In ancient Judaism, the belief in Heaven and afterlife was connected with that of Sheol (mentioned in Isaiah 38:18, Psalms 6:5 and Job 7:7-10). Some scholars asserted that Sheol was an earlier concept, but this theory is not universally held. One later Jewish sect that maintained belief in a Resurrection of the dead was known as the Pharisees. Opposed to them were the Sadducees who denied the doctrine of Resurrection (Matt. 22:23). In most forms of Christianity, belief in the afterlife is professed in the major Creeds, such as the Nicene Creed, which states: "We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come."
In Buddhism there are several heavens, all of which are still part of Samsara. Those who accumulate good karma may be reborn in one of them. However, their stay in the heaven is not eternal—eventually they will use up their good karma and will undergo a different rebirth into another realm, as humans, animals, or other beings. Because Heaven is temporary and part of Samsara, Buddhists focus more on escaping the cycle of rebirth and reaching enlightenment (Nirvana). In the native Chinese Confucian traditions Heaven (Tian) is an important concept, where the ancestors reside and from which emperors drew their mandate to rule in their dynastic propaganda, for example.
Some faiths teach that one enters heaven at the moment of death, while others teach that this occurs at a later time (day of judgement). Some of Christianity along with other major religions maintain that entry into Heaven awaits such time as, "When the form of this world has passed away." One view expressed in the Bible is that on the day Christ returns the righteous dead are resurrected first, and then those who are alive and judged righteous will be brought up to join them, to be taken to heaven. (I Thess 4:13-18)
Two related and often confused concepts of heaven in Christianity are better described as the "resurrection of the body", which is exclusively of Biblical origin, as contrasted with "the immortality of the soul", which is also evident in the Greek tradition. In the first concept, the soul does not enter heaven until the last judgement or the "end of time" when it (along with the body) is resurrected and judged. In the second concept, the soul goes to a heaven on another plane immediately after death. These two concepts are generally combined in the doctrine of the double judgement where the soul is judged once at death and goes to a temporary heaven, while awaiting a second and final physical judgement at the end of the world.
In some early religions (such as the Ancient Egyptian faith), Heaven was a physical place far above the Earth in a "dark area" of space where there were no stars, basically beyond the Universe. Departed souls would undergo a literal journey to reach Heaven, along the way to which there could exist hazards and other entities attempting to deny the reaching of Heaven.
One popular medieval view of Heaven was that it existed as a physical place above the clouds and that God and the Angels were physically above, watching over man. Heaven as a physical place survived in the concept that it was located far out into space, and that the stars were "lights shining through from heaven".
Many of today's Biblical scholars, such as N. T. Wright, in tracing the concept of Heaven back to its Jewish roots, see Earth and Heaven as overlapping or interlocking. Heaven is known as God's space, his dimension, and is not a place that can be reached by human technology. This belief states that Heaven is where God lives and reigns whilst being active and working alongside people on Earth. One day when God restores all things, Heaven and Earth will be forever combined into the 'New Heavens' and 'New Earth'.
Heaven is a key concept in Chinese mythology, philosophies and religions, and is on one end of the spectrum a synonym of Shangdi ("Supreme Deity") and on the other naturalistic end, a synonym for nature and the sky. The Chinese term for Heaven, Tian (天), derives from the name of the supreme deity of the Zhou Dynasty. After their conquest of the Shang Dynasty in 1122 BC, the Zhou people considered their supreme deity Tian to be identical with the Shang supreme deity Shangdi, much as the Romans identified the Greek Zeus with their Jupiter. The Zhou people attributed Heaven with anthropomorphic attributes, evidenced in the etymology of the Chinese character for Heaven or sky, which originally depicted a person with a large cranium. Heaven is said to see, hear and watch over all men. Heaven is affected by man's doings, and having personality, is happy and angry with them. Heaven blesses those who please it and sends calamities upon those who offend it. Heaven was also believed to transcend all other spirits and gods, with Confucius asserting, "He who offends against Heaven has none to whom he can pray."
Other philosophers born around the time of Confucius such as Mozi took an even more theistic view of Heaven, believing that Heaven is the divine ruler, just as the Son of Heaven is the earthly ruler. Mozi believed that spirits and minor gods exist, but their function is merely to carry out the will of Heaven, watching for evil-doers and punishing them. Thus they function as angels of Heaven and do not detract from its monotheistic government of the world. With such a high monotheism, it is not surprising that Mohism championed a concept called "universal love" (jian'ai, 兼愛), which taught that Heaven loves all people equally and that each person should similarly love all human beings without distinguishing between his own relatives and those of others. In Mozi's Will of Heaven (天志), he writes:
"I know Heaven loves men dearly not without reason. Heaven ordered the sun, the moon, and the stars to enlighten and guide them. Heaven ordained the four seasons, Spring, Autumn, Winter, and Summer, to regulate them. Heaven sent down snow, frost, rain, and dew to grow the five grains and flax and silk that so the people could use and enjoy them. Heaven established the hills and rivers, ravines and valleys, and arranged many things to minister to man's good or bring him evil. He appointed the dukes and lords to reward the virtuous and punish the wicked, and to gather metal and wood, birds and beasts, and to engage in cultivating the five grains and flax and silk to provide for the people's food and clothing. This has been so from antiquity to the present." Original Chinese: 「且吾所以知天之愛民之厚者有矣，曰以磨為日月星辰，以昭道之；制為四時春秋冬夏，以紀綱之；雷降雪霜雨露，以長遂五穀麻絲，使民得而財利之；列為山川谿谷，播賦百事，以臨司民之善否；為王公侯伯，使之賞賢而罰暴；賊金木鳥獸，從事乎五穀麻絲，以為民衣食之財。自古及今，未嘗不有此也。」Christianity has taught "Heaven" as a place of eternal life, in that it is a shared plane to be attained by all the elect (rather than an abstract experience related to individual concepts of the ideal). The Christian Church has been divided over how people gain this eternal life. From the 16th to the late 19th century, Christendom was divided between the Roman Catholic view, the Orthodox view, the Coptic view, the Jacobite view, the Abyssinian view and Protestant views.
—Mozi, Will of Heaven, Chapter 27, Paragraph 6, ca. 5th Century BC
Roman Catholics believe that entering purgatory cleanses one of sin (period of suffering until one's nature is perfected), during agony in which makes one acceptable to enter heaven. This is valid for venial sin only, as mortal sins can be forgiven only through the act of reconciliation and repentance while on earth. Some within the Anglican Communion, notably Anglo-Catholics, also hold to this belief, despite their separate history. However, in the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Eastern Catholic Churches, it is only God who has the final say on who enters heaven. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, heaven is understood as union (Theosis) and communion with the Triune God (reunion of Father and Son through love).
In the newer Protestant Christian sects of the last 500 years, eternal life depends upon the sinner receiving God's grace (unearned and undeserved blessing stemming from God's love) through faith in Jesus' death for their sins, see atonement, his resurrection as the Christ, and accepting his Lordship (authority and guidance) over their lives. Some Protestant sects also teach that a physical baptism, or obligatory process of transformation or experience of spiritual rebirth, is further required. Also, Protestantism is divided into groups who believe in the doctrine of eternal security (once a person becomes a Christian, s/he remains one forever, also referred to by the slogan "once saved, always saved") and those who believe that a person who sins continually without any repentance or penitence was never saved in the first place. Some sects do believe that those who continually sin can lose their salvation, though it is generally believed that it shows that the individual was not fully committed in the first place.
From the early second century, we have a fragment of one of the lost volumes of Papias, a Christian bishop, who expounded that "heaven" was separated into three distinct layers. He referred to the first as just "heaven", the second as "paradise", and the third as "the city". Papias taught that "there is this distinction between the habitation of those who produce a hundredfold, and that of those who produce sixty-fold, and that of those who produce thirty-fold".
In the 2nd century AD, Irenaeus (a Greek bishop) wrote that not all who are saved would merit an abode in heaven itself.
Christians in the first century, such as Paul of Tarsus, believed that the Kingdom of God was coming to earth within their lifetimes. They looked forward to a divine future on earth. After the Kingdom of God did not arrive, Christians gradually refined their hopes, so that they came to look forward to a reward in heaven after death rather than to a reward in an imminent, divine kingdom on earth; while continuing to use the major creeds' statements of belief in the Resurrection.
The teachings of the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox communions regarding the Kingdom of Heaven, or Kingdom of God, are basically taken from scripture, and thus many elements of this belief are held in common with other scriptural faiths and denominations. Some specific descriptions of this Kingdom as given in the canon of scripture include— (this list is by no means comprehensive):
- Peaceful Conditions on a New Earth — Is. 2:2–4, 9:7, 11:6–9, 27:13, 32:17–18, 33:20–21, 60:17–18, Ez. 34:25–28, 37:26, Zech 9:10, Matt. 5:3–5, Rev. 21
- Eternal Rule by a Messiah–King — Ps. 72, Jer 31:33–34, Zech 2:10–11, 8:3, 14:9, Matt 16:27, Rev 21:3–4
- An heir of David, Is. 9:6–7, 11:1–5
- Bodily perfection — No hunger, thirst, death, or sickness; a pure language, etc. – Is. 1:25, 4:4, 33:24, 35:5–6, 49:10, 65:20–24, Jer. 31:12–13, Ez. 34:29, 36:29–30, Micah 4:6–7, Zeph. 3:9–19, Matt 13:43
- Ruined cities inhabited by people and flocks of sheep — Is. 32:14, 61:4–5, Ez. 36:10,33–38, Amos 9:14
Various saints have had visions of heaven (2 Corinthians 12:2-4). The Orthodox concept of life in heaven is described in one of the prayers for the dead: "…a place of light, a place of green pasture, a place of repose, whence all sickness, sorrow and sighing are fled away."
According to Jewish teachings in the Talmud, the universe is made of seven heavens as below:
- Vilon (וילון), Also see (Isa 40:22)
- Raki'a (רקיע), Also see (Gen 1:17)
- Shehaqim (שחקים), See (Ps 78:23, Midr. Teh. to Ps. xix. 7)
- Zebul (זבול), See (Isa 63:15, I Kings 8:13)
- Ma'on (מעון), See (Deut 26:15, Ps 42:9)
- Machon (מכון), See (1 Kings 7:30, Deut 28:12)
- Araboth (ערבות), The seventh Heaven where ofanim, the seraphim, and the hayyoth and the throne of the Lord are located.
While the concept of heaven (malkuth hashamaim מלכות השמים, the Kingdom of Heaven) is well-defined within the Christian and Islamic religions, the Jewish concept of the afterlife, sometimes known as olam haba, the World-to-come, is not so precise. The Torah has little to say on the subject of survival after death, but by the time of the rabbis two ideas had made inroads among the Jews: one, which is probably derived from Greek thought, is that of the immortal soul which returns to its creator after death; the other, which is thought to be of Persian origin, is that of resurrection. The Mishnah says, "This world is like a lobby before the World-To-Come. Prepare yourself in the lobby so that you may enter the banquet hall." Jewish writings refer to a "new earth" as the abode of mankind following the resurrection of the dead. Originally, the two ideas of immortality and resurrection were different but in rabbinic thought they are combined: the soul departs from the body at death but is returned to it at the resurrection. This idea is linked to another rabbinic teaching, that men's good and bad actions are rewarded and punished not in this life but after death, whether immediately or at the subsequent resurrection.
Kabbalah Jewish mysticism recognizes seven heavens. In order from lowest to highest, the seven Heavens are listed alongside the angels who govern them:
- Shamayim: The first Heaven, governed by Archangel Gabriel, is the closest of heavenly realms to the Earth; it is also considered the abode of Adam and Eve.
- Raquie: The second Heaven is dually controlled by Zachariel and Raphael. It was in this Heaven that Moses, during his visit to Paradise, encountered the angel Nuriel who stood "300 parasangs high, with a retinue of 50 myriads of angels all fashioned out of water and fire." Also, Raquia is considered the realm where the fallen angels are imprisoned and the planets fastened.
- Shehaqim: The third Heaven, under the leadership of Anahel, serves as the home of the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Life; it is also the realm where manna, the holy food of angels, is produced. The Second Book of Enoch, meanwhile, states that both Paradise and Hell are accommodated in Shehaqim with Hell being located simply " on the northern side."
- Machen: The fourth Heaven is ruled by the Archangel Michael , and according to Talmud Hagiga 12, it contains the heavenly Jerusalem, the Temple, and the Altar.
- Machon: The fifth Heaven is under the administration of Samael, an angel referred to as evil by some, but who is to others merely a dark servant of God.
- Zebul: The sixth Heaven falls under the jurisdiction of Sachiel.
- Araboth: The seventh Heaven, under the leadership of Cassiel, is the holiest of the seven Heavens provided the fact that it houses the Throne of Glory attended by the Seven Archangels and serves as the realm in which God dwells; underneath the throne itself lies the abode of all unborn human souls. It is also considered the home of the Seraphim, the Cherubim, and the Hayyoth.
The concept of heaven in Islam differs in many respects to the concept in Judaism and Christianity. Heaven is described primarily in physical terms as a place where every wish is immediately fulfilled. Islamic texts describe immortal life in heaven as happy, without negative emotions. Those who dwell in heaven are said to wear costly apparel, partake in exquisite banquets, and recline on couches inlaid with gold or precious stones. Inhabitants will rejoice in the company of their parents, wives, and children. Texts also refer to "pure consorts" (houris), with whom sexual relations are said to be "a hundred times greater than earthly pleasure". According to Shi'ite sources, A Hadith from Ali mentioned the name of Seven Heavens as below:
- Rafi' (رفیع) the least heaven (سماء الدنیا)
- Qaydum (قیدوم)
- Marum (ماروم)
- Arfalun (أرفلون)
- Hay'oun (هيعون)
- Arous (عروس)
- Ajma' (عجماء)