In Jeffrey Burton Russell’s impressive study of the history of heaven, he goes beyond his four-volume history of the devil and hell (The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity, 1977) in probing the imagery, folklore, and theology related to heaven. He also includes selected scholarly sources on the spiritual world. Intended as the first stage of a planned multivolume history of heaven, Russell’s study examines classic concepts of heaven from the Hellenistic Age to Dante Alighieri. It is an absorbing scholarly narrative that leaves the reader familiar with both the common core of beliefs about heaven and the distinctive medieval contributions to this important area of Christian thought.
Russell’s principal focus is on what he calls “the fulfillment of the human longing for unity, body and soul, in ourselves, with one another, and with the cosmos.” Heaven, in that sense, is more than a mere beautiful place or even a condition of endless life. Russell suggests that heaven ultimately means true selfhood in the fullest sense of the term: unending and joyful personal existence in the context of oneness with God, the universe, and other people. He chooses not to focus on “heaven” as a metonym for God or as a term to refer to the sky or heavenly bodies. Though paradoxes abound in this approach, Russell makes heaven come alive as few writers have. Although generally neglected by scholars, heaven is pivotal, says Russell, in both Christian theology and everyday living. Earlier works that attempted to recount concepts of heaven were not so much histories as sociological analyses without a sure grasp of “the interiority” of the subject or with limited descriptions of earthly paradise imagery. Russell’s work is, by most measures, a masterful survey and analysis of the essence of heaven in the thought of virtually every major thinker who dealt with it from about 200 b.c.e. to the early dawn of the modern age in the Renaissance, marked by the publication of Dante’s The Divine Comedy in 1321 and the papal decree Benedictus Dei in 1326. Recognizing his limitations in the area of concepts of heaven in Islam and Judaism, Russell confines him work largely to the late pre-Christian and medieval West.
The scope of A History of Heaven is broad, but it is efficiently organized to make it manageable. Determined to set the history of heaven in the context of its development both chronologically and topically, he analyzes cosmology, metaphorical ontology, images of paradise, the special place and role of angels, the Gnostic ethos, resurrection and immortality, as well as election (predestination), social justice, and love. Central to his approach is recognition, at the beginning, that the concept of heaven is intertwined with the universal human quest for understanding of self, of other people, and, indeed, of the cosmos. “Heaven,” he argues, “is the state of being in which all are united in love with one another and with God.” Grounded in the Greek concept of agape, which was used at one time to refer to love feasts, heaven is a unique community “of those whom God loves and who love God.” Its salient quality is that individuality is not lost in the weaving together of all in “perfect charity.”
Understanding the language used to describe heaven in Jewish and Christian thought is important to Russell’s study. Moderns, he notes, tend to separate true and false, fact and fiction, and the metaphorical and literal into dichotomies that bear little resemblance to the patterns of traditional thought about heaven. Jewish and Christian language describing heaven has, he underscores, made use of metaphor to broaden meaning and open new channels of understanding. Thus, much of his study deals with such use of language in an effort to clarify what ancient and medieval writers actually said about heaven.
Russell respects traditional views of heaven and avoids imposing, on writers of the past, modern skeptical views that regard heaven as little more than a fanciful dream. Rather, he tries to open up the interior of Jewish and, especially, Christian thought to avoid “draining the life out of people of the past” by making them conform to a more materialistic world view. The result is a lively, challenging account of the major works on heaven from the Hellenistic Age to the dawn of the modern world. Openly sharing his own views of heaven, as he does in several parts of the book, does not detract from the depth, honesty, and extensive documentation of the study.
He begins with a disclaimer: “Heaven itself cannot be described, but the human concept of heaven can be.” Yet, even in the limited human...
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