In the book by Hans Buddingh about the history of Surinam I found I read a short statement that I have not forgotten, even though it is some years ago that I read the book. The slaves were often treated in a beastly manner and many did not survive the punishments they received. But some reports indicate that the slaves were not afraid of death, for they believed that in the hereafter they would be served by white men! Surely, they did not want to miss that! And if you are a slave and must obey every whim of your white master, it is not so strange that your ultimate desire is that in the future the roles will be reversed. That would indeed be paradise!
Muslim warriors are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their faith, believing that they will be recompensed for all their suffering. In the hereafter they will enjoy the company of a good number of beautiful virgins.
The Old Testament prophet Isaiah could not think of a better future for his people than that they would enjoy the fruits of the vineyard they had planted and would live in the house they had built for themselves. Heaven for him was the place where one did no longer have to work for the benefit of others.
For many Christians heaven is the place where, immediately after their death, they continue to live as immortal souls, waiting for the resurrection of their body. I have never quite understood why you would want to get a body if your soul is already enjoying eternal bliss and singing its eternal hallelujahs.
If I try to imagine what heaven will be like, I inevitably think of the magnificent beach, some fifteen kilometers from Abidjan, the capital city of Ivory Coast, where my wife and I lived in the nineteen eighties for about four years. On Sundays we usually spent some hours under the palm trees at the beach. But when I think a bit further . . . We could enjoy our carefree time at the beach, but life was not quite as carefree and pleasant for the women who carried their baskets with pine apples on their head, and tried to sell them to the (mostly white) people on the beach in order to earn a small amount of money to buy food for their families. . .
For many Bible readers the last two chapter of the book of Revelation contain exciting information. There we read about the New Jerusalem with its golden streets and its pearly gates. To be honest, it does not mean all that much to me, but I realize that it must have been a picture that appealed to the people some 2,000 years ago: a city with high walls and strong gates that was totally secure. I am somewhat frustrated, however, when I read that there will be no more sea. No doubt, for the people of Bible times who tended to be afraid of the sea, this was good news. For the first century readers this new world was unbelievably wonderful, since all things that caused anxiety had been removed.
The problem with all human pictures about heaven is that they are human ideas. It cannot be otherwise. We only have human images for our dreams about eternity. But we must not forget that when dealing with eternity and everything associated with it, we are dealing with categories that belong to the domain of the divine. Our human words and imaginations can never be adequate. For the slaves of Surinam, heaven will even be better than a place where they will be served by white people. And, even though I find it hard to believe that this is possible, eternity will be a lot better than the beach near Abidjan. (And for the time being I will assume that the statement about the absence of the sea, should be understood symbolically.)