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The heaven you think you’re headed to–a reunion with your lost relatives in the light–is a very recent invention, only a little older than Goldman Sachs. Most of the believers in heaven across most of history would find it unrecognizable.
Heaven is constantly shifting shape because it is a history of subconscious human longings. Show me your heaven, and I’ll show you what’s lacking in your life. The desert-dwellers who wrote the Bible and the Quran lived in thirst–so their heavens were forever running with rivers and fountains and springs. African-American slaves believed they were headed for a heaven where “the first would be last, and the last would be first”–so they would be the free men dominating white slaves. Today’s Islamist suicide-bombers live in a society starved of sex, so their heaven is a 72-virgin gang-bang. Emily Dickinson wrote: ” ‘Heaven’–is what I cannot Reach!/ The Apple on the Tree–/ Provided it do hopeless–hang–/ That–“Heaven” is–to Me!”
I guess I’ve never much thought about what heaven is like, and how that has changed over the years. I believe in it, of course, but I don’t spend any time wondering what it is like. If it were me, heaven would be a large, dark, book-lined library opening up onto a sunny veranda, where my friends and family are having an endless conversation over an endless meal delivered out of the perfect kitchen just off the patio. I was thinking last night about what it must be like to enter into Paradise — that is, into eternity — but to still be able to see one’s loved ones living in time. How does that work? Christians believe the saints (i.e., all those believed to be in heaven) have entered eternity, but can still in some sense participate in the finitude of our mortal lives, if we ask their intercession. As a philosophical thought experiment, ask yourself what it must be like to be living in eternity and to receive a request from someone in time to pray for them. Again, how does that work? What does the concept of sempiternity have to do with it? Theologians, help!