Friday, April 22, 2011

Cosmology and Heaven

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy
Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1 scene 5

1. Cosmology: Ancient and Modern
Invariably, in discussions about the Bible and origins, the question comes up, "What about the ancient cosmology reflected in Genesis?” or “What about Galileo?” If the church was wrong about the structure of the universe or the earth’s motion, and let science modify its interpretation of the Bible on these points, why should it not do the same for evolution?

Such questions presume that modern cosmology is basically correct. According to modern cosmology, time and space itself began with the big bang. Many Christians see close parallels between big bang cosmology and Genesis.

Yet modern cosmology has a major flaw: there is no space-time beyond the physical universe. Hence it has, literally, no place for heaven. Consequently, few Christian books about science and the Bible discuss heaven or its angelic inhabitants.

In ancient civilizations, however, cosmology was closely intertwined with the supernatural (for more on this, see the post Genesis and Ancient Cosmology). It was understood that the universe was much broader than the mere three dimensions we see.

2. Is heaven a physical place?
In medieval cosmology heaven had a prominent place. See, for example, this figure from Hartmann Schedel (Liber Chroniracum 1493).

John Calvin, in his disputes with Lutherans and Roman Catholics about Christ's physical presence at the Lord's Supper, insisted that Christ's physical body was in a spatial heaven, which had a specific place:

Christ’s body was circumscribed by the measure of a human body. Again, by his ascension into heaven he made it plain that it is not in all places, but when it passes into one, it leaves the previous one” [Institutes (1559) 4. 17. 30, 1401.].

Calvin is now often criticized as having a primitive, pre-Copernican understanding of heaven as a place having extension in space, separate from the visible physical world.

For example, Rudolph Bultmann asserted,

"we no longer believe in the three-storied universe which the creeds take for granted...there is no longer any heaven in the traditional sense of the word...the story of Christ’s descent into hell and of his Ascension into heaven is done with...we can no longer look for the return of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven... or believe in spirits, whether good or evil, ...because the forces and the laws of nature have been discovered." 
(New Testament and Mythology:1-4)

Many Christians seem to think of heaven as a vague spiritual abstraction, a shadowy realm supervening on the physical.

Nethertheless, the Bible clearly points to heaven as a spatial, physical place. Although God is spirit, heaven is a created thing. The Bible speaks about heaven in three different senses. Heaven1 is the atmosphere, in which birds fly, heaven2 is the celestial realm of the stars, and heaven3 is the heaven of heaven, where God's throne is found.

Heaven3 is no mere spiritual abstraction but has a concrete spatial aspect. Jesus called heaven3 a "place" (John 14:2). The Bible describes it as being above the earth, a place from which God looks down onto the earth (Ps.14:2) and to which Christ ascends (Acts 1).

The biblical description depicts heaven3 as a universe parallel but interconnected to the physical universe. Michael and his angels fight in heaven against Satan and his angels, who were defeated and "neither was their place found any more in heaven" (Rev.12:7-8). Angels, even as spirits, occupy a place in heaven and can be displaced. The heavenly visions of John picture God seated on a throne surrounded by angels, elders, and saints.

Although heaven3 is normally invisible to man, it is at times opened (see, for example, Ez.1:1, Mark 1:10, II Kings 6:17), so that man may catch a glimpse of heavenly things: "you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man" (John 1:51). Heaven3, although invisible, seems near, like a universe parallel to our visible universe, both perhaps being embedded in a multi-dimensional space. How heaven3 intersects with heaven2 is at present a mystery.

3. Heaven and the Temple
There are fascinating connections between heaven and the temple. The tabernacle and temple served as "copies of heavenly things" (Hebr.8:5; 9:23-24). Through his ascension Christ entered "not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God in our behalf" (Heb.9:24).

If the copy has spatial dimensions, so, it would seem, does heaven itself.

Vern Poythress (The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses:13-34) and G.K.Beale (The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism) both argue that the outer courtyard of the tabernacle/temple corresponds to the earth (where man dwells), the Holy Place corresponds to the visible heavens (heaven2), and the Most Holy Place corresponds to God's invisible throne (heaven3, where God and his heavenly hosts dwell), which is distinct from the visible sky.

Beale notes (p.184) that the Bible describes the creation of the universe (Gen.1), the making of the tabernacle and the building of the temple in very similar language. Since God's cosmos is a giant temple, Beale suggests (p.196) that temple imagery should be taken into account when reading Genesis 1.

According to Beale, the raqia ("expanse") of Gen.1:6 "appears to be an other-dimensional reality that separates the observable sky from the invisible heavenly temple, so that it may be a reality that overlaps with both the earthly and heavenly dimensions"(203).  A similar view is expressed by James Jordan (Creation in Six Days: 178-181).

It follows that physical realities, such as "the waters above the expanse" (Gen.1:7), can be conceived to exist in the invisible realm of heaven3. Here it must be recalled that the waters of Gen.1:7 refer to the undifferentiated waters of Gen.1:2, which are later separated in water and earth, and from which all else (plants, animals, man) is made. Possibly, various things contained in heaven3 were made from these waters, which would include the sea of crystal (Rev.4:6).

The tabernacle itself could be considered a copy also of heaven3, with the ark in the Holy of Holies corresponding to God's heavenly throne, the real center of the universe.

4. Conclusions
A few words of caution are in order. First, any higher dimensions may be qualitatively very different from the three observed physical dimensions. In these higher dimensions physical laws, such as the limited speed of light, may take on quite different forms. Nor should these be confused with the extra-spatial dimensions required by super-string theories in physics, the latter being little more than mathematical abstractions. What our acknowledgment of heaven3 does make definite is the short-sightedness of our normal 3-d perspective.

For those who start with the naturalist assumption that the physical world is all that exists, Biblical cosmology will make little sense. If, on the contrary, we start with God as the prime reality then the physical universe is reduced to a mere subspace of a much larger reality. The acknowledgment of heaven3, with its intimate interactions with the physical world, renders very plausible the existence of angelic and other supernatural influences in our earthly realm.

In sum, modern cosmology is a shallow materialist reduction of reality. Modern man may have gained in knowledge of material things but has impoverished his wider knowledge of reality as a whole.


  1. John

    I'm reminded of E.A. Abbot's book, Flatland. Though a social satire, it is a remarkable study of the understanding of dimensions. I often use this lessons of that book in Catechism instruction as well as the reference to 2 Kings 6:17 as a way of trying to understand Heaven3 as here and not yet. Thanks for your thoughts on this matter.

    John van Popta

  2. I guess my love for Plato and (some) of his understandings makes thinking of heaven as an actual place (albeit supra-physical, able to 'swallow up' our physical world) not too difficult.

    Very similar, I think, to C.S.Lewis' 'further up and further in,' where heaven continually expands...

  3. The view you present here of the universe as a cosmic temple sounds very familiar to John Walton's "The Lost World of Genesis One." Do you agree with his interpretation(s)?


  4. John, Stuart and Shawn: thanks for your comments. Regarding Walton, I appreciate many of his insights but believe he errs in not taking Genesis 1-2 as historical.

  5. Wow. Thank you John for this article. Absolutely fascinating, but not in a shallow sense. I find that thinking on things like this makes me appreciate our Creator ever more. And appreciate the treasure we have in the Bible.

    A question: After judgement when there is a new heaven and new earth, do you think that heaven3 is going to be new too? Or it is just heaven1 and heaven2 and earth that get destroyed by fire and then remade?

  6. An interesting question. I refer you to my post "Cosmology and Eschatology". The Bible seems to speak, not of an entirely new heaven and earth, but of a renewed heaven and earth, purified from all the effects of sin and evil. This transformation includes the entire cosmos. See, for example Cornelis Venema's "The Promise of the Future" (Ch.13, 2000).

    The Bible speaks of renewal, redemption, reconciliation--all terms that imply a restoration to an original good state. Thus we read (e.g., Rom.8:18-25, 2 Peter 3: 5-13) of the entire cosmos adversely affected by sin, from which it will be cleansed. This includes also Heaven3, the dwelling of God, from where Satan, evil spirits, fallen angels, etc. will be removed.


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