I am an inveterate reader of the religious historian, Karen Armstrong. Her writing is largely very readable, intelligent and well-informed by prodigious research. In one of her books I recall her pointing out that Heaven was largely unknown to the characters of the Old Testament. They did not seem to aspire to eternal life in a paradise with God, but in a rather early acknowledgement of Richard Dawkins and “The Selfish Gene” seemed to aspire to no more than a long life being subsequently succeeded by numerous offspring.
The notion that there was a heavenly destination that humans could aspire to enter after death seems to have come to Judaism/Christianity as recent as circa 200BC.
Another of Armstrong’s admonitions is that we should not be unduly critical of other belief systems but try to understand them in the context of the other person, their race and religion. (She makes a good case that militant fundamentalism will not be countered by logic or physical retaliation but by trying to understand the historical and contextual determinants of such beliefs and working from there.)
The religious journalist and author, Lisa Miller, points out that paradise has its roots in the word pairidaeza which in the language of the Persian priesthood meant “walled garden”.
(As a pretty keen gardener myself, it would only work for me if the walls somehow repelled fruit flies, cabbage moths, bean flies and prevented downy mildew!)
If we take up Karen Armstrong’s position it becomes readily apparent why the Jews and early Christians, eking out a subsistence existence in an arid, barren landscape would imagine paradise as a bountiful garden in a fertile well-watered location! And of course in many ways these early notions of heaven were a yearning to return to the “Garden of Eden” where men and women could again walk with God in a fertile, verdant place. (I do not know if the Inuits have a concept of heaven but if they do I’ll bet it’s a warm place!)
It is speculated that the notion of Heaven began to take hold among the Jews during their period in Babylon. It seems the Jews like their neighbours the Canaanites had been ancestor worshippers. It had been the custom to build their houses over burial caves where the bones of their ancestors were housed. They made offerings to these ancestors lest their spirits bring bad fortune on them. However about this time as the laws were beginning to be codified ancestor worship was forbidden. If they were no longer to care for their ancestors as they had previously it was comforting to have a belief that they would remove to a pleasant place where they no longer needed such nurturing. Heaven seemed a convenient solution.
Of course at this time (the sixth century BC) the Babylonians were overrun by the armies of Cyrus the Great. The Jews were thus subsumed into the Persian Empire. Many of the Persians were Zaroastrians. The Zaroastrians had a concept of a Heaven whose inhabitants were non-aging, immortal and forever prospering. It seems then that this Zaroastrian concept was gradually assimilated into the beliefs of the Jews. (As we saw earlier the word paradise is drawn from Persian roots.)
The notion that there was a special place remote from men where the gods lived seems first to have occurred in the Epic of Gilgamesh. This is among the first known pieces of written literature. It comes from acncient Mesopotamia and appears to have been developed from Sumerian legends. In this ancient story, purported to have been written 4,000 years ago, Gilgamesh travels to the glittering gardens of the gods seeking the secret of immortality, only to learn that for humans there is no such secret.
Biblical scholar Father Daniel J Harrington, points out that the first explicit description of the resurrection of dead persons in Judaism occurs in the book of Daniel. Here it is written that “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Consensus among biblical scholars suggests that this was written in the second century BC. And this of course raises the question that if (particularly the good) were to be resurrected, where was the destination. Heaven was an obvious answer.
The idea of Heaven was taken up with even more gusto in the New Testament. Jesus made many references (although often ambiguous) to Heaven.
The controversial British historian, Arnold Toynbee argued the Christianity was a Helenisation of Judaism to make it more attractive to the Greeks (and subsequently the Romans). The Greeks and Romans not only worshipped gods but also their heroes. Jesus filled that bill for Christians. But the Greeks also believed their gods occupied a special place in the firmament. A concept of Heaven would not have been foreign to them.
Nowhere is the idea of Heaven as a paradise garden more important than in Islam. This religious tradition was established in the seventh century in one of the hottest, driest, most inhospitable areas in the world. No wonder then that the Quran, Islam’s holy book, promises that after death the faithful will go to a garden. And the garden described is a wondrous one with fruits that won’t spoil in the heat, with rivers not only of water but also of honey, wine and milk.
It is interesting that there is a river of wine, which is forbidden to Muslims on earth but apparently the wine of this heavenly river doesn’t make you drunk!
The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are really pretty vague about what we should expect in heaven, but the Quran is not! It indicates, as Miller interprets “that sensual pleasures of every sort will be granted in Paradise, not least among them the attention of the houris – dark-eyed, full-breasted spirit women, who live confined to pavilions undefiled before them by humans or Jinn”
(Which all sounds seriously misogynistic to me. I wonder what the women can look forward to? Chocolate and unrestricted access to Mills and Boon? Why are there not pavilions of spirit toy-boys as well? Sorry – got a bit carried away there! Perhaps this is all a result of the fact that the Quran has been translated, interpreted and disseminated to the world by men for fourteen centuries. Mind you the same criticism could be leveled at the other two great monotheisms, Christianity and Judaism! All this provides further examples of Armstrong’s admonition that if we are to understand other beliefs we should be aware of the context.)
One of the main conceptual problems we have to contend with is that for many there is a concept that Heaven is a physical place.
Early Christianity, Drawing on the writings of the first century Greek astronomer Ptolemy, believed that the earth was encircled by crystal spheres. One encompassed the moon, one encompassed the sun, much farther back was one that encompassed the fixed stars. Beyond everything was a sphere which incorporated God. God lived in a physical place, albeit far removed from humans but still occasionally accessible.
Copernicus and after him Galileo threw a spanner in the works when they showed that the solar system was not centred on the earth but on the sun. And as we have come to know in latter times there is nothing so special about the sun, being replicated countless times elsewhere in the universe.
In the middle ages many Christian monks believed that Christ had returned to Eden and presided there. They surmised that Eden was far to the east and often whimsically located it on their maps
Miller recounts that Christopher Columbus thought he had found Eden when he landed in South America in 1498. He wrote, “I believe that the earthly Paradise lies here, which no one can enter except by God’s leave.”
But well before this St Augustine was proposing that perhaps Heaven was a more ethereal location. He maintained that after resurrection we all took on the form of our thirty year old bodies (because it was assumed that this was approximately how old Jesus was when he was resurrected). But the resurrected souls have no physical needs – they don’t eat, drink or indulge in sex. The old idea of Heaven then being a bounteous garden seemed less likely because these resurrected souls had no need for non-decaying fruits, milk, honey or even water!
Thomas Aquinas complicated the notion of Heaven. He postulated that Heaven was stratified. Those who were better got to live in heaven closer to God. This required that Heaven comprise many layers so that the best were close and the worst further from God’s presence. (Mormons have a similar belief.)
Up until this time the efforts to depict Heaven came from religious folk with some imagination. Soon after, the depiction of Heaven fell to the lot of imaginative folk with some religion. Dante, Milton and Blake all made significant contributions in their poetry. And then the renaissance painters added their contribution. As a result there has over the centuries developed a plethora of images and descriptions of these myriad imaginings of Heaven. If you are a believer in Heaven, more than likely you will owe your concept of Paradise at least to some degree to these chequered and rather unreliable sources.
I am struggling to find a way to end this little essay. I suppose, in the end, Heaven is a sop to our mortality. It is an outcome of our existential angst. The three monotheisms all purport that there is a just and forgiving God and a Heaven to aspire to.
(Although the evidence of their own religious writings suggests that in their religious histories as they have recorded it God has been vengeful, angry and jealous. This doesn’t seem very God-like to me because I know some fallible but wonderful human beings that don’t even exhibit such traits.)
But just as an intellectual exercise, let us imagine there is a just and forgiving God. It is something I would dearly love to believe. A just God would not penalize us for the accident of birth. Therefore there must be access to the Heaven of such a God to anyone who has lived a reasonable life irrespective of which religion, he or she has accidently fallen into.
And certainly such a God would not penalize us for such trivialities as what we eat, what we wear and how often we pray? (Or as postulated in times past for being a baby that died before baptism.)
No doubt the concept of Heaven has provided solace to many over the ages. If there is a Heaven it surely must be a spiritual state and not a physical place. If that is the case the descriptions of Heaven from the various religious and artistic sources must be wrong and it is likely to be beyond the imaginings of most. As is often the case, when we take our religious writings too literally, we are bound to have been looking in the wrong place for our “Paradise Lost”!
Perhaps I should finish with a quote from the twelfth century Jewish philosopher, Maimonides. He simply and sensibly stated, “As to the blissful state of the soul in the World to Come, there is no way on earth in which we can comprehend or know it.”