How did heaven first end up in the sky and then nowhere?

One of the things that made me into a disbeliever in the existence of gods (and anything supernatural) was the fact that science seemed to have ruled out any location where such things might exist. The answer usually given that ‘God is everywhere’ but could not be detected seemed like a cop out. And the idea of dead people’s souls wandering around that could observe you but you could not contact (except through people with special powers) also seemed weird.

But during the time that I was a believer, I did struggle with the question of where a god and heaven could possibly be. In this article, Stephen Case explores how ideas about heaven have changed over the last two millennia.

If I asked my astronomy students where heaven was located, I would no doubt receive a classroom full of bewildered stares, despite the fact that I teach at a Christian university – where the majority of students believe in both heaven and the afterlife. When pressed, they might offer thoughts about heaven being a different plane of reality or perhaps another dimension. They believe, but they don’t conceptualise heaven as a location; it is not a part of their spatial understanding of the universe. For most of the history of Christianity, though, the opposite was true.

Case then explores how the ideas evolved in the Western world, influenced by Greek mythology and philosophy.

The first ideas of heaven that show up in the Bible are consistent with eastern Mediterranean culture: humans dwelled in the middle level of a flat, three-storied universe. The underworld below is the place of the dead, and the heavens above are the place of God or the gods… The heavens were not the destination of those who lived a virtuous life. Good or evil, the dead dwelt in Sheol, the underworld.

The idea of ascent to heaven after death was more common among Greek philosophers, such as Plato.

Aristotle, a student of Plato, helped formalise Plato’s division between Earth and the heavens… Within the heavens, seven wandering objects (the five visible planets, plus the Sun and the Moon) each had their own motion, but the stars moved together as though embedded on a sphere. This sphere of the fixed stars became the outermost boundary of the Earth-centred universe and was essential to eventual beliefs of the location of the Christian heaven.

Early Christians, trying to make sense of accounts of the life of Jesus of Nazareth and the writings of his first followers in the 1st century, formulated their views of the afterlife in this Greek and Roman philosophical context. Plato provided the idea of souls ascending into heaven, but the texts that would become the Christian scriptures (the New Testament) emphasised a physical, bodily resurrection – most importantly in their claim that Christianity’s founder was himself resurrected in the body and ascended physically to heaven. If Jesus dwelled in heaven, with New Testament texts indicating his followers would join him there, the radical hope of Christianity needed not a Platonic realm of rational thought, but a physical place – a material heaven. Aristotle’s view of the universe, with its outermost sphere of the stars, gave Christians the conceptual framework to locate heaven on a map.

So what happened after the Copernican revolution that placed the Sun at the center of a universe that extended far into space and made the idea of heaven being a physical space untenable?

By the 17th century, in the wake of revelations of the telescope, consensus over the location of heaven was gone. The new astronomy of Copernicus and Galileo ultimately fractured ideas about the empyrean heaven and gave rise to widely different assumptions regarding its location or even its existence. Eventually, as a more detailed understanding of the starry realms developed, the empyrean heaven was displaced completely. By the end of the 18th century, a Catholic dictionary of theology could dismiss speculations about the physical location of heaven: ‘It should be the object of our desires and of our hopes and not of our speculations.’

Viewed from one perspective, the dislocation of the empyrean heaven from the physical universe is simply an example of the progress of science dismantling religious belief. But belief is seldom static, and the relationship between science and faith is one of dialogue as often as of conflict. Ideas about the Christian heaven were constructed in dialogue with contemporary knowledge of the world – at the time, Aristotelian ideas about the physical universe. When this view of nature was shown to be incorrect, ideas of heaven were modified accordingly. Astronomy forced Christian thinkers to admit that the empyrean heaven was never a central tenet of their faith to begin with and return to what contemporary theologians such as N T Wright consider a view closer to original Christianity: salvation not as an escape to a heaven beyond the universe but a stranger, more radical hope of renewal and re-creation of this one. An empyrean heaven was no more essential to Christianity, it turned out, than a motionless Earth – despite scriptures that seemed to argue for both.

For many religious people, the idea of a realm in which people live in the afterlife seems to be an essential component, irrespective of whatever particular religious tradition they belong to. Take that away, and it is but a short step towards atheism.


  1. outis says

    Very interesting reading, detailing some of the finest examples of frantic back-pedalling ever recorded.
    Pity those poor theologians who had to readjust the structure everytime someone published something new: “this rock-hard tenet of our religion was actually… not so important. Cancel & forget please (jangles keys)”.
    Ah well, they say mental gymnastics is good for the brain. But what about sprains and dislocations?

  2. keithb says

    In Sarah Rudman’s new translation she always translates “heaven” as “sky”.

    “Our Father in the skies…”

  3. lumipuna says

    return to what contemporary theologians such as N T Wright consider a view closer to original Christianity: salvation not as an escape to a heaven beyond the universe but a stranger, more radical hope of renewal and re-creation of this one.

    I’ve noticed this strain of thought being often referred in Christian (Lutheran) rhetoric and teaching materials. Namely, that Christianity is fundamentally an apocalypse cult; that one day this physical world will end or at least be radically transformed; that a new paradise-like world will be created for believers who will become immortal; that God himself will then dwell together with his people; that dead believers will be physically resurrected for this eternal afterlife on the day of apocalypse.

    It seems that popular understanding of Christianity has long veered toward being meaningful in the present instead. People prefer to interpret salvation so that dead people are resurrected immediately (or at least reasonably soon) as immaterial souls that go to enjoy afterlife in some hidden, possibly immaterial realm. It was always logical to place this realm in “heaven above” where God was believed to live, though Aristotle’s ideas helped make it seem more tangible. After Aristotle was proven wrong, common believers increasingly retreated to the idea of immaterial souls and immaterial God living in immaterial Heaven.

    AFAIK, ancient cultures tended to believe that the dead dwell in underworld in their physical body -- while ideas of human souls did exist, the idea that body and soul could depart didn’t. Unclear how this belief was reconciled with the observation that dead bodies tend to naturally stay in human realm until they rot and fall apart. In any case, once the idea of immaterial afterlife was introduced to Christianity (from Plato I guess?), it proved very popular and probably also eventually influenced Judaism and Islam. It certainly served to make the idea of afterlife more resistant to critical inquiry.

    In its very earliest form, Christianity probably didn’t much concern with afterlife. The apocalypse was thought to be imminent, and only a few unfortunate believers might die before it happened. Jesus himself had been resurrected, or perhaps hadn’t really died to begin with -- people later argued over these details for centuries. His physical absence was rationalized with the idea that he’d gone to visit God in heaven to prepare for the apocalypse. As years passed and most of the original cult members died, it came to be presumed that they’d also be resurrected, just like Jesus. At the time of earliest Christian writings, a few decades later, Jesus was claimed to have only promised people that some of them would still be alive when the apocalypse came. Eventually, the Christian advent of apocalypse faded largely into background.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    … the Copernican revolution that placed the Sun at the center of a universe that extended far into space …

    Didn’t ol’ Nicholas posit the same old Ptolemaic star-sphere and leave all that dizzy-making infinity stuff to heretics like Bruno?

  5. mnb0 says

    During Antiquity there was no problem anyhow, because people back then were not obsessed by seperating the natural from the supernatural like we are.

    “Take that away, and it is but a short step towards atheism.”
    Agreed, but I think for a reason. In áll religions that postulate a heaven it’s a kind of reward one way or another. Take that away and people have to look for reasons to behave well in their own daily lives. That results in secularism (which is an easy step for believers anyway) and the next generations will wonder why bother with gods at all.

  6. says

    I wonder how much of the recent surge in flat earth believers comes from some trying to push back against this. If science says their beliefs are wrong, then science must be lying.

  7. moarscienceplz says

    @Tabby Lavalamp,
    Yes, I think that is a big part of it. Also, the perverse attempt by much of the RW cesspool to discredit anyone with any actual expertise in a subject as an ‘elite’ who is lying to the common folk.
    When I was a kid in the late 60s and early 70s I was forced to attend sevices at the Methodist church. Since this was the height of the Space Race, and also computer technology was becoming big, most people were very excited by science and technology. Probably due to this, our preacher tried very hard to weave sci-tech themes into his sermons. I remember one about how a SAM missile corrects its course towards its target, then realizes it has over-corrected and changes course again, over and over, and that was a model for how to live one’s life. Anyway, my point is that there seems to be a love/hate cycle to religious folks’ attitude towards sci-tech, and it seems we are in the hate phase at present. Of course, in order for the god-botherers to start loving sci-tech again, they are going to have to let go of biblical literalism.

  8. birgerjohansson says

    @Tabby Lavalamp
    För a hilarious sample of flat-earthism I recommend the podcast God Awful Movies the episode GAM ; Level .
    Here three unbelievers unpick a “documentary” titled “Level”.
    The flat Earthism of the episode contains significant elements of Christianity, plus various excentric characters including the gentleman who washes his hands with, and drinks, his own urine.

  9. Matt G says

    “There is no harmony between religion and science. When science was a child, religion sought to strangle it in the cradle. Now that science has attained its youth, and superstition is in its dotage, the trembling, palsied wreck says to the athlete: ‘Let us be friends.’ It reminds me of the bargain the cock wished to make with the horse: ‘Let us agree not to step on each other’s feet.’” -Robert G. Ingersoll

  10. Tethys says

    I’m not convinced that early Christians believed in anything other than pantheons of gods who ruled over the various realms.

    Heaven and eternal life seems to be codified by the Nicean creed, which isn’t all that early.

  11. John Morales says

    All this talk about Heaven, and no mention of Hell?

    (A bit like referring to the positive pole of a magnet without mentioning the negative pole, I reckon)

  12. Tethys says

    Plenty of stories from various European cultures involve a living person traveling to the underworld of the dead, generally to try to bring somebody back. They usually cross bridges, rivers of spears, descend into caves, etc….
    The Xtian concept of a fiery hell ruled by Lucifer is more consistent with the late Greek view of hell as a place of torments.

    The concept of a world tree connecting the lands of the gods, the underworld, and the middle world where people live is also very widespread across Eurasia.

    It doesn’t seem illogical to imagine that dying is like being born, with your shade returning to a non-living realm under the ground just as your material remains would return to the ground.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *