` St Edward King and Martyr » The Unseen Creation Chapter:One

The Unseen Creation Chapter:One

Posted by: | Posted on: March 30, 2003

The Pursuit of Paradise

No Eye has seen, nor hear has heard, no mind has conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”

1 Corinthians Ch:2. v.9.

One of the most important and influential works in the development of Christian theological thinking was written by St. Augustine of Hippo in c. 412. “The City of god” was written as a philosophical justification of the Christian Faith against the widespread pagan beliefs of the Roman world. Augustine sought to convince his readers that there was only one true God who was the source of all being and of all creation. This new God was all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving.

In contrast to the numerous God’s and beliefs that inhabited the pagan Roman world this new belief may seem rather simplistic. Augustine’s vision was, however, much more complicated. Augustine’s ‘City of God’ outlined a Christian utopia which would inspire the existing world. This world was a reflection of God’s heavenly kingdom.. Augustine’s vision was, essentially derived from a spiritual world. The city he describes is the paradise of god’s kingdom, which is more beautiful, more perfect, more rich and intricate than the wildest human imagination could ever comprehend.

When we think of God’s relationship with the world we often only approach the question from our own, human, perspectives. What place does god have in my life? How might I see him? How does he relate to me? what, in the seen world makes me aware of His presence?

In the past, popular imagery of heaven tended to re-inforce an earthly utopia rather than a vision of other worldly reality. Heaven is seen as a beautiful garden, a shining, romantic, fairy tale city, a sensuous experience where all the greatest pleasures we have experienced in life are heightened. In all of these Heaven is equated with the most beautiful earthly experiences. This is an understandable viewpoint, aspects of the Creator are present in His seen creation. It may, however, be the wrong starting point. The Heavens are part of an Unseen Creation rather than the material world which surrounds us. Although the word in which we live is described in the Genesis creation accounts as ‘good’, it is still a fallen and corrupted world. The greatest part of creation is the Kingdom of Heaven, that is God’s throne, the earth is only a footstool.

If we focus only on the world which we can see then there will be little place in our lives for the mysterious, for the miraculous, for the angelic and the spiritual. Modern rational thought struggles to accept a belief in the invisible. Too often the unknown is dismissed as superstitious speculation. There are more ways of understanding creation than a through pure scientific proof or rational thought. This is a hard and challenging world view for a sceptical twenty first century thinker to grasp, even for those within the worshipping and devotional life of the modern Church rational thought has brought spiritual casualties. Miraculous events are greeted with scepticism, the place of the saints are overlooked, the ministry of the angels is dismissed as spiritual romanticism. The world of heaven is simplified and stripped of its wonder.

The world in which we live is a unique dwelling place, full of wonder and beauty which even the advances of modern science has not fully unravelled. The depths and complexities of the human mind, the human emotions and even the human body still lie far beyond our understanding. The natural world continues to surprise us with each new scientific discovery. Why then do we have such difficulty with the term ‘miraculous’?

In the ‘City of God’ Augustine writes that ‘It is, in fact, God himself who has created all that is wonderful in this world, the great miracles and the minor marvels … and he has included them all in that unique wonder, that miracle of miracles, the world itself.’1

Imagining What Heaven might be like is probably the greatest escapism from the material world which we can experience. If our material world is such a beautiful, rich and complicated place then how much more must heaven be? If our busy world is populated by so many species then how much more must the Heavens be inhabited by a wonderful array of spiritual beings, from the highest seraphims and cherubim’s to the lowest of the angels, not to mention the communion of the saints and the company of the blessed?

Medieval writers tended to think of heaven as a series of levels or hierarchies with God at the apex. Artists depicted God dwelling in the heights of Heaven with up to nine orders of angels descending beneath him, with the prophets, the martyrs and the saints being intermingled with the lower echelons of the angelic host. (St. Jerome, an early Christian scholar) who enjoyed a far-reaching influence claimed there were only seven orders of angels, from which the phrase ‘being in seventh heaven’ comes from – the greatest pleasures of earthly existence allowing us to fleetingly touch the lowest parts of the heavenly realms.) Much of this we will return to in the third chapter. It would seem clear, from a medieval perspective, that Heaven is not an egalitarian society and yet questions of rank and place are not important. These are earthly concerns which have no place in the Unseen World. Christ frequently reminded his disciples how ‘the first will be last, and the last will be first’ in the kingdom of Heaven.

Images of Heaven

  1. Medieval Images of Paradise

Medieval notions of heaven were entirely centred around the presence of God. Two particular images developed in the medieval period. One saw heaven as a paradise garden like the garden of Eden in which there would be no toil or sweat being spent to make the land produce food, but instead a fragrant, sweet-smelling garden in which the sun always shone. Other similar images described heaven as ‘a beautiful grove with singing birds’, or the pleasure garden of a monastery. Heaven, in these images, was essentially a rural place.

The second image was completely different. Heaven was portrayed as a city, as the New Jerusalem, similar to that described in the Book of Revelations. The Heavenly metropolis shimmered against the skyline, was built from the richest of materials – diamonds, jaspers, emeralds and cordelions. Above all else, however, the city was a place that was devoted to the praise and worship of God. Its citizens were bathed in a spectacular supernatural light from God whilst they sang his praises and worshipped in adoration before him.

  1. Emmanuel Swedenborg’s Social Heaven

Swedenborg (1688-1772) was a Swdish scientist and mystical philosopher who travelled extensively in England and was deeply influenced by Henry Moore, Isaac Newton and other great intellectuals and scientists of his day. Swedenborg’s interests were many and varied, extending from mathematical problems, to economic affairs and political issues. His main interest, however, was, in what life in heaven would be like.

Swedenborg was a very prolific writer. His greatest work was the eight-volume ‘Arcana Coelistia’, which was published in 1756. He was a radical thinker who, despite his deep Christian devotion rejected the doctrine of the Atonement and developed an alternative understanding of the Christian faith which led to the founding of a new church, the Swedenborgians, who, in 1897, adopted the name of ‘The General Church of the New Jerusalem’. They still exist today and claim about 65,000 members throughout the world.

Although Swedenborg’s doctrinal views sit ill at ease with mainstream Christianity the imagery he used to describe the afterlife has had a massive impact upon modern perceptions of the heavenly realms. Swedenborg was the first visionary to see Heaven as a continuing, natural fulfilment of earthly life and desires. He portrayed Heaven as a state in which humanity continues his spiritual journey upwards towards God.

Swedenborg claimed that there were three Heavens which were called, in descending order; The Celestial, The Spiritual and The Natural. The soul of man enters one of these three Heavens and cannot ever move between them. Each Heaven has an interior and an exterior. As the soul spiritually grows so it moves further and further into the interior of the Heaven to which he has already been sent and, through that becomes purer and closer to God.

Despite this three-fold dibision swedenborg portrays Heaven as still being united in one state. We are simply unable to understand how such a harmonious union can work – even the angels are unable to understand this. Swedenborg sees divine worship in Heaven as being ‘not unlike that on earth’, except the priests and preachers are angels who are ‘continually perfect in wisdom and love’, but worship in Heaven lies more in a ‘life of love, charity and faith’. In its portals.

Swedenborg’s main contribution to the growth of heavenly imagery was to portray heaven as a society in which social intercourse and human life continued in a different state. Nevertheless he saw the joys of Heaven as essentially spiritual joys, not carnal ones. The joy which we feel on earth from all that is good in our human spirit will be intensified and transformed into a continual state, bathed in that experience.

Heaven, for Swedenborg, was a community in which love and charity between individuals and God was joined together. As an example of this Swedenborg held that earthly marriages continued in Heaven (despite Jesus’ teaching on the subject). Our experience of marriage, however, was vastly different. There was to be no domination or dischord in such marriages, those that lived a strained marital life on earth were transformed into ‘marriages made in heaven’.

Similarly, in respect to sexuality, Swedenborg claimed that there were no carnal pleasures on earth as in heaven but that such unions were still kep parts of human happiness. Instead of the earthly sexual act of lovemaking between husband and wife there will be a ‘union of minds’ in heaven which will produce a similar, but infinitely greater source of pleasure and joy, without any feelings of guilt or shame. Marital life and its pleasures in Heaven will be innocent and as erotic as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

  1. Nineteenth Century Visions of Heaven

Swedenborg’s vision influenced most of the great writers and artists of the nineteenth century. The poet, William Blake, was particularly influenced by him and, for a time, joined Swedenborg’s new found Church. Most of Blake’s drawings and poetry were inspired by Swedenborg’s writings. The art and writings of Pre-Raphaelites was heavily influenced by his developing thought. The nature of human love in the Heavens became increasingly prominent as the subject matter of 19th century art and literature. Most writers held that that love in Heaven only existed between a husband and wife, others with a more jaundiced experience of earthly marriage viewed it as a heavenly consummation of the true love which had either touched them in the past and had now disappeared or, a true love, which would not be met with until the future.

An increasing emphasis was placed on the eroticism of this love, yet seeing such activity in Heaven as pure and moral. A human sexuality between two faithful partners which was chaste would occupy a key part of heavenly existence. One of the most famous Anglican clergyman of mid-Victorian England, Charles Kingsley, the author of ‘The Water Babies’ and ‘Westward Ho!’, as well as serving as Chaplain to Queen Victoria, was a strong advocate of the place of a pure sexuality in the Heavenly sphere. He once wrote in a love letter to his wife that ‘…those thrilling writhings are but dim shadows of a union which shall be perfect.’

Two Resurrections. Two Judgements?

When reciting the words of the Creed, Christians declare their belief in the Resurrection of the Dead. What do we actually mean by this? On one level there is a debate between liberal postmodernists who hold that the resurrection is spiritual rather than physical and traditionalists who hold that it is physical as well as spiritual.

Quite apart from this, however, traditional Christian teaching maintains that there are, in fact, two resurrections. The first take place at the moment of our death, when the soul leaves the body, the second takes place at the Last Judgement of All Creation – the end of time as we know it. St. Paul talks about the Last Judgement in his letter to the Romans, when he writes:

The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subject to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.’ 2

Christ himself describes, with frightening consequences the nature of the Last Judgement in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25. 31-46).

When we die, according to traditional Christian belief, the souls of the faithful, who have believed in God and sought to do his will on earth are promised the Kingdom of Heaven. God, who is merciful, loving and just wishes for all of creation to be saved, but not at the expense of denying humanity’s freewill. If this was the case God could hardly be just by rescinding the power of freewill, the power to choose your own fate. We have a choice to deny God’s existence and God is bound to respect our decision. This must surely render the prospect of paradise to be an impossible one for the non-believer. At the moment of our death judgement depends on how much we have loved God and how we have acted out that love. The mystical writer, St. John of the Cross in the sixteenth century once wrote, ‘At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love.’ 3 For those who remain penitent and contrite, and who have lived a pure and holy life until their final earthly day, Roman Catholic theology claims that they enter immediately into the Beatific vision, that is they are taken straight into the bosom of God and enjoy his presence and please face to face.

Most of us would not feel confident at passing such a test. The catholic doctrine of purgatory in which our many sins and failings are cleansed or purged, in which sins can still be forgiven beyond the grave, is intended as a comfort to those who have faith in God but who have not loved him as well as they might but, who, having turned away, remain desirous to return. Purgatory, however, is not a place in which salvation for the non-believer can be found. The first judgement has already taken place. Purgatory is the waiting room or ante-chamber of heaven, not a second chance to accept God’s existence.

In 19th century Protestant theology, which rejected the Catholic understanding of purgatory a belief still persisted of there being an intermediate state between heaven and hell and this belief has become increasingly widespread in modern times. Certain Eastern Orthodox beliefs also hold that there are a series of embodied states of life beyond death, there are several heavens which we might pass through which allow a gradual progression towards the beatific vision. Whichever belief is held to, however, a response to belief in God remains essential. Our life span is too brief to be allowed to pass away with a neglect of our faith. An anonymous medieval English poem illustrates this sense of urgency which both Catholics and Protestants feel alike:

Lord, you called to me,

And I gave no reply

But slowly, sleepily;

Wait a while yet! Wait a little!’

But ‘yet’ and ‘yet’ goes on and on,

And ‘wait a little’ grows too long. 4

1 The City of God p. 985.

2 Romans 8. 19-22

3 Catechism of the Catholic Church p. 233.

4 Medieval English verse p. 72