Gradually, over the past five centuries, our concept of the heavens have been transformed from one of bright intelligences dancing in circles to a vast expanse of interstellar nothingness, occasionally interrupted by a galaxy. I like the new model. It tells us something important about where we are and who we are. I would never – and we could never – go back. That said, I’d like to take a few minutes to think about what we’ve lost as well as what we’ve gained.
First, let us say something about the old model, or should I say models, of the world (the cosmos, the universe). Our earliest cosmologies spoke of the waters below being separated from the waters above. Some great dome or god separated the two and made a space for us amidst the chaos. It’s important to note that there was something outside – not a great nothingness, but a great meaningless jumble of stuff. The Babylonians explicitly referred to this as the great waters and in Hebrew (Genesis 1:2) we have tohu wa bohu, often translated “without form and void.” It is also called the deep, probably referring to the unfathomable (at that time) depths of the ocean. Central to the first creation story of the Bible is the message that the God of Israel had created order in the midst of chaos and that order was good. Why is there anything? Why does the universe make sense? Why do we belong here? Because God made it so.
You need not buy into this creation story; indeed, some of my atheist readers may not. The point I wish to make is that the story tells us something existential – why is there anything – as well as something historical – why is there this. From my perspective, the former holds the greater weight, perhaps because I frequently experience existential angst and only rarely (if ever) experience historical angst. Science gives me a better picture of history, but I doubt it will ever deal with the existential problem.
The Hebrew story was somewhat replaced in the Western imagination with a Greek story. In that story, God causes all things that be. God was the unmoved mover, that which existed before the universe, caused and causes the universe to exist. By getting rid of the chaos, the ancient theologians did us a service. They eliminated the alternative to divine order. God, being omnipotent and creator of all things, could not be matched by another being of disorder and eternity (as the Babylonian Marduk was matched by Tiamat). The Christian and Greek God (capital G) was the sourceless source, from which all things flow. “In the beginning was the Word (logos, order, meaning) and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” John 1:1. No alternative chaos, just pure Divine expression and creativity.
This new model preserved the greatness, oneness, and perfection of God, but it lost the idea that there might be an alternative. It sacrificed a language for talking about non-being or even non-order, and our ability to deal with meaninglessness has suffered ever since. I appreciate the Greek model, but it leaves us in a bind when talking about evil and nothingness. It leaves us at a loss to explain our angst.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the Greek model was elaborated. Like a pearl, the earth was encrusted with layer after layer of crystalline spheres through which the stars and planets moved. Being perfect, like God, they could only be crystal (the perfect substance) and could only move in circles (the perfect motion). It may seem unfamiliar now, but at the time, it was considered very scientific and rational. I highly recommend C.S. Lewis’ book, The Discarded Image for those wishing to know more. Beyond the 7 planets, beyond the sphere of the stars, lay God, the prime mover, who had laid all the pieces in place, set them in motion, and – by being the object of all true love and purpose – moved them. The planets, being moved to love God, were moved by God. In thinking of them that way, Medieval scholars gave them human-like intentions. This was not, as is often supposed, crude anthropomorphism. It was metaphor and analogy – much as we now say that the planets obey the laws of gravity and momentum. They have no more a mind to obey the law than they have a heart to love God. It’s a way of concretely expressing an abstract concept.
The central metaphor was scientific and reasonable by modern standards, but it was also open to certain popular interpretations. Blessedly, the medieval model gave us images of a heavenly court, dancing attendance upon God – or of a choir of heavenly angels singing the music of the spheres from age to age. Unfortunately, the model was also prone to an earlier Greek interpretation of the planets as mega-power brokers in the sky. [The Christian theologians tried to squash that, but it was very popular in places.] More often, Europeans thought that the whole of the universe was like a clockwork with celestial bodies (unwittingly) influencing events in the lower realms. Venus didn’t care about human emotions, but it’s movement through the heavens caused friction on the lower spheres, pulling them into particular places. [This type of astronomy was more popular and had renaissances as late as the 16th and 19th centuries.]
Heaven, meanwhile, entered the system. The Babylonians and Hebrews had no heaven as we know it. When you die, you descend to the realm of death (Sheol in Hebrew, Hades in Greek). This land was not a separate place so much as an echo of what had been. As time passes people pass from memory and history and slowly fade into nothingness – or in some mythologies get recycled. Israelites around the time of Jesus were just starting to introduce the very Greek idea of a place of reward. Eternal souls (Greek) don’t fade away, but being perfect, cannot decay. Instead of Hades, they might pass into eternity with God outside the universe. Remember that Hades is the echo of created things, so it’s part of the system. Heaven isn’t. Heaven lies beyond the sphere of the stars with God. The Hebrews may have viewed things linearly with Sheol below and God above, but they had no heaven. The Ancient Christians saw Heaven not so much above as beyond. It lay above solely because earth existed as a speck in the center of the pearl. Heaven was the Great Clam encompassing everything. Modern writers parody the perceived naivete of medievals, thinking heaven was up, but they had a very modern notion of a spherical planet, in which to go down is to be trapped and to go up is to go out into the great outside.
Along came Newton, Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo. They shattered the heavenly spheres and put the Sun at the center of the system. They imagined the world not as a clockwork of spinning spheres moved by love, but as a great billiard table with masses moved by momentum and gravity. And, as the centuries passed, we realized that our Sun was not the only sun, but one among billions of stars, in one among billions of galaxies. Likewise, the creation story moved from one of God setting things in order to one about a giant explosion 13.7 billion years ago. That story very successfully explains history in terms of mass and energy. Momentum came from that explosion. The field of space results from that expansion. [It does, alas, beg the question of where the energy came from to do the exploding, but you can't have everything.]
The new cosmology does wonders for giving us an elegant, pragmatic, and gloriously simple history of the universe. Unfortunately it completely sidesteps the existential question. Some atheists and, I must admit, an unfortunate number of Christians, successfully adopted the new physical cosmology, but retained a Divine cosmology from the Middle Ages. They believe in the vast expanse of interstellar space but still see God as a clam hoarding it’s pearl in the local neighborhood. (Mine!) They cannot imagine a God big enough to order the entire universe and small enough to value individual humans. Mind you that’s always been a problem. We forget how immense the crystal spheres were thought to be and conveniently ignore the passages in Hebrew Scripture about the immense bounds of the Earth, the God who made the Pleiades and causes the Sun to rise. Psalm 8 says,
“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?”
It’s always been the surprisingly good news of God’s followers that the God who made the heavens and the earth cares about us.
These same skeptics want Heaven to be a physical place somewhere above the clouds. They think us foolish to believe in it when we cannot point to it on our maps. But that misses the point entirely. The Christian (and Jewish) message has always been that God lies beyond. We being eternal pass on to eternity in the transcendent realms beyond this creation. For Israelites that was the bosom of Abraham, the rest prepared for them at the beginning of the world. For Medievals it was the land beyond the sphere of the stars, so clearly set forth in Dante. For us, Heaven will be harder to imagine – but no. It is only because we mistakenly thought the ancient universe was small that we can pretend to know what was greater than it. “Bigger than all that is” will always be beyond imagination, a symbol for something greater than the human mind can conceive.
We are blessed to know that our idea of God must transcend a cosmos expanding through the light-years. We are blessed to imagine a heaven where we will go that transcends physical reality. It’s not a positive statement about the physical world but a statement that more exists. Who knows what dreams may come? Stephen Hawking, admittedly a great expert on the physical universe and creation, tells us that heaven is nothing but a fairy story for those who fear death. Apparently, Dr. Hawking’s imagination is not big enough to account for God. Neither is mine, I suppose, but my humility admits of what is beyond my knowing. And my God promises that something lies farther out and deeper in that what science comprehends.
We must return to the existential account of “why anything?” The vastness of space leads us to think of the opposite of something is nothing, the opposite of matter is vacuum, but that is not the case. Vacuum is space without matter. What is existence without space? What is non-existence? Why space and matter at all? These are the existential questions answered in Genesis. Perhaps someday science will address them too. Perhaps the existential account in Genesis will be superseded (or at least illuminated) by science, just as the historical account has been. In the meantime, we live with a real question of why there should be anything at all. Why us? Why now? What does it all mean. Genesis answers these questions. Heaven tells us where we fit in the scheme of creation – beyond, with God.
Is it a fairy story? Perhaps. Real fairy stories help us deal with the confusion, doubt, and uncertainty that lies behind the order we perceive. Real fairy stories hint of a kingdom that lies beyond our countries, our electric lights, and our science. They speak of worlds that do not revolve around us and suggest a deeper, fuller meaning of the world. In that way, Heaven is a fairy story. As G.K. Chesterton said,
“Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”
I don’t understand Heaven. I do not know what lies beyond the stars. I do know that calling it a non-issue is sticking my head in the sand. The existential question remains. Why something instead of nothing? Why matter? Why souls? Why conflict? Why grace? Why order? Genesis answers that in a way that, while imperfect, incomplete, and metaphorical, gives us a place to stand.
“And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude.” Genesis 1:30-2:1