Heaven and Philosophy

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Simon Cushing
  • New York, NY: 
    Lexington Books
    , November
     316 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


What usually comes to mind in academic considerations of heaven is a study of specific afterlife beliefs found in the Abrahamic religions: specifically, examining the nature of heaven and who is entitled to reside therein. This unusual volume approaches the topic of heaven using philosophers’ tools, most especially logic (“reason” and “revelation” being, as Joshua Rasmussen comments in his chapter, the two available methods for studying the afterlife). One has the distinct impression from most of the contributing scholars that the goal is to demonstrate an eternal, post-mortem existence; to their disappointment, all but two find themselves unable to do so under the constraints of traditional philosophical discourse. Yet as Simon Cushing points out in the introduction, delving deeply into the many issues surrounding an infinite afterlife allows us to ponder how we wish to spend our finite “pre-mortem” lives. 

A notable quality of this book is the accessibility of the writing. Cushing’s introduction offers a useful and entertaining crash course on the history of metaphysics, setting the stage for the more complex arguments laid out in the following chapters. Theologians and philosophers will quickly find common ground in the issues raised, while students of religion will discover a new lens through which to view their subject. 

The first four chapters of the book are devoted to the question of who—or what—might survive the death of the body. In chapter 1, Bertha Alvarez Manninen explores the question of personal identity as a constant that persists through (living) time, pointing to personality changes that may occur as a result of damage to the brain. Do these changes affect the essence of a person? Taking this one step further, which person continues to exist when the body dies: the original or the affected one? The other scholars in this section examine mechanisms of resurrection, heaven as a “way-station” between death and resurrection, and accounts of heaven as a spatio-temporal location. Cushing has crafted the volume so well that each topic follows logically from that of the previous chapter, and no references leave the reader clueless. 

Chapters 5 through 8 examine the ramifications of universalism (the belief that all souls eventually end up in heaven)—and its opposite, conditionalism (the belief that souls go to heaven only if they have fulfilled certain conditions). Rasmussen parses the possibilities of universal salvation, partial salvation, or universal doom. Following his arguments come questions about the nature of heaven: is it the same for everyone? Is heaven the state of union with God, while hell is separation from God? Most intriguing are the articles by Helen Daly and Eric Yang, which ask how heaven can be perfectly blissful if its denizens are aware of the suffering of loved ones in hell. Daly bases her defense of the existence of both heaven and hell (under this circumstance) on the value of individual freedom, where love includes respecting others’ freedom to choose damnation. Yang offers two solutions, one of which (the “impassibility” of both God and the blessed) could be improved upon by reference to the Hindu/Buddhist/Jain teachings of non-attachment. Non-attachment in these religions is not the same as non-love; rather, it is non-particularized love. 

The final four chapters deal with issues of agency and free will. While most adherents of Abrahamic religions hold that only humans have souls and an afterlife, Blake Hereth approaches the topic from the perspective that nonhuman mammals also have souls, although they lack agency (that is, the ability and freedom to weigh the morality of their actions and choose to do good or evil). Hereth’s argument would be even more interesting were he to refer to the Jain view of sentience in addition to the traditionally Western definition that he employs. Jain and Buddhist arguments against homicide would have been valuable additions to Cushing’s concluding chapter (“Heaven and Homicide”), in which he explores the possible benefit to the victim of being murdered in order to depart this unhappy life and reach heaven sooner. Michael Bauwens asks if heaven-as-paradise allows its inhabitants the freedom to sin, and if it does not, can it still be considered perfect? 

The volume combines intriguing questions with engaging writing. By drawing examples from popular culture, the authors make complicated concepts relatable to those outside the field. The single weakness of Heaven and Philosophy is the tendency of philosophers in general to omit consideration of Eastern philosophy and religion, which, as I have noted here, would both broaden and deepen certain lines of thought. Arguments from logic are not the sole domain of the West, nor are discussions of personal identity and a blissful afterlife. But one can hardly put the blame for an entire field on the shoulders of Simon Cushing, especially when he offers up such a delightful and thought-provoking volume.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alison C. Jameson is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies/East Asian Studies and the Director of the Institute for the Study of Religion and Culture at the University of Arizona.

Date of Review: 
July 9, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Simon Cushing is Associate Professor and Chair of the Philosophy Department of the University of Michigan-Flint.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.