“God’s love that moves the sun and other stars”

Where do we get modern ideas of heaven as a place replete with bright light, glory, sky, clouds, harps and song, dance, garden, pasture, walls and ladders, gates, a temple, and living waters? These come from visions experienced by saints and martyrs in the first few centuries of the church. The martyrs Perpetua and Saturus, who died together in 203, saw in visions angels, unending light, a vast meadow, an immeasurable garden with trees and flowers, singing leaves, high walls made of light with a golden ladder, a throne, white garments, and a shepherd with white hair but a youthful face. Saturus also heard the host of heaven proclaiming the ancient Hebrew hymn of praise to God: “Holy Holy Holy Lord God of Hosts, heaven and earth are filled with your glory.”

They, like other early Christians, affirmed the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father who art in heaven . . . . ” (Matt. 6:9). Where God is, they said, is heaven; where heaven is, is God. Heaven has always been at the center of Christian thought: God is love, the Holy Trinity is mutual love, pulsing with giving and receiving; and heaven is for those who love God and neighbor.

The Sermon on the Mount lists the kinds of people who will be in heaven: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers, and those who suffer persecution because they follow Christ. Theirs, Christ promises, is the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:1–12).

seed and mustard and treasure

From the beginning Christians affirmed that humans, though mortal, would have eternal life with God. We all suffer bodily death; this St. Paul called “the first death.” But through Christ we transcend death, and Christ transforms us into incorruptible immortals in heaven. Christians have held a variety of views of eternity from the beginning. One is eternity as eternal sequence—that is, time with no beginning or end. Another is eternity as “God’s time,” time beyond human time but also incorporating human time, so that from our point of view heaven appears to be “afterlife,” though from God’s point of view it is in the eternal “now.”

Early Christians looked to the Gospel writers who taught that heaven is present as well as future: the kingdom of heaven is always at hand (Matt. 3:2, 4:17, 10:7). In the Gospels, Christ did not define heaven but rather used similes to convey a sense of it: like a farmer who scatters seed; or like a grain of mustard; or like a hidden treasure; or like a net (Matt. 13:3–52).

In the early church, Christians developed images of heaven that have endured. Biblical commentaries such as those by Origen (185–254) and Augustine (354–430) argued that the Bible is to be read on four levels, one “literal” and three metaphorical: one metaphorical level as to doctrine, one as to morality, and one as to spirituality (see CH issue 80, The First Bible Teachers). Metaphor enabled Christians to take descriptions of heaven in the Book of Revelation, for example, in symbolic as well as literal terms. Most Christian thought distinguished between paradise (the original state of humanity with God) and heaven (the final state of humanity with God).

Early Christians thought that the primary characteristics of heaven would be blessedness, joy, love, desire, and fulfillment. Later, Protestants would call this the “vision of God,” Catholics the “beatific vision”, and Eastern Orthodox theosis (coming into union with God).

By the fourth century, universal councils at Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381) developed baptismal formulas into formal creeds that every Christian was to profess. The councils declared that salvation comes from the second person of the indivisible Trinity incarnate in Jesus Christ, who came from heaven and returned to heaven. 

But where is heaven? Early Christians pondered the location of heaven in time and space. They believed that heaven, like God, is eternal, but from the perspective of human time it lies in the future, whether at the hour of death or at the end of the universe. 

The time in which we live in this life is only analogous to God’s time, they thought, in which he knows everything all at once—though he knows only what he chooses to know. In his absolute power, God could know and decree everything, but he chose in his ordered power to limit or withdraw his absolute control. This allows the physical world to run according to natural law.

They thought that God also limited or withdrew his knowledge to allow for free choice for humans and angels, though in eternity he knows who is saved and who is not, all the way to the conclusion of the created universe. Some people aided by grace choose to love God; others prefer their own selfish desires, follow their own choices, and exclude themselves from heaven. A minority trend appearing in Christian thought from Origen onward was universalism, the idea that everyone would eventually be saved—even Nero and Hitler (see “Did you know?,” inside front cover).

In the Latin West, as the idea of purgatory developed it implied sequential time: one could be in purgatory for days or years (see “Another stop on the glory train?,” pp. 28–30). Popular thought often linked purgatory with hell, but theologically it was an antechamber of heaven: everyone in purgatory would eventually be in heaven. Although purgatory was not clearly formulated until the eleventh century, it was based on the ancient idea of purgation: none of us were perfect in this life, so to stand before the measureless love of God, we must have our faults burned or washed away.

When in terms of human time do we experience heaven? From at least the third century, many Christians believed that Jesus, Mary, Elijah, and Enoch are eternally in heaven in the flesh, while other humans must wait for the Last Judgment. In that “moment, in a twinkling of an eye . . . we shall all be changed” (1 Cor. 15:52).

lost in wonder . . .

Some early Christians thought humans enter immediately into the timeless moment and thus experience judgment right away. Others argued that their spirits wait in suspension until the Last Judgment. Or they are judged immediately at death, but their bodies remain separated from their spirits until the end, when spirit and body will be reunited in the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:35–54) and joined with God forever. Early thinkers believed that our resurrected bodies will correspond to the age that we were at our highest physical and mental states, fulfilling our potential at the optimal “age” for physical, mental, and spiritual perfection. No distinctions of gender or class will be made. But however glorified, we will retain our individuality and recognize one another in heaven.

Though the ancient notion that heaven is literally up above in the sky (and hell down under the surface of the earth) endured into the seventeenth century, it was also early understood that its location is best considered metaphorically. Just as heaven is in a time that is not sequential with human time, heaven is in a space beyond geographical and astronomical space. God is transcendent—beyond the universe—and also immanent in the cosmos all around us.

The most influential Christian thinker since the apostles, Augustine (354–430), bishop of Hippo in Latin North Africa, wrote of heaven in his City of God:

Any brightness whatsoever of material light, seemed . . . not worthy of comparison with the pleasure of that eternal Light . . . . Rising as our love
flamed upward toward that [Light], we passed in review the various levels of bodily things, up to the heavens themselves, whence sun and moon and stars shine upon this earth. And higher still we soared, thinking in our minds and speaking and marveling at Your works: and so we came to our own souls, and went beyond them to come at last to that region . . . where there is that Wisdom by which all things in our past, present, and future are made . . . . God
shall be the end of our desires; he will be seen without ending, loved without cloying sweetness, praised without weariness . . . . And in that blessed city
no inferior shall envy any superior . . . because no one will wish to be what he has not received . . . each shall receive the further gift of contentment to desire no more than he has.
[Free will remains in heaven, and it will] be all the more truly free [because it is no longer bound to sin]. [The blessed] shall forget their past ills, for they shall have so thoroughly escaped them all that their troubles shall be blotted out of their experience . . . . We shall have eternal leisure to see that He is God, for we shall be full of Him when He shall be all in all . . . . There we shall rest and see, see and love, love and praise. This is what shall be in the end without end. For what other end do we propose to ourselves than to attain to the kingdom of which there is no end?

Augustine established basic concepts that became part of the Christian commonwealth of ideas. He echoed Paul’s proclamation that humans are not saved by their good works but solely by the grace of Christ. Those who refuse to accept the gift of salvation are by their own free choice deprived of heaven forever. Some of the blessed have a greater capacity for grace than others, so there will be gradations in heaven; but everyone will be filled with grace to his or her highest potential. Augustine argued that we will be free of all bad memories of wrongs done to others and wrongs they had done to us. We will have absolute leisure for love of God and love of others, and no sequence or change other than a continuing increase of love. We cannot know God as God knows himself, but in heaven we will know God to our fullest human capacity.

In his Confessions Augustine reminded his readers that God creates time; God is before the past, is present now, and transcends the future; God is beyond and before the beginning of all ages, prior to everything that can be said to be “before”; in God the present has no ending, and when the universe ends, God remains. We perceive time as passing, Augustine went on, but our lives are one “today”: past, present, and future. Here he cited Psalm 90:2–4: “Before the mountains were born or You brought forth the earth and the universe, from everlasting to everlasting You are God. . . . A thousand years in God’s sight are like a day that has just gone by.” 

Some early Christian thinkers, wary of being precise about matters that humans can understand only dimly, debated which came first, faith or knowledge. Is knowledge gained through faith seeking intellect, or through intellect seeking faith? Clement of Alexandria (150–215) called the vision of God theoria, a seeing or understanding surpassing human knowledge. Medieval Western scholastics such as Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) generally sought to understand God and heaven by emphasizing reason and logic, but the Eastern Orthodox more often recognized the limitation of human concepts. Following Clement, the Orthodox believe that the ultimate aim of the human being will be the state of having poured out oneself to be filled with the divine life of the Holy Trinity.

we must both know and believe

After Augustine and before the Protestant Reformation, one of the most important touchstones for the history of heaven was the theology of Thomas Aquinas, who explained that both intellect and will are necessary to knowing God and experiencing heaven. By all accounts Aquinas knew a thing or two about willpower. His wealthy family objected to his choice to become a monk and hired a prostitute to seduce him into sin. When this strategy failed, they helped him escape by night to his chosen vocation, so as to avoid the public disgrace that would come if their neighbors found out.

Aquinas wrote in his famous treatise on theology, Summa theologiae, that God is the foundation of all intellect and so can be perceived by the human intellect when strengthened by the light of grace.

 Those who have more love and understanding will see God more clearly than those with less. However, when in heaven humans will experience everything as God did, simultaneously and all at once, not successively. The goal, end, purpose, and perfection of the human being should be in no created thing but in the Creator and Sustainer himself. The intellect presents this goal to the human mind, but the human will has to desire and choose that goal, so grace confirms both our intellect and our will. 

Aquinas wrote that although we can never fully grasp God’s essence, the greatest blessing we can have is to perceive that essence (1 John 3:2). Heaven includes love, vision, comprehension, and the communion of saints—it will be the whole eternal fellowship of the blessed, past, present, and future in Christ with one another as well as with God. But the blessed human spirit after death will still lack one thing for perfection: it must wait until the resurrection and the Last Judgment to be reunited with the body.

In fact, where is the blessed spirit and what exactly is it seeing? The church continued debating whether we can experience the vision of God immediately after death or whether we must wait till the end of time. Pope John XXII (pope 1316–1334) was inclined to believe that the blessed dead must wait till the resurrection and Last Judgment to experience the “beatific vision,” but his successor Benedict XII (pope 1334–1342) declared in 1336 that upon death the blessed see God immediately, directly, and without the need for any intervening medium. Benedict’s view became standard.  

pierced by love’s arrow

Aquinas’s views were hugely influential, but at the same time, in their efforts to obtain certainty about theological details, he and his fellow “scholastics” (the university professors or “schoolmen” of their day) created a reaction. Some thinkers began to argue that we can say much more securely what God and heaven are not than what they are. This acquired the name via negativa: the way of negation, approaching God not by study but by contemplation. 

The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing (c. 1345) observed an intellectual cloud between our minds and God and that this cloud is properly and inevitably there because of the limitation of the human intellect. The cloud can be pierced not by the intellect but only by the arrow of love. Some writers felt the love very sensually: Angela of Foligno (1248–1309) imagined Christ as her lover speaking to her: “Daughter and my sweet bride . . . . Since I have entered you and rested in you, you may now enter me and rest in me.” The via negativa favors contemplation of God above action, though its supporters agreed that contemplation of God produces good actions.

The most sublime expression of heaven in the medieval church was not argument but poetry: the Paradiso of Dante Alighieri (1265–1321; see CH issue 70, Dante’s Guide to Heaven and Hell). Dante’s Inferno is today more widely known: it seems to be easier for readers to grasp evil and its consequences than to understand the shining pure love that God pours out into his cosmos. While a summary of the Paradiso is wholly inadequate to the glory of the poetry itself, in it Dante ascends upward from the round earth through the lunar and planetary spheres until he reaches the primum mobile, the outermost sphere, which moves all the spheres below it. 

As he ascends, each sphere is more suffused with light, beauty, love, and majesty than the one beneath. Throughout this journey he can look down to the earth far below at the apparent center of the universe. But at the primum mobile, he turns so that his gaze shifts from the geographical center of the universe to the true center of the universe, which is God in his heaven. 

Journeying closer to this perfect light of love, Dante in his burning desire and enlightened intellect sees God himself—to the extent that human limitation permits. The experience is so perfectly awesome (in the word’s original sense of creating awe) that when he returns to earth, he can no longer remember or express it fully, but says “I do remember that my vision bore the intensity of the divine ray until it joined Infinite Being and Good itself. Oh, the overflowing grace through which I could presume to fix my gaze on the Eternal Light so fully that I used up all my sight.”

Nearing the end of his journey to God, Dante dares to address the Trinity itself:

O luce eternal che sola in te sidi,
Sola t’intendi, e da te intelletta
E intendere te ami e arridi:

(O Eternal Light, you alone dwell within yourself, you alone look upon yourself, understand yourself, beam upon yourself, and love yourself.) 

This expressed the dynamic of the Trinity: the first Person’s knowledge of himself is the second Person, and the love between the first and second Person is the third Person.

Dante concluded the Paradiso and the entire Divine Comedy with these verses:

Ma già volgeva il mio disio e ‘l velle
Sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa,
L’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.

(God’s love that moves the sun and the other stars has turned my desire and will equally and uniformly together as in a great wheel.)

After Dante, such heights of reflection on heaven were few and far between. The leaders of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther and John Calvin, followed established tradition about heaven with only one essential difference, though an important one. They abolished the idea of purgatory on the grounds that it is not biblical and that God knows who is in heaven so that there is no need to pray for the spiritual welfare of the deceased (see “Another stop on the glory train?”).

In the end, while human ideas of heaven are limited, Christian tradition gives us some idea of what we might expect. Early and medieval Christians teach us that heaven is the state of being in which all who love God are united in community with him and with one another in the brightness of glory; the fabric of love uniting all in a pattern whose beauty passes understanding.

Heaven exists both in time and in eternity. It is a return to paradise and a renewal of paradise and something entirely new to us: the new heaven and the new earth. The bodies we shall regain at the end are the very bodies that we have now but also radically changed: in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, we shall all be changed, and our flesh will become incorruptible (1 Cor. 15:52). But despite what we do not know, we do know this: whatever heaven is, it is more glorious than we can begin to understand or imagine. CH

By Jeffrey Burton Russell

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #112 in 2014]

Jeffrey Burton Russell is the author of A History of Heaven: The Singing Silence, and Paradise Mislaid: How We Lost Heaven—and How We Can Regain It.
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Issue 112

Christian History Magazine #112 - Heaven

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