Back in November, I blogged about Hell because the central character of our collaborative novel has spent a lot of time there and I wanted to get a feel for the place. Well, now, as we start to think about some of the celestial beings we will ultimately be pitting him against, my thoughts are turning to Heaven.
What is Heaven like? Is it a physical place? If so, where it is? And how big is it? If I went there (not planning on it, personally) what would I see? What would I do? Who would I meet?
Just as with Hell, there is not one single definitive answer. Scripture and myth and literature give us lots of ideas. Some of them contradict one another. Many of them slot together very nicely. And unlike Hell, historical and religious sources give us some numbers, distances and dimensions to work with.
Still no map, mind you. Well, apart from this one.
Where is Heaven?
This is a rather unfair question for English speakers as the English word ‘heaven’ comes from an etymological root that literally means ‘the sky’. Even in modern English we can refer to the space above our heads as ‘the heavens’ without sounding like a religious nut. So, it’s not at all surprising that our mediaeval ancestors thought that Heaven was in the clouds above us and that God and the angels were literally looking down on them.
One could also strongly argue that Heaven was here on Earth. Eden, the garden of paradise that Adam and Eve were kicked out of for eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is given geographical co-ordinates in scripture. The story of Genesis places it at the meeting points of the Tigress and Euphrates Rivers (plus the Pison and Gihon but no one knows for sure which rivers these are) which puts Eden somewhere on the Persian Gulf between modern day Iraq and Iran.
Is it still there? Well, people have looked at no one has yet found a gate guarded by cherubim with flaming swords, nor the Tree of Life which, if we ate of it, would made us like gods[i]. Some thinkers stated that Eden was where heaven once touched Earth but it has since been removed, like some celestial cruise liner lifting the gangplank.
Alternatively, Heaven might be a physical place elsewhere in our universe. This grows less and less convincing to modern minds as the possibility of being able to reach such a place by spacecraft or detect it from observatories becomes ever more likely. And yet, in the Middle Ages, with the space beyond Earth seen as revolving spheres, the idea that Heaven should be beyond that final sphere made a lot of sense, with Heaven’s glorious light shining through holes in the firmament (that’s what stars are, folks).
Much more credible to a lot of modern thinkers is the notion that Heaven exists outside our universe, indeed outside all notions of space and time. That doesn’t mean it is any less real but that the physical realities of our reality do not apply. That’s convenient if some smart Alec demands to know why high-flying jet planes and space probes haven’t crashed into the harp-playing angels although it comes with its own problems. If Heaven exists outside of our time-space continuum-thing then that would mean that everyone destined to go to Heaven would, in a certain sense, already be there and have always been there. It would also mean that God cannot, from our perspective, do one thing and then change his mind based on what happens. And he does that an awful lot in the Old Testament (i.e. the Jewish Torah).
And then, of course, with the teachings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses et al to the notion that Heaven, at least in part, will become a reality here on Earth after time has been brought to an end.
What is Heaven like?
Most of us, if asked to picture Heaven would start with a mental image of clouds and angels with harps and maybe some beautiful golden light and not a fat lot going on. I personally blame Loony Tunes and Tom and Jerry cartoons for this, because whenever Tom is killed or Daffy Duck blows himself up, this is what we see. For anyone under the age of twenty, I imagine that the Simpsons fills a similar role in mis-educating them about Heaven.
Heaven is not just a bunch of clouds. No serious thinker or writer has portrayed it in this way. Heaven has specific geographical features but what these are depends upon who you listen to.
John Bunyan wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress in the late seventeenth century and although it is clearly intended to be read as allegory, not as revealed truth, it does present us with some sights to see on the road to Heaven. There are plenty of bogs and mires that would ensnare Bunyan’s hero, Christian (symbolising Christians, you see. Bunyan didn’t make his allegories too hard to understand) but our hero’s first victory is to reach the Wicket Gate that begins the narrow path towards the Celestial City. On the way, he passes through the House of the Interpreter (a sort of museum of Christian history) and House Beautiful which gives him some respite on his arduous journey. Before passing into the Celestial City that is Heaven, Christian must also cross the River of Death which conjures up images not dissimilar to those of the River Styx which surrounds Hell in Greek mythology.
A famous feature of heaven is its pearly gates, described first in the book of Revelations. Contrary to the image again given to us by popular cartoons and films, the pearly gates are actually twelve gates, each fashioned from a single pearl. Whether St Peter stands here, clipboard in hand like a nightclub doorman, is uncertain. What is known is that Jesus gave him the metaphysical ‘keys to the kingdom of Heaven’ and so this role does seem somewhat apt.
Dante wrote about Heaven at great length in his Paradiso. Just as Hell has its nine circles, so does Heaven have its nine spheres, each equating to some celestial landmark and each relating to some particular degree of worthiness. For example, in the fourth sphere, the sun, Dante meets with St Thomas Aquinas, King Solomon and the Venerable Bede, those whose intellect casts a light over the world. In the fifth sphere, Mars, he meets Charlemagne, a warrior of the faith.
We get some kind of structure later on. The eighth sphere is the fixed firmament of the stars. The ninth sphere is the Primum Mobile, the first moved sphere, linking to the theological notion that the universe requires a Prime Mover, a first cause or else there would no motion, no nothing in our universe. The ninth sphere is where God, the Prime Mover, kick-started the show. Dante tells us that the Primum Mobile is the home of angels.
However, beyond the ninth sphere is God’s home, the Empyrean. God is everywhere but this is the place where he can be found. There is no sun in Heaven because it is God who illuminates all. Also, in the Empyrean are those humans who have been saved. Yes, Dante did meet all those other people in the other spheres but they are also here. Dante gives us the beautiful image of the Empyrean being shaped like a rose with the faithful as the petals and the angels as bees buzzing around it.
Dante is not the only person to give us some idea of Heaven’s structure. Various religious faiths tell us of the levels of the afterlife. Most of them tell us that Heaven is divided into three levels. Three, of course, is not only a magic number, it’s a holy one (Dante, with nine spheres, gives us three times three, a sort of holy-squared).
This table is a gross simplification but it gives you the gist.
Clement of Rome (Roman Catholic)
1 – Celestial Kingdom
1 – The City
1 – Heaven
Heaven, the New Jerusalem
2 – Paradise
3 – Heaven
3 – Paradise, which touches…
2 – Terrestrial Kingdom
Heaven on Earth
Purgatorial type place
3 – Telestial Kingdom
Some of these notions are incompatible but others slot in nicely together. What I found surprising in researching this is that most branches of Christianity take a view that there are different levels of worthiness in the afterlife, that not everyone gets to sit at the top table. The highest level (the Empyrean, the Celestial Kingdom, the City, the New Jerusalem) is not necessarily for everyone.
The Celestial City
So what is this top level of heaven like? It might have various names but I shall, like Bunyan, call it the Celestial City as it seems to encompass most of the other concepts.
Well, there’s the Biblical details. Revelations tells us that the New Jerusalem will be a cube, fifteen hundred miles to a side. That’s two and a quarter million square miles on the bottom level. That’s jolly big for a city but, for example, a lot smaller than the surface area of planet Earth. Whether we take the New Jerusalem stuff to indicate any kind of architectural style or quality of city planning is up to you.
Jesus said, ‘My father’s house has many mansions’. We can take that to mean that Heaven is accepting of lots of different types of people or we can take it at face value and regard Heaven as a city capable of accommodating many people. But actually, the population of Heaven is a matter for concern. If we accept, as Jehovah’s Witnesses do, that Heaven will be home to only 144,000 of the faithful (some great religious numerology going on here too) then that’s fifteen square miles of that cube for each of them. That’s plenty of room by our standards. However, if you accept that all worthy people go to heaven then we have a big problem.
The Population Reference Bureau argues that since prehistory, approximately a hundred billion people have lived and then died on our planet. It seems a reasonable number. Now, what percentage of people will go to heaven? I’m going to be real stingy and say only 10% of the world’s population have ever been worthy of salvation. If so, and my maths is very rough, that means each of the ten billion inhabitants of heaven gets something around about fifty square metres of heavenly floorspace. That’s a small apartment, with no additional space for mountains, forests, lakes, cafes with free wi-fi or cinema multiplexes showing Cecil B DeMille epics on continuous loop for all eternity.
The reality of Heaven
Actually, according to some there won’t be any lakes, forests or cafes in Heaven. Rich Deem makes the interesting argument at www.godandscience.org that a cube fifteen hundred miles to a side would collapse into a spheroid under its own gravity and therefore gravity, and the accompanying laws of physics cannot apply in Heaven. Gravity is either gone completely or much reduced.
We already know that there is no sun in heaven because God’s glory provides all the illumination we need. Revelations goes one step further and does state that there is no heat in heaven. Thermodynamics goes out the window too then. Well, that’s probably a good thing because we couldn’t have entropy in an eternal Heaven anyway. We don’t want Heaven breaking down, do we?
Furthermore, Revelations does intimate that there will be neither food nor drink in Heaven. We certainly wouldn’t be hungry or thirsty anyway. The existence of cafes looks unlikely. Revelations makes no promises on wi-fi either.
Emmanuel Swedenborg, eighteenth century mystic, wrote at length about his visions of Heaven. He actually goes out of his way to answer some very practical questions. Contrary to what St Paul says in the Bible, Swedenborg confirms that there will be marriage in Heaven. Those who were happily married on Earth will stay so in Heaven. Those who were unhappily married or never married will find their perfect partner there.
Swedenborg does not say those these heavenly marriages will be consummated and doesn’t mention any children being born in Heaven. However, he does say that children who died on Earth will go directly to Heaven and be raised by angel mothers. He, like other writers, believes that Heaven exists outside space and time so how long these children take to grow up is a rather thorny problem.
Swedenborg also points out that, in Heaven, everyone automatically speaks the same language which is pretty darn convenient.
Of course, the faithful are not the only inhabitants of Heaven. There are also angels who are distinct and separate entities to humans (unless you accept certain Mormon teachings). Angels are the servants and messengers of God and we can infer from certain sources that they are also there to assist Heaven’s human citizens and manage its day to day business.
Angels, like the Heavens themselves are organised into spheres, ranks of importance. There are three spheres but outside that ranking are the seven Archangels, the chief angels, and of them we know Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel. Who the other three are is uncertain.
In terms of the other angels, in the first sphere are the Seraphim, clustered around God’s throne and singing his praises. Also there are the Cherubim who are not fat babies with wings (those are putti, dear reader) but fearsome four-headed angels who, amongst other things, guard the gates to Eden. Then there are the Thrones who are truly weird-looking beings (wheels within wheels with hundreds of eyes).
The angels of the second sphere are much more managerial material. The Dominions are the regulators of the lower angels and are fairly human-looking. The Virtues order the movements of the cosmos, presumably making sure that eighth sphere of Heaven doesn’t misbehave itself. The Powers are warriors angels, entirely loyal to God (although some say Satan was a Power).
Then, further down, we do have the Principalities and all the messenger and soldier angels. These are the dogsbody angels who are probably waiting tables in the Celestial City. Oh, sorry, no cafes so not waiting tables. They’re the building superintendents who have to repeatedly explain to dead people why they can’t have a bigger apartment.
Interestingly, we do know how many angels there are. Sort of. Revelation tells us that the number of angels ‘circling the throne’ is one hundred million. That sounds a lot and, if we accept that there are only 144,000 people in Heaven then that’s just under seven hundred angels per person. That’s some quality customer service the blessed are going to receive. However, if we go with my unscientific notion that 10% of all humans ever born gets into Heaven then that’s suddenly one hundred people per angel. The chances of you getting your own personal guardian angel suddenly look very slim!
The facts regarding Heaven are varying and contradictory and I certainly can’t draw you a map but what do we know?
· Heaven was once directly accessible from Earth but the gate is now guarded by Cherubim and it’s likely that most of Heaven is outside the realms of space and time.
· The way to Heaven is long and difficult. Do watch out for bogs, mires and the River of Death.
Size and Population:
· Surprisingly not infinite in size. The Celestial City is 2,250,000 miles square. However there is room for people outside.
· Population of Heaven is somewhere between 144,000 and 10,000,000,000. Could even be higher if their entrance requirements are lax.
· Pearly gates, attended by St Peter
· There is a Celestial City. Resemblance to ancient Jerusalem is debatable.
· Heaven lacks a sun, heat, water and food
· The laws of physics do not apply here.
What to do in Heaven:
· Sing God’s praises
· Get married, if you’re not already
· Listen to harp music
· Complain about overcrowding
· Chat to anyone you like without fear of language barriers
· Visit the dead children crèche
· Try to get some attention from the over-worked angels.
What NOT to do in Heaven:
· Conduct scientific experiments
· St Thomas Aquinas
· King Solomon
· The Venerable Bede
· 100,000,000 angels including the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, Raphael (and three others)
[i] Interesting aside. In this part of the Bible, God says man shouldn’t eat from the Tree of Life saying that man will become like ‘us’, indicating that either early Bible beliefs accepted other ‘real’ gods, that God treated the angels as equals not underlings or that he had some multiple personality thing going on.