On Eschatology

Due to the fact that we live in a universe of infinite possibilities, it is perhaps possible that a scientist can exhaust his or her supply of mundane research questions pertaining to the worldly sciences. As a result, all that is left in one’s free inquiry is a final question that one would be remembered for, in the words of John Brockman. That question is: What is “Heaven”? There is in fact a particular science that pertains to the study of “heaven” and “hell” known as eschatology. Given that eschatology pertains to entities and objects that are outside of our space-time-matter continuum and that it deals with the ultimate psycho-spiritual state of human beings as manifested by notions of the “garden” and “fire,” it follows that eschatology is in fact the final science. The mind, as mentioned in previous essays, is the final frontier of the worldly sciences, and if eschatology deals with the final psycho-spiritual state, it follows that eschatology is the final science.

One of my economics professors in college spoke about one of his final exam questions as a graduate student, which pertained to the “economics of heaven.” The question was about how the “economics of heaven” differed from economics here on earth. The answer, according to the professor, was that the economy of heaven was characterized by abundance, whereas the economy of earth is characterized by scarcity. After all, the fundamental definition of the term “economics” is the rational use of scarce resources. If the fundamental difference between heaven and earth is based on the difference between abundance and scarcity, then it is perhaps possible that other attributes and characteristics of heaven are discernible through eschatological inquiry and study, which is the goal of this essay.

Many religious traditions have opined on the issue of heaven and hell, and there is a common thread that weaves all the different religious traditions together on the subject of eschatology, namely, the belief that there are seven dimensions or levels of heaven. The belief or the idea of there being seven dimensions or levels of heaven predates the Abrahamic faiths, given that the belief or idea originated in both Ancient Mesopotamia and the Indian Subcontinent. According to the Islamic tradition, the seventh and final dimension of heaven is composed of a type of light that is incomprehensible to mortal man, and it is occupied by the prophet Abraham. Its hallmark feature is a lote tree known in Arabic as “Sidrat al-Muntaha,” which translates into “the tree at the farthest boundary.” It is believed that human knowledge ends at this particular tree, and movement beyond this tree is prohibited for all of creation, including angels. It is also believed that the angels dwell around this tree when they are not preoccupied with anything. Nothing beyond this tree is comprehensible for human beings. Also, it is in this particular dimension of heaven where the divine “vision” takes place, through which the inhabitants of the seventh heaven will be given a glimpse at the sight of God.

The physical manifestation of the lote tree in heaven is widespread in the Levant as well as North Africa, and it is a popular symbol in the Arab world. The tree is used as a reminder that there is compatibility between spiritual and worldly goals in the sense that worldly goals can be directed towards spiritual fulfillment. Coincidentally, there is also a lote tree located by the Prophet Muhammad’s mosque in Madinah, near to where the Prophet’s daughter, Fatimah, is buried. In the past, the fruit of this tree was sold to pilgrims who came to Madinah, and the leaves of this tree were used to wash dead bodies.

From the perspective of the Abrahamic faiths, Heaven is the original abode from which all human beings come from and to which all shall return. Perceptions and sensations that one is to have in Heaven are totally excluded from inhabitants of earth, according to Imam Al-Ghazali. Nothing from the afterworld can be perceived or seen by human beings, with the exception of prophets and saints. However, there are four stages or stations one goes through before becoming aware of a heavenly or hellish state, according to Imam Al-Ghazali. For one, the individual is bound to a world of “perceptible” things, which results in a state of heedlessness and illusion. Second is the state of imagination, where the individual begins developing the notion that there could be something beyond the realm of perception, thus leading to a state of discomfort. Third is the state of “suppositions” where the individual flees from the dangers of the material world. Finally, the individual arrives at the state of “probabilities” where he or she becomes a complete human being and begins to truly understand the illusory nature of this world.

Descriptions and parables relating to heaven and hell are available to us through numerous religious scriptures and texts, but the gravity and magnitude of these places cannot be experienced in this world. Certain individuals may in fact have dreams or visions of the afterworld. Also, the descriptions and parables of heaven and hell that are summed up by the imagery based on the “garden” and “fire” are intended to have a psychological and spiritual effect on the individual, not necessarily a literal and physical effect. It is believed that bodily excretions, fluids, and waste are to be non-existent in Heaven, according to narrations of the Prophet Muhammad’s sayings by Imam Al-Bukhari. Mansions in heaven are reserved only for those who believed in God and the prophets. It is also believed that the male inhabitants of heaven will each have two wives, in addition to having a set of ample-breasted and wide-eyed female companions known as “Hur al-Ayn.”

The transition to either heaven or hell after death generally consists of four stages. First, the individual goes into a state of sleep, given that “sleep is the cousin of death.” Second, there is the possibility of entering into a “purgatory” state known in Arabic as “Barzakh” if one’s good deeds and bad deeds are equal and neither outweighs the other. Third is the “resurrection,” known in the Islamic tradition as “Ma’ad.” Finally, there is the final judgment, although it is believed by certain thinkers that individuals are directed straight towards their fate soon after death. Immediately after death, it is believed that individuals go through a state of torment depending on one’s level of attachment to worldly things. Torment correlates with one’s level of attachment to the world. The higher the attachment, the more intense is the torment, and vice versa. In antiquity, Plato’s “Myth of Er” describes the torment of a hellish state, and in the medieval period, Dante described hell in an in-depth fashion through his most famous work, known as “Inferno.” According to Dante, a typical vision of hell is constituted by a state of disappointment and grief:

“Sighs and laments and loud wails filled my ears.

Those cries resounding through the starless air

So moved me at first that I burst into tears.

A babble of tongues, harsh outcries of despair,

Noises of rage and grief, the beating of hands,

And shrill and raucous voices everywhere

All made a mad uproar that never ends,

Revolving in that timeless darkened breeze

The way a whirlwind whips the desert sands.

‘Master, what do I hear? And who are these,’

I cried, as the horror swirled around my head,

‘who seem so shattered by their agonies?’

‘This is the miserable estate,’ he said,

‘of the sorry souls of those who lived and died

Winning neither praise nor blame for the lives they’d lead.”

Heaven, on the other hand, is characterized by a state of contentment and peace. The Quran describes heaven as a place where there is no superficial or vain conversation. In the seventh heaven, the inhabitants will be preoccupied with philosophical and scientific discussions. The world, according to the Prophet Muhammad, will be a source of “bread” and “entertainment” for the inhabitants, alluding to a Romanesque “bread and circus” theme, all while everyone else outside of heaven are nervously embroiled in the world’s turbulent and unsettling affairs. Heaven is also believed to be located outside of the space-time-matter continuum, and it is literally the equivalent of a “command center” for worldly affairs, according to the British scholar N.T. Wright. Whereas the inhabitants of heaven can engage with the earth, the inhabitants of the earth cannot really engage with heaven until death.

In a sense, the Earth is a metaphor for both heaven and hell. After all, pantheism suggests that one’s physical reality is a reflection of the divine reality characterized either by the bliss of the “garden” or the torment of the “fire.” As Mulla Sadra has said, heaven and hell can be places that are envisioned in the imagination of the individual, given that hell is a place where a person is separated from all the things they love, whereas heaven is a place where a person is united with everything they love. Also, Mulla Sadra claimed that having an understanding of the mysteries and thus an immersion into the eschatological science suggests “good tidings” for the individual in this world and in the afterworld.

There are also some who have suggested that the afterworld is the only “real” world, and that this world is merely an illusion. As R.J. Hollingdale wrote:

“Is it any wonder, then, that this second world, the world of thought, comes to be much more real than the physical world, that men should come to regard it as alone real, as ‘the real world’? And once this step has been taken, is it not likely that the physical will be progressively devalued for the benefit of the ‘real’ world, that all the qualities in it which men find useful or interesting or dreadful will be transferred one by one to the ‘real’ world as to their true home, so that at last the physical world is denuded of all value and claim to veneration and becomes a mere illusion, an appearance, a veil masking that other, ‘real’ world?”

While the afterlife can be imagined and thought of given that anything which is conceived in the mind can also be conceived in reality, knowledge of the afterlife can only be acquired through the intellect, according to Imam Al-Ghazali.

            In the end, there are only two types of intellectual sciences. On one hand, there are the worldly sciences which pertain to the present world through disciplines such as arithmetic, geometry, economics, medicine, and others, while on the other hand there is the eschatological sciences that pertain to knowledge of God (theology) and his attributes as well as the states of the human heart and soul. One of these types of sciences produces solid conclusions about everything, whereas the other does not. Also, when an individual delves into one type of science, he or she loses the other type because the two intellectual sciences are said to be mutually exclusive from one another, according to Imam Al-Ghazali. Thus, the Prophet Muhammad claimed: “Most of the inhabitants of the Garden are simpletons.”

However, there are also narrations of the Prophet’s teachings which may suggest that the two types of sciences can be reconciled, despite the notion that the world and the afterworld are like two rival wives who cannot be reconciled. For one, the following quote from the Prophet Muhammad has been used by some as support for the notion that the two differing types of intellectual sciences can be reconciled: “The believer is the most vexed of all men, for he must attend to the affairs of the world as well as to those of the Hereafter.” Also, Imam Musa al-Kazim has stated: “He who abandons the world for his hereafter or abandons his hereafter for the world is not from us.” Thus, it is perhaps true to suggest that Islam espouses a balance and an equilibrium between the material and spiritual dimensions of man, and that it is in fact possible for an individual to have “the best of both worlds.” Nevertheless, those who abandon worldly pursuits to seek “gnosis,” which equates to knowledge of God and the afterworld, are provided for from “unimaginable quarters” according to the Quran.

            As a result, the tradeoff between this world and the afterworld is seen by some as a necessity, whereas for some it is seen as a choice. Many will choose to focus on the worldly sciences and abandon the eschatological science, and others will suggest that there is no tradeoff whatsoever given that both sciences can be reconciled and “integrated” to borrow from Abraham Maslow. Nevertheless, the ascetics are viewed by many religious traditions to be “Kings” in both this world and the afterworld, and men with knowledge pertaining to the eschatological science are considered as “nobles.” Those who are not ascetics and who do not have knowledge of eschatology are believed to be in a questionable state until there is a decision made about their fate. Also, those who seek “gnosis,” which equates to knowledge about God and the afterworld, are not only forgiven and granted immediate entry into heaven, but they are also provided for from “unimaginable quarters” in this world.

Many scholars and wisemen have suggested that the world is merely a transitory route through which we seek gnosis and knowledge about our final destination. Anything that aids in the acquisition of this knowledge, which includes even the food one eats to have the energy for the acquisition of this knowledge, is permissible as long as it does not distract the person from reaching the final destination. Also, according to Imam Al-Ghazali, an individual cannot escape regret, trouble, and torment without solid belief and knowledge about God and the final destination, which is nothing other than the afterworld. Contentment and peace can come about only as a result of having absolute certainty regarding one’s final destination.

Nevertheless, belief in an afterworld is perhaps even more difficult to sustain than a belief in God. Much of the attraction towards a belief in an afterworld comes from the supposed sensual pleasures that are offered to the inhabitants of heaven, in addition to the reward of philosophical and scientific activity. As Mark Anderson has written: “The Quranic paradise can thus be viewed as a religious recasting of the pre-Islamic concept of attaining immortality through endless indulgence in superabundant luxury and sensual pleasure.” In a nutshell, heaven equates to having everything that one wishes for. Most importantly, however, is that heaven is a place that is free of cognitive dissonance along with anything that causes it. Thus, all that is needed to cultivate a heavenly atmosphere in both worlds is good character and an open mind. As Voltaire said, cultivate your garden. On the flipside, all that is needed to cultivate a hellish state is poor character and a closed mind. There is a poem that addresses this dichotomy:

“Oh! If only all men were wise,

And all of them meant well!

The earth to them would be paradise,

But now it is mostly hell.”

There is again the question of free will and predestination, as well as the issue of whether it is even possible to cultivate a particular state through free will. Predestination is a very weighty theme in Islamic philosophy, and it has even been suggested by the Prophet Muhammad that a person’s place in the afterworld is already preordained. In this world, people are simply going through the motions and performing the actions necessary to assume their designated place in the afterworld. Thus, wise men of the past were known to react to everything that happens in the world with resignation.

Moreover, as the late Islamic scholar Fazlur Rahman has noted in an essay titled “Eschatology,” heaven equates to the transparency of deeds and thoughts both in this world and in the afterworld. Heaven, both in this world and in the afterworld, is determined by a public assessment of one’s deeds and thoughts. Nothing will be hidden once the moment of reckoning arrives; thus, it is better to prepare through the act of being transparent. Perhaps people may not be smart enough to assess a person’s deeds or thoughts. There are also people who deceive others through words and actions that conceal the true contents of their heart. But upon the reckoning, the contents of the heart, in addition to one’s deeds and thoughts, will be brought to the fore and false appearances will be shattered.

Due to the bifurcation of the intellectual sciences between worldly and eschatological, we have two choices before us. For one, we can root ourselves in a religion and adopt a belief in God and an afterworld. Or we can opt for a secular-materialist outlook that denies the existence of such things. However, any choice we make has to ultimately be made with confidence and in a well-informed manner. Our choice cannot be made hastily or in an ill-informed manner. Also, different outlooks lead to different answers to the question of why there is something rather than nothing, which is the deepest philosophical and scientific question known to mankind. One outlook espouses the view that life is merely about survival given that it has propped up theories such as Malthusian economics and “Social Darwinism,” whereas the other outlook has made love and worship the central themes of human life.

For many people, it is incredibly difficult to give up on the allure of this world based on a supposition of a God and an afterworld that are unseen to the human eye and cannot be proven empirically. But nor can these things be disproven empirically. Ultimately, the tradeoff made between a religious outlook and a secular-materialist outlook will create a temporary inconvenience, but it could perhaps ward off eternal peril. Also, when assessing the results of a secular-materialist outlook, it has only been a trend for 200 out of the total of 200,000 years of human life on earth. Perhaps these last 200 years of Anglo-American hegemonic discourse based on empiricism have been an anomaly or aberration from the natural way of life which will soon be rectified through the acquisition of broader insights and knowledge. No one knows for sure. But what is certain, however, is that the epidemics, natural disasters, social ills, and wars that have occurred in the last 200 years or so were almost unimaginable at any other interval of human history. As a result, there are now religious revivals occurring in many parts of the world. Whether these religious revivals broaden and incorporate greater numbers of people is something that only time will tell. Nevertheless, based on the reality that science can be bifurcated between eschatological and worldly orientations, the modern notion that religion and science cannot be reconciled is something that should be reconsidered.

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