A normal human being longs for three things thee cannot be attained in this life: understanding of self, understanding of others, and understanding of the cosmos. We cannot be sufficient unto ourselves. We are created for the connection with others, for the connection with the cosmos, for the dynamic connection among ourselves and with God. When we ask for connection, we are often met by silence. But if we listen, the silence sings to us.
This book recounts the search for the fulfillment of this existential longing. A corollary theme is the eternal unity of the human being, body and soul. Other themes are tensions within the concept of heaven: between salvation of body and salvation of soul; between salvation through the intellect (knowledge) and salvation through the will (love); between salvation of individuals and salvation of community; between the theological need for an abstract heaven and the artistic and everyday need for physical images. Another motif is the tension inherent in human language when it attempts to relate the ineffable, see the invisible, understand the incomprehensible.
Heaven itself cannot be described, but the human concept of heaven can be. Heaven is not dull; it is not static; it is not monochrome. It is an endless dynamic of joy in which one is ever more oneself as one was meant to be, in which one increasingly realizes one's potential in understanding as well as love and is filled more and more with wisdom. It is the discovery, sometimes unexpected, of one's deepest self. Heaven is reality itself; what is not heaven is less real. Hell is the contradiction of heaven; it is the absence of reality. Satan is exiled and imprisoned; the citizens of heaven enjoy their true home, free from death, pain, hatred. Humans are at their most real in heaven, resting dynamically in endless and increasing light and brilliance, joy and glory. The opposite of glory is worldly, unredeemed, alienated incompleteness, but glory is the living light of love that pulses in God and in every seeking creature. The glow of glory lights heaven and unites creator and creatures in a circuit of love. Heaven is a festival combining utmost intensity with perfect peace. It is the home of paradox, where one flies open and free while one is hugged fast in the arms of the First Lover, Dante's primo Amante. Heaven is the singing silence, the stillness of God that he sings to the world. And it is a mystery. When Paul tells the Corinthians (1 Cor 15) that he will tell them a "mystery," he means something unfathomable that he attempts, with inevitable human inadequacy, to express. "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard," he says, "the things that God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Cor 2.9). The mystery of the concept of heaven has raised a number of perennial questions. Estimates as to what proportion of the human race number among the blest have ranged from very few to all, but one may hope that all are in heaven who open themselves even a little to love.
Opinions have also varied as to the gender, age, and appearance of the resurrected body. Some have held that humans share heaven with angels, some that we share it with the whole cosmos. Underlying all is the question, What sort of language, what sort of speech, can express, distill the silence?
For Christians, heaven is where Christ is. Going to heaven or, better, being in heaven is being in the presence of Christ, whether one encounters him, sees him, merges with him; or in a sense becomes him. One is in heaven insofar as one is "in" Christ. Theosis, "divinization" of a human being in the sense that the person's self or ego is replaced with Christ, is a hallmark of spirituality, especially in Eastern Christianity. Integration with Christ is not a dissolution of the self but rather the fullest realization of self. Divinization is not something that we can claim as a merit due to our own work; it is a free gift: we are in God because God takes us in. Our choice is whether to obstruct him or to allow him to grow in us. The center of the relationship in heaven between humans and Christ is a love where the human rose and the divine fire are one, a love that gives all and accepts all, a love in which God loves us perfectly and we love him perfectly, to the degree that subject and object become one--love loves love--and eventually only the verb remains: "loves."
The most important aspects of the concept of heaven are the beatific vision and the mystical union. In the beatific vision of God, the person's "seeing" is his or her complete understanding and love of Christ. In this earthly life one can "see" this understanding and love only "through a glass darkly"; in heaven one sees "face to face" (1 Cor 13.12). On earth one may have a transitory intimation of the mystical union; in heaven the union is intense, permanent, complete. In the heavenly union complete love and complete knowledge are one and the same.
Ideas of the quality and degree of mystical union vary. The dissolution of the individual in God, a view common in Asian religions, finds little place in Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. Eastern Christianity has long distinguished between God's ousia, his essence, which we can never "see" or unite with, and his energeia, his expression of himself in the cosmos. Heaven is not an achieved and unchanging state but a process of transformation.
Heaven is the state of being in which all are united in love with one another and with God. It is an agape, a love feast. Whenever less than the whole world is loved, with all the creatures in it, whenever anyone or anything is excluded from love, the result is isolation and retreat from heaven. Heaven is the community of those whom God loves and who love God. All retain their personal characters, but woven together in perfect charity, so that in God's generous embrace each person among the millions whom God loves loves each other person among the millions whom God loves. It is like a weaving in which each thread touches every other thread in a spark of loving light, so that the whole web shines like a field of stars. In heaven all see and observe their love and grace and peace spread out to everyone and through everyone, so that the love of each is realized perfectly and extended totally to each and to all. The union of humans with one another in Christ does not simply "take place" in heaven; it is heaven itself, heartwhole and fine.
Universalism, the belief that all are in heaven, may be too simple; it may be that all are woven into the web of love but some, turning in on themselves, become dead knots by choosing not to participate in the joy. Perhaps some never know the joy of heaven. If so, the saved are pained to see damned those they loved on earth and, now that their love is linked to every creature, they are pained at the fate of even Judas or Nero, Hitler or Stalin. The cosmos grieves for them. Yet this grief is compatible with love, even with joy, for grace takes up grief and transforms it into love. One can love even Judas as God intends him to be.
Heaven itself is ineffable, beyond words. The term ineffabilis was established in theology in the fifth century by Augustine (354-430), who said that it is easier to say what God is not than to say what he is. God is not only incomprehensible to humans but is himself beyond all categories; heaven is therefore also beyond categories. Yet we have no way of discussing heaven except in the only speech we know, human language. In the present age of materialism, the statement "heaven exists" may seem paradoxical, and perhaps "heaven subsists" might be preferable, for heaven does not exist in the way that a planet or star does but rather as a reality that underlies (subsists) physical existence.
Metaphors of heaven, expressing the reality of heaven, are written in the language of earthly delight: sound (melody, silence, conversation); sight (light, proportion); taste and smell (banquet, sweetness); touch (embracing the beloved). Heaven, like God, is special and peculiar in that "heaven" is itself true language, true meaning. God is a poet whose Word (Logos) speaks the universe. In heaven, lies, folly, vanity, and meaninglessness are drained away, and God's language stands out clear and clean.
Traditional Jewish and Christian use of language differs from general modern usage, and it is essential to grasp this difference in order to understand what the traditional language intends. Moderns are used to dichotomies between true and false, fact and fiction, they are put off by comparative terms such as "more real" or "more perfect," and they create a dichotomy between "literal" and "metaphorical." Moderns tend to consider statements as "literally true" if they are statements intended to assert scientific or historical "facts"; they regard statements employing metaphor as poetic or even fanciful. The modern assumption is that the so-called factual statement relates to "outside reality" and that the metaphorical statement is subjective and unrelated to "outside reality." This assumption is so deep and so common that we are likely to forget that it is not the only way of looking at things. It most definitely was not the way of Jewish and Christian writers about heaven.
In order to understand what their way was, it is best to set aside the modern use of the term "literal meaning" for the scientific or historical meaning and instead to reserve the term "literal" for what the author of a text intended. Traditional Christian writers used the term in a variety of other ways. For example, the literal meaning of the Bible includes both what the writer of the text intended and what God intends. When in 401, for example, Augustine wrote his On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis (De Genesi ad litteram), what he meant by "literal" was what God intends the Book of Genesis to mean. Because of the ambiguity of the term "literal," I seldom use it in this book. What is important is to distinguish the traditional mode of viewing reality from the modern mode. The traditional mode does not so much analyze, reduce, and narrow down toward definition as it uses metaphor to expand and open out meaning.
Avoiding the term "literal," then, I contrast the "overt sense" to the "symbolic sense." For example, the statement that God's throne is in heaven is rarely meant in an overt sense; usually it is intended as a metaphor of God's sovereignty, in which case the literal meaning is the metaphor. Exegetes believed that the Bible could be read in both overt and the symbolic senses. Some statements are best read in the overt sense, as when Jesus refers to his interlocutors as hypocrites (Mt 22.18), but they can be opened up beyond the overt: the interlocutors may stand, for example, for all who pretend honest motives to mask their own desires. Other statements are best read in the symbolic sense, as when Jesus warns those who have a log in their own eye not to condemn those with a speck in theirs (Mt 7.3-5). It has always been obvious that Jesus was not suggesting that people were walking around with logs sticking out of their eyes.
Traditional Jewish and Christian thinkers recognized that metaphor expresses a deeper reality than can be attained through the overt sense. This manner of thinking can be called "metaphorical ontology." Ontology is the study of "being" as such and in itself; it attempts to penetrate to the essence ("is-ness") of particular things and of the cosmos in general. Metaphor is the use of words overtly denoting one kind of object or idea in place of another to suggest an analogy between them or a deeper meaning beneath them. When the Psalmist says that the Lord will cover you with his feathers and that you shall trust "under his wings" (Ps 91.4), he was not suggesting that you will be a bluejay or an eaglet in the nest. When Jesus speaks of himself as a door, he does not mean that he is a construction of planks; when he calls himself the good shepherd, he does not mean that he intends to concentrate his time on animals. Nor did being both a door and a shepherd mean that Jesus was a wooden herdsman (Jn 10.1-18). "Metaphorical ontology" is the use of figures of speech to go beyond science, history, and poetry to indicate the deepest, divine, heavenly reality.
As the sign of greater or deeper truth, metaphor was close to sacrament. Because the vastness and richness of reality cannot be expressed by the overt sense of a statement alone, metaphorical ontology is necessary. It is also necessary because a sense of contemplation and wonder are at least as important for understanding the world as efforts to determine facts. Traditional writers might well have regarded the term "metaphorical ontology" as a pleonasm, because they understood ontological reality as being inherently metaphorical. God is a poet at least as much as a scientist or a historian. God is the great poet, the maker (Greek poietes), of the universe, and his meaning is eternally expansive. I use the phrase "metaphorical ontology" in this book to distinguish it from the materialist ontology that dominates modern Western thought. We think we can understand a poppy by grasping it and dissecting it; perhaps we understand more when we allow the poppy to grasp us.
For traditional writers, metaphor and allegory are ontology. The epistemology of traditional Judaism and Christianity opens up toward truth with metaphors that continually grow. Thus heaven is best understood by metaphor. And not only is language about heaven metaphor: heaven is itself the metaphor of metaphors, for a metaphor opens to more and more meaning, and heaven is an unbordered meadow of meaning. Heaven is where language collapses into perfect language and then further--into the truth beyond language. Heaven is what things really mean; it is where all the blurring and sliding amongst terms and concepts and words is caught, finally, by I AM WHO I AM (God's own name for himself as given to Moses: Ex 3.14).
Human language is baffled by eternity, which is beyond human imagination and reason, except in metaphor. Eternity is commonly understood as an unending length of time; or as timelessness; or as a state that both includes and also transcends time. The intellect can conceive of these options, but the imagination balks--as it does in quantum physics. Originally, the most common meaning of eternity in Judeo-Christian thought was "on and on," but it is as difficult to imagine an infinite succession of moments as it is to imagine a timeless moment; both images seem to go against the subjectively experienced finiteness of time. In this world, humans lack the imagination and vocabulary to define or describe heaven without using the metaphor of time.
Heaven could not subsist "before" the creation of the cosmos, for nothing other than God subsists "before" the creation. No thing existed before any thing existed. When God created, he created space and time, there was no time before the creation. God did not, as it were, sit around in time, waiting until he felt like creating the cosmos. God is eternal: he subsists outside time and space, creates time and space, and permeates them. God sees, understands, loves all points in spacetime as in one moment, totum simul, "all at once." Whatever meaning we assign to totum simul, it goes beyond human experience. Language breaks down in the overt sense, for we have no verb tense for an action that occurs in a dimensionless point outside time and space. Space, according to Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.), is the measure of the relationship of bodies in respect to three dimensions; time is the measure of the motion of these bodies in respect to "before" and "after." Time, therefore, connotes nonidentity and nonsimultaneity.
If time connotes nonsimultaneity, and if language is a function of time, then language cannot express simultaneity. Augustine implied this in his Confessions, describing his divine vision at Ostia as a vision of simultaneity and his return from the vision as a sinking back into language and time, with their beginnings and endings. Boethius (d. 524-26) later observed that even if time is infinite, with no beginning or end, it is not eternal, for even infinite time has no moment that comprehends and embraces totum simul, and what is not "simul" is not eternal. Endless life is one thing, but God's ability to comprehend and embrace all time in one moment is another. Endlessness is perpetual, but only the existence of the entire space and time of the cosmos in one moment is eternal.
God is eternal, but even if heaven is also eternal, it is unclear whether it can be said to exist either perpetually or "after" the end of the cosmos. The earthly paradise that existed at the beginning of the world is not the same as the heavenly paradise at the end. It is meaningless to speak of the existence of anything after the end of the cosmos. There can be no space without objects, no time without the motion of objects. To speak of heaven as existing after the end of the cosmos--which is the end of time--is to speak of it as existing in some way outside of space and time. Perhaps, then, it exists in eternity. But the idea of eternity works for God much better than it does for heaven. We can conceive intellectually of (though we cannot imagine visually) an Absolute Being who perceives all time and space totum simul. But it is not conceivable that creatures such as human beings, with processes of sense, intellect, and emotion, could exist without space and time. If the blessed dwell in heaven eternally (hence timelessly) with God, time does not exist in heaven. But if there is no time, there can be no sequence. We cannot sing a psalm without beginning and continuing it. This tension between perpetuity and eternity, which puzzled philosophers, proved a creative force for poets and the language of metaphor.
Theological efforts to evade the problem of time by considering heaven the abode not of physical bodies but of spirits or of glorified bodies would have been doomed without metaphor. Even glorified bodies cannot function without time, for it takes time to sing a hymn or even to think a thought. It is difficult to conceive of human intellect and will, reason and affect, existing without a brain and therefore a body. "Body is flux and frustration, a locus of pain and process. If it becomes impassible and incorruptible, how is it still body?"
Even if the independent existence of spirits without bodies is granted, even then their acts of praising, knowing, or loving occupy time. Mental experience is a process; we cannot, even as spirits, think, love, and live totum simul, as God can. Thought requires a moment of time spilling out beyond the micromoment; further, thought structures the meaningless micromoments into a meaningful pattern. A human life is a succession of "nows," which, when joined together, form a story through time.
Even God is affected by the existence of time, because our experience of time in heaven is a real experience, and God's total experience of the totum simul must embrace the reality of our experience of time. Because humans experience change, God's experience must encompass our experience of change.
If time in heaven is different from time defined as a measure of motion within the cosmos, then this noncosmic nontime is a metaphor of time that is ontologically real, a "heaventime" distinct from ordinary time. It does not help to say that heaven persists after the end of the cosmos, for the term "after" makes no sense once ordinary time is abolished. It may be better to say that the door to eternity can open from any moment in spacetime, as a breakthrough of heaventime to us or--what amounts to the same thing--of us to heaventime.
Whether heaven is a space or place is an equally difficult question. If glorified bodies exist in heaven, it must be a place. Even if only spirits exist there, so long as they are capable of motion (even internal change), it must be a place. If a place, it should be a part of the cosmos, for "place" is meaningless except within space and as a part of space. If heaven is beyond space, it cannot be a place as place is normally defined. As with time, heaven is often seen as existing in a space other than the sort of space that we inhabit. The words "space" and "time" as applied to heaven are ontological metaphors referring to something beyond the limits of the human mind. Some writers speak of going up to heaven; others of heaven coming down to us. Most metaphorical language refers to heaven as "up," but it is equally "down," "out," "ahead," or "in."
The tension between the idea that heaven is somehow on earth (among us) and the idea that heaven is beyond earth is another perennial dilemma; if heaven is on earth, it is on an earth transformed and sanctified. The "space," like the "time," of heaven is the original earthly paradise, and the kingdom of God within us, and the paradise at the end of the world. Paradise is also equated with Christ, the Christian community (Greek ekklesia, Latin ecclesia), and the soul. To ask which of these paradise "really" is, is to misunderstand, for it is all of these, because the more the metaphor opens up toward truth, the more inclusive it is, the more real it is.
Traditionally, heaven is a place, a sacred space. The sacredness of this space is expressed in metaphors of kingdom, garden, city, or celestial spheres. Jesus refers to it most often as a reign or kingdom, a metaphor of God's sovereignty over all that is. This is coupled with the imagery of God's throne in the center of heaven. Kingdom was the more common metaphor in the Eastern tradition, city in the Western.
The garden is the most common metaphor. Its origin is in the Hebrew Bible: the garden of the earthly paradise at the beginning of the world. It was linked through the "garden enclosed" of the Hebrew Bible to the Greco-Roman images of the locus amoenus, the "lovely place." In the overt sense, the hortus conclusus (enclosed garden) is the original dwelling of Adam and Eve. The imagery closest to that of Genesis is orchard or wood. This image can be opened out indefinitely; the Christian writer Ephraim the Syrian (306-73) wrote:
If you wish to climb to the top of a tree, its branches range themselves under your feet and invite you to rest in the midst of its bosom, in the green room of its branches, whose floor is strewn with flowers. Who has ever seen the joy at the heart of a tree, with fruits of every taste within reach of your hand? You can wash yourself with its dew and dry yourself with its leaves. A cloud of fruits is over your head and a carpet of flowers beneath your feet. You are anointed with the sap of the tree and inhale its perfume. (Hymn of Paradise 9.5-6)
Associated with the wood or trees are the mountain and the river, especially the waters flowing from a spring or fountain beneath the throne of God out to the world in four rivers. In the overt sense the rivers are the Tigris and Euphrates (and sometimes the Nile and Danube as well). In the symbolic sense, fountains and rivers are signs of the spurting forth of life and its renewal by grace. The image of paradise embraces both garden and pasture. The Hebrew Bible already contains pastoral images; later, Christ is portrayed both as pastor and sheep: he is both the Good Shepherd and the sacrificial Lamb of God, images rooted in Psalm 23 and Isaiah 40.11.
The image of the city is even more clearly human. The city is powerfully and persistently linked with the kingdom, for the ruler of the city is the mashiach, the Messiah, the Anointed One, the King of Israel. The image of the city also is rooted in the Hebrew Bible; Jewish thought has consistently identified heaven with the City of Jerusalem or Zion (by metonymy Mount Zion stands for Jerusalem). This means both the geographical city and also a glorified Jerusalem descending to earth, or raising earth up to it. The City of Jerusalem does not connote a modern sprawl of inhabitants but a sacred space or sanctuary ruled by the Messiah. The image was further enhanced by the Greek concept of the polls as a community of free citizens.
The new or heavenly Jerusalem goes as far back as Ezekiel (sixth century B.C.E.). Many rabbis combined the physical Jerusalem with the heavenly city, which preexists the earthly city; the earthly city is merely the representation of its great type. After the repression of Judaism with the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. and the crushing of the Bar-Kochba rebellion in 135 C.E., the desire to recapture the earthly Jerusalem mounted, and the rabbis moved away from the idea of the heavenly city. Heaven is the center of the cosmos, the holy city ruled by God. In the very center is the Lord upon his throne, in his tabernacle (the Ark or tent of the Covenant), or in his Temple.
The image of heaven as the sky, the starry dome, is rooted in both Hebrew and Greek thought. Tent or canopy represents the firmament stretching above the holy place. The connection of heaven with the planetary and stellar spheres and hence with circles derives from Greek and Hellenistic thought, especially Neoplatonism; it appears in Jewish thought in the apocrypha (writings sometimes included in the Bible) and pseudepigrapha (writings widely believed to be inspired but never included in the Bible). Our true homeland is heaven, not this precarious and dangerous world. Heaven is the marriage of God with his beloved as community, or his beloved as a personal soul. Other metaphors of heaven are temple, womb, nut, umbilicus, or mandala; related images include book, ladder, bridge, clouds, gates, and court.
The role of space and time in the concept of heaven is related to the presence of bodies there, which requires that it be in some sense a place. Jewish tradition has always held that life in the other world is life in the body. Further, the much ignored fact is that neither the New Testament nor the early Christian writers ever used the term "immortal soul" or "immortal spirit." The early Christians, like the rabbis, understood that union with God was union of the whole human, both soul and body, with him. Christian tradition continued to assume this union until, in the third century C.E., Platonic ideas of the soul's great superiority to the body promoted the idea of the survival of souls apart from bodies.
The resurrected body was viewed as in some way identical with this earthly one, one that eats, excretes, breathes, circulates the blood, and fires neurons. The resurrected Christ ate fish (Lk 23.42-43). A body that does not eat or drink could not function. The resurrected body is a different sort of body, a glorified body, but unless it functions as a body it resembles less an earthly body than a Platonic disembodied soul. Will our resurrection body be at our physical or intellectual peak? Will a mother encounter her child as a baby or as a grown person? Beneath these questions lay a consensus that the body in heaven would be at once a physical body and a body freed from its limitations; it would possess the qualities of completion and fulfillment.
Humans on this earth have no way of knowing absolute truth about heaven, what heaven "really is." We can know absolutely neither through revelation nor through intellectual investigation, since the Bible gives hints, but no thorough analysis or picture of heaven. Intellectually, wisdom begins with understanding that human reason cannot get to the absolute truth about anything at all. We have increasing difficulty with concepts as the external referents become more abstract: the concept of "cat" has more concrete borders than that of "parliament," and "parliament" is more concrete than "heaven."
Though we are unable to know absolutes, we can have a clear and sure knowledge of concepts, the phenomena we form in the tension between our minds and the things outside our minds. We do not know things-in-themselves, so our only knowledge is the knowledge of phenomena, a knowledge that humans create or invent rather than discover. Since we create concepts, we can know them, and in this sense the knowledge of the concept of heaven is as sure as the knowledge of, say, the concept of democracy. Though intellectual investigation can never determine the absolute nature of heaven, it can determine the human concept of heaven.
The concept of heaven is expressed in artworks, theology, narrative, poetry, liturgy, and folklore. It may also be approached through social history or depth psychology; the best approach to the intellectual search for the meaning of heaven is through the history of concepts, which encompasses and incorporates insights from all disciplines. The concept of heaven is best defined as what humans have thought about heaven; it is most fully understood in its history.
The concept of heaven is broader than the theological tradition of heaven. The theological tradition is itself broader than abstract or academic theology, for it embraces not only formal theology but the life and thought of the entire community. Tradition is not repetition, but the transmission of a living reality, which must be renewed and rethought as the community develops.
Theological tradition claims that over time the tradition develops under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and ends by telling the equivalent of truth as God knows it. The history of concepts respects but does not endorse that claim. One cannot assume that the concept of heaven progresses inevitably until it becomes complete; it may continue to open out perpetually. The history of concepts is neither confessional nor reductionist. It does not claim that any concept corresponds to absolute truth, yet it rejects the assumption of contemporary materialism and skepticism that heaven is an illusion lacking external referents. It avoids draining the life out of people in the past by imposing modern worldviews and categories on them; rather, it seeks to encounter real people, to engage their ideas, and to love them.
None of this can be done without taking seriously what these people said and wrote. The author's intention remains the most important element in understanding a text, and engaging the author in loving dialogue as a real person escapes the dead heart of reductionism and the dead hand of deconstruction.
Concepts develop through time. Some concepts die; others narrow down; others stagnate. The concept of heaven opens. It opens up in the cosmos in ever-widening circles and opens down in the human character into the deepest self.
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