A History of Heaven

Although generally neglected by scholars, heaven is central, says author Jeffrey Burton Russell, to both Christian theology and living. Earlier works were not so much histories as sociological analyses without much grasp of “the interiority” of the subject, or limited descriptions of earthly paradise imagery. Russell’s scope is strikingly comprehensive. Analysis of cosmology, metaphorical ontology, paradise, angels, the gnostic ethos, resurrection and immortality, and more comprise this valuable and readable study. It is at times an impressionistic account shaped by the author’s personal beliefs, but his depth of documentation and analysis have brought heaven credibly into the mainstream of modern historical scholarship.

A HISTORY OF HEAVEN: THE SINGING SILENCE begins with a disclaimer. “Heaven itself cannot be described, but the human concept of heaven can be.” Yet even in limited human perceptions, heaven is not dull or static, but “an endless dynamic of joy in which one is ever more oneself as one was meant to be.” In that light, Russell proceeds to trace the most influential concepts of heaven over a 1,500 year period, beginning with St. Paul and continuing through St. Augustine and later medieval thinkers.

The basic premise of Russell’s study is that Christian perceptions of heaven and related metaphors are essentially Jewish in origin but were influenced by Greek and Roman thought in early Christian theology. Stoicism,...

(The entire section is 544 words.)