What did those guys know?

Since I considered “heaven and earth” in the recent series, in relation to the deliberate parallels between the Genesis 1 “cosmic temple” and Israel’s tabernacle and temple, it’s interesting to muse on how the ancient Hebrews thought about “heaven”.

One thing to keep clearly in mind is that the heavens, shemayim, were a part of creation, and a definite place. Or to be more exact, a definite region or realm of the physical world. The word just corresponds to “the sky”. It’s quite simple to work out, really, by considering the term “heaven and earth” often used to describe the whole creation, which is a “merism” using two extremes to cover the lot. So the lowest part of creation is “earth”, the highest part “the heavens”, and everything else, such as the sea and lower sky, and clouds, and all their inhabitants is, essentially, in between.

“The heavens”, being a broad and colloquial term, encompasses the sky/region of the air loosely, but properly means the high realm occupied by the sun, moon and stars above the clouds, and the highest part of that was seen as the dwelling place of God and his created retinue of angels, just as the earth was the dwelling place of men.

And that seems a naively materialistic view of God to most of us, given that famous quote from Yuri Gagarin that he didn’t see God whilst in orbit (actually, I gather, the words were put in his mouth by Nikita Kruschev in a later speech – Gagarin himself was an Orthodox believer).

But their religious views were actually more subtle than that. Remember when Solomon dedicated the new temple in Jerusalem, he said that God couldn’t possibly live in a house built by men, since the heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain him. Think about that for even a moment, and you’ll realise that Solomon didn’t have in mind God scrunched up in an inadequate dwelling, with arms and legs poking out the windows like Alice in Wonderland.

No, when he went on to describe the temple as a place for God’s “name” to dwell, a locus for the prayers of men, he clearly had in mind that heaven itself, in all its nightly glory, was to be seen as similarly “metaphorical” for God’s dwelling. God is Spirit, and, occupies infinite space or no space, filling the entire cosmos or being fully present in subatomic space. That’s the real meaning of the word “immense” – unmeasurable. Solomon had a good awareness of such things. Note that Solomon did not have a concept that God’s “real” dwelling was in some other, more nebulous or non-created space: it was that God, as Spirit, doesn’t do “places” at all, but sometimes (as it were) represents himself in actual physical spaces for the sake of his creation.

And yet though the idea that God needs a physical dwelling was, to Solomon, metaphorical, there was still spiritual reality in it. Remember that at the dedication of the temple, the shekinah glory of God filled the temple, just as it had at the consecration of the tabernacle in the wilderness under Moses, preventing the priests on with their work.

And so, for all the reverent and theologically correct reservations about anthropomorphising God, the whole of the Old Testament goes on to talk as if the temple – and the physical heavens too – are the literal dwelling place of God. One thinks of Isaiah’s vision in the temple; of the warning that anyone entering the holy of holies, apart from the annual atonement by the high priest, would die; of Jacob’s vision of a ladder to heaven from Bethel, of the elders of Israel meeting God on Sinai (albeit he had at that point “come down” on the mountain), and so on.

That “true imagery” continues into the New Testament, too. The Holy Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove from heaven at his baptism. The voice of God comes from heaven on more than one occasion. Jesus himself, on at least three separate occasions, looks up to heaven as he prays to his Father.

And we all remember that Luke describes the return of the risen Jesus to the Father in terms of his ascension, in a cloud, upwards – the disciples stand gazing up longingly until they are told angelically to go and wait for his Spirit to fill them, and that he will one day return in the same way they saw him go.

Now, it is by no means uncommon for wise, scientifically savvy, Christians nowadays to berate the ignorance of the past. As if Jesus would go into outer space to join his Father! Though of course, the fact that this condescension is directed towards the very eyewitnesses whose testimony is the main evidence we have for the resurrection is problematic. Did they lie or imply imagine Jesus’s leaving that way? Did Luke spice up the story for theological effect? Or perhaps God himself somehow orchestrated a dramatisation of the old metaphor because the spiritual reality is incomprehensible?

C S Lewis has some sensible ideas along that last line. He points out (I forget where) that had Jesus merely faded into “another dimension”, the message given would have been that he had either dematerialized or become something like an earthbound ghost. I can’t recall that he says as much, but there is an assumption that the Bible writers, or the Holy Spirit, chose their metaphor very wisely – there is nothing like the heavens above to inspire awe, wonder and a sense of transcendance, astronauts occasionally dipping into it in tin barrels notwithstanding. But it remains, to him, a metaphor.

Note that the same imagery continues further on into the New Testament – the dying Stephen sees his Lord at God’s right hand as he stares intently into heaven – remember that the only meaning of that phrase, to people then, was “staring intently into the sky”. The Book of Revelation is visionary in the apocalyptic style, of course, but if there’s one persistent component of the images, it’s that the earth is below, and the heavenly events are up – until the new Jersualem is finally seen descending to mark, perhaps, the abolition of the distinction between earth and heaven altogether.

So the biblical wordview, without exception it seems, is to view “the heavens” (ie the sky “up there”) as the dwelling place of God inasmuch as he has one – but with the caveat that God is not in the end the kind of being who needs to dwell anywhere. How primitive that seems in the light of Copernican astronomy and what we now know of the varied glory – but mostly the grand inhospitability – of the vast Universe. Atheists are wont to use that very scale and non-inhabitability as “evidence” that God doesn’t exist – though any of the Bible writers would have said that our increased knowledge of the heavens’ enormity merely tends closer towards confirming Solomon’s wisdom about God’s infinitude.

Perhaps the pervasiveness of that anthropomorphic metaphor helped the early Christians particularly with one central truth of the gospel: that the risen man Jesus Christ, who after his resurrection ate and drank ordinary food, and invited his disciples to appreciate that, unlike a ghost, he had flesh and bones, now dwells at the right hand of God in heaven until his return. Conceiving that in terms of, perhaps, a bright temple above the clouds inhabited by legions of angels (as we read in John’s vision) made it very immediate for them. “Where is Jesus now?” people asked. “He is in heaven,” they replied.

And, I suppose, wise and scientifically literate Christians will make the same reply nowadays. But they won’t mean anything like the same thing. Somehow I doubt that there are many of us who could summon up a coherent understanding of what it means that there is a physically resurrected human being in heaven.We believe it, but our worldview is too limited to express it. How odd.

If my own Christian experience is anything to go by, we tend to think of God’s dwelling as one of C S Lewis’s “other dimensions”, altogether outside creation. Do we have the faintest idea what we mean by that? It’s not from the Bible, so presumably somebody – a Platonist maybe – made it up. And is it at all coherent? God is Spirit, and doesn’t dwell in any dimension outside creation – he is simply dimensionless, and fills creation, and then some. The eternal Son may be said to be Spirit too, in the same way – but it is not only the eternal Logos who ascended to the Father before the first Pentecost, but the New Adam, born of a woman, crucified under Pontius Pilate, bearing the “flesh and bones” of the new humanity.

Flesh and bones, the last time I looked, are parts of the created order and can’t dwell in a dimensionless realm outside creation, still less in a metaphor. So how do we enlightened sciency types explain that? Or do we think our wishy-washy platonic realm of immaterial forms – and one glorified human body – is some kind of actual explanation rather than guff?

Now, if anyone has written a book containing profound insights in this matter, I’ve not read it and would love to be pointed at it. It may well be that the whole question is a holy mystery – but not a metaphor, because our faith is built on the absolutely non-metaphorical nature of the resurrection of Christ. You’re going to spend eternity in a body like his, come the general resurrection.

But if we can’t do more than plead utter ignorance, maybe we should be less confident in explaining away the beliefs – and the physical experience – of the Biblical witnesses. “Jesus couldn’t posibly be really in the heavens!” Oh yeah? You checked with binoculars, I take it?

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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3 Responses to What did those guys know?

  1. Robert Byers says:

    if the bible is gods word then its Gods ideas on these things. Not Hebrews. its as new to them as to us. they knew nothing. Its not from their insights, research, general knowledge.
    in fact most probably didn’t study the bible and just thought like their neighbors.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      The Bible’s own teaching on inspiration is more subtle (and less Islamic!) than that, Robert:

      Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who foretold the grace that would come to you, searched and investigated carefully, trying to determine the time and setting to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they foretold the things now announced by those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things… (1 Pet 1:11)

      Israel was often a rebellious nation, but I think you’d have trouble trying to show that their Scriptures didn’t form their worldview.

      • Robert Byers says:

        Well the scriptures were read by a few. It required teachers. yet the long rant of the old testament is how the people, and teachers, were so rejecting that along with that would go the ideas implied in genesus.
        i see a inattentive people and education system.
        further they were not that smart. so possibly only a few scholars, at the best of times, could reflect on these things.

        Remember when one leader , after only finding the old testament in the temple hidden, read it aloud to the people. (i can’t remember the verses). this showing that for a while there was ignorance on the bible and so secondary issues likle creation week.

        I think its unlikely the Hebrews were drawing conclusions on genesis or a few only and that occasionally.
        They did sometimes presume to conclusions.
        some verses presuming blacks changed colour from a original non black colour of the Adam/noah.

        likewise the origin for light.
        Genesis says light existed before our sun did. it was part of the universe day one. probably hebrews presumed this because light exists in fire etc.
        other peoples would presume light is from the sun only.

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