In many ancient cultures there are fairly developed ideas about life after death, not the least of which evolved in Greece and were enlarged upon by the epic poets and philosophers of ages gone by. For the Greeks, the afterlife consisted of a vast underworld separated from the land of the living by a great river that encircled the earth. Oceanus separated the place of the living from the home of the dead who were thought to live in a subterranean location beyond the horizon in the west. Probably because the west was associated with the sunset, it was not uncommon for the ancients to associate the end of mortal life with where the sun goes down, for the idea of the light going out was a simple enough representation of death.
Five rivers were thought to form the boundary between the upper and lower worlds, and traditionally the deceased entered the underworld by crossing one particular stream known as the River Styx. The souls of the newly departed would gather on the shore of the river waiting for the ferry to give them passage to the other side. Charon, the ferryman would charge a small price for this service and so it was necessary for the dead to produce a coin to pay the fare. If the family and friends of the deceased had any regard for the journey the departed soul was about to take, they would have buried his body with either a coin or two under his tongue or over his eyelids so that he could present it to Charon for the ride across the river. Unfortunate souls who didn’t have the money were sadly stranded on the shore indefinitely with no place to go.
Once the ferry reached the other side of the river and the dead disembarked into the underworld, they passed through the gates to this subterranean world walking by Cerberus the three-headed dog who ever guards the entrance to this land which we know as Hades. Upon entering this vast domain, the dead would be summoned to appear before a triumvirate for judgment. What they had done in life would be weighed in the balance and a decision would be made to which part of Hades the newly departed should go. For the Greeks, this expansive underworld consisted of multiple regions in which the dead would take up residence.
The rank and file individual would generally find himself with the vast majority of the dead in a region known as the Asphodel Meadows. For those who were neither virtuous nor evil but mediocre in their moral character, it was destined to reside in this spacious region of Hades which we can best describe in neutral terms to match the life the deceased had lived on earth. Kind of gray and gloomy, the Asphodel Meadows offered the masses a less perfect and ghostly version of the life they knew on earth. It was a place where the spirits dwelt in the flavorless existence of a shadow or phantom. While not at all a place of punishment, it was neither a region of pleasure but a dream-like world where the ghosts of ordinary mortals made their home. A boring land of shadows, the souls who entered this part of Hades were consigned to a life of semi-confusion and oblivion drifting along in a somewhat meaningless way and eating the Asphodel flowers, the bloom associated with death and mourning and apparently the favorite food of the departed Greeks.
While the bulk of humanity were believed to end up in the Asphodel Meadows, a smaller portion of the dead were judged worthy to make their abode in a fairly happy place by comparison. Those who were great military heroes sacrificing their lives in battle for their city-state along with the virtuous dead who lived upright lives were deemed worthy to take up residence in what the Greek writers of old have called the Elysian Fields. Those who in mortal life were of a pure and clean heart without defilement or taint of evil were led by Zeus the king of the gods to this pleasant land illuminated with its own sun and stars to light up this subterranean locale. Soothing ocean breezes would waft over the blessed in this happy place and flowers blazing with dazzling light would greet the eye of the resident of this good land. The good souls who found their new home here could drink of its great beauty while playing in a carefree way upon the grassy fields and on the yellow sands by the water. They could dance and sing and recite poems and essentially do whatever brought joy to their happy souls.
A small percentage of humanity would reap this great reward in contrast to the great majority who were consigned to the blasé Asphodel Meadows, but yet another minority portion of the dead would be placed in another region of Hades in keeping with their moral merits while they were alive. The impious and the evil would after judgment be led to a less palatable division of the underworld known as Tartarus. In the deepest recesses of Hades, far below the sleepy Asphodel Meadows and the glorious Elysian Fields lay a very unwholesome place hemmed in by three layers of night. A dank and wretched pit, Tartarus was the home to wicked souls who had committed terrible sins and great crimes. This place of torment and suffering would receive the rapist and the one who defrauded his neighbor. Those who hated their siblings or struck their parents would end up in this foul corner of Hades along with adulterers, traitors, child abusers, and others who had committed evil deeds.
Punishments were designed to fit the crime in Tartarus, and those who were inflamed with lust and committed adultery might find themselves perpetually strapped to a wheel of flames rolling about this cursed land to aptly counter their burning lust. Gluttons and ingesters of forbidden food might find themselves chained to a post in Tartarus with a cluster of grapes just outside of grasp while pained with insatiable hunger and thirst. Traitors on the other hand might be given the fruitless of task of repeatedly rolling a large boulder up a mountainside only upon reaching the crest to have it roll back down to the bottom. Many and varied were the punishments of evil souls who were relegated to Tartarus, and yet there was still hope for such wretched souls.
Most offenders of great wrongs were considered curable, and after some time, the waves of one of the main rivers of the underworld would wash them out of Tartarus and being carried along by the current they would wind up at a particular lake where they would beg forgiveness of those they had wronged. If their penitence was received by those whom they offended, they would be released from their suffering, but if their petitions were not accepted by their victims, these souls would have to return to Tartarus and repeat the cycle again.
According to the philosopher Plato who wrote some of the great works on the subject of the Greek underworld, such souls after learning their lessons would return again to another life in the land of the living. After paying the penalty for their evil through suffering of spirit in the place of the dead, they would come back to live again in the upper world that they left some time before in another effort to achieve purity. Not only they who suffered but those who spent their time in Hades in the boring realm of Asphodel would reincarnate even along with some of those who were enjoying bliss in the Elysian Fields. But before any would return to the land of the living, it was required that they drink from one of the rivers that divided the upper and lower worlds. Once having imbibed from the River Lethe, all souls would have their memories erased and completely forget their past including their time in the netherworld. Presumably it was for the purpose of having a fresh start in a new life, unbiased by the past with its assorted victories and failures.
Now the Greeks with their detailed view of life after death were hardly unique in their understanding of the hereafter. Other peoples shared similar elements in their outline of the underworld, particularly a primitive people in Northern Europe whom we know as the Norsemen. In the various sagas that come down to us from the Scandinavian people is a complicated story of gods and realms beyond our own, but analogous ideas are found to that of the Mediterranean peoples.
Like the Greeks, the Norse envisioned an afterlife with numerous divisions to which the dead were assigned according to what they had done in life. And both groups conceived of one particular realm that became the home to the greater majority of mankind upon death. For the Greeks it was the Asphodel Meadows of Hades while for the Norse it was a place called Hel, the same word we use in modern English to designate an unsavory destination in the afterlife. However, for the Scandinavians, their original Hel was a place very similar to the Asphodel Meadows and not the infamous torture chamber that comes to mind for most.
Upon death, the bulk of men would cross over a rapid river to enter Hel perhaps in a not too different fashion than the Greeks saw people ferrying across the River Styx. This part of the underworld would become the new abode of the ordinary person, one who had neither excelled in that which is good nor excelled in that which is bad. It was seen as the home of the morally mediocre, the rank and file individual who upon arrival in this subterranean world would be reunited with loved ones from whom he had previously been separated through death. For the Norse, Hel was a damp cold place that was kind of a dream world, more boring than anything else and sort of like a place of exile. It was not particularly happy, but it was not torturous either and was viewed more as a long sleep.
However for exceptional people of high integrity, the Norse had a special destination as well which might be somewhat analogous to the Elysian Fields of Greek mythology. Such people would be worthy of living in Asgard the home of the gods. Additionally, war heroes were also highly praised in the Norse sagas, and for those who died in war it was apportioned to dwell with the warrior god Odin in his abode in a subdivision of Asgard known as Valhalla. Translated as the “hall of the slain,” in this blessed place, warriors would fight each other all day for sport and training as they so enjoyed only to be miraculously healed of their wounds each evening. Then they would spend their nights feasting before going back to the same pattern the next day. With both the Greek and Scandinavian peoples, it seems that there was a premium placed on the service of a warrior, for both cultures sought to highly reward the war hero in the afterlife. More than likely both peoples recognized the need to have brave military men in the service of the nation or tribe and undoubtedly such afterlife traditions only reinforced a steady standing army.
But the picture of the Norse underworld would not be complete without mentioning the unpleasant realms in the land of the dead reserved for the vile and the wicked. Within the sagas are mentioned two subdivisions of the greater Hel known as Nastrond and Niflhel which were unsavory places to say the least. Nastrond was seen as shoreline on an ice cold subterranean sea in which the corpses of the dead were sucked by a great serpent. (We can certainly appreciate that those who live near the arctic would consider extreme cold more or a punishment than extreme heat.) The unfortunate ones who came to this place slept in a hall filled with snakes and dripping poison. The other district Niflhel translated as “the Dark” or “Misty Hel” was also a place of punishment located beneath Hel proper and similar to Tartarus of the Greeks. Both regions would be the lot of those who broke oaths, abducted and raped women, and did other vile things to suffer harsh punishments.
Now that a picture has been painted of the Mediterranean and Scandinavian views of the afterlife, it is probably appropriate to turn our attention to the ancient Jews who not surprisingly had more or less a comparable understanding of the underworld albeit a more simplistic model. For the Israelites of old, the hereafter was also a subterranean place that they referred to as Sheol. People who are familiar with the Old Testament would not necessarily be familiar with this place name, for it has been translated into English under a number of different terms including “the grave,” “the pit,” and “hell.” Equivalent in many ways to the Asphodel meadows and to the Norse Hel, Sheol was understood to be a place deep under ground in the darkness, another boring place where the dead continued to exist as shadows of their former selves in the land of the living. For the Hebrews it was a land of forgetfulness and oblivion as characterized in the Psalms, and Job the suffering sage described it as a sleepy land where the denizens of that place could hardly be described as waking in the sense that we know it. Additionally Solomon characterized the underworld as a dreary place without work, knowledge, or wisdom, a sort of aimless existence like what we find in the Asphodel Meadows and Norse Hel.
It was the realm that the Hebrews expected all human flesh to end up in at the close of their days, irrespective of rich or poor, strong or weak, slave or free. The patriarchs and great kings of Israel fully expected to rendezvous with their loved ones who had predeceased them upon their own demise for all departed people were believed to congregate in this shadowy world. The patriarch Jacob spoke of going down to Sheol to see his beloved son Joseph whom he presumed was dead. And King David also expressed his expectation to see his infant son who passed to the other side at a mere seven days old.
While sentiments might have varied about the length of time a soul spent in the underworld after death, there are some clues that the Hebrews of old saw it as period of limited duration somewhat in line with Plato’s writings on the underworld. Hannah the mother of the prophet Samuel composed a song of praise to God in which she acknowledged that the Lord brings death and makes alive and that he brings a soul down to Sheol and raises it up again. For her, life appeared as a cycle from the land of the living to the underworld and back again. The prophet Isaiah also wrote of the dead coming to life and their bodies rising from the grave. He envisioned the earth once again giving birth to her dead. And of course the great suffering servant Job expressed his view of cycling back and forth from Sheol in his famous declaration, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will return there.”
But irrespective of the Israelite’s views on reincarnation, their overall picture of the afterlife was perhaps a little vaguer than some of the surrounding nations and maybe even a little counterintuitive. The underworld for the Hebrews was not only a neutral land of nothingness for the great and small of the world but also for the righteous and the wicked. Both the good and the bad were understood to reap the same lot upon their demise especially as expressed in the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament. The reality of this belief is best epitomized though in the first book of Samuel at the end of Saul’s life. Deeply distressed before going into battle against the Philistines, the king of Israel in desperation hired a medium to conjure up God’s faithful servant Samuel from the realm of Sheol. The prophet appeared rising up from the ground and unfortunately had less than consoling words to share with Saul who had disobeyed God one too many times. Samuel predicted that Saul and his sons would perish the next day in battle and that they would join him down in Sheol in short order. And so Sheol for ancient Jews was a common lot for all humanity, for the faithful and not so faithful alike. While the other ancient cultures also envisioned a common underworld, they were not quite as simplistic in their lumping all the dead together under the same conditions, for the Greeks and the Norse clearly had a range of subdivisions in their underworld to span the moral character of man. But it would seem that the Hebrew understanding of the afterlife was still evolving in Old Testament times, for by the time that Jesus appears on the scene, there is a more detailed picture of the hereafter in Jewish thought.
When we come to the New Testament, several new words and phrases appear to describe the Hebrew afterlife representing an expansion upon the generic Sheol of the Old Testament. Some of the terms were clearly borrowed from the Greek conception of the netherworld while others seem to be Jewish ideas that developed in the intertestamental period. Because the New Testament was written in Greek, naturally we see a frequent occurrence of the Hades which as we have described earlier represents the totality of the underworld and is the equivalent of the old Hebrew Sheol. And in a number of places, Hades appears in the pages of the Christian revelation in that general way to speak of the entire realm of the dead.
Particularly this is evident in John’s Apocalypse where early in his series of visions he describes the four horsemen who were unleashed on the earth. The last rider was mounted on a pale horse representing death and the passage says that Hades was following close behind it to receive a quarter of the world’s population which were to be slain by various means. Later in the Revelation there is another mention of the Greek term where a general judgment is described in the time of Christ’s coming. Hades was said to give up the dead that it contained so that each could be judged according to what he had done. The residents of Hades, both great and small, good and bad were summoned to stand before the throne for evaluation of their actions and receive their due.
Hades also appears a number of times in the words of Jesus in the gospels as well as the book of Acts where it is mentioned by Peter on the day of Pentecost. Quoting one of the Psalms, the apostle reiterated the words of David who originally said “you will not leave my soul in Sheol” for which Peter substitutes the Greek equivalent Hades.
But the apostolic writers were fond of more flavorful words than just Hades in what they decided to describe of the netherworld. We find Peter on one occasion utilizing the word Tartarus, the lowest subdivision of Hades and place of torment. In his second epistle he employs the term to describe the home of devils incarcerated in gloomy dungeons deep within the bowels of the underworld. However this usage of the unsavory Greek region of Hades appears only once in the entire New Testament. Jesus who by far made the most references to the unpleasant parts of the afterlife chose to use a Semitic word instead that his fellow Jews could well relate to.
Gehenna was a frequent allusion of the Savior to describe the unpalatable regions of the netherworld, and it was employed because the word had a tangible link with the experience of the common man. Translated as the valley of Hinnom, Gehenna was a real locale near Jerusalem with a history spanning back many hundreds of years to the time of the kings. In this valley, children were routinely sacrificed to the pagan god Molech as an offering by their parents. Probably in connection with its ill-repute, the valley eventually turned into a common refuse dump which was always on fire burning up the rubbish that people emptied into it. Not only was ordinary garbage incinerated in this smoldering place, the corpses of animals and people were thrown on the flames as well to dispose of the bodies. It was actually considered the final indignity offered to an executed criminal to throw his body into Gehenna to be consumed in the fire.
As can be imagined, it wasn’t long before this valley of fire took on a metaphorical significance in the eyes of the Jews who figuratively associated it with a place of spiritual purification for the wicked dead. According to Jewish tradition, those souls consigned for punishment to the spiritual Gehenna would undergo its tortures for a maximum tenure of twelve months with a complete reprieve once per week on the Sabbath. After their purification, such souls would be permitted to what in Hebrew is called Olam Ha-Ba, also known as the world to come.
It was this potent image of a burning trash heap with its pungent odor that was regularly employed by Jesus to describe the destination of those who persisted in serious sin. He cited Gehenna as the future home of the hypocritical Pharisees and their converts in the way of legalism. Often he taught his hearers that it would be better for them to cut off a hand or gouge out an eye if they should cause one to sin rather than enter this place of fire with all body parts intact. Clearly Gehenna was the Lord’s equivalent idea for the Greek Tartarus, but he utilized other phrases as well to paint the picture of the less desirable regions of the underworld.
On several occasions he made use of the phrase “Outer Darkness” to characterize the future home of certain sinners. The expression appears three times in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus applies it in various contexts. In one parable that he told he used it to describe the destination of those to whom he came first, the Jews who were the rightful subjects of the kingdom. Because they chose to reject him, the parable alludes to how such people will be deposed from their former positions and sent to the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. In another parable he intimated that other people worthy of this terrible outcome are to be compared with those who snuck into a wedding feast uninvited and without wedding clothes on. And his last mention of the cursed outer darkness was in the context of his parable of the talents where the wicked lazy servant did nothing with what was entrusted to him, earning no return on investment but only burying it in the ground to remain idle.
While Jesus didn’t directly mention any more terms to depict various distressing places in the afterlife, the New Testament writers did and one that appears in Luke’s gospel as well as John’s Revelation is the word Abyss or Bottomless Pit. The first time we see it used by Luke it is in the story of a man who was possessed by a legion of demons which by implication would have been around 6000 of them. In great fear that Jesus would cast them out and send them to the Bottomless Pit, they begged him instead for a kinder disposition petitioning to be cast into a large herd of pigs. Jesus granted their request and the herd rushed down the hillside into the lake where they all drowned.
While the phrase only appears once in the gospels, John used it frequently in the Apocalypse in the sense of the darkest recesses of the underworld. It was the place where the most vile enemies of God were consigned, and John compared it to such a thick pervasive darkness that the smoke emanating from this region was dense enough to block out the light from the sun and stars.
But that is probably enough focus on the negative depictions of the underworld as portrayed by the authors of the New Testament. On the other end of the spectrum there was ample time given to the subject of the more positive locations in the afterlife which namely was regarded as a place called Paradise. After the return from exile, Jewish thought began to develop more and the idea arose that Sheol comprised regions of bliss and torture in addition to the traditionally understood boring insipid realm. The apocryphal Book of Enoch written in this time frame subdivided Sheol into four realms pertaining to the truly righteous, the good, the wicked, and the most obstinately wicked. While the proverbial Gehenna became associated with the negative end of the spectrum, what is known as Paradise became the label for the far positive end.
Tracing its roots to an old Persian word for a beautiful park, it is most commonly depicted as a delightful garden in the pages of the Old Testament Eventually it became synonymous with the utopia we know as the Garden of Eden. Over time, this blissful realm of Paradise was equated with another phrase that became popular by Jesus’ day which was the Bosom of Abraham. In the Talmud both names are used in conjunction to refer to the home of the righteous and the place of the blessed. Abraham’s bosom was so called because of the Jewish practice of reclining at table during a feast, and it was considered the greatest honor to be lay back in the bosom of the host embodied by the great patriarch Abraham.
The Bosom of Abraham or Paradise as it was also called featured prominently in one of Jesus’ parables from the gospel of Luke. It was in the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus that Jesus strove to show the contrast between the fate of the presumably wealthy who didn’t fear God and the poor who were ever dependent on him for their daily survival. Upon death the Rich Man was escorted to an area of torment while Lazarus was taken to a place of comfort at Abraham’s side, and the one who was wealthy in life could only see Lazarus from afar but was barred from approach the place of rest.
While this parable is the only biblical mention of Abraham’s Bosom, its equivalent Paradise is mentioned or inferred several times. It was at Calvary where next to Jesus were crucified two criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. One of the men reviled him to the end, but the other repented of his life of evil and asked Jesus to remember him when he left this life. And in response to his penitence, the Savior promised him that he would be with him in Paradise when that day the two of them journeyed to the underworld, descending into Hades where Jesus would remain three days to preach to the many souls in that vast realm.
The Apostle Paul also apparently visited Paradise according to his own testimony in the first letter to the Corinthians. Probably in some sort of a vision or trance, the great preacher to the Gentiles had an out of body experience in which in his own words he was “caught up into paradise.” All he communicates to us about that place is that he heard inexpressible things that man is not permitted to tell. Undoubtedly he experienced a place of bliss as imagined by the rabbis who preceded him, the inconceivable joy to be shared in this the highest division of the netherworld.
Now we have considered several ancient cultures and their perceptions of the afterlife, the place to which yet imperfect mortals go after death, and integrating all of the various traditions that have been handed down to us, there is a common theme among all of them. We infer from the various descriptions of the underworld that the place where the dead abide is a vast domain, a continuum stretching from a place of severe punishment to one of utter bliss with every shade of gray in between. And if in fact our own earthly experience indicates that men live in a wide variety of economic and social conditions while in the flesh, intuitively we may expect a wide range of conditions in the netherworld.
At least this is the testimony of many mystics throughout the ages who have seen the home of the dead in visions and through personal visits when they dreamt at night. Their message is the same; the dead abide in a broad spectrum of spiritual conditions reflecting the state of their own souls. Not that upon death the angels sort out all individuals and direct them to their proper location, souls come to rest in the place they belong automatically without any particular help. This is because each soul has a density to it. If it is cloaked in evil it becomes very heavy and sinks like a lead brick falling through a pond. If it is relatively pure in heart, the soul is metaphorically buoyant and floats to the very heights of the spirit world. But few souls can be categorized on either extreme and most fall somewhere in between settling where their spiritual nature dictates in various shades of gray.
Like the author of the Book of Enoch, various visionaries tell us that there are indeed four major divisions of the underworld and each partitioned into many subdivisions. The dark realm of Unbelief is not surprisingly at the bottom with a kind of boring realm of Half-Belief just above it. Then there is a region filled with those who have Belief without Works on top of which is a glorious place epitomized by those who have both Belief and Works together. Suffice it to say, there is much that can be said about the spirit world, but importantly a main point to understand is that similar souls congregate together. It is the principle of “like attracts like” and “birds of a feather flock together” according to their spiritual weight. Evil souls create hell together by inflicting the worst kind of malice on each other constantly while good souls make paradise together through their creative imaginations and collaborative efforts. And there is a wide assortment of conditions somewhere in between the far ends of the spectrum.
Some celebrated writers of the past age have envisioned the underworld in such a diverse way not the least of which is the Italian poet Dante Alighieri who composed the Divine Comedy in the 14th century. Conceiving of an afterlife with multiple tiers, he set out to describe three main divisions with hell at the bottom, purgatory in the middle, and paradise on top, and each major region he imagined as broken down into nine subdivisions. For Dante, the netherworld was therefore a place consisting of 27 subdivisions spanning a wide spectrum of conditions. Perhaps keying off the words of the Savior who in the gospels spoke of those who would be beaten with few blows and others with many blows, he set out to describe the punishments of the underworld to reflect the severity of the sinner’s misdeeds while the delights of the underworld were meant to mirror the virtues of the righteous.
While Dante’s very top tier of hell was rather benign like the Asphodel Meadows of the Greeks, his lower tiers were increasingly more and more heinous. The poet was led by the maxim “Let the punishment fit the crime” and in observing this principle, he imagined blasphemers hanging by their tongues and adulterers hanging by their loins. He envisioned flatterers steeped up to their necks in human excrement and corrupt politicians immersed in boiling pitch because of their sticky fingers in life. While Dante’s basic outline has some merit to it, the mystics tell us that it is those steeped in the most intractable evil who are at the very bottom in the Abyss with devil worshippers tortured by their “gods” just a tier above them. Then come those controlled by the seven deadly sins many of which ruled by hatred inflict the most unimaginable malice on each other. Above this sad subdivision are those given over to the sins of the flesh including lust, and a tier over this unhappy bunch we find the materialists ever seeking to acquire wealth and possessions in a fruitless way. And topping the subdivisions of the land of Unbelief we find the hypocrites continually seeking to present a false appearance of piety to their neighbor. In truth, the conditions in the higher subdivisions are no where near as bad as what we find toward the bottom, and so we may rightly think of them as fairly neutral territory as the ancients conceived of them.
Now it would perhaps be naïve of us to assume that souls remain in their respective starting locations indefinitely, for like we in the land of the living may either be on an upward swing or a downward slope, the same is true of those in the hereafter. Usually when a soul has sunk to its natural position in some part of the realm of Unbelief, it will begin to turn away from its evil and the cloak of wickedness that it has put over its shoulders will lighten so that it begins to rise to a higher subdivision. Whereas in earthlife the misdeeds of the sinner often go unchecked, in the spirit world malice upon malice is reaped by the soul until the point that he becomes severely fatigued of it and seeing the error of his ways makes an improvement. This truth is probably behind the Greek conception of Tartarus as a place of limited duration as well as the Jewish conception of Gehenna lasting no more than a year. In fact one is only obligated to stay in Tartarus or Gehenna or Hell as we would understand it as long as it does not seek to improve itself and turn away from its sinful disposition. Indeed a soul may over time work its way up all the way from the thick tangible darkness of the Bottomless Pit where it is in complete isolation and alone with its own thoughts to the friendlier realms far above.
Eventually, as the philosopher Plato so intuitively realized, a call comes to the soul to return to earth life in a new body, a call that may come at any point in the wide spectrum of the spirit world. Souls in the land of darkness as well as souls in the land of light are summoned to return to the physical world to once again be tested and have an opportunity to do better in the land of the living. But before each person makes the return journey, all of their conscious memories are deleted so as not to bias their next incarnation, for the recollection of past failures would conceivably be too much to handle while the memory of past successes may cause a soul to become lazy. So it is that each person must figuratively drink of the waters of forgetfulness from the River Lethe before returning and so it is with all of us who have a long history we recall little or nothing about.
Now up to this point in the talk, the focus has been on the underworld, the abode of imperfect men of varying degrees of righteousness as construed by several ancient peoples including the Hebrews from which our own religious tradition derives. An omission has been deliberately made on another prevalent concept that is found in the New Testament to avoid confusing an already complicated subject. The astute listener will have realized that while many realms of the afterlife were mentioned, one particular place was not touched on, and of course we are speaking about heaven.
And the reason that heaven was not included with all of the other realms of the dead is because it is in a league of its own and not properly lumped in with the others. Whereas all of the other regions of the afterlife are the abode of yet imperfect men, what Jesus refers to as heaven is the home of the fully sanctified individual who has achieved the human standard of perfection after many incarnations. For Jesus, heaven or as he more commonly refers to it “the kingdom of heaven” is synonymous with eternal life implying that it is no longer the domain of mortals but of those who have achieved immortality.
The kingdom of heaven is a higher realm above and beyond what we have called Sheol or Hades and is properly the domain of the angels and the saints who abide in a yet more glorious existence than even those in blissful Paradise. It is the realm of perfected men who no longer need to return to the physical world to work out their salvation but who abide in a state of continual joy that we cannot even imagine.
This lofty place which is the goal of all humanity belongs to those who have learned to obey God in all things submitting their own wills to the divine will, for Jesus said, “Only he who does the will of my father in heaven will enter the kingdom of heaven.” It is for those who after many lives finally acquire the fortitude to obey the commandments, for Jesus told the Rich Young Ruler that if one wishes to enter eternal life, he must live his life according to the words of the Decalogue which God delivered to Moses. Heaven is the home of those who having conquered their pride have become humble like a little child since Jesus took a young boy and placing him on his lap told the disciples “Unless you become as one of these you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Much more than a cheery part of Paradise, heaven is the home of the most perfect men, and perhaps the best illustration of this comes from the words of Christ in speaking of John the Baptist. He said emphatically, “Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” In that passage the Lord strove to make a contrast by indicating that the lowliest person in heaven was still greater than the holiest of men whether in the land of the living or the realm of the dead.
We may be tempted not to draw a distinction between Paradise and the Kingdom of Heaven based on some modern traditions, but the testimony of the early church Fathers as well as biblical evidence implies a separation between the two. It was Irenaeus the 2nd century defender of the faith who wrote in his treatise “Against Heresies” that only those deemed worthy would inherit a home in heaven, while others would enjoy paradise. Likewise the scholar and prolific writer Origen distinguished paradise from heaven, describing paradise as the earthly "school" for souls of the righteous dead, preparing them for their ascent through the celestial spheres to heaven. And indeed that is exactly what Paradise is, a school in preparation for souls to move higher into an everlasting kingdom.
It is generally souls in Paradise who prepare for one last final incarnation to master earthlife before ascending to the land of the angels and the saints, a place where the sun never sets and all live in eternal day. And this truth is born out in Paul’s letter to the Hebrews where he makes the distinction between Paradise and heaven in his chapter on the heroes of faith. He spoke of such mighty people of God to say that they viewed themselves as “strangers on the earth” and seeking a country of their own as if to say that they felt that they ultimately didn’t belong here and were longing for a more spiritual abode. And after this comment he proceeded to say that if such people had been thinking about the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return, but instead they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. We may glance over these sentences quickly without getting the full gist, but Paul is simply saying that such holy people had forgotten about the country they came from, namely Paradise from which they reincarnated in this last life. And the apostle suggests that it is good that the memory of that blessed place had been wiped clean, for otherwise they might not long for something even more glorious, a better country which in the words of Paul is the heavenly one.
For Paul as well as Ireneaus and Origen, there were clearly two countries in mind, Paradise and the kingdom of heaven just as far apart as the land of the living is from the realm of the dead. The one was viewed as temporary and the other in the words of Peter was a lasting habitation described as an inheritance that can never perish. It is the high calling of each and every person to finish his tenure in the realms of mortal existence whether in the land of the living or in the vast underworld that we have charted to his place in the kingdom of heaven and join with the angels and the saints in their unending hymn of praise.