The Biblical Heavens

The Biblical Heavens June 25, 2015

What do you think of when you think of heaven?

Is your first thought God and Jesus, or is it your loved ones (spouse, parents, children, and pets)?

Heaven HistoryOver the past few years, I’ve dipped into Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang’s endlessly fascinating Heaven: A History, and I recently had the chance to read it straight through.

M&L (as I will abbreviate the authors hereafter) explain that two major views about heaven have dominated Christian thought about the hereafter: the theocentric expectation of seeing and praising the blessed Trinity and the anthropocentric longing to be reunited with family and friends. Many Christians have blended these two basic ideas, but at different points in Christian history the theocentric or anthropocentric model has predominated. Perhaps most intriguingly, M&L describe the decline of heaven in twentieth-century western Christian thought, a development common to both liberal and evangelical Protestants. (It occurs to me that if they were rewriting the book today, M&L might observe that contemporary Christians outside of Europe and the United States are probably far more open to vibrant and detailed images of heaven than their western counterparts). There’s far too much in this book for one post, so I’m going to discuss the history of heaven over several weeks.

That Christians would have a host of ideas about heaven is not surprising if one examines the varied beliefs about the afterlife present in both testaments of the Christian Bible.

If one begins with the Hebrew Bible, one finds several layers of traditions, beginning with Semitic ideas about the need for the living to placate their dead relatives who reside in the netherworld. As illustrated by Josiah’s reforms, some Israelites then rejected ancestor-related rituals in favor of worshiping the LORD alone. The dead were marginalized in Sheol. Perhaps influenced by Zoroastrianism, other Jewish writers anticipated the apocalyptic destruction and restoration of the earth followed by the bodily resurrection of the Jewish people. Hellenized Jews, by contrast, drew on Greek ideas about the ascent of righteous souls to the Elysian Fields or the Isles of the Blest, which they would enter through a gate. The spirit, but not the body, would survive. Philo of Alexandria (ca. 20 B.C. – A.D. 45) believed that certain, very righteous souls would ascend to higher realms. Enoch resided among the pure ideas, whereas only Moses had entered the very presence of God.

Not surprisingly given this background, debates about the afterlife play a major role in New Testament narratives and other writing. Perhaps most famously, a group of Sadducees — presumably upper-class Jews whom we know only through unsympathetic sources — ask Jesus about the afterlife implications of Levirite marriage:

Now there were seven brethren: and the first took a wife, and dying left no seed. And the second took her, and died, neither left he any seed: and the third likewise. And the seven had her, and left no seed: last of all the woman died also. In the resurrection therefore, when they shall rise, whose wife shall she be of them? for the seven had her to wife.

The synoptic gospels inform us that the Sadducees “say there is no resurrection”; their question is designed to show what foolishness the apocalyptic bodily resurrection would entail. Jesus responds that “when they shall rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage; but are as the angels which are in heaven.” As M&L summarize, “men and women would be angel-like, asexual beings.” As Jesus also called on his disciples to leave behind their families to follow him on earth, when they died, they would immediately be transported to the presence of God in heaven. There would be no marriage and no families. There would be no need to wait for a bodily resurrection. As M&L explain, Jesus was entirely “possessed by the idea of God,” and he expected his followers to be as well, both on earth and in heaven. Thus, early Christians formed “charismatic communities,” where the bonds of faith trumped familial and other social concerns.

Paul, by contrast, was somewhat more in tune with the Pharisaic expectation of a future resurrection. Unlike older Jewish apocalyptic ideas, however, Paul argued that the resurrected body would be “spiritual” rather than fleshly. When Jesus returned, living Christians would be changed “in a twinkling of an eye,” and dead Christians would be raised. Then, the redeemed community of saints will be in heaven in the presence of Christ and God. According to M&L, Paul did not expect the resurrection of the body, which would remain in the grave.

The Book of Revelation has greatly influenced the Christian understanding of heaven, from its opening vision of Jesus Christ to its closing vision of the city of God. In the fourth chapter of Revelation, John sees “four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne.” This is an important moment. “Without losing its awe-inspiring celestial dignity,” M&L write, “heaven has become more human.” John also sees 144,000 resurrected martyrs from “all the tribes of the children of Israel,” then “a great multitude … of all nations, and kindreds, and people.” They are clothed in white robes and hold palms and praise God and the Lamb.

Here we find one of the most enduring Christian images of heaven: “Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat … God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.”

Life in heaven, according to John of Patmos, will bear little resemblance to such earthly trials. The resurrected saints will spend eternity praising God and Jesus Christ.

Of course, the Book of Revelation does not end there. After a series of tribulations and battles, Christ and the resurrected martyrs will return to reign over the earth while Satan is bound. Then, the dead will be resurrected for a final judgment. At this point, it’s the lake of fire or eternal life on a renewed earth, with a massive new Jerusalem at its center, a giant temple dedicated to the praise of God. In John’s apocalypse, heaven is a staging ground for the saints’ eventual return to a renewed earth.

For M&L, a common thread in these various New Testament visions of heaven and the afterlife is their theocentric focus on eternity in the presence of God and Jesus Christ. They speculate that images of heaven that included more of a place for human relationships emerged once Christianity evolved beyond its early forms of “charismatic community.” Earthly life for Christians began to look very different, and so did their visions of eternity. That will be the subject of the next post in this series.


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  • Evergreen

    “in a twinkling of an eye”

    That actually translates to “atom,” as Norman Dewitt notes:

    It was the logic of the cross against the logic of the atom, an early phase of the long strife between science and religion.
    The whole theory of physics was reduced by Epicurus to Twelve Elementary Principles and a syllabus bearing this title was published for the use of his disciples. This list of Principles, it may be interposed, was the most lucid and orderly ever drawn up in ancient times, and with one exception would have been received with respect down to the date of an event so recent as the fission of the atom. By way of illustration the first seven are here listed with some adaptation to modern terminology:

    1. Matter is uncreatable.
    2. Matter is indestructible.
    3. The universe consists of atoms and space.
    4. All existing things are either atoms or compounds of atoms.
    5. The atoms are infinite in multitude.
    6. Space is infinite in extent.
    7. The atoms are always in action.

    As was bound to happen, this whole system became known to the enemies of Epicurus by that particular Principle which was most offensive and provocative of ridicule, the third. This was offensive because it implied that the soul of man itself was composed of atoms, just as the body itself, and therefore subject to dissolution, just as the body. It was especially open to ridicule because the atoms were such insignificant things upon which to base a whole system of knowledge. In Galatians 4:9 Paul sneered at them as “the weak and beggarly elements.”

    For the reason that the atom was the smallest thing imaginable the word was also used of time and in First Corinthians 15:52 it is translated “in a moment” and this is amplified as “in the twinkling of an eye,” referring to the miracle of the general resurrection. This is the sole occurrence of the word in the Bible.

    For the reason that all existing things were thought to be made of atoms, just as all words are made of letters, it was usual also to denote the atoms by the word elements, which properly means letters of the alphabet. The etymology of this word elements is curious and enlightening. The names of the letters seem to have come to us through the Romans from the Etruscans, who for some reason began with L M N, that is, el em en, hence Latin elementa, instead of beginning with A B C.

    Under the name of elements the atoms are mentioned six times in the New Testament, three times simply as elements and three times as “elements of the universe,” an unmistakable recognition of the third Elementary Principle of Epicurus: “The universe consists of atoms and space.”

    Norman Dewitt (1954) St. Paul and Epicurus. University of Minnesota Press.

  • stefanstackhouse

    One thing that is clear to me: The popular notion of heaven as “Club Med in the Clouds”, with everyone lounging around enjoying each other’s company, while God is out of sight in the back office running everything, is about as far from the truth as it is possible to be. It will indeed be theocentric beyond all doubt.

    It is also clear that all the people of God – the ekklesia – will be assembled together around and in adoration of God. This is indeed what the ekklesia really is; what we see here on earth is almost totally obscured by our divided institutional churches, but in John’s vision of heaven we see it as it really is from God’s perspective. And yes, there will be no sex (and maybe even no sexual differentiation in our resurrected bodies?) because there will be no need for biological reproduction of beings that live for eternity. There will only be one family, and that will be the family of the people of God, the ekklesia. We will all collectively be the bride of Christ.

    (Will our racial divisions finally be over as well? Will we all be resurrected as racially mixed? We can’t know for sure, but this is a future for which I would fervently hope. I am reasonably certain that our linguistic divisions will be over. Pentecost was the first fruits of the end of linguistic division, and with the resurrection we will all finally be able to effortlessly communicate with each other.)

  • stefanstackhouse

    E=M x Csquared. Matter can indeed be created out of energy and destroyed in its transformation into energy. Indeed, all of the matter that now exists was created out of energy in one instant. We also know that neither space nor time exist as a fixed cosmic grid, but were also created with the big bang and do not exist independently of matter and energy. Matter bends and curves and stretches space, and time did have a beginning. There is no logical reason at all to think that something came out of nothing, and there is plenty of good reason to think that our universe of time, space, matter, and energy is not and cannot be all that there is.

    Epicurus and those who have followed him could not have gotten it more wrong.

  • Evergreen

    You simply don’t understand matter, but then, neither did St. Paul.

    The law of conservation of mass, or principle of mass conservation, states that for any system closed to all transfers of matter and energy (both of which have mass), the mass
    of the system must remain constant over time, as system mass cannot
    change quantity if it is not added or removed. Hence, the quantity of
    mass is “conserved” over time.

    Conservation of Mass

    There is a scientific law called the Law of Conservation of Mass, discovered by Antoine Lavoisier in 1785. In its most compact form, it states:

    matter is neither created nor destroyed.

    In 1842, Julius Robert Mayer discovered the Law of Conservation
    of Energy. In its most compact form, it it now called the First Law of

    energy is neither created nor destroyed.

    In 1907 (I think), Albert Einstein announced his discovery of the equation E = mc2 and, as a consequence, the two laws above were merged into the Law of Conservation of Mass-Energy:

    the total amount of mass and energy in the universe is constant.

    Generally, textbooks would add, as I am doing, that mass and energy can interconvert.

    The Conservation of Mass-Energy

  • Evergreen

    > Epicurus and those who have followed him could not have gotten it more wrong.

    You mad, bro? Scientists are happy to give credit to Democritus [from whom Epicurus borrowed] for the origins of atomic theory.

    Democritus first suggested the existence of the atom but it took almost two millennia before the atom was placed on a solid foothold as a fundamental chemical object by John Dalton (1766-1844).

    Dalton’s Atomic Theory

  • stefanstackhouse

    No, I understand very well that in the interconversion of mass and energy, the total mass-equivalence does not change and is thus not created or destroyed. Except, of course, for the big bang, when a huge amount of energy was suddenly created.

    My point was that Epicurus – and many others who followed him – didn’t even think that matter and energy could interconvert.

  • Evergreen

    At least Epicurus wasn’t as misinformed as St. Paul, who mocked atomic theory in his attempt to market an afterlife narrative.

  • cken

    It will be hard to tell sex or race as our spirit entities will have no bodies.
    However, initially Heaven will be whatever you perceive it to be until you are adjusted and fully born again into the afterlife. Some think of Heaven as an actual physical place. It isn’t. It is a state of being and a state of mind.

  • cken

    Obviously matter can be created or there would be no universe. Matter can be transformed into energy, and energy into matter. Does energy have atoms?

  • Shirley2456
  • Barbara346363