Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Embodiment of Heaven and Hell : Cosmology, Eschatology and Afterlife

Prologue : Three Houses and a Home

The first house is owned by an old man who collects items of interest. He is a hoarder and as a result of this his house is more of a storage shelter than a home. His bedroom is in a corner of the lounge room dominated by shelves of various objects. The kitchen has been reduced to a sink, a microwave and few cupboards. His bathroom should not be mentioned because that would be going too far. Sometimes he is lonely, but, he loves his collection. Anyway, there is no room for anyone else in his house. In fact there is barely room for him.

The second house has a family who own everything the perfect western household should have. It is all arranged correctly, appropriately and orderly. Even their outlandish picture of Elvis works with d├ęcor flawlessly. One day the mother decides to move the picture of Elvis. When she does the lounge does not work as flawlessly as it did before, so she changes it. Then she realises that the dining area no longer flows on into the lounge as it did before, so she changes it. This moving of the furniture continues till the whole house is changed, only the children's bed rooms are left unscathed. When the children come home from school at first they think they have entered into the wrong house. But there is the picture of Elvis and when they call out for their mother she enters smiling proudly and asks her children what they think of the new configuration.

The third house is in a state of change as the mother and her daughter who live there are moving to another house nearby. The mother takes her daughter to school and returns to supervise the final push into the new house that is only a few blocks away. When returning from school in the car they pass by the old house.
“Bye old house!” calls the daughter from the car. The mother joins in waving as they continue the extra distance to the new house. Upon arriving the daughter rushes out of the car up to the front door.
“I beat you home!” she exclaims excitedly jumping up and down as her mother arrives to open the door to their new home for the first time.


There is a commonly held cosmology about Heaven and Hell which assumes that Heaven is somewhere up and Hell is somewhere down. Unlike Santa Claus whose location is slightly more specific, Hell and Heaven have continued to exist. Despite the scientific information that outer space being vast and the molten lava below being infernally hot there is no “place” where either resides. When working out the issues involved in the cosmology of Heaven and Hell there is a clutter that needs to be sorted before any thought of ethics or reward and punishment can begin. Locating where within our understanding of life, death and what could lie beyond these ideas of paradise and punishment has less to do with doctrine and cosmology (though they can be a comfort) and more to do with the God who created it all.

Heaven and Hell's Cluttered House of Embodiment

Eschatology is the study of a future event or place that has been promised and hoped for but is yet to come. For Christian's Heaven and Hell is supposed to be eschatological yet the images we have about Heaven and Hell suggest they are happening now. This leads to the understanding of an afterlife and not a great future event. The images of Heaven and Hell are believed to the extent that they have been taken as actual places that exist now. The cosmology where Heaven is above the Earth and Hell below has taken on such a power that Heaven and Hell may be more believable than the God who made them. An idea or ideal like Heaven and Hell or more simply a belief in an afterlife can garner such attention and be used, read, and believed to the extent that it can be considered real. This is called Embodiment. Similar incidents of embodiment have taken place where as Malcolm MacLachlan explains that an idea such as Santa Claus or Shangri-La can be associated with a physical entity or location (MacLachlan, 2004 : 2) . Embodiment creates the cultural knowledge that the North Pole is where Santa Claus lives, that in the Himalayas lies Shangri-La and that Heaven and Hell are places above and below where reward and punishment are meted out today not eschatologically.

The trouble with embodiment is known well to any person who has seen or remembers when they first realised that Santa, the Tooth Fairy or Batman does not exist in real life. When the embodiment has been revealed as an abstract like Santa Claus it creates a disturbance in our perceived understanding of the world our cosmology. Our previous understanding is now under attack by this new information. Like a child denying the fact that Saint Nicholas lived and died some time ago we still believe in an afterlife and get quite tetchy when told otherwise.

The proliferation of images and ideas about Heaven and Hell stretch throughout the media spectrum whether as film, television, animation, books and songs. For any genre or custom there is a myth, belief or doctrine about what comes after death. In Greco/Roman Mythology heroes like Orpheus travel the river Styx to Hades or climb Mount Olympus to the Heavenly realm of Zeus. Punishment, reward, eternal joy, love, pleasure, pain, suffering, reincarnation, even nothing at all are within the bounds of what happens to a person after death. All of these choices are echoed back at us within the culture that we live in. To choose a familiar culture, that of the Western European first world many images stretch from the classical (Dante's Divine Comedy) to the ridiculous (The Simpson's). Hard Rock and Heavy Metal wax lyrically about Hell, Demons, and Satan most famously sung in AC/DC's “Highway to Hell”. Whereas pop standards transform heavenly agape love into eros; physical intimacy and sexual pleasure like in Belinda Carlisle's “Heaven is a place on Earth”. Humanity it seems cannot let go of such a powerfully reinforced embodiment as that of Heaven and Hell. Perhaps Shakespeare wrote it best in Hamlet describing what comes after death as “The undiscovered country” (Shakespeare, 2003 : 158) where not many have returned from.

Humanity, like the man in the first story cannot give up the collection of ideas on Heaven and Hell and breaking such a strong Embodiment creates a vacuum within a cosmology. Because belief is placed by a person or even a community into a cosmology or doctrine this vacuum of belief creates tension as the world is no longer as it was before. Terry Pratchett explores this vacuum in his novel “The Hogfather” where Pratchett's Discworld version of Santa Claus the titular Hogfather is removed from the world. Prathett's answer is that the belief in the Hogfather has to go to somewhere leaving space for other deities and mythical beings. The vacuum left by the Hogfather is filled by new deities like the God of Hangovers (Pratchett, 2006 :166) and new myths like the Verruca Gnome (Pratchett, 2006: 127). Apart from this there is greater tragedy to avert. If belief in the Hogfather is not restored the Sun will cease to exist. It will no longer govern the seasons within the mythical understanding of the Discworld, it will merely become a ball of gas (Pratchett, 2006 : 407). Pratchett is asserting myth and mystery over the sterility of cold hard facts. When it comes to the undiscovered country all we have is the barely tangible embodied ideas that there must be something after death. Therefore in aid against a total demystification of Heaven and Hell we should do as the mother does in the second story and move the furniture.

Time to move the Furniture, but, to where and when?

Hans Urs von Balthasar's “Mysterium Pascale” paints an image of a passive and dead Christ in Hell (Balthasar, 2005 : 148-150) an explanation of Balthasar's conception of Hell will occur later. When it comes to moving the furniture this is major interior design as Balthasar is a Catholic Priest. The Catholic doctrines of Heaven and Hell are exhaustive and despite concluding that neither Heaven and Hell have geographic co-ordinates the doctrines still explain in great detail their structure and function (Catholic Encyclopaedia, 2009: np). The repercussions of Balthasar's dead Christ in Hell alters the image of Heaven and Hell's present existence in favour of a singular place of the dead. Academically there is a dispute over Balthasar's imagery Alyssa Pitstick sees Balthasar's work as dangerous and leading to universalism, while Edward Oakes champion Balthasar's work as intuitive and dynamic (D'Costa, 2009 :145). This dispute is mentioned here as another example of the disturbance when Embodied concepts are threatened. In his article “The Descent into Hell...” Gavin D'Costa explores Balthasar's moving of the furniture through the opinion of Oakes. Though being favourable towards Oakes and Balthasar, D'Costa offers his own version sticking closer to Catholic Dogma than the sharp edge of Balthasar's position between Bath and Moltmann (D'Costa, 2009 : 154). Similar to the children whose mother moved the furniture Pitstick and D'Costa are not able to deal with the new configuration and prefer the old way. Though some like D'Costa may admire the new arrangement many others like Pitstick, are disturbed enough to call the new arrangement heretical.

Changing the eschatological concept within a culture has been thought to have deleterious effects beyond the existential. In “Hell, Religion and Cultural Change” Hull and Bold explore the changing nature of eschatology from an economic angle. Their findings conclude that temporal reward and punishment derived from an eschatology can have a great affect within the moral conduct of individuals within society. In the 1600's when theologians began to question the existence of Heaven and Hell they did not express such an opinion to the general public for fear it would lead to anarchy. Hull and Bold explain that in a society where the rule of law is weak and considered flawed or corrupt the reward and punishment of an eschatology can deter people from committing crime and violence. Hull and Bold caution that to be effective it is best to keep the chosen eschatology simple in structure is because the reward or penalty have to be believable and cannot be overt and hyperbolic (Hull and Bold, 1994 : 453-454). Merely simplifying the catholic dogma and the imagery of places for Heaven and Hell may be an advantage in clearing up our understanding of Heaven and Hell into a future event.

Balthasar's moving the furniture of Heaven and Hell has Christ's decent not into Hell (infernus) but, the place of the dead (inferos). Balthasar focused on Christ in Hell, but not the Hell as we have learned to picture it Inferos (the place of the dead) is used in the latin interpretation of the Apostles Creed where Christ Descendt et Inferos. This translates to Christ descended to the place of the dead, the limbo of our fathers, Gehenna or Sheol (Balthasar, 2005 : 180-181). This is NOT the place of judgement, simply a place similar to that of Jesus' parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus. Where Christ descends to is not the Hell controlled by Lucifer and his demons, but, to the place of the dead where that immortal vestige of the human being made in the image of God goes to. This is in tune with the cultural cosmology of the ancient near east of birth, life, death, place of the dead and resurrection trajectory of man. Balthasar is giving us an image of the descent using the cosmology of the time in which Jesus lived in. Being dead just like all the other dead Balthassar makes Christ mute and passive not victorious and active. Among the dead is the Son of God in solidarity with his fellow human beings (Balthasar, 2005 : 148-149). It puts Jesus in the place of the dead with all those who have died waiting for their time of resurrection. This moves the furniture away from any present now for both Heaven and Hell.

So now where is Heaven and Hell? The assumption could be that Heaven and Hell in their completeness have yet to be that the judgement is to come. Tom Wright in “Surprised by Hope” unloads the many misunderstandings about Christian eschatology. In it he asserts the promised new Heaven and new Earth united in Zion. Wright is very critical that the traditional images of Heaven are not Christian and often closer to a Gnostic escape where the immortal spirit leaves the entrapment of our mortal bodies. Wright is adamant that the bodily resurrection along with a new heaven and earth are essential to a true Christian eschatology (Wright, 2007 :106-119). This true Christian Eschatology is contrary to the current beliefs and even the Catholic doctrine of Heaven and Hell. We have a culture that has been marinating in these disembodied spiritual cloud filled destinations and Christian eschatology is not the only one to contaminated by it.

One of the greatest images of Heaven and Hell in western history was offered by Dante in his Divine Comedy. Dantean imagery is so entrenched within western culture in song, word and image that any other version despite its biblical authority has been eclipsed. To the winner goes the right to educate the next generation and the winners of the last few centuries have been the Europeans. An example of this is found in Jesper Nielsen & Toke Sellner Reunert's article “Dante's heritage: Questioning the multi-layered model of the Meso-American universe”. Their findings concluded that the believed structure of the Aztec eschatology was an hybrid of the Dantean Heaven and Hell taught to the first generation of Meso-American Indians after Cortez's conquest (Nielsen & Reunert, 2009 : 407). They explain that in the years since it was first published Dante's Divine Comedy attained the level of a “quasi-biblical text” (Nielsen & Reunert, 2009 : 405) revered by the Spanish as well as the Jesuits who taught Dante's vision everywhere they went. So effectively was it taught that the conquered Aztec people synthesised their own eschatology using the Dantean structure altering their native cosmology (Nielsen & Reunert, 2009 : 410-411) . From this it is possible to suggest that John Bunyan's Pilgrims Progress is also another Dantean hybrid. The current two tired structure is even more simplified yet still bears the hallmarks Dante especially in the imagery of its demonic punishments. This simplified image of Heaven for the good and Hell for the bad has been incredibly virulent. Hull and Bold suggest an eschatology to be simple and believable without hyperbole and to contain an imagery that is close to reality. One that changes as cultures shift over time yet, still the same dual polarity reward/punishment that can be seen on The Simpson's, Bugs Bunny, in soft pastels of angels and in violent volcanic fiery Heavy Metal album covers. It has been embodied to the extent that the cultural image is tangible to take it away would be like the Sun ceased to exist becoming just a hot ball of gas.

In all of this structure have we forgotten someone?

Carol Zaleski in “When I get to heaven” explains the disturbance and tension in the embodiment of Heaven and Hell is caused by the fact that humanity seems to be attracted and repelled by Heaven and Hell at the same time. There is a natural curiosity (which borders on obsession at times) about what will or will not happen after death. This curiosity stands against the scientific information and other philosophies that declare such a place does not exist. Zaleski suggests that in all of this curiosity, rejection and embodiment there has been a vital piece absent from the equation of Heaven and Hell, God. Zaleski goes on to remind us of the ancient near east cosmology where Heaven is reserved for God and earth for his creation. Israel added to this the belief that there was a possible future beyond life on the earth. This was not a disembodied life in the classical Greek understanding but a bodily resurrection. This absurdity was beyond the classical world and even beyond our current images of Heaven and Hell. It is beyond what we can see of ourselves now as we cannot see what we will become when this life is over. If life is over with nothing after then life is a tragedy. Resurrection promises a happy ending making life a comedy and the reason for the title of Dante's novel (Zaleski, 2003 : 22-23). It is the absurdity of a happy ending of mansions and justice promised that goes against Hull and Bold's theory that less is more when dealing with an eschatology. Our dull and believable cultural images are less than the absurdity of the promise of resurrection which has replaced the promised glorious absurdity.

Jesus tells his disciples that God has prepared a destination for us (John 14:2). Revelation goes further with its emphasis on a new Heaven and a new Earth which N.T. Wright describes as the unification of Heaven and Earth together forever where Justice and Peace reign, where the new Jerusalem the golden city is the seat of world power where Christ sits on the throne (Wright, 2007 : 155-117). This “'life after “life after death”'” (Wright, 2007 : 210) is far from the embodied Heaven that exists in peoples minds this heaven of clouds, cherubs and a golden gate where Peter sits outside as the heavenly concierge. Hull and Bold gave three hypothesis as to why an organisation or religion would talk of Heaven and Hell. Moral control, extortion for financial gain, or communication of a truth (Hull and Bold, 1994 : 448-449). If Heaven and Hell is more than just moral influence warning of future punishment, if it is the truth, its influence would be revolutionary. If there is a kingdom coming that is the ideal by which all others can and should be measured by. A kingdom of justice and righteousness where all offences and oppression will be judged (Hays, 2000 : 133) should we not be in awe of it and look forward to it eagerly. Yet we are playing around with an embodied Dantean infused Gnostic pretender which dominates our cultural mindset.


Balthasar's image of Christ descending into Inferos the place of the dead and not Infernus Hell supports the eschatological image of future Heaven and Hell. If used the ancient cosmology can be a defence against the embodied image of Heaven and Hell as a present destination. A new Heaven and a new Earth become a future destination that is being prepared for us in the exact same way the mother prepares the new home for her daughter. Like the daughter in the third story we are as the African American Spirituals sing, going Home. Not because the earth is not our home and we are just passing through, but, because there will be a new Heaven and a New Earth prepared for a future resurrected bodily existence with God. What Heaven or Hell looks like, whether it is believable or beyond imagination is not what we really need to focus on. This New Home is what we hope for not because we have earned it, but because who is preparing it loves us and wants to live with us, forever!

The extent to which God went to be with humanity is shown in Balthasar's descent. God knows us before we were born, while we were in the womb and has shared in our life intimately becoming one of us. Christ was born, lived, died, went to the place of the dead and was resurrected. If Christ is in the place of the dead then the dead have seen Christ. God is everywhere! There is no place where we can escape Him. He is with us before life, during life, after life and in the life after life after death. With God we are never alone and never apart from him. At every stage he is there. There is no need to make up an ideal of reward or punishment creating an architecture that obfuscates and distracts becoming embodied in our minds as a false destination. There is no reason to believe in Heaven and Hell except as ideals we create in this life. Belief should not be in the structure of a Dantean influenced, Gnostic, immaterial, ethereal existence or its fiery torturous opposite. Belief should be like the daughters in the one who prepares a future destination because we know our heavenly parent. It is not what the daughter knows but who she knows. It should be the same for us.

One day there is a knock on the door of a house that is very, very full of many, many things. A man who is more used to objects than people opens the door to see a mother and her daughter.
“Hi!” Exclaims the daughter. “We're havin' a getting' to know you party and YOU'RE INVTED!” Her hand is outstretched trying to give the man who is not used to the excitement and exuberance of young children an invitation card. He accepts the card still taken aback from the energetic bundle who has already run off towards the next house.
“We just moved into number 32 yesterday.” The mother explains. “I'm Sonja and that was my daughter Cleo um...” Sonja gestures to the man hinting that she would like to know his name.
“Randall” blurts out Randall.
“Well Randall the party is saturday afternoon it's out the front of our house, number 32. You're very much welcome....” Sonja is stopped by a shout from Cleo.
“MUM! THIS HOUSE HAS A PAINTING OF ELVIS! COME SEE IT.” demands the excited child.
“Sorry no rest for the wicked.” Apologises Sonja. “Nice meeting you Randall, see you saturday.”
“See you Saturday.” replies Randall distracted and still very bemused by what has happened. He closes the door and the house looks very dark and still all of the sudden compared to the invasion of noise and sound before.
“Maybe I'll go.” says Randall to himself.


Catholic Encyclopaedia. (2009). Hell. Available Internet: ( (Accessed 17th March 2012)

Catholic Encyclopaedia. (2009). Heaven. Available Internet: ( (Accessed 17th March 2012)

D'Costa, G. (2009). The Descent into Hell as a Solution for the Problem of the Fate of Unevangelized Non-Christians: Balthasar's Hell, the Limbo of the Fathers and Purgatory. International Journal of Systematic Theology, 11: 2, 146-171.

Hays, R. B. (2000) `Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?' New Testament eschatology at the turn of the Millennium. Modern Theology, 16 : 1, p115-136.

Hull, B.B. & Bold, F. (1994). Hell, Religion, and Cultural Change. Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics (JITE), 150: 3, 447-464.

Jesper Nielsen' & Toke Sellner Reunert's Dante's heritage: questioning the multi-layered model of the Mesoamerican universe

MacLachlan, M (2004). Embodiment: Clinical, Critical, and Cultural Perspectives on Health and Illness. NY : Open University Press.

Nielsen, J. & Reunert, T. S. (2009). Dante's heritage: questioning the multi-layered model of the Mesoamerican universe. Antiquity, 83 : 320, 399-413.

Nowles, R. & Shipley, E. (1987). Heaven Is a Place on Earth. [Recorded by B. Carlisle] On “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” [CD]. Los Angeles : MCA Records, Virgin.

Pratchett, T.(2006). Hogfather.(3rd ed.). London :Corgi

Shakespeare, W. Edwards, P (ed.). Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. (2nd Ed.). cambridge, UK : cambridge university press

von Balthasar, H. U. (2005) Mysterium Paschale : The Mystery of Easter (2nd ed.) USA: Ignatius Press

Wright, T. (2007). Surprised by Hope. London : SPCK.

Young, A. & Young, M. & Scott, B. (1979). Highway to Hell. On “Highway to Hell” [CD]. London : Edward B. Marks Music Corporation, BMI. 

Zaleski, C. (2003). When I get to heaven. Christian Century, 120 : 7, 22-30.

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