As the year dips into late autumn, as the leaves fall and the early frosts nip the ungathered apples still on the tree, my mind, like that of a large proportion of my fellow citizens, turns towards the next holiday with its promise of warmth, leisure and self-indulgence. Brochures are scanned, websites inspected, and we know that even if the search is unsuccessful or simply premature because we haven’t begun to set aside the necessary moola, the act of looking is itself therapeutic: our dreams of other times and places help us deal with this time and this place. If I can imagine myself climbing through vineyards on a Spanish hillside, I can cope with Dundee on a wet Sunday.
I wonder if the thought of heaven plays a similar role in the lives of believers? Burdened with our own wrongs and those of the world at large, do we take comfort in the thought that one day we shall be elsewhere? Yes, the comfort may be diminished by the fact that we have to die first, but when we are sore and weary that may not bother us overmuch. When the earthly city is oppressive, the city of God is ever more inviting.
Indeed, it seems relevant to enquire whether heaven may not have been invented by human beings precisely for this comfort. Of course, even if we reject that specific reasoning, we have to accept, that like all religious concepts, including gods, heaven has been invented by human beings. I mean that even if religious concepts point towards something real, they have in sober truth been invented by us: our human concerns and prejudices are all over our creations.
In the case of the Christian heaven, much of it was invented by the early and medieval churches, incorporating the Jewish inheritance of Jesus and the Pharisees (who were unique amongst Jewish believers in developing the idea of heaven) together with a pre- modern cosmology according to which heaven is above the earth and hell below. Clearly the resurrection of Jesus had a huge influence on the making of heaven, but the belief in heaven as the rescue of mortal life predates Jesus and his disciples.
In spite of modern cosmology, the popular imagination still holds on to the “Man Upstairs” and the picture of the dear departed “looking down” on the grieving family. But there is often no serious belief in the after-life or in the soul’s meeting with its maker: the scenario is pure kitsch, a lighthearted drama that evades the issue of mortality. This heaven is a shallow vision, like a week in Ibiza, that helps people endure what Shakepeare called, “the whips and scorns of time.”
The serious believer will rightly protest that I am describing a parody of the Christian hope that trusts in God’s grace in Jesus to forgive our sins and save us from death, so that we may glorify God forever. But did serious believers not invent this serious theology in order to depict a serious salvation? It’s notable that although Jesus himself believed in resurrection, his language about the kingdom of heaven refers not to an extra- terrestrial realm but rather to the rule of God on earth. He appears, like some of his contemporaries, to have believed in a “world to come” which was a transformation of earth rather than a separate dimension. The “heaven” of Church doctrine, certainly, emerges from Christian reflection on the death and resurrection of Jesus, rather than from his teaching.
Should it therefore be dismissed as a wish- fullfilment that keeps believers walking purposefully on the pilgrimage of life, while preventing them from enjoying the goodness of earthly existence with a whole heart? Intelligent atheists like Bertrand Russell criticise faith as evading both the sorrows and the joys of life, by not understanding how even our dearest joys are based on our mortality. The great American poet, Wallace Stevens in his poem, “Sunday Morning” ridicules the notion of a realm that has no death:
Is there no change of death in paradise?
Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs
Hang always heavy in that perfect sky,
Unchanging, yet so like our perishing earth,
With rivers like our own that seek for seas
They never find, the same receding shores
That never touch with inarticulate pang?
Why set the pear upon those river-banks
Or spice the shores with odors of the plum?
Alas, that they should wear our colors there,
The silken weavings of our afternoons,
And pick the strings of our insipid lutes!
Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.
He depicts the conventional heaven as illogical and insipid, while asserting that death is the mother of beauty: the loveliness of a rose or a person arises from our perception that it will not last, nor will we. The beauty of our mothers is that their characterful lives go from us into the realm of death.
I happen to agree with what Stevens says, namely that death is a great and devastating reality which structures all that we think and feel and do. Death is not an enemy to those who have failed to cherish life in themselves and others. In a sense they have always been allies of death. But for those who have truly lived and shared their lives with others, death is an enemy. Robert Graves got it right in a fine poem:
We looked and loved; and therewithal instantly
Death became terrible to you and me
The insult of death is felt most keenly by those who lived most fully:
Wild men, who caught and sang the sun in flight
and learned too late they grieved it on its way,
because their words had forked no lightning, they
do not go gentle into that good night.
Dylan Thomas disagrees with those, like Stevens, who accept death stoically, as just the human condition. Beauty may depend on mortality but we don’t need to like this arrangement. Even as an atheist Thomas protests the finality of death:
Though they be mad and dead as nails
heads of the characters hammer through daisies,
break in the sun till the sun breaks down;
and death shall have no dominion.
The New Testament shares some of these attitudes to death:
1.Death is not neglegible; rather it is the real dissolution of human life.
2.It is seen as a destructive “power” IN human life, as for example, in disease and violence.
3.It is nevertheless defeated by Jesus’ faithfulness unto death to God and humanity, and God’s faithfulness to Jesus in death, by which he is made alive with the living God.
You may ask how point 1 relates to point 3. If God offers resurrection, how can death still be seen as a real dissolution of life?
The answer is that particularly for those who live in this world in the power of Jesus’ resurrection, and know even in their sorrows how splendid life can be, death remains a bitter ending. Nothing of their human selves survives death, as life beyond death is a new life with God, an unimaginable transformation, which leaves even the dearest of their relationships behind. Jesus taught that there was no marriage in heaven as “they will be like angels.” Death therefore continues to be a a dark conclusion, even when it is believed to be the portal of eternity. Any evasion of the finality of death is not a Christian attitude.
In fact it is only those who trust in the promise of resurrection and live in its truth, who see clearly the human acceptance of the power of death and resolve to fight against it. Rather than heaven diminishing their outrage at worldly evils, it calls them to battle against everything that denies the dignity of the human children of God.
For me the vision of heaven remains an encouragement to believe that God’s will can be done here as well as there; and to do it as well as I can; to hope for those who suffer here that if, as Jesus said, they endure to the end, they will be saved; and that the earthly beauty of which death is the mother, although very dear to me, is only a foretaste of a greater beauty to come. The wild visions of the book of Revelation and the eloquent riffs of Paul and the book of Hebrews are not tourist brochures for the afterlife, but the excitable reports of those whose faith has pushed them to peek through the chinks opened up by Jesus in the walls of death.
Now that villa in Spain…