During the reading of one of the most remarkable books published in recent years in Romania, Two Essays on Paradise (2018), I was deeply impressed by the author’s testimony:
“Although all my life I have been engaged in trying to understand things, and I have searched in everything, much more than my pleasure, lucidity without rest, mine and of culture, very late I understood that the theme of my life has always been paradise.”[i]
Horia-Roman Patapievici, a thinker reminiscent, through his culture, of the medieval Doctors or the learned scholars of the Renaissance, reveals to his readers that Paradise represents the deepest motivation of his prodigious intellectual activity. Let us note the fact that he referred to Paradise as the theme of his entire life. If we conceive the life of any individual as a vast symphony, in which decisions, deeds, events, in a word all the elements that compose it correspond to the tones and harmonies of a musical work, there must be, of course, a theme of it. In the case of Patapievici, the underlying theme of the “symphony” of his entire life is Paradise. Shouldn’t this be the theme embraced by all human beings? And shouldn’t this be the most important testimony of a Christian? Is there anything more important than returning to that world from which Adam and Eve were expelled following the committed sin? My questions are, of course, rhetorical. For Paradise – also called the “Kingdom of Heaven” or the “Heavenly Jerusalem” – is the main goal of the Christian life.
When we hear today about a “boring” paradise or an “empty” hell, we understand that it is dealing with a major crisis of faith for those who propagate such images.
If someone were to ask us to summarize as succinctly as possible the essence of the Gospel, I do not think there is any message more appropriate than the one associated with both Saint John the Baptist and our Lord, Jesus Christ:
“Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17: „Poenitentiam agite : appropinquavit enim regnum caelorum”).
This is the heart of the matter. God Himself became man to draw our attention to our absolute priority, His Kingdom. At the same time, He showed us the way by which we can reach it. That way is none other than that confessed by all the Saints and Doctors, by all the true representatives of the Church – Popes, Bishops, or Priests – namely penance. This necessarily presupposes a firm belief in the existence of the unseen world, of Paradise, and implicitly of Hell.
Alongside belief in the existence of God Himself, there is no subject more controversial than this. Similarly, the most common form of disbelief is the questioning of the world beyond and life after death. While for the vast majority of ancient cultures, the unseen world was the “pole” around which the lives of the people of that time revolved, for modern man, Paradise and Hell have become subjects devoid of content, good only for dubious films, which in no way represent their reality as exposed in Biblical revelation. In many modern literary creations, usually, Paradise is depicted as being boring while hell is an “interesting” place. One of the authors who captures this mood is the French writer Victor Hugo:
“Purgatory and Paradise are no less extraordinary than hell, but as we rise, we lose interest: we were well in hell, we are no longer in heaven; we do not recognize ourselves in angels; perhaps the human eye is not made for so much sun, and when the poem becomes happy, it bores us.”[ii]
This is the description of a secular author, who acknowledges how alien Dante Alighieri’s Paradise is to him. The state of such a soul,–about which we do not even know if it still believes or not–, can be the result of sin, of lack of penance, or meditation. When we hear today about a “boring” paradise or an “empty” hell, we understand that it is dealing with a major crisis of faith for those who propagate such images.
What is “above” is found in intimacy, in the immediate proximity of Him, representing the sphere of the blessed beings who live surrounded by divine love and glory. What is “below” is in that unhappy place where God can never be contemplated and glorified.
Over the years, we have repeatedly heard a so-called argument by which doubters or unbelievers reject discussion about the unseen world: “No one has returned from there to tell us if there exists a life after death.” Those who make such claims are mistaken. In fact, with God’s permission, some people have returned “from beyond” who testify to that eternal world. The children of Fatima are the most well-known example.
To those who reveal their doubts, let us always respond that in both pagan and Judeo-Christian traditions, there are chosen individuals who have seen the world beyond during this life. Saint Apostle Paul is just one of them. There are also people who, from beyond death, have testified to us, the living, about the reality of that world. All these testimonies represent an absolutely extraordinary subject of the faith of Christians since always. However, before examining them, in this article, I will answer a difficult question: where is paradise and hell?
In addition to the Holy Scripture, Dante Alighieri’s poetic masterpiece, La Divina Commedia, can be a good guide for those who want to penetrate the mysteries of the world beyond. The order chosen by Dante is an ascensional one. His journey begins “from down,” from hell, passes through purgatory and reaches “up,” in Paradise. Here comes an important clarification.
Words indicating spatial positions such as “down” (or “below”) and “up” (or “above”) have a symbolic significance. For no drilling, no probe will find hell beneath the earth’s crust on which we step, just as paradise will never be discovered by cosmonauts, somewhere above the lunar orbit. Moreover, geologists, petrologists, astrophysicists, and astronomers have long confirmed these things through their concrete experience. When dealing with the realities of the unseen spiritual world, neither deep drilling nor spaceship flight is of use.
The expressions “down” and “up” refer to the realities of the unseen world in a certain relation to the Living God, unique and eternal. What is “above” is found in intimacy, in the immediate proximity of Him, representing the sphere of the blessed beings who live surrounded by divine love and glory. What is “below” is in that unhappy place where God can never be contemplated and glorified. In other words, the positions of hell and paradise cannot be localized based on a certain physical geography, but only through the prism of a theological, symbolic perspective, based on supernatural faith. Xavier Léon-Dufour, a specialist in biblical studies from the last decades of the 20th century, illustrates well how the Holy Scripture offers us the possibility to understand the location of Hell and Paradise:
“Heaven is depicted with the help of several symbolic realities: it is God’s throne (Mt. 5:34; 23:22), it is the Kingdom into which human persons are invited to enter (Mt. 8:11; 25:21, 23; Lc. 13: 29). (...) When one tries to bring these diverse images together in relation to their symbolic value, we find a quite simple statement: heaven is the joy of always being with God, with Jesus and his brethren or else a statement that picks up the intuition of a Jewish tradition that called God ‘heaven’. Heaven is God himself.
Conversely, hell is existing ‘without God’, separated from God and Jesus: ‘Depart from me! I don’t know you!’ (Mt. 7:23; cf. 25: 12, 41; Lc. 13: 26). In trying to lay hold of this condition of ‘final death’, various representations were proposed, more numerous than those of heaven–as if the reality was even more difficult to specify. (...) All these images attempt to paint one single reality in all its honor: to be separated from the living God, to be cut off from the source of life, to die ceaselessly.”[iii]
Historians of religions and ideas often disregarded the profound theological interpretations of these realities–interpretations that always emphasize that the unseen world cannot be located somewhere, in a hidden place in the fallen physical world.
Joseph Hontheim, the author of the article about “Hell” in the Catholic Encyclopedia, emphasized–quoting theological authorities of great stature such as St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Gregory the Great–that although we cannot be sure of the symbolic nature of the physical location of Hell and Paradise, “we may say hell is a definite place; but where it is, we do not know.”[iv] I think that this statement indicates the author’s fear that by speaking of “symbolism,” some might misunderstand that Hell and Paradise might not be real. I will not miss the opportunity to underline that, if we correctly understand the notion of “symbol,” we should not fear such errors.
In the Christian perspective, “sacred symbols,” such as those found in the Bible or in the context of the Holy Liturgy and Sacraments, are truly more real than anything in our world. For example, the Holy Altar, one of the extraordinarily important symbols in the context of any authentic (i.e., consecrated) church, is in a mysterious connection with Christ Himself, who is real, whom it symbolizes. We see this when priests cense the altar: they do this not for a stone but for God who is symbolized by that stone. Similarly, with the Holy Scripture: when the priest censes the Bible from which he will read the Gospel, he censes God Himself, the incarnate Word. Therefore, the fact that what is symbolized by the altar is not directly visible to our physical eyes does not imply that it is not real. On the contrary, sacred symbols, through their connection with what they symbolize, become through consecration much more real than anything, than any being in our fallen world. For they are symbolically related to eternal things and beings.
Returning to the question of the location of Heaven and Hell, whenever attempts have been made to establish the physical coordinates of the two poles of the unseen world, failure has been guaranteed. Lauran Paine is absolutely right when he states that “the specific locality of Hell has never been constant.”[v] His statement must be extended to Paradise as well, which, as shown by historians of religions and ideas like Mircea Eliade and Jean Delumeau, has been eagerly sought by thinkers or adventurers from all epochs. They were wrong. For they often disregarded the profound theological interpretations of these realities–interpretations that always emphasize that the unseen world cannot be located somewhere, in a hidden place in the fallen physical world.
Conditioned as we are by the limits of this passing existence, we may come to consider only this world as “real.” The problem becomes acute, however, when, in the name of this “reality,” we begin to doubt the existence of another reality, deeper and more real than this world.
It is impossible to establish the spatial location of something that is beyond space and time, in a plane of existence that escapes common experience, accessible only to saints and mystics. Although we use well-known words such as “earth” and “heaven,” when they refer to the realities of the spiritual world, we must acknowledge our limitations, since in the current state of human condition, we cannot know with scientific, physical, and geographical accuracy what significance such concepts oriented towards transcendence have.
This is clearly indicated to us by the famous mystical experience of ecstasy and ascent to the “third heaven” recounted by Saint Apostle Paul (who is speaking in the third person):
“I know a man in Christ above fourteen years ago (whether in the body, I know not, or out of the body, I know not; God knoweth), such a one caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man (whether in the body, or out of the body, I know not: God knoweth), that he was caught up into paradise, and heard secret words, which it is not granted to man to utter” (2 Corinthians 12:2-4)
Note that, despite being the one who had the reported mystical experience, he cannot even say whether he went there in body or not? Isn’t the body that “element” of ours which allows us physical localization? Or if someone who surely has been in the third heaven cannot even know if he was “in body, or out of the body,” how could he establish a physical location? Obviously, this would be impossible. So we can easily conclude that a discussion on the physical localization of such spiritual realities is pointless.
Of course, here arises the great problem we spoke of at the beginning of the article. Conditioned as we are by the limits of this passing existence, we may come to consider only this world as “real.” The problem becomes acute, however, when, in the name of this “reality,” we begin to doubt the existence of another reality, deeper and more real than this world. And, in order to dispel our own doubts and those of the skeptics, agnostics, and atheists who are so numerous today, it is good to meditate as often as possible on the nature of the unseen world. All the more so because this, for us Christians, is not just a matter of “intellectual speculation,” but is indeed the essence of our supernatural faith. A faith that reveals to us that our current world is transient, having an end, while God’s heavenly world is eternal and imperishable.
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[i] Horia-Roman Patapievici, Două eseuri despre Paradis și o încheiere (Two Essays on Paradise and a Conclusion), Bucharest: Humanitas, 2018, p. 12.
[ii] This quote is used as a motto by Horia-Roman Patapievici in the book cited above.
[iii] Xavier Léon-Dufour, Life and Death in the New Testament. The Teachings of Jesus and Paul, Translated by Terrence Prendergast, San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1986, pp. 20-21.
[iv] Cf. Joseph Hontheim, articolul “Hell”, în The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VII, Copyright © 1910 by Robert Appleton Company, Online Edition Copyright © 1999 by Kevin Knight, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07207a.htm
[v] Lauran Paine, The Hierarchy of Hell, New York: Hippocrene Books, Inc., 1972, p. 19.