It is full of mystery and foreshadowings.
When I was reading theology at Oxford, my tutor, the Regius Professor of Divinity no less, set his students this topic for our weekly essay: What is heaven and who will get into it? Toiling away on my research in the bibliography of heaven, I soon discovered that the answers to these apparently simple questions can be complex and confusing.
The confusion has been deepened by contemporary journalism. Who would have thought Time magazine would devote the cover story of its April 16th issue to “Rethinking Heaven”? At first it seems like a spoof, since the cover portrays not the usual celestial images of angels, halos, and harps, but a bow-tied Ivy League type perched on a ladder in the clouds and peering forward through binoculars. He looks more likely to fall out of heaven than to get into it. Perhaps this was Time’s way of reminding its readers that the ascent to our celestial home is likely to be a precarious climb.
Anyone interested in making this journey, whether as a questioning skeptic or a committed believer, should study the principal sources of heavenly knowledge: Scripture, Tradition, Interpretation, and Experience.
The paucity of descriptive material on heaven in the Bible is puzzling. In the Old Testament’s greatest scene of theophany (an encounter with God), the Prophet Isaiah is admitted to a heavenly throne room guarded by winged seraphs, one of whom touches a live coal to Isaiah’s lips to purify him. (Isaiah 6:1-8) His abject penitence during this purification indicates that entry into God’s presence will be preceded by judgment. Isaiah saw in his vision that heaven is the epicenter of God’s holiness and glory.
The Psalms contain clues to what heaven could be like. Psalm 48 suggests that the city of God on his holy mountain is “beautiful in its loftiness, the joy of the whole earth.” In the ensuing verses heaven is portrayed as a fortress of absolute invincibility. Before its gates, kings flee, strong men tremble, and mighty ships are shattered in the wind. This is a theological way of saying that man’s power on earth offers no security, whereas God’s power in heaven gives total security.
The themes of feasting, joy, beauty, loftiness, and security also resonate in the visionary hints of heaven found in the New Testament. Its Greek word ouranos (literally sky or air) has given us the English word heaven, denoting the firmament above the earth where God has his abode. The first indication of this concept in the Gospels is found in Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, in which the heavens open and a divine voice is heard saying, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:10-11)
Later in the New Testament, St. Paul finds heaven indescribable: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.” (Corinthians 2:9) The author of Revelation has no such descriptive hesitation. He paints a vivid picture of multitudes that roar out Hallelujahs and praises to God while the elders keep singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” and “casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea.” (Revelation 19:1-4) These noisy manifestations of worship contrast with the peaceful heaven portrayed by the author of Hebrews, who sees rest as the reward for the completion of the earthly pilgrimage. (Hebrews 3:11)
THE COMMON CHRISTIAN Christian denominator in all these ideas about heaven is that it is filled with the presence of God. Intriguingly, the principal writings of other leading faiths point to a similar concept. The Koran suggests a garden (the word for heaven in Arabic) full of pleasures and privileges, of which the greatest is meeting God. Atziluth, Vaikuntha, Kailas, and Da Luo Tian are names for heaven in respectively Judaism, Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Taoism. Each is where God will be seen face to face.
The question of whether God dwells in a place, in some unimaginable sphere above the cosmos, or in human hearts is a matter of tradition—much of it the creation of artists and writers. Dante’s account in The Divine Comedy of arriving in heaven, although fictional, nevertheless reflects the visionary culture of the time when it was written. After this Medieval period, individual visions of heaven were reported less often, and were not part of a continuing culture but were one-off creations by poets and artists. A famous description from the 17th century comes from John Donne (1572–1631), who wrote a prayer depicting heaven as a house “where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling but one equal light; no noise nor silence but one equal music; no fears nor hopes but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings but one equal eternity: in the habitation of God’s majesty and glory, world without end.”
In the 20th and 21st centuries, the traditions of heaven have been interpreted by many commentators. One of my opposite numbers in this American Spectator symposium, John Derbyshire, highlights two of them—C. S. Lewis and Peter Kreeft—and gives both a rubbishing for their failure to produce evidence. This is an easy hit because faith consists of what we do not see. Nevertheless, because some signs from the invisible world can occasionally be sighted “through a glass darkly,” as St. Paul puts it, let’s play Mr. Derbyshire on his home turf. For the next paragraph or two, take a look at this subject on contemporary evidential grounds and consider reports from living witnesses who think they might have had a premature glimpse of the next life. In the language of heaven-watchers, these are people who claim to have had an “out-of-body experience.”
The phrase may sound like new-age jargon, but its antecedents are biblical. St. Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, writes of how he “was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows.” (2 Corinthians 12:3-4) More surprising than a Christian saint having such a vision two millennia ago is the reality that a significant number of ordinary people, living here and now in the 21st century, claim to have had similar out-of-body experiences. Even more arresting, these experiences appear to have important features in common. People report seeing dazzling light; watching their own deaths from a viewpoint high above ground level; entering into a higher realm of great peace and contentment; and meeting wonderful people, often relatives, who have long ago passed away. If this sounds like wacky nonsense, one has to explain why so many rational people who have been on the brink of death survive to tell such tales of considerable similarity. Surely they can’t all be part of a vast international conspiracy to spin heavenly yarns? And if they were merely hallucinating, how come they had the same hallucination despite their completely different physical circumstances and spiritual beliefs? Is it possible that these near-deathers did get a peek of the afterlife? It is a mystery not easily explained.
AT THE RISK OF being thought a lunatic, I will now record for TAS readers my own near-death experience. I have rarely spoken and never written about this before, largely because at the time I thought it was just a one-off dream. Now I think differently. Subject to that health warning, here are the facts.
At the age of 15, a schoolboy adventure of midnight skinny-dipping with a bad cold led to a bout of pneumonia. My fever climbed so high that I was rushed into the local hospital. I had a temperature of 107.8 degrees, which sent me into a delirium. In rural England of the 1950s, the hospital treatment consisted of shots of penicillin (to no effect) followed by nurses fanning my bed with blankets to cool me down. I lost consciousness.
During this drama I remember looking down on the scene from a vantage point on or above the ceiling. I felt happily detached from what was going on around my bed. I could not understand why the nurses were in such overdrive with the sponging and blanket waving, or why my mother was crying. Then, in my hallucinations, I started to travel. I was surrounded by brilliant white lights of an intensity I have never seen before or since. I flew at high speed first in the sky, then through a tunnel. I arrived in a garden of exquisite beauty where a lunch party was in progress. I was welcomed with great love by two of my grandparents and an old family friend. Never had I felt happier or more at peace. Even my favorite food—roast beef and Yorkshire pudding—was on the table! But just as I was about to sit down after kissing my grandmother, I politely said, “Not today, thank you,” and left.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?