Religions generally promise some sort of reward for believing or living a certain way. In Christianity and Islam there is a heaven or paradise promised for the true follower. Many believe this heaven is a physical place in which people will live in eternity in some sort of happiness or bliss.
But a previous insightful experience has pointed me to another understanding about heaven and hell.
Once while experiencing a convulsion (the only one in my life), I had a profound revelation. At the time, I became aware of many people around me that had previously died. I thought in a split second that I must surely be dying. At that point, I received a telepathic reassurance from my former family and friends that they were not here for me, but just wanted me to say hello to everyone.
Immediately after coming through that experience, the idea came into my head that "You die where you are." Obviously that was a strange thought but the idea was clear to me.
The insight gained from that experience helped me to understand that whatever level of consciousness a person attains in this life would be what that person carries with them when they pass on to the next phase of existence.
The implications were clear to me. If a person wanted to have a better experience in the after life, then they better be getting about to having a better consciousness in this life.
A zen story clearly demonstrates this:
A soldier named Nobushige came to Hakuin, and asked: "Is there really a paradise and a hell?"
"Who are you?" inquired Hakuin. "I am a samurai," the warrior replied.
"You, a soldier!" exclaimed Hakuin. "What kind of ruler would have you as his guard? Your face looks like that of a beggar." Nobushige became so angry that he began to draw his sword, but Hakuin continued: "So you have a sword! Your weapon is probably much too dull to cut off my head."
As Nobushige drew his sword Hakuin remarked: "Here open the gates of hell!" At these words the samurai, perceiving the master's discipline, sheathed his sword and bowed.
"Here open the gates of paradise," said Hakuin. Source: Brave New Traveler
The master in the parable was able to quickly show to the Samurai that heaven or hell were real as states of mind. The master demonstrated that we could attain a hellish state or a heavenly state within a matter of moments depending on our emotional and spiritual focus.
The Samurai "opened the gates of hell" by focusing on his self and his pride. But when the Samurai opened his mind to the master and put away that self focus, he was able to "open the gates of heaven."