The Christian tradition was birthed out of the Jewish world of faith, family, nation and belief. Like hell, the idea of heaven developed over many generations, influenced and impacted by the world around and over them.
Ancient Jewish belief saw the afterlife as a return to one's ancestors. People died and were buried in the family cave or in the earth. When someone else passed on, their remains were entered in the family plot, so to speak, with the remains of those previously departed moved aside. Early Jewish cosmology believed in Sheol (a shadowy but not evil underworld where the dead reside) and Shamayim, the exalted place in the skies where God lived.
Over time, and throughout political history, a concept of heaven and hell emerged.
Ancient Hebrew / Jewish faith developed through oral stories, told much as if they were campfire stories, of tales of yore: Moses leading the slaves out of Egypt in the promised land, the stories of Judges like Deborah and King like David and his son Solomon.
In 586 BCE, Jerusalem was invaded by the Babylonians, led by King Nebuchadnezzar. They forcibly removed the Jewish elite (scholars and artisans) into Babylon, which is now known as modern day Iraq. This is known as the Exile. In 539 BCE Cyrus the Great conquers Babylon and allows the Jewish elite to return to Jerusalem where they begin to rebuild. In the Hebrew Bible Book of Ezra, it's said that the Temple was rebuilt (circa 516 BCE). While in captivity and then again after Persian rule once they returned, the Jewish elite were reading and listening to other traditions.
One tradition that the Persians specifically held was known as Zorastariansim, a sort of alternative monotheism to the Hebrew understanding of Yahweh, where an epic battle between good and evil, light and dark was taking place. It was through the teachings of Zoraster (or Zarathustra) that the ancient Hebrews began to consider resurrection and the after life in new ways.
“It was a dualistic religion, which taught that all the good in the world came from the main deity, Ahura Mazda, who was associated with light, and that evil sprang from a demon named Agra Mainyu, associated with darkness. Zarathustra preached about an afterlife in which souls were judged according to their deeds on earth. At the judgement, each soul would walk across a razor-thin bridge that extended across a stinking pit; the good would pass safely across the bridge, while the evil fell in. At the same time… the armies of light were at war in another realm with the armies of darkness. This war would bring about a great cataclysm, a series of Messiah figures would come, and the earth would be refreshed, renewed even perfected. Dead bodies would rise and be reunited with their souls. Everybody, in the end would arrive in this Paradise… “non-aging, immortal, non-fading, forever living, forever prospering.” - Lisa Miller, Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife
In 333 BCE the Greeks invade, with two series of rulers, the Ptolemaic dynasty and the Seleucid dynasty. It was King Atiochus IV in 167 BCE that the Jewish people most infamously remember, for his desecration of the rebuilt Temple. It's during this time that the festival of Lights, or Hanukkah is established.
The Maccabean revolt took place during this time, where many Jewish martyrs died for their faith and their country. It is believed that the Book of Daniel, with its apocalyptic (end times) imagery that is uncharacteristic for most of the Hebrew Bible, was written. In the book, Daniel imagines an afterlife of reward and punishment amidst the great violence and suffering in his own lived experience:
‘At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever. But you, Daniel, keep the words secret and the book sealed until the time of the end. Many shall be running back and forth, and evil shall increase.’ - Daniel 12:1-4
It was during this time that two Jewish traditions were started that Jesus would engage with: the Sadducees and the Pharisees. Two later sects would also emerge by the time of Jesus, the Essenes and the Zealots.
- צָדַק ṣāḏaq (to be right, just)
- founded in 167 BCE
- Aristocratic, Temple elite
- Political bureaucrats: collected taxes, held an army, regulated relations with Romans
- Beliefs: follow the worship-sacrificial laws, denied Resurrection, kept Sheol, no reward or punishment in the afterlife, no spirits or angels
- extinct after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE
- פְּרִישַׁיָּ Pərīšayyā (to be set apart, separated)
- founded in 167 BCE
- Common people, religious right? (Paul was one Acts 23, 26)
- Beliefs: Back to the written Torah and the oral Torah (traditions), Very legalistic: Apply the Bible to EVERYTHING, People have free will, so should seek holiness / purity, Belief in the afterlife and resurrection and reward/condemnation
- Pliny the Elder (in 77-79 CE): they do not marry, possess no money, and had existed for thousands of generations
- ascetic, lived in desert
- World is all going to burn, no way to save it
- John the Baptist probably was one
- Believed in afterlife of great reward for their spiritual, material purity
- קנאים Kana’im (one who is zealous before God)
- founded in 6 CE during Quirinius tax program / census by Judas of Gamala/Galilee
- political activists, freedom fighters, revolutionaries (or terrorists?)
- “Dagger men” (Sicarii)
- Simon the Zealot one, Judas Iscariot possibly one
- secularists, not very religious
Jesus was always getting into religious and spiritual debates with these different groups (especially the Pharisees and Saduccees), even though his band of Apostles likely held elements from all four groups.
One debate was about the afterlife: was their one? who was in it? and what was it like?
Jesus was asked who would be married to the one bride in heaven amongst seven brothers (you can read about this in three of the Gospels, Matthew 20, Mark 12 and Luke 22.) Jewish law and tradition held that if a woman's husband died, his next in line brother was required to marry her. The debate is nearly facetious, with all seven brothers eventually marrying and dying for this one poor bride. Reading between the lines, you can see the Sadducees mocking the Pharisees for their belief of the afterlife.
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’
Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’ - Luke 20:27-38
Note that Jesus offers a third way: no marriage in heaven. To our modern and romantic ears, we may think Jesus is being harsh here. But he's actually being radically inclusive - and one could argue, feminist! Because a woman's worth was not just found in her husband(s) faithfulness but in her own person and identity in God. No marriage in heaven for Jesus was both an affirmation of the world to come (which he referred to interchangeably as the kingdom of God / heaven) and of the radical equality, inclusion and justice of a God of love.
Much of the Christian Scriptures were authored or inspired by Paul, with a couple exceptions. The Christian Scriptures (New Testament) was concerned with helping people of faith continue on in the days after Jesus awaiting his return that was promised. Years went on and on - they thought he would come back much sooner. Paul's instructions, while peppered with glimpses of the afterlife and mysteriously of a "Third Heaven" are few and far between lengthy and exhaustive periodical advice on how to live on earth now.
One image of heaven is paramount in the Christian Bible, that of John the Patmos' vision in the Book of Revelation. Many recent fantasy depictions of Revelation focus on the violence and destruction of life for those "left behind." But John of Patmos was likely writing in code, exiled in imprisonment on an island far away from his people by the Roman Empire. His code is "apocalyptic" in nature, but written, perhaps, so that Roman authorities would not know he was in fact talking about them!
One image remains, though: in the age to come, there will be no more suffering. There will be peace.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever. - Revelation 22:1-5
Jesus promised a world to come where there would be no more suffering, where all would be restored, healed, and complete. It was a world of Shalom. A world promised and a world we are invited to experience right now.
“The most simple rule for discovering what we are to do on earth is to ask what’s happening in heaven. What’s happening in the heavenly kingdom is communion, unity, [global] family.” - Richard Rohr, What the Mystics Know: Seven Pathways to the Deeper Self”
Thankfully, Jesus gave us his "Lord's prayer" to help guide our hearts, minds, and hands as we live on earth as it is in heaven.
Matthew 6:9–13 (NRSV)
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.
Luke 11:2–4 (NRSV)
Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.
Jesus promise is that of resurrection - and the emphasis is on body and earth - and the call is to live lives of perseverance. Paul picked this up in his first letter to the Jesus-following community at Corinth: Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)
As NT Wright reflects:
"The point of the resurrection, as Paul has been arguing throughout the letter, is that the present life is not valueless just because it will die. God will raise it to new life. What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it. And if this applies to ethics... it certainly applies to the various vocations to which God's people are called. What you do in the present - by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needs, loving your neighbor as yourself - will last into God's future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether [as many of our hymns and praise songs say]. They are part of what we may call building for God's kingdom.
We practice this on Sundays when we participate in the Communion, and we live this out beyond Sundays when we show lovingkindness to our neighbors, serve others, seek justice and care for the earth.
- Heaven: A History, by Colleen McDannell & Bernard Lang
- Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With The Afterlife, by Lisa Miller
- Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church by NT Wright
- What The Mystics Know: Seven Pathways To Your Deeper Self, by Richard Rohr
- Love Wins, by Rob Bell
- For Richard Rohr's daily email devotions