Adler On

Heaven and Hell

These two words are used by everyone who is acquainted with Christian religious beliefs and with Christian theology. They are also used by persons of Jewish faith and of Islamic beliefs, but not in quite the same sense.

The word "heaven" is also a term in Ptolemaic and Copernican astronomy. In that context it has changed its meaning considerably since antiquity and the Middle Ages. Before telescopes "heaven'' referred to the visible sky at night; and even after rudimentary telescopes, the heavens were the visible planets of the solar system and the fixed stars.

I mention these things because in the Middle ages, when the theological doctrine of heaven was developed, people thought of heaven in terms of the sky above them. No one then knew that our sun and the solar system constitute a very small speck in one of more that a billion galaxies.

Writing as a philosopher, I may be heretical in what I have to say about heaven and hell. If the souls of the dammed and the saved are immaterial beings, then neither heaven nor hell can be a place, up there or down below. The orthodox belief is that there are two sorts of pain -- the pain of sense and the pain of loss. Both sorts of pain are supposedly suffered in hell by the dammed. But that cannot be true. There cannot be any sensible pain experienced by an immaterial being, though such a being can suffer the pain of loss, the loss or deprivation that is the absence of God.

In the light of twentieth-century cosmology, the word "heaven" cannot refer to a place anywhere. To go to heaven is not to go "up there." The resurrected Christ does not ascend to heaven, nor does he descend from there,. And there can be no "right hand" of God, the father in Heaven.

Fundamentalists in all three of the Western religions make the great mistake of reading the words of holy scripture literally and never going beyond that. It is they who disseminate the heretical beliefs that I have criticized, not I.

From a philosophical point of view, heaven is the presence of God, where the souls of the blessed enjoy the beatific vision. Correspondingly, hell -- either on earth or hereafter -- is the absence of God, a great loss or deprivation.

This view of heaven and hell does not have any imagery. Dante could not have written The Divine Comedy, filled with pictures of hell, purgatory, and heaven, if he understood this distinction.

However, this colorless and imageless rendition of the words "heaven" and "hell" fits perfectly into St. Augustine's interpretation of the opening sentence of Genesis: "In the beginning, God created heaven and earth." According to Augustine, "heaven" stands for the whole spiritual creation -- the angels; and "earth" stands for the whole physical or material creation, not just this small planet in the solar system. All place terms, all space locations, all spatial directions have meaning only in the physical cosmos, not in the spiritual realm of heaven, a realm in which there is no where or when.

Adapted from
Adler's Philosophical Dictionary (1995)

Revised 17 December 2000