Millennia ago, the majority of people not only believed in heaven, but they could point it out for you. Beyond the clouds was the mysterious workings of the celestial vault, and the Earth was widely perceived as a flat disc positioned in the center of the cosmos. The Book of Daniel (4:11), for example, mentions a vision of a great tree reaching into the heavens that “could be seen to the ends of the Earth.”
Divine beings were believed to rule the nearest discernible heavenly bodies, and the starry backdrop appeared to be a single stratum of lights in the sky. Genesis 1:14-17 states that God attached the stars to the firmament, like a diamond-studded canopy. In fact, it was thought a sufficiently powerful earthquake could shake them loose and send them plummeting to Earth. According to this view, the underworld was, quite literally, beneath the Earth where the sun paid a nightly visit.
By the dawn of the Common Era (about 2,000 years ago), popular cosmology around the Mediterranean basin changed. Educated people now understood the Earth to be spherical, and they envisaged the universe to be divided into multiple geocentric layers. The most commonplace scheme depicted seven heavens — one for each major celestial body — supported by the firmament, the lowest layer consisting of the “air” between the Earth and moon. They considered this sub-heaven a region of change, corruption and decay. Because there was now no underworld, some claimed Satan presided over this realm.
One can find clear evidence of the evolving zeitgeist. In 2 Corinthians 12:2-4, Paul claims he knew a man (probably himself) who traveled up to the third heaven, where he says the Garden of Eden exists (a common Jewish belief at the time).
The Dead Sea Scrolls also delineate seven ascending levels of heaven. The first heaven began in the region of the moon, then on to Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, usually in that order. Mesopotamian myths describe the floors of each level of the heavens as composed of a different type of stone. This idea finds support in a parallel from the Old Testament, where the floor of heaven is apparently built of blue-sapphire brick (Exodus 24:9-10).
It was commonly held that the sky teemed with life — trees, horses and people — essentially everything on Earth, though more perfected versions. The cosmos also was populated by angels, demons, archons and intercessory guides. Moreover, keys and passwords were required to open gates from one heaven to the next, a concept also taught in Mithraism.
What may shed light on incipient Christian beliefs is an early 2nd century text called the Ascension of Isaiah. Here, Isaiah receives a vision of a celestial Jesus descending through the seven heavens (shedding layers of glory at each stage) to the misty realm just below the moon, where, according to historian Richard Carrier’s interpretation, he is humiliated, tried and crucified on a tree by Satan — “the ruler of this world” — and his minions.
Though this death in outer space sounds bizarre, it has established precedents. According to Plutarch, Osiris also was said to have been killed by his evil brother Set just below the lunar orb. And in The Revelation of Moses, Adam was buried in the 3rd heaven, somewhere on or near Venus.
People of ancient cultures also imagined divine beings enjoying the aromas of cook fires as the smoke rose heavenward. Hence, sacrificial meats were seared because “burnt offerings are pleasing to the Lord” (Numbers 29:2; Exodus 29:18; Genesis 8:21).
Due in large part to the sciences, our worldview is coming into sharper resolution — a picture conforming ever more closely to objective reality. However, the church always has been stubbornly slow about altering its outdated ideas. Yet change it eventually must. For instance, in 1992 the Vatican finally admitted it was wrong to condemn Galileo for asserting a sun-centered solar system.
Certain members of the clergy have also recently deigned to voice hitherto heretical views. In 2012, Cardinal George Pell opined that the tale of Adam and Eve in Paradise (whether Venusian or earthly) “is a very sophisticated mythology to try to explain evil and suffering in the world … it’s certainly not scientific truth.”
I agree. But if original sin is merely metaphorical and one does not inherit this “sinful nature,” might that not obviate the need for baptism and render the archaic idea of atonement by blood-sacrifice unnecessary?
Modern astronomers have abandoned the quaint cosmologies of the past, replacing them with observation-based science. It’s time we do the same with all antiquated ideologies steeped in the supernatural.
So where is heaven if we can no longer confidently point to it in the sky? Like Nirvana, the Elysian Fields and Valhalla, the “abode of the blessed” has since been relegated to the nonphysical realm of myth, metaphor, and the human imagination.
Ed Neumann is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society.