Sunday, December 1, 2013

Heaven on Their Mind

My family's holiday religious discourse has correlated to my level of academic study.  Each year, the dinner table has witnessed increasingly interesting discussions.  Last night's discussion was primarily monopolized by the concept of heaven.  The question posed to me was, "Well, what do you have to do to get to heaven?"  My response, granted it was a little instigative, was, "Which heaven?"

The Hebrew and Christian Bibles, as they appear today, portray an astonishingly wide range of heavenly conceptions.  Over the next few days, I will write brief posts on different models of heaven found throughout Christianity's religious literature.

A rabbit's conception of heaven.
For today, what better place to begin than in the beginning?

Genesis 1:1 reads, "In the beginning, Elohim created the heavens and the earth."  The heavens, in their introduction, are immediately set in contrast to the earth. The earth is on the ground; the heavens are above.  The earth is a single entity; the heavens exist as a plurality.  In the Genesis paradigm, the heavens are a purely cosmological representation.  They represent an ordered layering of reality.  Throughout Genesis, we learn that such phenomena, such as rain, originates within the heavens (Gen 7:11).  Additionally, we read that the stars also call heaven their home (Gen 22:15-18).

Heaven, in the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament, is not a place to which souls journey after death.  This idea comes later, and we will talk about it in further detail tomorrow.  

The last idea that I would like to bring up today is the heavenly antithesis, which is often brought up in conversations about heaven:  Hell.

The topic of Hell warrants a more detailed post in the future, but suffice to say for now that the Old Testament presents a conception of Hell akin to other literary works of ancient Mediterranean provenance.  Sheol is the most frequent place mentioned in the Old Testament as the resting place for the dead. Sheol, in Hebrew, translates to pit, grace, place of darkness.  Interestingly, the Hebrew Bible describes sheol similar to the Greek underworld, which Aeneas’ visit in book six of The Aeneid.

Sheol as a place exists between the pillars upon which the earth rests.  First Samuel 2:8 reads,

"He raises up the poor from the dust;
   he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
   and inherent a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord's,
   and on them he has set the world."

As I mentioned earlier, we will explore the concept of Hell in more detail at a later date.  The purpose of this post was to begin elucidating the varied biblical concepts of heaven.  In sum, the Old Testament presents a strictly cosmological representation of the heavens.  It is the place where all stars, planets, and divine beings exist.  When God speaks to his heavenly court, the beings whom God addresses (including Satan in the book of Job) exist alongside God in the heavens.  The heavens are not a place for humans, at least in the Hebrew Bible.

Tomorrow, we will discuss how this view is altered in the New Testament.

The crucified Christ pulling Adam and Eve from
the underworld.