At theology school, I developed an interest in different religious doctrines. I was particularly intrigued by the religious doctrines regarding heaven and the afterlife. During my research, I visited temples, mosques, churches, monasteries, and synagogues in and out of the country to learn more about what these religions thought of heaven or if they even believed in the existence of heaven. Last week, my months of research paid off when my college theology students asked for explanations about heaven and if this concept is the same for all religions. Most of them were thinking about reincarnation as a better idea of heaven or hell. Based on my research, I was able to answer their question comprehensively. So, is heaven the same for all religions?
No, heaven isn’t the same place or concept for all religions, but all the major religions believe in an afterlife after physical death. Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and even Zoroastrianism all have different takes on what heaven is and also how many levels of heaven there are. Some religions believe that heaven (and hell) represent the special place where the souls of humankind go when they die. However, heaven is generally deemed as God’s abode across these religions.
In this post, I’ll share more insights into heaven and the points of view of the major religions about paradise, hell, and purgatory. So, let’s dive right in!
What religions have different levels of heaven?
While Christians believe in the existence of three levels of heaven – the first, second, and third heavens, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Gnostic religions believe in seven levels of heaven. The religious groups that believe in the existence of seven heavens hold on to the belief that these heavens will eventually collapse at the end of times. These heavens have different roles. Note that Christians believe in the existence of three heavens from which God rules and communicates with believers.
Across religious and non-Christian groups, heaven is a place of freedom, ineffable peace, endless joy, perfect knowledge, complete contentment, communion with God, and everlasting rest. Heaven is believed to be free of pain, disease, strife, deprivation, thirst, hunger, and ignorance. These things come to the souls that ascend to the seventh heaven. It’s also worth noting that Christians believe that the third heaven represents the highest level of spirituality, where the Christians who served God faithfully are promised and will receive great rewards.
Jewish teachings emphasize the existence of the seven heavens that feature thousands of angels that exist in the celestial realm.
It’s also worth noting that a group of Christians called the Judeo-Christians believe in the existence of 10 heavens because they follow the teachings in the 2nd Book of Enoch. Even though mainstream Christian groups and some churches don’t use this book to warn against following its teachings, it offers a vivid celestial context and a theological doctrine comprising ten levels of heaven. Notably, the Book of Enoch is one of the oldest books in the bible dating back to ancient Constantinople and Rome.
Do all religions essentially lead to the same destination?
While all religions believe in some kind of destination for all their believers, the truth is that they don’t believe in the existence of the same kind of destination. The main religions like Christianity and Islam believe in heaven and hell as the destination for all the souls of humankind, but Hindus hold different beliefs other than the existence of heaven or hell – instead, they believe in the circle of life and that life has no real end in heaven or hell.
Buddhists believe in the existence of Nirvana, an 8-fold path that leads to this place of complete bliss and happiness and no suffering. For Buddhists, Nirvana is the ultimate goal, and when one gets there, they simply cease to exist. All pain and suffering is released when a soul reaches Nirvana. Then, for all the souls that attain this state of Nirvana, their pure self (atman) and God merge into one, in perfect communion in eternal life.
Christians believe that the souls of humankind go to heaven or hell, but first, all souls of humans will be resurrected and judged renewed. Heaven will be for the people that live faithfully while sinners go to hell. Muslims and Jews also believe in heaven and hell as the destination for all souls.
The concept of the afterlife for major world religions
So, what do different religions think of the afterlife?
Even though death is inescapable to all beings, Christians are hopeful of life after death. It’s believed that after death, the souls of humankind either go to heaven or hell, based on an individual’s deeds. In Christianity, people go to heaven if they live faithfully, believing in God/ Jesus Christ – 1 Corinthians 15:1-4.
According to biblical teachings in John 14:6, Jesus Christ is the Way, Life, and the Truth, and believing in Him fully and accepting Jesus Christ as one’s savior promises the believer eternal life in heaven. The belief that Christians go to heaven and live in eternal peace with God in heaven after they die is reinforced in Luke 23:43 and 1 Timothy 2:4-6. The latter reminds all Christians to entirely place their faith in Jesus Christ while alive to avoid going to hell. In Christianity, salvation is a concept open to everyone who chooses to accept God’s gift by following His teachings to attain everlasting life.
The concepts of new heavens and eternal life after death are believed to have been prophesized by Prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 65:17. Even before Jesus Christ came to earth, Christians believed that at the end of times, the nations on earth would be judged. The faithful’s lives are restored/ redeemed in heaven.
It’s worth noting that the Christian beliefs about life after death were initially taught from Greco-Roman and Biblical sources, who believed in ascension into heaven, termed ‘the New Jerusalem.’ Christian beliefs further hold that Christians who are in communion with God will die in the arms of the Lord and will be immediately taken to heaven, where they will live blissfully –1 Corinthians 13:12, 1 John 3:2, and Revelation 21-22.
According to Islam beliefs, the afterlife, also called Akhirah, represents the realm where the souls of the believers go after death. Akhirah is regarded as a realm that exists beyond the physical world, and this is where all the souls of the deceased go to.
Additionally, Muslims believe in the afterlife being eternal, and they note that there are two parts to Akhirah – Jannah or Paradise, and Jahannam or Hellfire. Even so, Muslims regard death as the most natural threshold that leads to the next stages of existence. They also believe in a direct relationship between life beyond and how an individual conducts their life on earth. They also believe in the continued existence of people’s souls and the transformation of their physical existence post-death. In the afterlife, Islam teachings remind believers that on Judgement Day, they will be judged and divided into their respective eternal destinations – Paradise or Hell.
Muslims also believe in a transitionary space between Heaven and Hell. This state or place of waiting is called Barzakh, and souls will be here, in limbo, waiting until their judgment day. Upon death, an individual’s soul is taken up to Barzakh by the Angel of Death called Azra’il, and then they are questioned by two angels. If their questions are answered correctly, the individual’s soul is deemed good and will be in a deep state of sleep while in Barzakh. Otherwise, the angels torment the soul for answering questions incorrectly, which is called the punishment of the grave.
Islam also teaches of the beautiful garden of pleasure or Jannah (paradise), where souls are rewarded for good actions like obeying Allah’s rules. Upon entering and leaving the waiting space on Judgement Day, souls travel through the seven heavens Muslims believe in. On the other hand, sinners go to Jahannam, where scorching fire pits and boiling water punish them.
Jews hardly speak of the afterlife (Olam Ha-Ba), which is believed to be the case because there are no clear references to the afterlife in The Torah. According to the teachings of the Torah, the dead Jewish believers go to Sheol, which is some type of Hades. Here, they all live in a shadowy, ethereal existence – Isaiah 38:18, Psalm 6:6, and Numbers 16:33. The Jewish also believed in the writings in the Book of Enoch and Genesis 5:24, where it says that Enoch walked to God because God took him, as is the case with Elijah who was also carried heavenward by a chariot of fire as written in 2 Kings 2:11.
So, for many Jews, Judaism focused on an individual’s actions and purpose on earth rather than the ideas they hold on what could happen to them after death. Despite having some ideas about what happens after death, the Jews don’t agree on a single teaching of what the afterlife is like or where it is. However, they agree on the importance of preparation in the earthly life and the Mishnah teaching the Jews that the life they live on earth is a preparation for the life there will live in the world to come, the Olam Ha-Ba (Messianic Age)
Buddhists believe in the cycle of life, death, and rebirth through a transformative process called the Samsara. They believe in karma, as well as the eventual enlightenment, with the ultimate goal being escaping Samsara and achieving a peaceful state of being free of suffering, called Nirvana.
Buddhists believe strongly in life after death because it’s considered one of the most essential teachings passed down to them. The teachings, according to Dhammapada, state that each human being is born an infinite number of times until a time comes when they attain Nirvana. The Buddhist teachings also talk about enlightenment and Samsara while teaching the believers/ disciples not to fear death because even if they die, they will be reborn. Other than enlightenment and Nirvana, Buddhists also believe in the Noble Truths of the Origin of Suffering and the Cessation of Suffering.
In the afterlife, Buddhists may be reborn as hungry ghosts, humans, animals, denizens in hell, or demigods.
Hindus don’t believe in an afterlife, heaven or hell. However, they believe strongly in reincarnation, so when someone passes away, they believe their soul will be born into another body. However, how the individual is reincarnated depends on their actions and lifestyles in the previous life.
Hindus believe that the ultimate goal of reincarnation is the cycling of souls through birth and death, periods that ultimately strengthen and purify the soul until the soul is perfected. They believe that at the end of the cycle (Samsara), the human being born will have attained a state of Moshka, and they wouldn’t have to be reborn again. Accordingly, Hindus believe that Samsara, or the cycle of life, only ends when an individual’s soul realizes its true nature or the state of the absolute godhead, Brahman.
It’s worth noting that Hindus also believe in heaven and hell, spaces where the souls go for reward or punishment, according to the Hindu Sacred Text, Puranas. They also believe in the existence of 14 realms of existence.
Do all religions go to the same heaven?
No. Although all the major religions believe in the existence of some kind of heaven, which is where the souls of the believers go upon death and after judgment day, the concept of heaven is somewhat different for different religions. Generally, all religions agree that heaven is the abode of God (Allah or Buddha) and that there are angels and other celestial beings in this spatial realm.
However, with Christians believing in three heavens and other religious groups believing in seven heavens (Islam), ten heavens (Judaism), or 14 realms (Hinduism), the heavens presented by these religions are different.
As a devout Christian, I have always been passionate about the Christian faith. This inspired me to pursue a degree in Religious studies and a Masters in Theology in college. I have also been privileged to teach 4 Christian courses in a college and university. Since I am dedicated to spreading the word of God, I am actively involved in the Church. Additionally, I share his word online and cover diverse topics on the Christian faith through my platform. You can read more about me on the about us page.