Monday, 27 June 2016

Where is Heaven?

I attended Winner Street Baptist Church in Paignton, Devon as a child. It attracted families and there were often three generations present on Sunday mornings when the service included hymns, prayers, announcements and a short sermon that was more comforting than challenging. I wasn't conscious of much questioning, or even discussion, of the topics raised.

As would be expected, Heaven and Hell were mentioned frequently and it was made clear to us that going to the former resulted from being good and to the latter from being sinful. As to locations, I imagined that Hell was somewhere deep in the Earth because of all the fire and brimstone that characterised the place: Heaven, on the other hand, must be above the Earth, but I didn't know where. I learned that, after death, the soul left on its journey to Heaven (at least one person in the Winner Street congregation told me it was possible to see this) and no-one wanted to contemplate going to Hell. As I grew older, and began to question my religious beliefs, I began to wonder where Heaven might be.

If I now ask "Where is Heaven?", I am influenced by two sources, art and literature and, especially, The Holy Bible. Paintings show Heaven to be in close proximity to the surface of the Earth and images provide us with the reassurance that the souls of those who die, especially our loved ones, are not far away from us. It also means that Heaven and Earth can be represented on one canvas:

What does The Holy Bible say about the location of Heaven? A search of the Authorised Version of the King James' Bible reveals that there are 691 mentions of "heaven" (in all its meanings) [1], so, for a literalist interpretation of Heaven, as described in Genesis, I turned to The Bible, Genesis and Geology [2]. An illustration from their website is shown below and this has the arrangement of the three Heavens, with the final one (where souls reside?) beyond the waters above the firmament and, presumably, in a specific location. Although the diagram is drawn as a series of linear strata, it is based on a geocentric view, pertaining at the time The Holy Bible was written and remaining unchanged for over a thousand years. Some literalists may still believe in it.

The mediaeval view of Heaven is expressed by Dante in The Divine Comedy [3]. Dante maintains the geocentric approach and uses ideas relevant at the time, like those of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite on the hierarchy of angels, and melds them into a highly influential work. Many readers of Paradiso must have been convinced that Dante's description was based on a revelation of the true nature of Heaven. It differs from the literal Biblical account and is a good example of embellishment - an excellent summary diagram of Dante's view is given in the Oxford World's Classics edition of The Divine Comedy [3]:

In 1543, Copernicus proposed the heliocentric view of the Universe that better explained our observations and this is the view that we have today. We now know that our solar system occurs within a galaxy and that the expanding universe contains myriads of galaxies all within a void, about which we know very little indeed. It is assumed to contain dark matter and dark energy, both of which are theoretical constructs, and there are areas of modern cosmology that seem like metaphysics to those of us that don't have a sufficient level of understanding, or acceptance. What can certainly be said is that, if we take the literal interpretation of The Holy Bible, souls have a very long journey to Heaven, if it is outside the expanding Universe [4].

Given that the Christian religion centres on the fate of one's soul, the position of Heaven is important to those with an enquiring mind.  Where is it? Is there any evidence that it exists, other than through religious faith?

[1] BibleGateway website:

[2] The Bible, Genesis and Geology website:

[3] Dante Alighieri (early 14th Century) The Divine Comedy (read in the translation by Charles H. Sisson). Oxford, Oxford University Press (reissued as a paperback in 2008).

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