A Volcanic Eruption of Biblical Proportions

What a volcano in Iceland teaches us about heaven.

Say what you want about Eyjafjallajokull, the unpronounceable Iceland volcano now inconveniencing millions around the world. I am mesmerized by the photographs, struck by their awesome beauty. The volcano has not just been an international glitch, a corporate financial crisis, an object lesson in a world without air travel – though it has been all those things. It seems – based on the photographic evidence, at least – to be a bona fide Act of God. Blazing tongues of flame spurt from the volcano’s mouth, intermixing with dusky clouds and darkness. The gray-white atmosphere above and around the mountain looks both magnificent and portentous: If someone told me that Mount Sinai looked like this during Moses’s adjournment there, I would believe them.

Heaven, according to the most basic definition, is where God lives, and throughout the West, religious believers imagine heaven to be geographically “up” — but until an event like Eyjafjallajokull, it’s hard to remember or fully understand why. While researching my new book “Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With the Afterlife,” I became obsessed with heaven’s location. Most of us imagine God to live physically above us, in the sky, in a place we call heaven, but on careful reflection that seems not at all a foregone conclusion. In Bali, for example, Hindus believe that God resides in every tree and grain of rice. So why do our painters, greeting card manufacturers and children’s book writers insist on portraying heaven as “up”? I once asked my daughter, four at the time, where she imagined heaven was. “It’s up there,” she said, gesturing at the ceiling, “in the sky.” She paused. “Heaven is farther away than outer space, but it’s near outer space. It’s just an inch away from outer space. God lives there.”

I visited the Bible scholar Alan Segal at his office at Barnard College to ask him why he thought heaven was “up.” He thought my question strange. Almost every ancient religion in the West, he told me, had a primary god, and that god lived high above the earth, in the sky, or, as the Ancient Greeks believed, on a mountain called Olympus. More than a thousand years before Jesus, the ancestors of the people we now call Jews lived side-by-side with other people, whom the Bible calls Canaanites. The Hebrews had One God, and the Canaanites had many. They had, most importantly, a deity called Ba’al, a sky god who controlled the weather, especially rain and storms. Like the God of Abraham, Ba’al was inexplicable and full of contradictions. He was both sustaining and short-tempered, terrifying and glorious.

In the Torah – the first five books of the Bible – heaven is almost always just shamayim, the skies. It is the home of God and his angels; it is emphatically not a residence for people or any kind of human soul. When the Hebrews gazed upon heaven, it was likely with fear, anxiety, trepidation: bad things, miraculous things, unpredictable things came from there. Like my daughter, the people of the Torah understood God to live both in and beyond the sky. Segal describes the Hebrew God as master of the heavens and points to Genesis 14, where He is “possessor of heaven and earth.” Like Ba’al, the God of Abraham is “clearly a weather god,” Segal tells me, a creator who has the power to make storms and lift the seas. In Exodus, the Lord helps Moses and the Israelites safely cross the Red Sea: “At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up, the floods stood up in a heap; the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea.”

At Mount Sinai, Moses encounters God, as Exodus says, “in a dense cloud.” The mountain “was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently.” Geologists believe that Sinai may, like Eyjafjallajokull, have been a volcano. Knowing what we know now about the powerful effects one small, and relatively harmless, volcano, it’s no surprise that whatever happened on Sinai retains such a critical place in the story of Western religion.

It wasn’t until about 200 BCE that some Jews began to imagine that they themselves would wind up in heaven with God after death, a reward for righteous behavior on earth. And it wasn’t until the time of Jesus that such a belief became, as the scholars say, “normative.” In the beginning, heaven was simply the home of God, “up there,” unpredictable and all-powerful. From heaven, God could make rain and drought, he could send down angels with terrifying news. This same God in this same heaven could easily, one imagines, make all planes cease to fly.


Image by Flickr

Lisa Miller
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  • APaganplace

    Often, of course, when people assume the primacy of a ‘sky-god’ in other religions, they are projecting their own beliefs onto others’.People coming from an Abrahamic perspective, while reporting on what they see, (or record/report/interpret out of history, particularly history they edited) …that what looks most like the thunder-bolt-slinging ‘Sky God’ must be the ‘most important,’ cause to them, that’s what ‘Important-looking’ *looks like.* Often, solely. Not to say that no importance exists, but other things, like the context of other people’s worldviews, tend to be ignored, cause ‘all-fathers’ are what they *relate to.* Come to think of it, I don’t recall if the actual Bible says the Christian God flings thunderbolts around like Zeus. Kind of seems he was more one for fire and stuff.

  • areyousaying

    Why of course. God is an old white guy in the sky with a beard and a bad attitude.

  • APaganplace

    “”Why of course. God is an old white guy in the sky with a beard and a bad attitude.””This certainly shows up the bias. Vulcanism is called Vulcanism, …cause of Vulcan: this was seen as actually it is… a rising from the Earth… this is where molten earth and all comes from, after all, (or sea: Poseidon was the ‘Earth-shaker,’ like waves on the shore or tsunami.) Looking for other cultures views’ of volcanoes, well, how about the Thunderbird, where there are volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest: Dark wings, billows of lightning? …*That* you can see in these images. :) I think it’s also a nice example of where white Christian-raised people came along and said, ‘Of course, they must live in constant fear of this bird and be trying to appease it…’Not so much.

  • Grandblvd03

    Sometimes I feel that if I hear the phrase “of biblical proportions” one more time, I will vomit.

  • lufrank1

    Bottom Line:

  • Chaotician

    God is living forever? in Earth’s sky, forever? This silly white old fool is here forever…really? And he is appeased by human sacrifice…really? And he prefers Jewish tribal sheepherders over any other?? really? And he has a shared persona called Jesus which if properly tortured, murdered, and abused will be viewed as the ultimate sacrifice to the Father persona, you know the fire and brimstone dude, the rain for 40 days and 40 nights guy, the Sodom and Gomorrah destroyer, the Egyptian plagues guy, that guy is going to say great when you stick his son Jesus on a Cross for the sins of mankind…that guy?? Really?? And spending eternity at the feet of your God in abject adoration of his might and majesty is a goal you seek? really? And what are you going to do with a smelly old decrepit Earthly body to drag around for eternity; and why would Jesus want such a thing? Resurrection? You have got to be kidding!! Have you noticed that this 3rd rock from a lonely star in a lonely end of a nowhere galaxy in the vast… that’s very big!, Universe would be hard for even an omnipotent, omnipresent, eternal, everlasting God to be interested in or even find for that matter! Really!!!

  • PSolus

    “Bottom Line: Expect to be hearing from Thomas Paul Moses Baum in the near future.

  • wireman65

    Umm, the volcano is an act of plate techtonics.

  • krankyman

    Bottom Line:

  • miramar50

    Heaven, Ms.Miller?

  • TomH1

    recommend 19th century classic Flatland on a discussion of “up” re: heavenchao- your rantings presume atheism, which unfortunately logically requires you to believe ‘six impossible things before breakfast’ about the makeup our universe, planet, and life. Most of us don’t have enough faith to believe in atheism!

  • alance

    Lisa Miller’s article is fascinating. I tend to believe, like the Hindus, that God resides in every tree and grain of rice. In other words, God exists everywhere. There is no place in the universe that God does not exist.Perhaps we are all living in heaven right now, and the hell of it is, we don’t even know it.

  • rlholloway

    Bottom Line: I can say without a shadow of a doubt that there is a God and He has a Son named Jesus Christ. You might ask how can I be so certain, because I have a personal relationship with Him. lufrank1 you can also have this same relationship by accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. Pick up a Bible and honestly read the Book of John with an open mind. God loves you and is calling you name as you read this, how you respond to His calling is your decision.

  • YEAL9

    It is not some old white (Christian?)bearded guy in the sky with a bad attitude but a significant clash between the horned god and his triple mistress over the color of the Maypole.And a whole column using the mythical Pentateuch as an historical reference? Give us a break!!!New York TimesARTS & IDEAS/CULTURAL DESK | March 9, 2002By MICHAEL MASSING (NYT): Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.”

  • YEAL9

    And that is the rub, everyone has their own interpretation of their god and words of said god. For Christians, there are four different books, at least five auxiliary books/epistles, and competing stories just in the original set followed by translations and embellishments followed by countless interpretations, hidden codes and raptures. IMHO, this god needs to have another visit to a mountain top to get the mess cleaned up. Of course, there are the other religions that have the same god but different authentic words. Very strange that this god could create such confusion don’t you think? The whole cacophony sounds and smells of politics and economics!!!!!

  • PSolus

    “…atheism, which unfortunately logically requires you to believe ‘six impossible things before breakfast’ about the makeup our universe, planet, and life.”What exactly are these ‘six impossible things before breakfast’ that atheists are unfortunately logically required to believe?

  • Nymous

    Maybe heaven is in the quantum foam of recreation.

  • Jerusalimight

    One thing volcanoes and tsunamis show us is how little control over the world we really have. Faith in God is ultimately a declaration of our innate lack of control over our lives, and God’s total power.People who do not believe in God still admit that we lack control. They just believe that nothing else is controlling things either. I do not understand how they can believe life keeps on happening by accident.

  • anofech

    There is a Jewish prayer that says “…and God made the sky”.This prayer contradicts the earlier belief that God is in the sky because obviously God could not have been in the sky before it was made. It is also likely to have appeared much earlier than Maimonides who changed the philosophical underpinnings of Jewish religious belief.When and where did this prayer appear?

  • pgibson1

    how about “a volcanic eruption of volcanic proportions”.I find it incredibly manipulative that you should need to juxtapose these two ideas – as if the bible has anything to do with the timing and eruption of any given volcano.No – it’s probably not at all related – unless you believe this person trying to associate them in a very artificial manner.like the artificial bible.How about the one where Mary was impregnated by the “Holy spirit”.lol. good one.I’m not buying your delusions.

  • callosumlink

    The direction that’s “up” to us is really down in the polar opposite side of the world. So heaven is really…hell? Whatever.Anyway, to add more conspiracy theories to the mix, 2012 is coming up, the end of the Mayan calendar. And the Mayan calendar was the most accurate calendar of its time (2 days off from our modern timekeeping). Is it me or are there more earthquakes and techtonic movements these past few years or months than previous? 2012 is also the US presidential election. Damn everyone get chaotic already! I need to sell some leftover Y2K survival kits!!!

  • JimZ1

    God had to live in a place where man could not go. Otherwise we would knock on God’s door and find that no one was home. That’s why there was such anger in the early years of the U.S. space program. Space travel made it possible to see that no one was home, or at least God moved to a different neighborhood.

  • FarnazMansouri

    There is next to nothing, if not nothing, of an “afterlife” in Jewish “dogma.” The religion is focused on the here and now.As for the “location” of the deity, it is abstract, not in the sky, since the sky remained to be created, as it were.There is no man-God, son of God, niece, nephew, or daughter-in-law, such as the Christian people borrowed from mystery and other religions of the region. This myth of “belief” and “salvation” if one “follows” God’s kid needs to be put to rest.Batman is a possible substitute.

  • ivri91208

    “Like the God of Abraham, Ba’al was inexplicable and full of contradictions. He was both sustaining and short-tempered, terrifying and glorious.”I’m not sure who to fault more: biblical scholar Alan Segal for positing such a ridiculous conclusion, or journalist Lisa Miller for believing and repeating it. Both obviously claim to know the Bible, which makes the comment all the more amazing. Yahweh is most definitely sustaining – the Hebrew Bible clearly teaches that the same Lord who created the heavens and the earth sustains them as well. Yahweh is most definitely inexplicable – for this reason the Hebrews needed revelation to understand themselves and their world in relation to the God who created them. Glorious? Absolutely. The Hebrew Bible breathes the holiness and grandeur of Yahweh from Genesis to Chronicles. Terrifying? Most definitely, and this is corollary of his glory. No individual could see Yahweh and live; even Abraham saw only his back. The description of Yahweh as contradictory is a bit more problematic for anyone who knows the Bible. The Hebrew Bible makes clear that Yahweh does not change (Ps 93:2)” 2 Your throne was established long ago; The notion of God as being “like Ba’al,” however, would have been as inconceivable to the biblical authors as one today arguing that Obama is like Bush Jr. in the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh is incomparable, unique; if the Hebrew Scriptures breathe God’s glory and grandeur, they also testify passionately to his steadfastness, reliability, loyalty to his creation, special concern and provision for the widow/orphan/unprotected, and faithfulness to his people in fulfilling the promises he made to them. “Hesed,” a Hebrew noun for which there is no English equivalent, encompasses all the above ideas, and is certainly not true of the capricious and Ba’al.There are other problems with Miller’s essay, as well, not least of which is the idea that the prospect of eternity with Yahweh did not originate until 200 BC. Several texts in the Hebrew psalter imply otherwise, including Psalm 16:11″ 11 You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”Miller thus does not sufficiently reckon with the whole corpus of biblical data. Yet, her approach, as well as that of Segal, is typical of those who adopt an evolutionary view of religion as a basic presupposition. Biblical texts like the one above are submitted to a theoretical framework which, in turn, exerts hermeneutical control over the text, projecting modern ideas about the development of religion onto the ancient religions themselves, even to the point of ignoring (or being ignorant of) the clear teaching of the sacred documents of the religions under consideration.

  • arthur99dent

    A decade ago, I found a reference in either “Science” or “Nature” magazine, stating that while “Mt. Sinai” is not a volcanic mountain, *Biblical* Mt. Sinai was probably a volcano -the lightning is consistent with eruptions (the current eruption of EyafjallaJökull displayed plenty of lightning in the smoke plume).

  • arthur99dent

    A decade ago, I found a reference in either “Science” or “Nature” magazine, stating that while “Mt. Sinai” is not a volcanic mountain, *Biblical* Mt. Sinai was probably a volcano -the lightning is consistent with eruptions (the current eruption of Eyafjallajökull displayed plenty of lightning in the smoke plume).

  • Paladin7b

    Of course, what is interesting is that Genesis (probably written at about the time of the Babylonian captivity or its return) talks about both the flood and fire from the sky.There is a Sumerian reference to a strange light in the sky which crossd its airspace. Now if a large meteor were to strike, somewhere near or in the water, you might have a large fireball, with rocks and meteors descending (Sodom/Gommorah) with a large rainfall for a long period of time (40 days, Noah).Allegedly this took place about 3100 BCE, with another similar incident about 1000 years later (flood myths seem to fit in a circle around the Indian Ocean).Myth, Legend? Advanced facts far above the capability of a viewing citizenship are indistinguishable from magic. Perhaps real events, interpreted within the framework of the community.

  • seismic-2

    Is heaven “up” from North America or “up” from Australia? If the latter (or both), then the author’s daughter could just as well have pointed “down” towards heaven. That would fit in well with the column’s theme of a sky that is in effect ruled from below by a volcano-god, at least insofar as the aviation industry is concerned.

  • rd3

    Why does the Washington Post continue to give the most ignorant among us the most column space? If you check your Bible, you’ll find that the Jewish people were here the last time this so-called “god” destroyed the Earth by flood, asteroid, what have you, and then they wrote a cover story called the Old Testament to lie about their involvement and complicity. And they also were apparently the only ones on Earth who survived because they worshipped and made a deal with these extraterrestrial jerkwads. No lie can be maintained forever and it’s well past high time that this one came to an end.