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