“Heaven’s Above?” Learning Time for May 22, 2022 at Harrow United Church

What do you imagine when I say the word heaven? I’d hazard a guess that many our images of heaven come from things we’ve seen in movies, tv programs, even commercials. Remember the one for Philadelphia cream cheese, with angels eating bagels while they float on clouds?

There was no mention of clouds, or even cream cheese, in our reading from the Book of Revelations. Cream cheese wasn’t invented until 1563, at least 1500 years after the Book of Revelations was written.

In the ancient world, if someone mentioned heaven, people would immediately look up. Heaven had a location, at least in people’s imagination. People back then had an image of earth, and the universe, very different from ours. The world was kind of like the middle portion of a layer cake, and the whole cake was inside something like an enormous snow globe.

As I mentioned, people lived on the middle layer. Below was the underworld. It had different names, depending on the culture. Sheol, Hades, Hell, the other place. The world of the dead.

The underworld was surrounded by rock, but there could be fissures and cracks that opened a way down. Some religions, and some mythologies have stories about heros going down to the world of the dead, and rescuing souls trapped there. In at least one ancient Christian creed, Jesus is described as making that journey.

All of this rock was supported by the pillars of the earth, which themselves sank into a vast ocean- the waters of the deep. The drawings, that look like old maps, don’t show exactly what, if anything, the pillars were anchored in. The drawings make it appear that the layer cake sits on water and there is water above it and on all sides. It’s like an enormous snow globe, or perhaps a cosmic womb. That image appears in some ancient myths and poetry, of the whole world within a huge womb, or a big cosmic egg. A modern take on it might be that it looks a bit like a single-celled creature, or one cell of a larger being.

Above the underworld was the place humans lived, terra firma, Earth. Directly above that was the sky.

We look up and see clouds. In the imagination of the Ancient World, above the clouds were the sun, the moon, the stars and planets, all floating between the clouds, and just below something called the dome of the sky, or the firmament, which separated the sky from the waters above the sky. Beyond the waters of the firmament, was the heaven of heavens, which was the home of the gods, or if you were part of a monotheistic faith, where the one true God lived. The Christian version populated this heaven with angels, but other faiths also had angelic figures.

If you could poke a hole in the dome, and make your way through the waters, you might be able to reach God. That reminds me of John Magee’s poem High Flight, which we often hear at funerals for pilots and air force veterans. It describes the joy of slipping the surly bonds of Earth, to trod the high untrespassed sanctity of space, to put out a hand and touch the face of God.

There are a handful of Bible stories about individuals, Jesus being one of them, being bodily lifted into the sky, and carried up to heaven.

We often see in movies or cartoons the idea that people who die, become angels in heaven. That evolution from human to angel is not found in the Bible, or in the mythology of ancient cultures, who described angels as a separate race of beings, above humans, but below God in the hierarchy of beings.

Back to the layer cake. I use the image of a layer cake when I talk about this model, but it might also be a pancake, because Earth needs to be flat and round, so the sun, moon and stars can travel in circles above it. The circular movement allows the light of sun to move to make it day in a certain area for a while, then circle away to let it be night, when the sky is lit by the moon and stars.  

There is a story in the Old Testament Book of Joshua about a battle in which the Israelites needed to defeat the Amorites, and Joshua asked God to make the sun stand still, to prolong the day, to give Israel more time to win. That story reflects the belief that the sun is small compared to the flat earth, and could be stopped in its circular path, to extend the period of daylight over that part of the pancake.

The waters of the deep splash up around all the edges of the pancake. In Hindu mythology, the earth we walk on is supported on the back of a huge turtle- which kind of reminds me of the First Nations name for North America, Turtle Island.

This ancient view of a flat earth surrounded all the way around by water, supported by the pillars of the earth, is the underlying picture of the world as described in the Bible. Re-read the story of Noah and the Ark. It depends totally on this view of the world. The waters of the deep rise to flood the whole world, then recede at the end of the story, to reveal dry land.

When scientists began to question the idea that the earth was flat, they were told to shush, because their theories contradicted the way the church authorities read the Bible. Galileo was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church for promoting the theory the earth revolved around the sun, rather than the sun tracking a circular route above the earth.

Back then, just as in our world today, there were biblical literalists, fundamentalists, who could not tolerate any deviation from how they saw things. Back then, as today, the symptoms of fundamentalism included the absence of humility, a need to be right about basically everything, a need to control the thoughts of others, a lack of any sense of humour, and an inability to cope with metaphor, or analogy, or poetry in general.

When we read one of Jesus’ parables, we’re able to listen for truth in the story, without needing the story to be literally true. We can see that Jesus, who was a person of the Ancient World, was comfortable with symbolism, and spoke fluent metaphor, and poetry.

I think that people in the Ancient World were far more comfortable with poetry and imagination, with dreams and symbols than some folks in our time, or the church officials were in Galileo’s time.

I suspect that for many in the Ancient World, the question, is Hell literally above us, and Heaven literally below us, might have been met with confusion.  They would look at us like we were missing the point of the stories.

In the Ancient World, great truths about life, and death, and the gods, or God of your choice were communicated in story, song and poetry. The Ancients could not send a rocket into orbit, but they knew that the earth, the moon, the sun and the stars were wondrous, and they believed they were lovingly and purposefully created, and that God was in a place where God could see it all and love it all.

The ancients also had the sense that although God could see us, our view of God was often obscured. Our vision could be clouded, and God could seem very far away.

Some of the most detailed, and beautiful descriptions of heaven in the Bible are in the Book of Revelations, which we heard from this morning. Not a lot is actually known about who wrote this book. It was traditionally attributed to John, disciple of Jesus, but the chronology is a bit off.

The names of cities in the Roman Empire and references to what was happening to Jesus followers under Roman Rule suggest a period around 70 years after the time of Jesus. It’s unlikely that a disciple of Jesus could have lived that long.

In the Ancient World there were no copyright concerns. Saying a famous figure wrote a particular work was sometimes a way of paying tribute, to the person, or to the worthiness of the book.

There’s a classic gospel blues song about John the Revelator, so we might call the author the Revelator, because of what they revealed.

Short video of “John the Revelator”

Scholars say the Revelator was a poet, because although the text often refers to Hebrew Scripture, it never quotes it. Instead it uses ideas and images found in earlier writings to inspire new phrases.

Scholars say the Revelator a mystic, because of the dream-like and symbol-laden imagery in the book. Golden bowls and shining white gowns, flying beasts and magical horns, and great flowing rivers, and trees that are trees but not just trees. The writer employs imagery and poetry to share with their audience experiences of things that are actually mysterious and beyond literal description. We do it all the time. Dolly Parton wrote, “Love is like a butterfly.” We get it, and we know that actually, that’s a simile, comparing one thing to another, to tell us something.

Has anyone here read the Book of Revelations? I may have mentioned before that it was one of the last books to be officially included in the New Testament, and to this day, some Christian denominations leave it out. It’s a hard book to work with, especially if you try to read it literally, as some prominent, and scary preachers have. Those who have tried to use it as a map of the future, and claim it’s about the world ending next Tuesday at 3:15 pm have always been wrong, and I think, really missed the point.

I think the Revelator wrote to followers of Jesus in a few cities in the Roman Empire who were having a very bad time of it, under Roman rule, around the year 100 AD. They were being persecuted for their faith, and many feared that life in this world would never get better for them. I think Revelations was the writer’s efforts to share  with those people what they had come to know, trust, rely on, believe about God.

The Revelator had powerful experiences, perhaps a series of visions, like dreams, during which they felt they were in God’s presence. God showed them that all kinds of terrible things can happen in this life, but the terrible things would not be the end of the story. There was more to God’s story. There is more to life, and to all that God has created, and is creating, than we can see on a regular day, with our normal vision.

There is the promise that beyond this life, which can at times be sad and painful, there is a reality where there is no more pain, and no more sadness, only love, and light, and God’s embrace. There is the assurance that those we love, who have died, are held safely with God. There is the reminder that God is with us, and we are with God, at the beginning, all during, and even beyond the end of our earthly lives. We may not be able to pin down where that is, or what it looks like, but it sounds heavenly. Amen