Heaven

"Muhammed's Paradise" showing seven heavens.
“Muhammed’s Paradise” showing seven heavens. Persian miniature from The History of Mohammed. 1808. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.
Heaven is where God lives. It’s an ancient concept predating Christianity and Judaism, common in the ancient near east.

According to ancestral faiths, tribal gods, warrior gods, agricultural gods and multiple other gods may have shared the heavens. When the tribal Israelites turned to worshipping a single, triumphant god, he ruled in heaven alone. Competitor gods were demoted to simple angels and demons.

Humans didn’t go to heaven. Humans just died and maybe became shades persisting in the underworld—kind of faded into a shadowy non-existence underground called Sheol. Everybody ended up there, good or bad.

Heaven is above

As far as anyone could tell, heaven was a physical, material and real place, not supernatural or “in the spirit.” You needed to have wings, like an angel, to get up there.

A basic cosmological model that explained the sky and Earth’s place in it was that there was a solid dome or firmament above the Earth into which the Sun and the Moon and the planets and the stars were embedded.

In the lower reaches were vast storehouses of rain and snow and hail and wind. The Sun and the Moon trucked around under the flat Earth to get back to the other side. There were more sophisticated, and more workable versions.

Greek Astronomers

Hundreds of years before Jesus, Greek astronomers observed that the Earth seemed to be in the centre of the universe. In a sky of fixed stars there were seven moving lights. They were the five observable planets—Mars, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, Mercury—and the Moon and the Sun. They moved regularly, but independently. A simple explanation was that they were embedded like jewels in surrounding rotating concentric spheres or material layers above. In the highest levels were the un-moving fixed stars.

The ancient Jews, predecessors to Christianity, liked the idea that God is above, looking down from highest heaven. Hell was at the inner extreme—at the centre of the Earth. God lived in the uppermost, which is where we get a phrase such as “seventh heaven” signifying happiness, bliss.

God’s House

Since God was essentially a king, it was assumed he lived in heaven in a palace with a throne and a court of attendants. While the Jews made him a nice chest (the Ark of the Covenant) in their temple, with a place for his presence above, he didn’t live there. That was how they communicated with him. He did tell them how big to make it for when he visited, though, and it fits comfortably in a room.

Christians in Heaven

Jesus said you stood very little chance of getting into heaven, because we’re all sinners and our faith is weak, and furthermore the Bible says little to support the idea of humans in heaven. The Christian Bible actually suggests humans will end up resurrected back on a paradise on Earth or destroyed in a final judgement, so it’s most likely you won’t end up in heaven. However, there are multitudes of different ideas about what happens to humans after death, including spending at least some time in heaven.

Aftermath

Over time heaven has been less and less a place near us. It could exist on another plane, be a thing of the spirit, or be the simple experience of God’s love, but it’s not above one of the cosmic spheres, because they don’t exist. We’ve been up there.

The idea that heaven was a real, material place was falling with the classical model of the cosmos around the time of the publication of the Faust legend (late 16th C., around the time of the first Faust books), particularly as telescopes soon showed what was really out there. While the Faust authors up to and including Marlowe) were probably not familiar with the Copernican system, the debate over the nature of the cosmos was very much alive.

We know quite confidently what’s up there in space (space), but it’s only fairly recently that we’ve known, and it’s only in living memory that we’ve been able to actually go up there and see for ourselves (of course, many suspected, just as many doubted the old cosmic model long before it was exposed). It was only around 1920 that we even knew there were galaxies other than our own. We don’t know everything.

Yet over time, heaven has been a place more and more of us aspire to. Resurrection on Earth seems to have gone by the wayside. But while Christians may hold to the popular idea of eternity in heaven, their church may disagree and it may be that neither eternity nor heaven are in the cards. We’d all like to get into heaven but sometimes we just have to recognize our biases, and one big vulnerability is our need to believe in an afterlife. Nobody wants to just die, and nobody wants to think much about it. It makes us feel better to think of an afterlife, and we all want to comfort the ones we love.

It makes people happy to think that they can get in on the heaven lottery, and it makes them join churches, because you have to be a member to play. Plus, if only the good ones get into heaven, there’s motivation to be virtuous in life, and that’s good for all of us.

The idea of eternity in heaven instead of resurrection on a new Earth has been a growing popular idea since Faust’s time. He may not have had the same expectations. The burden is on the author to justify Faust’s actions as at least marginally rational within at least one Christian sect’s dogma, but which one fits? Perhaps what they believed can be deduced if we understand their time and place. What we think of heaven may interfere with understanding the rationale for Faust’s choices.

What might Faust have expected from his afterlife? Theology had different opinions covering oblivion to bodily resurrection to ascent to heaven; philosophy added elements like morality and the immortal soul and free will; Natural sciences contributed various cosmological models. Additionally times were changing at an unprecedented rate and regional differences such as the burgeoning Protestantism of that part of Germany-to-be makes it interesting to consider what Faust may have thought he was trading away. Probably not the paradise in heaven Christians hope for today. Whatever it was, it wasn’t enough to dissuade him from making his deal. For some Christians (who believed that since God knew everything, he already knew Faust’s destiny long before Faust was born), his frustrations were evidence. Discouraged as he was, life’s troubles didn’t suggest God’s favour. Heaven was out of reach.

See

Biblical cosmology at Wikipedia

Selected References

  • Johnson, Francis R. “Marlowe’s Astronomy and Renaissance Skepticism.” ELH, vol. 13, no. 4, 1946, pp. 241–254. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2871447.
  • Russell, Jeffrey Burton. A History of Heaven: the Singing Silence. Princeton University Press, 1997.
  • Wright, J. Edward. The Early History of Heaven. Oxford University Press, 2000
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