Where is Heaven?
By Gene Wilburn
“They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to Middle Earth” ~ George R.R. Martin
The mythic concept of heaven varies from culture to culture and religion to religion, as does the concept of hell. Homer gave us a Greek perspective of the Underworld in the Odyssey — a murky kind of place where even the famous Greek heroes end up in residence. The Egyptians, with their sky gods and interest in an afterlife thought of heaven as some kind of physical place beyond the known universe and the Book of the Dead describes the process a soul must go through to reach it. The Assyrians believed the afterlife was located below our world and one of their words for it translates as the “Great Below.” Everyone went there, regardless of status, and it seems to have been more of a handy place to store ghosts than any kind of paradise.
The Christian myth of heaven is the one I grew up knowing about, though “knowing about” is a precarious phrase. It’s a particularly unclear myth. Stereotyped as a place of fluffy clouds and angels playing harps and an entry gate made of pearl, it’s always portrayed as stupefyingly mind-numbing. One thing is clear though: its direction is “up.” Certain Christian religious figures “ascended” into it. The mediaeval view places it beyond the firmament, the known universe. And it’s there that selected believers go and meet all their lost loved ones, who presumably made it as well. A more salubrious place than the Greek underworld, perhaps, or the Assyrian ghost closet, and not as strenuous as the Egyptian journey to the afterlife. A comfort myth if ever there was one.
But the thing about the mediaeval world view is that the “known universe” was a much smaller and modest place than the one we live in today. Earth was the centre of that universe and the firmament was fixed and revolved around the earth — with the exception of “the wanderers,” or planets, and alarming things like comets. Heaven was just beyond the visible firmament and some mediaeval drawings portray an observer lifting the edge of the firmament and peeking out at heaven beyond. Everything in its place and God in his (always masculine) heaven.
This cosmological view took a huge hit with a paradigm shift that started with Copernicus in the 16th Century, with his heliocentric proposal, and was refined and modified through the incredibly accurate naked-eye astronomical observations of Tycho Brahe, and embraced in the writings of astronomer Johannes Kepler. The 17th Century was the time of largest early astronomical breakthroughs through the telescopic observations of Galileo Galilei (Jupiter had “moons”!) and the brilliant insights of Isaac Newton, who provided the laws of physics and mathematics that accurately accounted for observable planetary motions. The Church was not very happy with all of this, of course, and forced Galileo to recant publicly, though he never did so in private.
In one sense, I think of modern science as starting with Galileo because he used a scientific instrument, the telescope, to investigate the night sky. The telescope was followed by the microscope, and extended instrumental observation and measurement gradually became the established norm for exploring the fabric of the universe. It wasn’t even called science at first. It was usually referred to as “natural philosophy.”
It wasn’t until the early 20th Century that astronomers began to suspect that our galaxy, the Milky Way, was not the full extent of the universe and that what was showing as blobs sometimes referred to as “nebulae” on the photographic plates might themselves be galaxies. With better and bigger telescopes and some brilliant analysis, it was not only determined that they were, in fact, galaxies like our own, but we could even measure their distance from ours. The universe turned out to be immensely huge, with, as Carl Sagan used to say, “billions and billions” of galaxies. Not only that, but continued observations indicated that the universe was expanding. And if it was expanding, what was it expanding from? Enter the Big Bang.
The telescope, as both instrument of the scientific revolution, and a symbol thereof, is central to the recent book, Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution, by Toby E. Huff, 2011, a highly readable, well-researched study of why the scientific revolution started in the West, and not in China or the Islamic world.
Telescopes were still at the forefront when I was a kid in the 1950s — the “big” telescope of the day was the huge reflector at Mount Palomar, in California, with its 200-inch mirror Hale telescope. The newspapers frequently printed black-and-white images taken with the famous instrument and there was great ferment over the firmament, so to speak. Exciting times.
It was in regard to this great telescope that I first encountered a fissure between science and religion. I was a run-of-the-mill Protestant kid who attended church with some regularity, but a good friend and classmate of mine came from a more fundamentalist stream of belief. His church, located in a nearby town, was hosting a “revival meeting” that featured two travelling evangelical preachers of fiery words and demeanour, and my friend’s family invited me along to attend one of the evening sermons. I was nervous about this because it was one of those congregations my family referred to as the “Holy Rollers” and its members were prone to burst into tongues and exclamations during the service.
But curiosity, sometimes my friend, sometimes my enemy, overcame my misgivings and I went. At this point we come back to the concept of heaven, for the heaven of this congregation was the “Kingdom of Heaven” returning to create a “New Earth” for the “Chosen,” wrapped up in some kind of event called “the Rapture.” The Christian Bible is an odd thing, at best. Most of it is a disjointed anthology of Hebrew religious writings, some of it dating back from the time of the Egyptians and the Sumerians. Added to that is an appendix called the New Testament, and the appendix to that is a very strange thing called the “Book of Revelation,” that reads like it was composed by a person, or an entire commune, on a very bad acid trip (“don’t take any of the brown acid,” as the Woodstock announcer warned). It’s so weird and vague that you can read into it pretty much whatever you want, but it seems to be the energy source for many fundamentalists.
But the two preachers, in their admittedly riveting, entertaining, and electric theatre, told a blatant lie. They said they had visited the great telescope at Mount Palomar, and that while the “scientists” were called away from the tour for a few minutes, the preachers peeked through the telescope, up into the skies, and they saw, with their own eyes, the Kingdom of Heaven descending toward the earth. The congregation was practically swooning, but I was gobsmacked that a man of religion would lie. I knew that you didn’t look through the telescope at all. You made photographic plates using it and studied the plates. And that started me thinking hard about heaven. If there is such a place, where is it?
There is no physical plane we know of, above or below, that can accommodate such a mythic landscape. Another dimension? That’s pretty science-fictiony and since it offers no method of verification, it’s no better than saying it’s located in some kind of vast, eternal Rubik’s Cube. Or that it fits somehow into Terry Pratchett L-space, though this might be pleasing to Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges who said, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
As an armchair philosopher, I get mentally cranky about things that offer no method of verification, nor any proof of existence. I’m open to evidence, but I don’t see any place in the known universe where a heaven might fit in. So, as a humanist, I can only conclude that heaven, and hell, are actually situated within the living, earthly creatures called humans. The terms represent sublime good times, and ghastly bad times, in the lives of individuals, much of it determined by where we live, our general place in society, and events often beyond our control. To the residents of Aleppo, for instance, any place that’s not being bombed might seem like heaven. The city itself can, without exaggeration, be called a hell.
In the end, I think heaven is a state of mind and that mythic heavens are little more than works of the imagination. And, as many pundits over the years have observed, if there really turns out to be such a place, I doubt many of my friends will be there anyway, so it doesn’t highly attract me.