No matter what your opinion on heaven and hell, the numbers don’t lie: Americans believe in the afterlife. According to Pew survey results from 2009, nearly 75 percent of us accept the idea of heaven while nearly 60 percent believe in hell. As for the discrepancy, it could be that people simply prefer to picture themselves in a paradise of pillowy clouds than a wasteland of pitchforks and flames — but that’s another article.

Let’s be clear: Christians did not invent the idea of heaven or hell. The mythology may have changed over the millenia, but notions of a torturous or blissful afterlife as determined by moral behavior is nothing new.  If you belonged to the cult of Osiris in Ancient Egypt, you would hope to live a life “good” enough to land you eternal existence. In Ancient Greece, you would pray to Zeus to avoid Hades and instead make it to the idyllic Elysian Fields.

No matter who invented the concepts of heaven and hell, it might seem that the rational mind would view them as just that: inventions. But the majority of our nation still believes, and the question remains, “why?”

The obvious answer is fear. Fear of death, and more precisely, fear of the unknown. Collectively, we’re deathly afraid (pun intended) of suddenly not existing, our egos disintegrating to dust. We’re also afraid of going to hell as a punishment for “sins,” and the mere threat is enough to make many people contemplate their deeds, if not always act morally. In some circles, having “fear of god” is considered a good thing.

And what better way to ease those fears than spreading hope of eternal comfort? Of course I’d feel better knowing that by acting a certain way today, I can ensure my space in paradise after the grave. But upon serious probing, I just can’t seem to fool myself into believing that I can know the unknown.

So I have a different idea of heaven and hell. “Hell” would be a life spent too afraid to realize my own thoughts and dreams. To lie on my deathbed regretting the fact that I never explored my existence the way that I believed I should—the only way that could have brought true fulfillment during my active years—is the most torturous experience I can imagine. And letting the promise of heaven or the threat of hell dictate my life seems a direct path to that evil place.

Likewise, my search for “heaven” lies right here.  I feel heavenly by loving deeply and treating others right, which brings visceral satisfaction. I feel bliss through honest exploration and wonderment, and by uncovering personal philosophies that elevate my life to something more than mere existence. My search for beauty, truth and goodness in this world is heaven enough for me—and I suspect I’m not the only one.

image: Joe Hastings