A Brief History of Heaven

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A brief history of the afterlife

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Bestsellers in Theology. Richard Rohr. The Coming Apostasy. Mark Hitchcock , Jeff Kinley. Will we be re-united with those we have left behind or those who have gone before? Will our actions in this life be punished or rewarded? Will we have an opportunity after death to make amends or change our ways? Will our lives continue immediately after death or do we have to wait for a final end to history?

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What kind of body might we have? Where will we be? For all we know, one, some, or none of these imaginings may be true. But whatever, the history of the afterlife is the history of our hopes that there will be something after death and of our fears that there will be nothing.

And, granted that there is something rather than nothing, the history of the afterlife speaks to our dreams of eternal happiness, of our nightmares of eternal punishment, and of the myriad ways in which these have been inflicted over the centuries. Whether in Greece of the seventh century BC or in the ancient Israel of the same period, the fate of the dead was the same whether they were good or evil — a shadowy half-life in Hades beneath the Earth or its Hebrew equivalent Sheol.

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But by the time of the Christian era, there were two foundational narratives about the afterlife in western thought already weaving in and out of each other. In both cases, the vice or virtue of the deceased determined their fate. On the one hand, there was a narrative built around the anticipation that life will continue immediately after the death of each of us. On the other hand, there was another narrative, one that was driven by the expectation that our eternal destinies would be finally determined, not at the time of death, but at that time when history ends — when this world will be no more and when Christ returns to judge both the living and the dead on the Day of Judgment.

Early Christians were less interested in life immediately after death and more focused on the imminent expectation of the return of Jesus in judgment. And then, there will be only two possible destinations for us.

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For Christ will bid the blessed among us to enter an eternity of bliss in heaven and will throw the damned among us into the everlasting fires of hell. And of the latter there will be many more than the former. With these two narratives in place, the history of the afterlife within the west became the history of a constantly fluid series of negotiations, contestations and compromises between these two versions of our futures after death. The majority held to the necessity of both. As the Christian tradition gained in social prestige and political power, the expectation of the imminent return of Christ faded into the background and the emphasis fell on life immediately after death.

For those socially, politically or economically disenfranchised, the expectation of the imminent return of Christ remained at the forefront. When Christ returned, the oppressed would then receive their reward and the wicked their eternal comeuppance. But what of resurrected bodies?

02 The Book of the Watchers and Ascent to Heaven

To the non-Christian Greek intellectual elite of the first four centuries AD, the notion of the resurrection of the body on the Day of Judgment was absurd. Would aborted foetuses rise from the dead? What would be the size of resurrected foetuses and children?

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Would the bodies of the monstrous, the disfigured and the deformed be made perfect? What was the fate of those devoured by beasts, consumed by fire, drowned, or eaten by cannibals? What gender would the resurrected be?