From Earth To Sky: The Evolution of Heaven

November 12, 2000


From Earth to Sky: The Evolution of Heaven

I suppose everyone knows some version of this story: a billionaire, enjoying life immensely, tells his minister that despite his sizeable gifts to the church he’s still worried about whether he’ll make it to heaven. “Since you’re supposed to have an inside track on these things,” he tells the minister, “would you consider asking for some signal as to where I’m going to end up?” The minister says he’ll try. A few days later he phones and says, “Well, I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that you are going to heaven.” With a great sigh of relief the billionaire says, “Wonderful!…But what’s the bad news?” “The bad news is: can you be ready Friday?”
We know why we laugh. Even among those who profess absolute faith in an afterlife of eternal joy, it’s hard to find any healthy person who is eager to get there. In a lifetime of observation, I’ve seen hundreds of devout believers willing to endure incredible suffering in the hope of staying right where they are. So how deeply we believe what we claim to believe might make a provocative sermon, but this one has a different agenda. It is not about immortality itself, about which you know as much, anyway, as I do. It deals with a much more narrow question: In what way does the only Biblical description of heaven we have make sense?
It was prompted by someone who had recently read that description in the book of Revelation , and was curious about the use of certain numbers, and especially about the extravagant imagery of gold and precious stones which makes Heaven sound like a kind of celestial Fort Knox. My response is based on this principle: when you try to describe something unknown, you have to use images from the world you already know.
A science fiction writer, for example, may give us an alien from outer space with 3 purple eyes and a radio antenna instead of ears, but he can only create his bizarre combination if the audience already knows about eyes, about the color purple, and about radio antennas. Forgive me for stating something so obvious, but it helps to remember that when we talk about why different cultures have come up with such completely opposite pictures of the perfect life after death. The fact is that they had no choice but to use images familiar to their time and location.
For example, first-century Israelite may speak of heavenly mansions but the words would have no meaning for an ancient Eskimo trying to describe an afterlife full of good things. He and his people had never seen a manion. Home in his heaven would be an igloo, only more comfortable and spacious than even the best one he had ever seen on earth. Food would be what he ate in this life: seals and walruses and fish, except that they would then be present in the most glorious abundance, sleek with delicious fat, and always easy to catch. It would, of course, be impossible for him to imagine a Polynesian heaven filled with grass huts and tropical fruit, or for his audience to have the faintest idea what he was talking about if he did.
If you have ever had occasion to look into The Golden Bough , Sir James Frazer’s classic work on primitive cultures, you know that all of them — when they projected a happy afterlife — simply extended and improved on the life they already knew. Norse people, for example, glorified a warrior society. Their heroes were the fighters who conquered new territory and kept them safe from invasion. So it’s no surprise when they imagine how those marvelous women called Valkyries, servants of the great god Odin, will swoop down on horseback to gather up dying heroes and take them to the heaven they call Valhalla, or that this heaven is modeled on the kinds of buildings and rituals they already knew. In their perfect afterlife, warriors hack away in battle all day, come home at night to drink fermented honey and eat enormous hunks of roasted ox, and are then miraculously restored to go out and fight again the next day. Glorious battle forever and ever — with no fatalities. That was heaven.
American plains Indians imagined heaven as a Happy Hunting Ground where huge herds of bison rumble across endless prairies. They could imagine better teepees than the ones they built, but they could not possibly imagine mansions or gates of pearl or streets of gold because they had never seen any of those things. By the same formula people living in the great Arabian Desert projected the afterlife as a kind of green oasis — palm trees loaded with mouth-watering dates above pools of cool crystal water. The Muslim warrior who died fighting was promised not only those delights, but 72 beautiful women to serve him forever — a kind of Hugh Hefner heaven that still seems to be the most successful incentive to male martyrdom in all the long history of warfare.
In exactly the same way, the Bible’s sometimes peculiar description of heaven is restricted to elements familiar in that world. The landscape described by the Biboical author comes straight out of his background, and may leave a modern reader both puzzled and unimpressed. Ask a dozen intelligent people this morning to write their own descriptions of an ideal afterlife, and you’ll get a dozen different pictures. I know men whose heaven would feature a steady diet of Super Bowl games, and I know women who would be sure they were in heaven if there were no such games at all, forever. If I had the chance to furnish heavenly scenery it would certainly include an ocean beach to walk on every day, and a large freshwater lake filled with hungry bass. In all honesty, how many of us would rate gates of pearl and eternal harp music at the top of our list, and how many of us would be excited by those twelves and multiples of twelves that show up in the architecture of the Biblical heaven.
So where did those things come from? Well,the answer, of course, is that they came straight out of Jewish culture, which means we should find them anticipated in the writings we call the Old Testament. And we do. For many centuries before the birth of Christ, the Jewish people dreamed of a perfected earthly capital, a new and betterJerusalem, foolproof at last against all enemies and full of good food and fresh water. But generations came and went, and this didn’t happen, and it didn’t happen, and so by-and-by when some Jews became Christians the old dream of an earthly city was lifted up to become the dream of a heavenly city, or to put it another way, If the promises were never fulfilled in this life, surely they’ll be fulfilled in another life. And that other life was described with the same imagery and symbolism and sacred numbers they had brought with them out of their Jewish past.
For example, there were 12 tribes of Israel, so in describing the Christian heaven the number 12 gets top billing. We are solemnly informed that the heavenly city features12 gates with the names of the 12 tribes of Israel written on them. I doubt if anyone here could stand up right now and name all 12 of those tribes, so the symbolism doesn’t work very well for us. But the Jewish numerology plows doggedly on as we are told that these 12 gates are set in a great wall, and that the wall is 144 cubits high — a measurement you get if you multiply the sacred number 12 by itself, 12 times 12. If this really described a literal heaven instead of expressing the poetic longings of one particular culture, you might well wonder why a place free at last from all trouble and strife should need walls and gates at all. Walls and gates exist to shut people in or out, so why have them in a perfect place where no unauthorized person can break in, and no lucky soul on the inside would want to break out? The answer once again has to do with acculturation. Ancient Judaism, often overrun by invading armies, knew all about the wondrous security of walled and gated cities, so even if it’s not very logical the architecture of heaven reflects that experience. We are reading poetry, not logic. The Bible’s description of Paradise is symbolic, not literal.
And how many people will get to occupy this projected heaven? The Unitarian Universalist would have everybody there on the basis of God’s all-conquering love. The preachers I heard in childhood made it clear that we were the one true church and only our members would make it. But the man who wrote the Biblical book of Revelation drew his count straight out of Jewish numerology, playing with the sacred 12 again. The redeemed, he said, would number 144,000 — a figure he gets by multiplying 12 x 12 by 1000, a number symbolic of wholeness or perfection. It may surprise you to know that some good people read all this symbolism so literally that they are sure heaven will be about half the size of Wichita. If you wonder why it was also imagined as a perfect cube, the reason is that the room in Jewish temples called the Most Holy Place, and thought to be God’s home away from home, was also a perfect cube.
The author of this vision of heaven also borrowed his imagery of gold and precious stones straight from Jewish scripture. When the prophet Isaiah was promising the Jewish people an earthly Jerusalem built with incredibly rich materials, he has God say, “O Jerusalem, you suffering, helpless city, with no one to comfort you, I will rebuild your foundations with precious stones.. I will make your towers of red jasper, and your gates of garnet, and the wall around you of precious jewels.” This is not a realistic expectation. It’s nationalistic fever expressed in high poetry. In similar extravagant language the Jewish book of Tobit has God promise that “The gates of Jerusalem shall be built of sapphire and emerald, and all [the] walls of precious stones. The towers of Jerusalem shall be built of gold….The streets of Jerusalem shall be paved with garnets and jewels of Ophir.” If you’ve listened carefully you realize that these prophets got their metals and jewels switched around a bit, but it didn’t matter because they were poets, not journalists.
Now listen as the author of Revelation simply echoes that ancient Jewish imagery to describe not an ideal Jewish city anymore, but the Christian afterlife. The wall, he says, will be built of jasper, the city itself made of pure gold, bright as clear glass, and the foundation of the wall adorned with — guess how many kinds of precious stones? No need to “phone a friend” — the answer is12 and they are all named for you: sapphire, onyx, emerald, amethyst, and so on. And then, in a flourish of rhetorical excess, he says each of the 12 gates in that wall is a single giant pearl, and the streets are made not of dirt, concrete or asphalt, but of pure gold. In other words, this heaven is as much a product of its culture as the Indian’s Happy Hunting Ground, or the Norseman’s Valhalla, or the harem promised to the male Islamic martyr.
In our culture water is taken for granted. But Jewish women went to the well every day, and worried that it might go dry, and springs were so few and precious that men fought and died to possess them. So the prophet Ezekiel, writing as a captive in Babylon hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, dreams of what his holy city Jerusalem will be like some day. In his vision, there is so much blessed water flowing out from under the entrance to the temple that it swells from being ankle deep, to knee deep, and finally to too deep to cross except by swimming. On the banks of this river there will be trees on both sides that never stop bearing fruit — fresh fruit every month, the original Fruit of the Month Club — and their leaves will be used to heal people. This Jewish dream never came true on earth, but centuries later it was transferred to life after death and became part of the description of a Christian heaven.
Listen to the astonishing similarity as the New Testament author of Revelation echoes that ancient hope from Old Testament times: “Then [the angel] showed me the river of the water of life, sparkling like crystal, and coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, and flowing down the middle of the city’s street. On each side of the river was the tree of life, which bears fruit 12 times a year, once each month; and its leaves are for the healing of the nations.” All the old Jewish cultural motifs are there: the precious water flowing from a throne to make a river, the tree of life, the fruit produced 12 times a year, the healing leaves.
I’d like to give you one final example of cultural conditioning. At one point the author of Revelation tells us that in his vision of heaven “the sea [has vanished.” He has happily included such familiar things as rivers and trees, music and thrones, so why does he leave out the ocean, which most of us love to visit? Well, as you have guessed, there is a story behind that omission. There is an ancient Semitic myth, alluded to many times in the Old Testament, that in creating the world God first had to conquer an opposing force personified as the monster of Chaos. In the legend, God wins, and banishes the Chaos monster to the depths of the sea. Humanity is safe from the terror of Chaos as long as God controls the sea. This is unfamiliar stuff, so if you decide you’d like to follow the traces of that myth through parts of the Old Testament, I can tell you where to start in our library. [IB, 1, 451]. The myth provides a reason why a Jewish-Christian would leave the ocean, so long associated with Chaos, out of the landscape of the Christian heaven.
The Bible, contrary to a great deal of preaching, is not an easy book. As Gary pointed out so well last week, our roots are Jewish — the Christian religion we profess was profoundly influenced in all sorts of ways by Jewish symbolism. Pearly gates, golden streets, medicinal leaves — they belong to a lost world, and as the devout Christian scholar C. S. Lewis said, “People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs.”
I try to treat tenderly the faith of those who read this Biblical poetry as if it were a literal blueprint for the future, but my understanding of the phrase “eternal life” has changed greatly over the years. I think it stands for quality of life rather than length of life, that it is measured not in time but intensity. It seems to me from something Jesus said once that it is more a state of being, than it is a place, and that people in right relationships with God and one another experience it now. Some years ago when Time magazine did a cover story entitled, “Does Heaven Exist?” a man from Minnesota wrote this reponse: “Yes, there is a heaven. We create it every day when we protect a child, help an adult and revere our home, the earth.”
That much I’m sure of. As for life after death, I’ve heard the questions raised by honest people in this thoughtful audience and I will not pretend to all sorts of certainties I do not possess. All I can say, in a sermon already a bit too long, is that I hope when the moment for bowing out comes that I can feel the adventure here has been so exciting that if nothing happens later I shall not feel cheated at all. Not unless, with beauty all around, I had no eye for it, nor with people along the way to care about, I refused to care. In that case, I would already have been missing all along.

Out of our hopes, dear Lord, may we labor together to make a better
world here and now. In the name and for the sake of Christ. Amen