Back in ’02, Newsweek did a cover article about the idea of “heaven.” It started, as I remember, with some reflections on the differing views of heaven held by the variety of people on the ill-fated airplane flights of 9/11, including those of the terrorists. This prompted me to wonder: what did the early church think about heaven? And I posted the following newsletter on www.christianhistory.net.
As this week’s Newsweek cover article insists, “heaven” is a powerful and pervasive word. It has been used to motivate people of many faiths in many ways: To instill character and strengthen resolve. To build community and spur change. To steel terrorists and comfort victims. It is easy to imagine this word, as the writers of the Newsweek article do, on the lips of both the hijackers of American Airlines Flight 11 and many of the passengers.
Apparently, although ministers in mainline Christian churches in America don’t preach much about heaven, 75 percent of Americans believe they’ll go there-if they’re good. Evangelicals talk more about the subject, believing that only faith in Christ can put them on the “highway to heaven.” And most folks expect that once through the gates, they will see not only their Lord, but also their loved ones (for some, including their pets).
For thoughtful Christians, all of this raises the question, “What did the early church believe about heaven?” The answer draws together both divine communion and human reunion.
For the apostles, heaven-as-divine-communion was a given. Indeed, in the New Testament the word “heaven” is often used to stand for God himself (Luke 15:21; Matt. 21:25, 23:22; John 3:27).
But heaven was a place, too. As Jesus had promised, “I go to prepare a place for you … that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3-4). And this place was not simple, but rather a complicated space with rooms or levels (an idea the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri would expand upon to unforgettable effect over a millennium later). In 2 Corinthians 12:2-4, the Apostle Paul pulls perhaps the biggest tease of the Bible when he tells of being lifted up into “the third heaven,” where he experienced “things so astounding” that, to the great disappointment of his readers ever since, “they cannot be told” (New Living Bible).
Not only was heaven a place, it was populated. Especially during the centuries of Roman persecution, Christians looked forward to communing after death not only with God, but with each other.
The earliest evidence of this trend is “The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity,” an account of two Christian women killed in Carthage (in North Africa) around 202 or 203. This book records a dream Perpetua had in prison just before she and her companions were thrown to the wild beasts. In the dream Perpetua saw her sickly brother, Dinocrates, who had died at the age of 7, in heaven drinking from the fountain of life. In the same book, other soon-to-be-martyred Roman captives envisioned themselves after death joyously rejoining their fellow martyrs in a garden paradise.
The Martyrdom was a widely circulated book, and it may well have shaped many early Christians’ visions of their eternal reward. For example, we find communal images of heaven-as banquet and as playground for Christian children-depicted on the walls of the Christians’ catacomb hideouts beneath Rome.
Such pictures of heavenly human fellowship, however, didn’t push God from the center of the picture. Clement of Alexandria, one of the earliest fathers, said in the second century that heaven was above all the place where believers received the vision of God from Christ.
Indeed, by the year 400, with the era of persecution ended, the communal and sensual aspects of heaven seemed to recede as God himself took center stage again. Christian leaders wrote increasingly of heaven as, above all, the place where one participated in God’s spiritual perfection. For the 4th-century Eastern Father Gregory of Nazianzus, heaven was where the tired pilgrim could finally rest in God. There the Christian could at last, released from the distractions of the flesh, enjoy the full nearness of Christ-tasted only briefly and tantalizingly on earth.
Augustine of Hippo (354-430) painted his vision of heaven in the great City of God. He wrote the book as humanity’s highest societal achievement, the Roman Empire, tottered on the brink of dissolution. Against this backdrop he turned his eyes upward to a kingdom whose splendor far surpassed that of the world beneath. In his Confessions, Augustine had insisted that “our heart does not rest until it rests in God.” Now he painted heaven as one long embrace-an embrace of God, and an embrace of other people who love Christ.
Treasuring this vision of eternal communion and community, Christians ever since have looked forward to a time and a place where “the young women will dance for joy, and the men-old and young-will join in the celebration.” So said Jeremiah, the “weeping prophet,” who though he lived before the word “heaven” was first spoken, still insisted that he heard God say “I will comfort them and exchange their sorrow for rejoicing.” (Jer. 31:13, New Living Bible)
This article draws from Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang’s Heaven: A History and Everett Ferguson’s Encyclopedia of Early Christianity.
For more on early Christians’ visions of heaven, see http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/2001/002/11.38.html.
For more on The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity, see http://www.christianitytoday.com/tc/8r4/8r4017.html.
For a multifaceted introduction to the vivid heavenly (and hellish and purgatorial) imagery of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, see http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/2001/002/1.10.html and other on-line articles from issue 70 of Christian History.
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today International/Christian History magazine.
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