Friday, May 12, 2006

Heaven is a place

... where nothing ever happens, according to Dave Byrne of the Talking Heads.

I've always found that lyric equally funny and exasperating. It certainly illustrates the fact that the human imagination is incapable of envisioning what Heaven might be. (I certainly can't.)

That's not to say that greater minds than I have tried. For instance, Sociobiology founder Edward O. Wilson gives it a go in a recent interview.

Wilson: Would I be happy if I discovered that I could go to heaven forever? And the answer is no. Consider this argument. Think about what is forever. And think about the fact that the human mind, the entire human being, is built to last a certain period of time. Our programmed hormonal systems, the way we learn, the way we settle upon beliefs, and the way we love are all temporary. Because we go through a life's cycle. Now, if we were to be plucked out at the age of 12 or 56 or whenever, and taken up and told, now you will continue your existence as you are. We're not going to blot out your memories. We're not going to diminish your desires. You will exist in a state of bliss -- whatever that is -- forever. And those who didn't make it are going to be consigned to darkness or hell. Now think, a trillion times a trillion years. Enough time for universes like this one to be born, explode, form countless star systems and planets, then fade away to entropy. You will sit there watching this happen millions and millions of times and that will just be the beginning of the eternity that you've been consigned to bliss in this existence."

Salon: This heaven would be your hell.

Wilson: Yes. If we were able to evolve into something else, then maybe not. But we are not something else.

I would surmise that outside of the fact that we have trouble conceptualizing eternity, the primary reason no one can really imagine what Heaven is like is because IT'S NEVER BEEN DESCRIBED, at least in the Bible.

Yeah, supposedly the Koran promises virgins and licorice whips to those who blow themselves up in the middle of a preschool, providing the vaporized preschoolers are on Allah's shite list. But if Heaven's a place of rest (see there I go, assuming), then to immediately be set upon by a herd of horney chicks (again assuming here - on the presumption that if you didn't get any in your earthly life, you're gonna be motivated for a little heavenly humping) who've had to wait 'til you got there for some fun, I'm guessing "rest" will elude you for a while. (Besides, I always wondered; once you've worked your way through the virgins, what awaits you then? This strikes me as a rather finite Heaven.) (Also, this covers the guys, but what of the ladies? Of course, we know the virgins will await a freshly fragmented fiancé, but what of the vast majority of women who got it on while alive? 'Tis a mystery.)

But I digress. Heaven is a great unknown. And I'm here to prove it.

Before I go on, I must recuse myself in that I'm not a Biblical scholar. I've read plenty of translations, and know some stuff, but I won't pretend I'm any sort of authority on the matter. I am a hobbyist, an amateur. (Also, the Catholic and Orthodox churches have extra-Biblical and "traditional" information that some consider to be further revelations, and some of those might have some descriptions of Heaven. Even though I'm dimly aware they exist, I have never sought them out.)

For this post, all I did was search the NRSV (my current favored translation (and for those of you in the cheap seats, the New Testament's original texts are in Greek, which I can't read)) for the word "Heaven." I ruled out all the stuff where "heaven" means "the sky" or "up" or "an ice-cold beer on a hot day."

No surprise, I found there are no descriptions of Heaven itself in the Bible.

...With the quasi-exception of "Revelations." In it, the author has visions of Heaven, with big thrones, multi-eyed animals, scrolls, horses, flaming swords, vials of death, lamb and lion living together, and so on. But it's pretty obvious that this is all symbolism and represents the appearance of heaven about as much as Alice in Wonderland represents the appearance of the English countryside. (One clue is that the author sees God directly, who we are told no human can do and live to tell about it.)

Without further ado, here are the results:
(I'm not gonna strip out the line numbers from the longer passages, just FYI. Any commentary by yours truly is in [brackets].)

Old Testament:

Jeremiah 33: 22:
Just as the host of heaven cannot be numbered and the sands of the sea cannot be measured, so I will increase the offspring of my servant David, and the Levites who minister to me.

2 Chronicles 18: 18:
Then Micaiah said, "Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, with all the host of heaven standing to the right and to the left of him."

[Again, anyone actually mentioning seeing God usually means he didn't and we are to take this a vision or allegory.]

Yes, just two mentions in the OT. And they give no description at all, other than Heaven's gonna be so filled with beings that a census would be an exercise in futility. (So much for the Seventh Day Adventist and American right wing fundamentalist views of Heaven.)

New Testament:

Matthew 16: 18-20:
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

[No real description of Heaven. However, this is the famous (infamous?) passage that's interpreted to mean that whatever Peter, the founder of the Roman Catholic Church, said was how things were in Heaven, shazam, that's how it is in Heaven. I'll leave it up to you to take that as you will.]

Matthew 18: 1-5:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

Matthew 18: 10-14:
"Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.

Matthew 18: 18-19:
Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.

[Note this last one ties back to Matthew 16:18-20 that what we do here will also apply in Heaven.]

Matthew 22: 23-32:
23 The same day some Sadducees came to him, saying there is no resurrection; and they asked him a question, saying, 24 "Teacher, Moses said, "If a man dies childless, his brother shall marry the widow, and raise up children for his brother.' 25 Now there were seven brothers among us; the first married, and died childless, leaving the widow to his brother. 26 The second did the same, so also the third, down to the seventh. 27 Last of all, the woman herself died. 28 In the resurrection, then, whose wife of the seven will she be? For all of them had married her." 29 Jesus answered them, "You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. 30 For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 31 And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, 32 "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is God not of the dead, but of the living."

[Ok, finally, a Heavenly fact. There will be no marriage and we'll be "like" angels in Heaven.]

Matthew 25: 31-46:
31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' 37 Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' 40 And the king will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' 44 Then they also will answer, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' 45 Then he will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

[Again, not a literal description of Heaven itself, but it is a description of an event that will occur there. Hint: You don't wanna be a goat.]

Mark 2: 25:
For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.

Luke 10: 18:
He said to them, "I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning."

[I find this one intriguing, and include it only because it describes a literal event viewed in Heaven. Jesus watched Satan get rocketed out of Heaven. That must've been a sight.]

[Now this next one isn't about Heaven, the place itself, but about the kind of bodies we will have. I thought it was relevant.]

1 Corinthians 15:40-50:
40 There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another. 41 There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory. 42 So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, "The first man, Adam, became a living being"; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. 47 The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48 As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven. 50 What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.

2 Corinthians 12:2-4:
I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.

[Third heaven, eh? Gosh, are they numbered? (And would wonder what font would be used for the enumeration, no doubt.) No, it just means the Heaven God lives in. From What do the scriptures say?:
"The 'third heaven' is simply a reference to the abode of God. The Jews in Paul's day referred to the 'first heaven' as the place where the birds fly, the 'second heaven' as the place where the sun, the moon and the stars resided, and the 'third heaven' as the place of God's abode."]

And there you have it. I left out the parables that say "Heaven is like ________" because they don't describe Heaven itself, but rather stories about who gets in and who gets left out. (If you're interested, they are: Matthew 13: 24-52, Matthew 18, 21-35, Matthew 20: 1-16, Matthew 22: 1-14, and Matthew 25: 1 - 30.)

So, to sum up what we know about Heaven from the Bible:
- There's no marriage. For those who "Paradise by the Dashboard Lights" is an accurate depiction of grim reality and not just a fun novelty song, this alone cinches Heaven as a better place.
- We will be like angels in Heaven. Y'know, usually when angels are mentioned, they're either announcing something, delivering something, or doing some task. So this sounds like a job. I bet the benefits rock, though.
- We will have bodies that are different from our current form. Hopefully mine will be trimmer with better knees.

Oh, hey, and what of Hell? Just a few mentions (including Hades), all in the New Testament, and the descriptive used is "fire" that is "eternal" and "unquenchable." (Apparently, it's hot, Paris.) Though the last mention of Hades in Revelation 20: 14 has interesting information: "Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire." So maybe only Heaven's eternal. Looks like once your ass hits the lake of fire, all that's left eventually is the echoes of the hiss and maybe an odorous cloud.

The Old Testament's "Sheol" is mentioned 63 times, but only as the place that's not Heaven, often described as a "pit." Perhaps Mr. "Hope You Guessed My Name" has trouble getting good help.

Admittedly, this was a rather surface survey, hitting only those phrases where the actual word was used. Of course, Heaven and Hell are sometimes discussed obliquely, for instance: Re 14:13: "And I heard a voice from heaven saying, 'Write this: Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.' 'Yes,' says the Spirit, 'they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.'" This speaks, of course, to the rest we are to find in Heaven. Note that it does not say "bliss," as our esteemed prof. was worried about in the quote at the beginning of this post. The word "bliss" doesn't even appear in the Bible.

And that's all we know, for now.

Oh, and, Sharon ... be gentle.


The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

Now now, when haven't I been gentle? Let me just say that all the "extra-biblical" stuff the Cathodox have is equally the property of Protestant Christians. There's no "ours" and "yours" here. So live it up.

Dante is the classic source, of course, for the western concepts of heaven, though generations of readers have found the Inferno and Purgatorio much more interesting than the Paradiso, for reasons that are pretty obvious (the inconceivability of heaven that you discuss; the endless fun of watching bishops saute' in hell, the human hopefulness of sanctification).

For even more poetic takes on the subject, check out St. Ephrem of Syria and his mystical "Hymns on Paradise."
St. Ephrem gives a good insight into the classic Christian (yes, that means it's yours, too) and late Jewish concept of the unity of the primordial and eschatological concepts of Paradise. Which is to say, Eden and Heaven are the same place, belonging to a different order of reality than our own, united by the Tree of Life (the Cross). This is all very mystical stuff and not doctrinal, naturally.

A taste of St. Ephrem:

Whoever has washed the feet of the saints
Will himself be cleansed in that dew;
To the hand that has stretched out
To give to the poor
Will the fruits of the trees
Themselves stretch out;
The very footsteps of him
Who visited the sick in their affliction
Do the flowers make haste
To crown with blooms,
Jostling to see
Which can be the first to kiss his steps.

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

Oh, for more straightforwardly "extra-biblical" (in the sense I presume you mean, of apocryphal or pseudepigraphical) writing, check out the First Book of Enoch from the second century B.C., which I believe the Ethiopian Orthodox include in their canon, and which is quoted in St. Jude 1:14-15 (look it up...).

A sample, from 1 Enoch 14:8-12:

And the vision was shown to me thus: Behold, in the vision clouds invited me and a mist summoned me, and the course of the stars and the lightnings sped and hastened me, and the winds in the vision caused me to fly and lifted me upward, and bore me into heaven. And I went in till I drew nigh to a wall which is built of crystals and surrounded by tongues of fire: and it began to affright me. And I went into the tongues of fire and drew nigh to a large house which was built of crystals: and the walls of the house were like a tesselated floor (made) of crystals, and its groundwork was of crystal. Its ceiling was like the path of the stars and the lightnings, and between them were fiery cherubim, and their heaven was (clear as) water. A flaming fire surrounded the walls, and its portals blazed with fire.