by Jeffrey Burton Russell
(Princeton University Press, 1997)
The following is an outline of a discussion at the Faculty/Staff Christian Forum at UCSB, June 1997.
A. Trivializing of heaven today in popular culture, for example cartoons in magazines, has created obstacles to believing in heaven.
B. How do we know about heaven? There are a number of ways.
1. I take the historical approach in my book: This is a history of the Christian concept of heaven.
But we can also go beyond history.
2. The methods of natural science and of history attempt to narrow down to the best possible answer to any question.
An alternative is OPENING UP: The biblical, poetic, mythic, approach. GOD as POET. What does a certain poem really mean? What does the poem of the universe really mean? You get it less by narrowing down than by OPENING UP.
3. Naturalist or reductionist ontology: nothing is real that science cannot establish. Anyone beginning with this premise, which is itself an unprovable act of faith, cannot consistently believe in heaven.
The alternative is METAPHORICAL ONTOLOGY: multiple ways to reality. Metaphor is a way of opening up and out to reality. Heaven is not a metaphor for beauty, for tree, but tree is a metaphor of beauty and of heaven. Heaven IS the ultimate meaning.
C. Some implausible but current prejudices: that
1. Heaven is boring. *No; it is dynamic: we continue opening up to knowledge, beauty, and love, especially love.
2. Heaven is escape. *No, heaven begins here: to the extent that we are open to knowledge, beauty, and above all, love. Your character on earth is your character. No second time around. The heaven you are in here just opens up more in eternity--and more and more.
3. Heaven is a reward for being a good boy or girl. *No, it is not a question of reward or punishment, but rather a question of what we make of ourselves here. We are eternally what we make ourselves here.
4. Heaven is selfish. *No, heaven is union with all: Heaven is the state of being in which all are united in love with one another and with God. It is an agapê, a love feast. Whenever less than the whole world is loved, with all the creatures in it, whenever anyone or anything is excluded from love, the result is isolation and retreat from heaven. Heaven is the community of those whom God loves and who love God. All retain their personal characters, but woven together in perfect charity, so that in God's generous embrace each person among the millions whom God loves loves each other person among the millions whom God loves. It is like a weaving in which each thread touches every other thread in a spark of loving light, so that the whole web shines like a field of stars. In heaven all see and observe their love and grace and peace spread out to everyone and through everyone, so the love of each is realized perfectly and extended totally to each and to all. The union of humans with one another in Christ is not simply in heaven; it is heaven itself, heartwhole and fine.
5. We "go to" heaven. *No, we don't go anywhere. It begins here; it opens up in eternity.
6. Heaven is in the "afterlife." *No, it's not "afterlife" but "eternal life: we open up to God eternally. Heaven is not limited to our spacetime continuum; it embraces it and extends infinitely beyond it.
7. Heaven is the abode of immortal souls. *No, this is Platonism, not the original Judeo-Christian belief. The term "immortal soul" does not appear anywhere in the Bible. It is not that the soul is immortal but that soul and body are together with God in eternity.
8. We invented heaven out of fear. *No, we didn't invent it, and it has no purpose other than itself. It isn't that it "does us any good": it IS the good. HEAVEN IS THE COMPLETE FULFILLMENT OF OUR BEING: WHAT GOD WANTS US TO BE; WHAT WE LONG TO BE. HEAVEN IS WHAT IS; AS GOD IS WHAT IS. What isn't heaven falls away from reality. Everything real points to reality, opens up to heaven, which is reality.
D. Example of metaphorical ontology
(Overt vs. symbolic): opening up:
Jonah 1-2: (paraphrase)
"The Lord prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah: and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Then Jonah prayed to the Lord from the belly of the fish: "Out of the belly of Sheol I cried....the sea surrounded me....how shall I look again upon your holy Temple? .... Yet you brought my life up out of the pit, o Lord my God....My prayer came to you, into your holy Temple...I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you."
1. All scholars know about translation questions; textual problems; higher criticism problems.
2. But, additionally, let us REOPEN a way of thinking that has passed so much out of style that few even remember it. I am not proposing replacing science and history with it; I do propose that we have lost something immensely valuable that needs to be recovered and remembered and stored up against our ruin.
Among the many expansions of the Jonah text above:
waters under the earth
Moses abandoned to Nile
Nile turned to Blood
Peter sinking in the Lake of G
Noah saved from sea
Moses saved by Nile
Red or Reed Sea
resurrection in general
resurrection of Christ: 3 days and nights
fish/multiplication of loaves and fishes/ Eucharist/ community
thanksgiving to Lord
sacrifice to Lord (eucharist)
faithfulness to covenant, to Lord
Temple: Covenant: Holy City: Heaven
Covenant: New Covenant: Communion of Saints: Heaven
Some are more appropriate than others; there are concentric spheres of meaning, moving out from the center. The danger of the method is that it can be stretched out so far as to become antithetical to the essential sense of the text. For example in the Jonah passage, "the body vomiting out soul" would be far from the essential sense.
Best metaphors for heaven that I know are Dante's Rose near the end of his Paradiso and the scene in C.S. Lewis' Last Battle where Aslan leads the Narnians ever upward and onward.
Heaven is whatever and whenever God wants it to be; more deeply, heaven is where God is, in the rose of fire that keeps opening dynamically in one eternal moment. We have loved the stars too much to fear the night. So shall every love every love more enkindle until the cosmos coruscates with loving light, living more and ever more.