Heaven: a traveller's guide to the undiscovered country by Peter Stanford

A hitchhiker's guide to Paradise
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Living in a culture that shies away from any confrontation with mortality, the majority of people today find speculation about the nature of the afterlife both threatening and distasteful. As Peter Stanford remarks in his fascinating new study of Heaven, a century ago we had great public funerals and private sex; now it is the reverse. Death and what lies beyond has become, in every sense, the last taboo.

Stanford has subtitled his book "a traveller's guide to the undiscovered country", but he might as well have called it "a hitchhiker's guide to Elysium". For most people, the object of his exploration is as bizarre as anything in Douglas Adams's fantasy. Even the Church tends to avoid any discussion – or definition – of it. In July 1999, in his first public pronouncement on Heaven, Pope John Paul informed pilgrims that it was not somewhere above the clouds where angels play harps but simply "a state of being" after death. Likewise, in a BBC poll the same year, 40 per cent of Anglican clergymen said they did not believe in Heaven as a physical place.

Their predecessors would not have shared these doubts. From earliest times, there has been an interest in the concept of a destination to which the dead travelled (and occasionally returned). With the development of faiths such as Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism, such ideas become far more sophisticated. Stanford briefly examines Eastern beliefs but concentrates on the three great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Islam and, above all, Christianity.

A powerful element of the book is its emphasis on how the most otherworldly of destinations has been defined by political realities. Thus the earliest Jewish view of the afterlife was of a two-tier region with the lesser open to everyone, irrespective of their lives. It was only during the Babylonian captivity, when the Jews were deeply affected by defeat and injustice, that the concept of Heaven as a place of final judgement with entrance dependent on merit began to evolve.

Judaism took notions of bodily resurrection from Zoroastrianism and of the immortality of the soul from the Greco-Roman tradition. But it was Christianity that fused these two notions into one. Whereas, in the Old Testament, Heaven was seen as intimately connected with the fate of Israel, here it is almost exclusively focused on personal experience of the divine. In teaching such as the parable of Dives and Lazarus, Christ rejected the conventional picture of the afterlife. Yet, as Stanford points out in one of many authoritative ripostes to fundamentalism, no clear picture of Heaven emerges from the gospels. On the contrary, it is "confused, woolly and sometimes downright contradictory".

This has not prevented countless churchmen and theologians from setting out precise topographies. Stanford provides an elegant account of the change in views. He moves from the early Church Fathers who, predictably, removed any concept of pleasure, through medieval monasticism, which, true to the monks' experience, portrayed Heaven as a garden, and the early Renaissance, where urbanisation was mirrored in the picture of Heaven as a city state, to the Reformation and beyond. Particularly cheerless was the Nonconformist Heaven which struck young Lloyd George as much more frightening than Hell, "because it would be an everlasting church service with every exit guarded by an angel to stop him escaping".

Stanford's is a bold and persuasive attempt to chart the unknowable. He mixes historical, literary and painterly depictions with personal accounts, both from contemporaries transfigured by mystical experiences, and his own attempt to come to terms with his mother's death. He leavens the theological discussions with exposés of some of the wilder fundamentalist lunacies. And he leaves us to ponder the crucial question of whether Heaven is "a collective delusion designed to take the edge off mortality and to soften the random blows of fate in this life", or whether, as religions of every kind agree, it is the ultimate encounter of humanity and its creator.