.
I remember walking around Disneyland as a child and sometimes wondering: Is what Heaven is like? I imagined Heaven as an even more glorious version of Disneyland, with bigger, faster, and more exciting rides, no lines, and free food, drinks, and candy all day, every day. For me, Heaven would be a Celestial amusement park where I could play all day instead of having to go to school or do household chores or yard work.
When I was a teenager, I was impressed by the scriptural descriptions of Heaven as a place of extraordinary material wealth and beauty. Streets paved with gold! Gates of pearl! Jewel-encrusted walls! I imagined Heaven as a Celestial Ritz-Carlton resort for kings and queens. Who wouldn’t be happy living in the lap of luxury for eternity?
In my college years when I began to feel weighed down by the ever-increasing burdens of adulthood and life in the “real world” away from home, at times I would long for Heaven as a rest from all my Earthly cares. No homework. No exams. No school. No work. I imagined Heaven as a place where I could enjoy all the benefits of life without any of its burdens.
When I became a husband and father and acquired the instinctive fears of losing what was most precious to me, I began to view Heaven as the place where I could spend eternity with my family. It no longer mattered to me what Heaven looked like or what I would spend my time doing there. All I cared about was that I was going to be there with my family. I imagined Heaven as a big, happy, eternal family reunion with grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, spouses, children, etc.
But there came a point when, despite my striving to do everything required to go to Heaven, I was pretty miserable. I was married, I had children, I owned a home in a nice community, I had a terrific ward, I had a great calling, and I was miserable. I was a perfect personification of the line from that Smith’s song where Morrissey croons: “I was looking for a job and then I found a job, and Heaven knows I’m miserable now.” I was “living the dream,” at least on paper; I had a good-paying job that financed my family’s comfortable but not extravagant lifestyle. But supporting our family as the sole income-earner was destroying my own quality of life.
Eventually I got to the point where I was questioning what good it was to “follow the plan” by being a responsible husband, father, and Church member if, ultimately, I was still miserable. Was I just supposed to endure a life of hell and unhappiness in hopes of attaining the promised heaven and happiness in the next life? This internal debate got me thinking a lot again about eternal rewards and punishments, and about Heaven and Hell.
Because the scriptures I’d relied upon my whole life didn’t seem to be providing me the answers, I started to look elsewhere. I read the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Dhammapada, and other non-Judeo-Christian scriptures. I read some writings of great spiritual minds of other faiths; great souls like Thomas Merton, the Dalai Lama, and Thich Naht Hahn. As I studied their writings, I felt like they were opening my eyes to truths in Mormonism that I had not fully grasped previously.
One common truth among the great world religions is that our spirits will continue to live after the physical death of our bodies. Although we differ in our understandings about what physical state of being we’ll have in the next life, we essentially agree that we will continue to have the same qualities of mind and heart that we possess in this life.
The world’s great religions also seem to agree that there are some basic, unalterable laws of the universe: anger, hatred, greed, jealously, lust, selfishness, impatience, refusal to forgive, pride, and a host of other negative qualities of mind and heart naturally make us human beings miserable. By contrast, love, kindness, generosity, selflessness, humility, patience, forgiveness, and a host of other positive qualities of mind and heart naturally make us happy. Think about it: have you ever known an angry, hateful person who was happy? Have you ever known a kind, loving soul who was chronically miserable?
Considering these truths together, we recognize that to a large extent, God doesn’t even need to condemn and punish us; we condemn and punish ourselves. If I am an angry, hateful, greedy, selfish, impatient, unforgiving person in this life, then I will be mostly miserable in this life, and because I will continue to be the same person after death, I will continue to be miserable in the next life (at least until I can rid myself of those negative qualities of mind and heart). By contrast, if I am a loving, kind, generous, selfless, patient, and forgiving person in this life, I will be mostly happy in this life, and because my positive qualities of mind and heart will continue with me after my death, I will continue to be happy in the next life as well.
My previous understanding of Heaven was that it was a place where I would be happy because of external factors: because it would be a beautiful place, a place with an absence of hardship, and a place where I could be with the ones I love. But as I read other books of scripture, they opened my eyes to the truth that Heaven is largely an internal state of being. I came to understand that the person we become in this life is largely our eternal reward or punishment, our Heaven or Hell.
That’s not to say that “good” people will always be happy, or that “bad” people will always be miserable. We all need to struggle with difficulty and hardship because it enables them to develop the humble, forgiving, patient, and loving qualities of mind and heart that are essential prerequisites for our happiness. And a life of “happy” enjoyment of ease and comfort can turn us into greedy, selfish, impatient people who will ultimately become miserable.
What all of this does mean to me, however, is that:
- More than a glorious and beautiful kingdom, more than an absence of earthly cares, more than the persistence of family bonds, Heaven is a state of mind, a state of heart, and a state of Being. That being the case . . .
- I need to shatter the idea that entrance into Heaven is some external reward that is bestowed in exchange for my obedience to a set of rules, strictures, commandments, etc. Rather, I need to continually remind myself that . . .
- Following rules, commandments, and admonishments is effective in leading me to Heaven only to the extent that I am developing the qualities of mind and heart that naturally create happiness from within: love, kindness, generosity, patience, humility, forgiveness, etc. And lastly . . .
- I myself am incapable of developing these qualities of mind and heart of my own will; but by the grace of God, all things are possible.
With these thoughts in mind, it’s now so much easier for me to visualize my eternal reward or punishment, my Heaven or Hell. I need only look in the mirror and take a deep look within.