There’s a whole lotta heaven shinin’ in this river of tears
You pull back the curtain little diamonds will appear
You can take your streets of gold if you want ’em
and your mansion so dear
But I’ll take the whole lotta heaven shinin’ in this river of tears
— Iris DeMent, Whole Lotta Heaven
There’s an old joke about heaven that goes like this:
A rich man on his deathbed prayed to be allowed to take his wealth with him into heaven. An angel appears during his prayers and makes a deal to be allowed to bring one suitcase with him into the afterlife. Overjoyed, the man gathers his largest suitcase and fills it with pure gold bars and places it beside his bed.
When he dies and shows up at the gates of heaven, St. Peter stops him and says, “You can’t bring that in here.”
The man tells him he has a deal with God that says he can and once St. Peter checks his records he says: “You’re right. You are allowed one carry-on bag, but I’m supposed to check its contents before letting it through.”
St. Peter opens the suitcase to inspect the worldly items that the man found too precious to leave behind and exclaims, “You brought pavement?”
The joke is funny to so many of us because we’ve been raised in religious traditions that paint a picture of heaven for us that includes not just “many mansions,” but “streets of gold.”
In fact, the way heaven was explained to me as a child was that we would ascend into this place above the sky where we will walk those streets of gold in our earthly bodies — bodies that will be, of course, perfected in heaven to remove unsightly fat, wrinkles and gray hair. This, my mother gravely informed me during my teen years, is why good Christians are never cremated.
“You won’t have a body to resurrect if you’re cremated,” she told me matter-of-factly.
I suppose there’s some Holy loophole for those who have had their bodies burned to a crisp in fires they did not choose to enter, but that’s a subject for a future blog post.
Never mind the entirely creepy image of good Christian men and women clawing their bodies out of the ground to arise, zombie-like into their eternal heavenly home during the rapture when Jesus returns. The entire heaven idea that I was sold as a child always sounded like hell to me.
I’m going to be this body, this personality, this consciousness for eternity? Please say it ain’t so. It’s not that I hate myself. I don’t. I love myself a lot, but the prospect of being this entity for eternity is, well, boring.
I posed this question to two very good authors and theologians, Philip Gulley and James Mulholland, during one of their book events years ago and they tried to point out that people always change and grow. “You’re not the same person you were at 18, are you?” Mulholland asked.
“No,” I admitted. “But, I still like the same kind of music.”
His point, that I hilariously undermined, was that we don’t remain the same consciousness throughout our years here on earth — we do evolve in some manner and become different — and hopefully better — people as we age, grow and learn more.
That’s all well and good, but there still remains the tiny matter of, well, matter. For this heaven I was sold to exist, matter has to still exist. If I am going to walk around on literal streets of gold, the material, the physical atoms and whatnot that comprise that gold must still exist. Even if it’s in a perfect state, it remains perfected matter.
This is why I believe that the Christian heaven I was raised to believe in is still simply an extension of our ego. In fact, most of what I was taught about heaven mirrors American capitalism, only heavenly perfected. If you did well on this earth — and by well, they always meant that you literally evangelized the hell out of people and rang up a long list of people you “saved,” or “led to Jesus,” you would get a special place in heaven — a bigger mansion in a better heavenly neighborhood. Gated perhaps with guards to keep out those lowly Christians who weren’t as zealous in their evangelizing ways.
So, even in heaven, there is a social caste system that separates the “wealthy” from the “poor.” If you work hard and evangelize a lot you’ll get better digs than someone who just quietly went about being the best person they believed they could be.
How did we even develop this egotistical vision of heaven where streets are gold and people can still aspire to live in mansions? According to the Course in Miracles, this kind of heaven is the result of our belief that we are separate from God. Even in this idealized heaven built on matter there’s little talk of mingling with God or even being aware of God’s presence. Instead, this heaven is built simply to offer financial security to egotistical and capitalistic humans for all eternity — which really is what heaven is about for the ego — eternal security where no work is required to keep that security. It’s a heavenly retirement community where the royalties from our past evangelizing efforts just keep rolling into the bank.
Kenneth Wapnick, who helped to edit A Course in Miracles, says this heaven was created because the Son of God (who represents all of us, not just Jesus) found simply being in the oneness of God was not enough. Our collective ego wanted to be special, to be recognized and individualized, so we chose to leave the unity of God to create the corporate ego we call our existence. This is significant as well, Wapnick says, because the Course makes a distinction between being and existence. Being is where God resides, existence is where the ego lives.
Ego, Wapnick says, likes to be seen as separate and individual, so it would make sense that the ego would concoct a heaven where we remain separate and individual, even where we remain matter in our bodies and possess our individualized egos and consciousness.
When I began to think deeply about this vision of heaven I had been given, I saw it as pure hell, because it simply mimics what we do here on earth. There is no escape, which is exactly how the ego wants it. Escape from the ego-designed world, whether it’s here on earth or in heaven, would mean annihilation, and when I talk with people who are afraid they won’t go to this idealized egotistical heaven they tell me their greatest fear is annihilation.
I don’t understand that, because to me annihilation is heaven because that’s the transition from existence into being. Annihilation means that we lose this ego consciousness, this matter that we’ve been mired in, and that the ego works hard to keep us comfortably mired in. Annihilation means a return to our true state of being — a heaven without matter, without ego consciousness, without existence. It simply means being. This is what it means to be reunited with God in fullness.
For those who still insist that they fear annihilation I ask them if they are afraid to go to sleep. Of course, they’re not. They love to sleep.
“You experience annihilation every night,” I tell them. Your consciousness shuts down. You are unconscious — without consciousness. Every night you die to your conscious life and every morning, hopefully, your consciousness is resurrected into new life. We practice the cycle of death and rebirth every time we close our eyes for a nap or a long night’s sleep.
What’s to fear about annihilation? It’s like snuggling up for an eternal nap with God. I call that a little slice of heaven.
Which means, the pavement joke is really insightful if we’ll take a moment to look more closely at it instead of laughing it off. The joke is telling us that what we treasure here is not what is treasured in that true, non-dualistic, non-matter, egoless heaven.
Here, in this existence, we treasure our specialness, our gold-like qualities that shimmer and impress those in this ego-created world. But, in that true heaven, in that being with God, we all shimmer like gold, because we are all innocent — we are all beloved children of God.
The ego, of course, wants none of this kind of talk. The ego wants to be special, to be recognized and lauded and stroked and told it’s better than any other ego running lose in either this world, or the next. The ego wants to be appreciated both now and in eternity.
That’s why St. Peter laughs at the rich man bringing pavement — blocks of gold — to heaven. The man thought he was bringing something special, but in God’s true heaven everything is special, everything is loved and everything is valued simply because it is.
That’s the difference between a heavenly being and a heavenly existence.
Which would you prefer?