When I speak to smart Christians and ask them about Heaven I sometimes ask them if they believe that there really can be such a place. Some of them do believe in Heaven as a place, and then find themselves getting twisted around in all kinds of problems of semantics as they try and describe what it’s actually like.
Try asking them if they believe there can be such a concept as free will in heaven. They will suggest that you can do anything you want in heaven. Then ask them what would happen if you did something bad. Then they will nod wisely and say that if you were the kind of person who wanted to do something bad then you wouldn’t be allowed into heaven. Then ask them about things that don’t seem bad at the time but turn out to have been bad later – accidents and so on. And they will tell you that they don’t think that you can make mistakes in heaven. Then suggest that when you’re making a decision in heaven that you always somehow know what the right thing to do is. And they say “yes, that’s exactly it, you always know the right thing to do”. And then you ask them how that tallies with Free Will. They love you for this and always invite you back to their parties (for more fun ask them how many times they plan to play golf in heaven and what they like about golf – they’ll soon realise that challenge and doing something an infinite number of times is something that doesn’t quite square).
But a lot of smart Christians describe the “Kingdom of God” which is all the bible says about Heaven really as more of a state of mind. Something that you can achieve right here on earth. Yes that’s right they think that “Heaven is a place on earth”. But more seriously the idea is that through doing good things and living well you will achieve a sense of peace and wellbeing which is enables you to be one of God’s subjects. Basically brining together feeling good and feeling guilty as being the punishments and rewards for a good life. It might sound an awful lot like Buddhism to you (and me) but that’s the general idea.
I have another question that I ask to smart Muslim’s I know. I try and find out about the idea of Jihad. And while many will talk about the issues that most westerners will know about. The idea that Jihad is a struggle against the oppressors of Islam and the idea that Jihad is something that is specifically written into their religion that extols them to offer conversion to non-believers or death. Which is not really true, or its no more true than the way that the Jewish and Christian traditions demand the same. There is an element of interpretation to all of these things.
But the smart Muslim’s I know also talk about what they see as the more important part of Jihad, what to them Jihad is really about. It is the idea that the struggle for most Muslims is within themselves. The idea that their own passions and heart want them to do things that they know is wrong, and they must struggle against those impulses to be better Muslims. The idea that there is good and evil in each person and that by making the correct choices they will be happier or feel guilty is a large part of what Jihad means to them. And if that sounds a bit like Buddhism to you (and me) then, well I can’t really argue with that.