Early Christian and Medieval Heavens

Two weeks ago, I began a discussion of Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang’s Heaven: A History, in which they trace two millennia of Christian ideas about the afterlife. To what extent does human community persist in heaven? Does the hereafter, moreover, take place on earth or in heaven?

Last time, I discussed M&L’s discussion of biblical understandings of death and heaven as found in the Jewish scriptures and New Testament. This week, our focus shifts to early and medieval Christianity.

M&L begin this section of their book by contrasting the views of Irenaeus (the second-century Bishop of Lyons) and Augustine. Irenaeus lived at a time when Christians faced periodic waves of persecution, violence, and possible martyrdom. M&L suggest that Irenaeus correspondingly “looked to the next world for compensation for the loss of productive life on earth.” Irenaeus coupled a firm belief in the bodily resurrection with belief that Christians would live on a renewed earth during the millennial reign of Christ. (M&L see a link between martyrdom and millenarianism). Irenaeus rejected an allegorical reading of apocalyptic scripture, and he foresaw a new world in which the soil and the Saints enjoyed remarkable fertility and enjoy feasts of remarkable bounty.

Augustine lived in the fourth and fifth centuries, at a time when Christians feared the Roman Empire’s collapse rather than its power. After an adolescence of indulgence, the converted adult Augustine embraced an ascetic lifestyle. Irenaeus’s idea of an earthly paradise, with fertility and feasts, held little appeal. Instead, in his On Faith and the Creed, Augustine spoke of celestial bodies without “flesh and blood.” “Everything must be spiritual,” he wrote. Future happiness did not depend on any sort of human society: “Whoever knows you [God] and others besides, is not happier for knowing them, but is happy for knowing you alone.” For the early adult Augustine, M&L conclude, heaven “was the continuation of an ascetic retired life. It was a world of immaterial, fleshless souls finding rest and pleasure in God.”

Later in life, especially in City of God, Augustine at least partly revised his views. Certainly, eternal bliss meant the beatific vision of seeing God. Eternity meant an eternity of praise and love of the divine. The idea of the community of saints enjoying God together became more important, though. And those saints could enjoy each other’s company. Augustine became more open to the idea of heavenly family reunions and to the idea of heavenly flesh. Augustine preserved a theocentric heaven, but a heaven in which family and community played roles as well.

Naturally, the idea that bodies would persist raised all sorts of questions. Would there be sexual differentiation? Yes, said Augustine. Men and women would be in their natural state without shame and without defect. Would there be sex? No. Their bodies would inspire divine praise, not human lust. In this semi-spiritual heaven,” as M&L term it, “the soul united with the flesh in such a way that spirit dominated matter.” These sorts of question persisted into the medieval period and beyond. Would the saints be naked or clothed in robes? Augustine said naked. I hope it’s warm enough for my wife and cool enough for me.

Depending on their social locations and readings (or hearings) of scripture, Christians might think of the hereafter either in terms of a garden paradise or as the city of New Jerusalem. As European cities gradually developed, the latter idea became more attractive. Also, the desire to be reunited with one’s beloved steadily grew in power and became a fervent hope during the Renaissance.

In Giotto's Last Judgment (1306), not all of the saints gaze toward Jesus Christ. Some look at each other. Still, heaven is strictly hierarchical and static.
In Giotto’s Last Judgment (1306), not all of the saints gaze toward Jesus Christ. Some look at each other. Still, heaven is strictly hierarchical and static.

Medieval Christians frequently did not imagine heaven — or the heavenly city — in egalitarian terms. For example, Gerardesca, a thirteenth-century lay member of the Camaldolese order, imagined three primary areas of heaven. Only the Trinity, the Virgin Mary, the choirs of angels, and the holiest saints lived in the city proper. More distinguished saints — those with greater merit — lived in seven castles built on mountains surrounding the city. More minor fortresses housed the remainder of the faithful in the vicinity. Gerardesca, explain M&L, “experienced the new Jerusalem of the book of Revelation as a city-state of thirteenth-century upper Italy.” The idea that there would some sort of hierarchy of heaven was pervasive during these centuries. “The saints,” asserted the thirteenth-century Albertus Magnus, “will receive different degrees of clarity according to their different degrees of merit.” Aquinas taught that although all of the blessed would receive the beatific vision, they would “do so in various degrees.” Many medieval theologians, moreover, removed God to a higher heaven, a higher realm above that in which the blessed would reside.

There are many other fascinating medieval ideas worthy of discussion. For example, some female nuns and mystics anticipated their heavenly union with their bridegroom. The thirteenth-century Gertrude, who lived in a convent in Saxony, believed that female virgins would gain access “to the celestial bridal chamber.” Some visions of the love between human bride and divine bridegroom were chaste, others more erotic.

If many medieval theologians anticipated both the beatific vision and the communion of the saints, many Renaissance writers openly looked forward to an eternity of human love. Many such writers maintained heaven’s divine center, but according to M&L, human society gradually assumed a greater focus.

Some envisioned both a paradise garden and the New Jerusalem, without any sense that the former was a consolation prize for those who did not qualify for the latter. For some writers, the Classical ideal of the Elysian Fields assumed a renewed importance. They looked to Cicero as much as to St. John in describing the afterlife. Paradise would be a place of unbridled love of other people. Heaven also became less hierarchical, more dynamic. “If the heaven of the Middle Ages is essentially a cone with God at the top,” write M&L, “then the Renaissance heaven is a box with divine worship going on at the top and a paradise garden at the bottom. The two realms are not isolated from one another, but divine characters can move between the two.”

Eventually, the pendulum fell back toward a theocentric heaven during the era of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, but the idea of a heavenly reunion of families, saints, and lovers had gained a foothold in the Christian imagination it would not easily relinquish.

Fra Angelico, The Last Judgment (ca. 1431).
Fra Angelico, The Last Judgment (ca. 1431).
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  • stefanstackhouse

    The one thing we have to go on for certain is the resurrected Jesus. He is the first fruits, and we are given assurances that when we are raised we will be like Him.

    What this means first and foremost is that we will still be recognizable, but perhaps we will not be exactly as we were. People seemed to have trouble recognizing the risen Jesus on their first encounter, so apparently He did look a little different. One avenue of speculation is that the explicit teaching of there being no sex in heaven might mean that Jesus was – and all of us will be – raised with no more sexual differentiation. If that were so, then that would mean that the resurrected Jesus lost the secondary sexual differentiation of facial hair, which could possibly account for people not immediately recognizing Him. Another possible avenue of speculation is that our racial distinctions might also be gone, on the theory that the things that have divided people in this world will cease to do so in the world to come. If the raised Jesus had somewhat darker skin coloration, then this also might have accounted for the delay in recognizing Him.

    I don’t know if we’ll all be naked in heaven or not. The risen Jesus that His followers encountered was fully clothed. That was probably for their benefit rather than His.

    The risen Jesus could and did eat, but it is not at all clear that He needed to eat. He breathed on people, spoke to people, and could be seen and touched by people. He could also apparently materialize and de-materialize at will, with locked doors being no barrier to Him. This suggests that we should not excessively spiritualize what is to come, but neither should we entirely de-spiritualize it.

  • cken

    Jesus doesn’t have a body in heaven either. Naked really? First of all you won’t have a body and secondly if Adam and Eve didn’t need clothing when they were with God pre-sin. Well you get the point. Your soul won’t need food or water or shelter. We don’t know what God is, or what heaven is, or what the soul is; so why speculate about something we know nothing about. It is a colossal waste of time. Either believe or don’t. God created man then man for thousands and thousands of years created some image of God he could understand. So I guess whatever image you conjure up in your mind is OK if it makes it easier for you.

  • stefanstackhouse

    If Jesus doesn’t have a human body then He isn’t fully human. Do you really mean to say that He was only temporarily human? You can believe as you will, but that is out of the mainstream of what most Christians have believed, at least since Chalcedon.

  • cken

    I know it is one of those false myths we hang onto that Jesus still has a body. It is stupid but some still believe it. I mean really how could a carbon based life form live in the rest of the universe. Besides Jesus said he was there before the earth was formed. Do you think He had a body then. Jesus was God who came into a body while here on earth. After the ascension the body was no longer needed. His appearance of having a body at that time was to make it easier for us to believe, period. God Jesus the Holy Spirit and our Souls don’t need a body. This whole comic book concept of God sitting on a throne with Jesus at his right hand is why many thinking people become atheists. We need to recreate our imagery so it is relevant with what we know today not what we knew two thousand years ago.

  • cken

    One more thing. Just because a bunch of men got together at Chalcedon and decided Jesus was still in human form in heaven doesn’t mean it’s true. In fact it is stupid when common sense tells us not only don’t we need a body in the afterlife but it would be an encumbrance and couldn’t survive in a non earthly atmosphere. Plus we know our body is still in the ground and always will be.

  • stefanstackhouse

    Oh my, there is so much here I hardly know where to begin.

    First: “He was conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” The 2nd person of the Trinity did not possess a human nature prior to the incarnation. I’m not aware of anybody that ever suggested otherwise, so I don’t know where you are getting that from.

    Second: “I mean really how could a carbon based life form live in the rest of the universe.” We’re not talking about some other place in the universe, but rather a place OUTSIDE of the universe. And consider this: you are assuming that heaven (or whatever you want to call it) has never changed, but do you really know it? Jesus told us that He was going to prepare a place for us. Might that not be a place in proximity to the eternal God, but also a place where resurrected human bodies could exist? Everything in the NT that touches on this seems to imply exactly that. This is where we are getting this from, not just vivid imaginations or wishful thinking.

    Third: The talk about God the Father sitting on a throne with Jesus at His right hand is meant to be a metaphor. Our human language is a product of our experience of living in this physical world, and simply does not have words to express some of the spiritual realities that were revealed to the human authors of the scriptures. They had to use metaphor, analogy, symbolism, etc. to express the truths that were revealed to them, because no other words existed that could do the job. Anyone with half a brain should understand that.

    Fourth: “His APPEARANCE of having a body”????? Oh my, you really have gone off the deep end, my friend. I can assure you that it was a real human body that was nailed to the cross, bled, and experienced the most excruciating pain possible – for me, and for you – but only if you put your faith in the real Jesus rather than some phantom of your own imagination.

  • cken

    I wasn’t suggesting He didn’t have a real body while here on earth. I am not sure if after the resurrection it wasn’t the appearance of a real body. That would have certainly been within His power. Is that really any harder to believe than that a physical body could ascend into the heavens

    I was suggesting that Jesus existed in a non-human form prior to creation, which is Biblical, and then became human here on earth. The logical deduction being when he returned to heaven, wherever that is, He was once again in a non-human form. Jesus was God’s first creation even before the universe and thus his only begotten son.

    If God on a throne is a metaphor then why isn’t “I go to prepare a place for you” also metaphorical. Nowhere in my religious or metaphysical studies is there any indication we will have a body in the afterlife. I discount the passages in Revelation because nobody understands that book especially the last 10 chapters. We sometimes forget our body is a temple; it houses our soul which came from God. Our soul is the image of him after which we were created. It is the soul that lives on not the body. The soul is the I Am for each of us. Besides if Jesus didn’t pre-exist creation then who was God talking to when He said let US create man in our own image. To think that God and Jesus had bodies then or now is just egotistical self delusion.

    At any rate it is a theological conundrum. Fun to discuss with each believing what they choose with no definitive answer ever being available.

  • John Turner

    I would suggest that at the very worst, we’ll hope to sort this one out down the road.

  • cken

    Of course we will “sort it out” in the afterlife, but for now for us humans it remains a theological conundrum.