Feast of St Germanus, Archbishop of Constantinople
THE CONTEMPORARY failure of many Christian traditions to engage in theological cosmology—possibly in large part due to the significant advances in scientific knowledge of the universe, which has presented challenges, though not necessary ultimatums, for faithful readers of Scripture who seek to embrace its worldview—has led to some misfortunes in on-the-ground cosmologies. We no longer make the same association that our forebears made so easily between what moderns call “outer space” and Scripture refers to as “heaven.” Indeed, restoring this connection was precisely C. S. Lewis’s intention in his Cosmic Trilogy, to “convert people from the idea of ‘outer space’ to the idea of ‘heaven.’” It is not, as popularly imagined, that heaven is another dimension outside of the universe where God lives: heaven, or the heavens, in the Bible, are what we see when we look up, beginning with our own atmosphere, including the heavenly bodies ruled by the powers God has ordained over them, and the realms beyond them that we cannot directly see, where God himself sits enthroned (e.g., Ps. 2:4; 29:10; Is. 40:22) in his celestial temple (e.g., Rev. 11:19). As Terence Fretheim notes, the biblical assertion that God is enthroned in the heavens is a statement not of divine transcendence, but of immanence: God chooses, in His grace, to dwell within the cosmos rather than outside of it, since heaven is part of the created order, and not separate from it (Fretheim, The Suffering of God, 37). Christians do not have the luxury of conceiving of a vacuum full of empty space, or even just of countless inhabited worlds. Perhaps, indeed, there is life elsewhere in the cosmos (ours is not the first generation of Christians to suspect so); but we must assert that in fact all the worlds float awash in the radiance of divine glory, in a cosmos that is oriented around the habitation of God, surrounded by choirs of countless spiritual beings who rule the stars on His behalf. Here is a Classical Jewish and Christian approach to understanding the wider universe that is able to embrace and transfigure the knowledge available to us through the natural sciences in the light of faith.
Likewise, Christians in the modern era have lost a sufficient concept of the underworld. In the Bible, all of the dead—righteous and wicked alike—go down to Sheol, or Hades, “the Pit” beneath the earth where their shades dwell in a dim reflection of earthly existence. In the Old Testament, Sheol is a stratified society, retaining some sense of hierarchy and having a place of shame (e.g., the kings of the earth continue to have their thrones in Sheol; Is. 14:9); in the Second Temple period, a concrete idea arose that within the underworld there were various possible destinations, which in St. Luke’s Gospel is the meaning of Abraham’s Bosom (Lk. 16:19-31). The only ones who dwell in the heavens in anticipation of the resurrection—the only people we see in the whole Bible who go to heaven when they die—are the martyrs, who don’t seem to be having a great time there as it is (Rev. 6:9-11). Moderns typically regard both of these images—heaven and the underworld—as too mythological in character, or somehow rendered unfeasible in light of modern scientific knowledge, and so many theologians have retreated to the position that these ideas, heaven and hell, describe states of the soul rather than actual places, while non-Orthodox Christians have typically insisted that they refer to places outside of the time-space continuum. While it’s certainly true that each of these places are accompanied by particular states of being in relationship to the glory of God that fills all of creation and the Spirit who is inescapable even in the depths of Sheol (Ps. 139:8), it is unnecessary to suppose that science robs us of our mythological understanding of the cosmos. That would be both to underestimate and to overestimate the value of our present body of scientific knowledge: on the one hand, it makes the mistake of equating scientism or materialism with actual science, which presumes that because such concepts are mythological or theological, they are thereby antiscientific; on the other hand, it makes the mistake of assuming that our scientific knowledge about the universe is either complete or nearing completion. On the contrary, we are continually baffled, the more we learn, by how little we know about the universe, and even our own planet.
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Between these two poles—the highest heaven where God sits enthroned between the Cherubim with Christ seated at His right hand, and the depths of the underworld, where dwell the shades under angelic guardianship—Christians have always assumed a universe full of beings benevolent, malevolent, and morally ambiguous. The Old Testament assumes the existence of lesser divine beings, the gods and lords of whom the God of Israel is God and Lord (Deut. 10:17), the sons of God who appear before Him regularly to meet in assembly (Job 1 and 2), some of whom rebelled and took human women as wives (Gen. 6:1-4), some of whom he apportioned over the nations (Deut. 32:8), and some of whom he frequently judges and calls to account in the Bible (e.g., Ex. 12:12; Ps. 82). St. Paul also affirms the existence of these other gods and lords (1 Cor. 8:5), though he asserts that they are daimons, lesser and adverse divinities with whom Christians must have nothing to do (1 Cor. 10:18-22). Among the angels, seven in particular—Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel, Selathiel, Barachiel, and Jehudiel—stand as chieftains, the seven spirits who stand before God’s throne (Rev. 4:5). Together with the lesser angelic powers, all of these beings were organized by the Patristic and Medieval systems into specific and distinct choirs, as, for instance, in St. Dionysios the Areopagite’s Celestial Hierarchy.
But divine, heavenly beings, angels (and demons, as their fallen counterparts) are not the only creatures in the cosmos for Jews and Christians. To begin with, the world is populated with a vast array of diverse creatures, all of whom contribute to the goodness and beauty of the world. At the head of these is Behemoth, the king of beasts (Job 40:15-24), and Leviathan, the king of the seas (Job 41:1-34). In addition to these, ancient Near Eastern peoples knew of a panoply of mythological creatures, all of which would have been known to the ancient Israelites. Many Christians have historically been comfortable with integrating the mythologies of their surrounding cultures into their own cosmologies without simply turning these creatures—elves, dwarves, fairies, dragons, and the like—into demons. Whether these creatures are real or not—I make no comment here—a Christian imagination understands why the creativity and majesty of God ought to leave us at least open to a world that is bigger than our ordinary experience.
It is in this context, too, that Scripture’s condemnation of the occult makes the sense it does. God forbids the consultation of wizards and mediums, and the cultivation of the magical arts, not because they are silly and not real, but precisely because they exist and the powers they deal with are real, though highly volatile, dangerous, and often not well understood (Deut. 18:9-12). The assumption of the biblical text is that the world accessed and understood by the occult exists. It is, indeed, the shade of the Prophet Samuel, retaining his gift of prophecy even in death (like the Prophet Tiresias in Homer’s Odyssey), whom the medium calls up in 1 Samuel 28:3-19, for this is a possibility assumed by the biblical world. It is not insignificant that upon first seeing the risen Lord, the disciples assume He is a ghost (Lk. 24:37).
David Armstrong is an Orthodox Christian who enjoys a shameless love affair with Jews, Judaism, and other Christians. He graduated with a BA in Religious Studies (minor in Classical Greek) from Missouri State University in Springfield, MO, where he is now working on an MA in Biblical Studies. He has an avid interest in far too many things, and would do well to specialize.