The Book of Heaven

INDEPENDENT 23 December 2000


(Oxford £15.00)

Britain, according to the Archbishop of Canterbury, has become an atheistic state. Heaven is now a far less popular destination for most people than Benidorm. Even the poets, philosophers and theologians who used to provide regular guides now turn their attention elsewhere. In the twentieth century, Eliot told us that Hell was ourselves and Sartre that it was other people, but there was no comparable definition of Heaven. Even those of us who do have faith in an afterlife tend to fudge the details, speaking merely of the cosmic bliss in which we will be reunited with our Creator.

How different this is from previous eras when Heaven had a precise topography which was revealed in visions, dreams and mystical encounters. Carol and Philip Zaieski have compiled a fascinating anthology of three thousand years of writings on the subject, drawn largely from the dominant Western tradition and three great monotheistic religions but also containing passages from Taoist, Buddhist and Hindu scriptures and Icelandic and Native American myths,

Heaven is clearly in the eye of the beholder. When researching my novel, Easter, I came across various Sunday School views of Heaven, some of which ended up in the finished book: ‘It will have the biggest football pitch ever… We won’t have to eat veg… There will be lots of churches… It will be fall of vicars.’ They may draw a gentle smile but their wish-fulfillment is no different from that of many eminent theologians, for instance St Bede, whose account of a seventh century visit to the otherworld reveals a Heaven which corresponds in every detail to the teachings of the Catholic church.

Any commentator on Heaven must first establish his credentials. Several of the passages included here, notably from Dante’s Divine Comedy and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, are the product of visions and dreams. The sixteenth century Tibetan prince, Rinpung Ngawang Jigdag, obtained his glimpse of paradise by summoning a yogi in a meditative visualisation. George Sword, an Oglala Sioux, tells of communing with his ancestors through a ghost dance.

My own favourite account is that of Robert Hare, a nineteenth century spiritualist, who, reluctant to publish a report of his researches into the afterlife based solely on the testimony of his relations, convened a gathering of eminent ghosts. Among those who put in an appearance were George and Martha Washington, Isaac Newton and Byron. Although they gave precise answers to such questions as ‘At what point does the scenery become superior to any in our world?’ (It is, apparently, in the third sphere), they admitted defeat when questioned on such issues as the nature of criminality (‘We are no more able to answer that than you’).

For those who reach Heaven by the traditional route, the most pressing concern must be whether or not they are allowed in. The Zaieskis include several stories about the strict door policy. Henry Fielding, in A Journey From This World to the Next, portrays Minos at the gate of Elysium subverting conventional morality by rejecting a father who disinherited his son for begetting a bastard and a woman who refused a multitude of lovers in order to die a maid. Even funnier is Byron’s Vision of Judgement, which wittily parodies Southey’s portrait of George III approaching Heaven in a manner more befitting a state visit to France. Displaying refreshingly revolutionary sentiments, Byron’s St Peter has little truck with regal claims. Others, however, are more deferential: ‘For by many stories. And true, we learn the angels all are Tories.’

The prospect of Heaven which greets those who pass through its gates remains remarkably consistent across various traditions. The keynote is light, whether it be Dante’s incomparable evocation of ‘Living Light, Great Light and Light Eternal’, Mohammed’s declaration of ‘How brilliant is his light’, the Buddha Shakyamuni’s depiction of ‘the Buddha of Measureless Light… the Buddha of Boundless Light, the Buddha of Unimpeded Light,’ or even Marie Corelli’s image of a wide Ring… flashing with perpetual motion and brilliancy, as though a thousand million suns were for ever being woven into it to feed its transcendent lustre.’

Visionaries as different as the Buddha Shakyamuni and Emmanuel Swedenborg turn the hereafter into a happily ever after with their pictures of a paradise made out of precious metals and stones. Music is another regular feature, be it Cicero quoting Scipio’s dream of the music of the spheres or the Hasidic rebbe Nachman of Bratslaw declaring that the heavenly harmony is created by an angelic orchestra each playing instruments cast in the shape of a Hebrew letter.

A final element common to several of these visions is an assessment of the people one might expect to rub wings with. The usual candidates all feature – angels, saints, prophets, holy men – although there are surprisingly few reports of encounters with the Almighty. The celestial guest-list offers a particularly rich fund of humour to Mark Twain, who depicts Adam besieged by autograph hunters and Shakespeare and Homer deferring to an unknown poet ‘from Tennessee by the name of Billings’.

The finest reflection of this nature comes from Cardinal Newman who provides a corrective to all those sentimentalists who hope to re-encounter their loved ones in the afterlife. Such considerations are irrelevant, since ‘If ever, through Thy grace, I attain to see Thee in heaven, I shall see nothing else but Thee, because I shall see all whom I see in Thee. and seeing them I shall see Thee.’

This is an engrossing, stimulating and surprisingly funny anthology. The Zaieskis’ sources are wide-ranging and their selection judicious. Their editing is less assured. They would have done well to have stated the dates of passages as well as of authors and also to have made clear which footnotes are theirs and which the authors’. The final section on Utopias is a diversion. Nevertheless, this is a welcome reminder of a world in which Heaven is not just a nightclub, Paradise a record label and Ecstasy a drug.