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The Quest for Heaven

A reality far above us—

“Since heaven, and the heaven of heavens
cannot contain him,
who am I?” —2 Chronicles 2:26

S teven Hawking, the brilliant theoretical physicist at Cambridge, often talks about the universe and black holes, but sometimes he talks about God and origins of the universe and whether or not there might be a heaven.  Recently, he proffered a view that is rather consistent with his view of a personal God: there is no heaven.  In Hawking’s words, “Heaven is a fairy story for people who are afraid of the dark.” 

Of course, I would take a very different view from Hawking, but this short article is not intended as a rebuttal of the logic that may have led him to his personal views.  Nor is this article intended as irrefutable evidence of heaven.  I suppose, you might say the article is more along the lines of what two friends might say to one another in some shared private moment. He strikes me as the kind of person who appreciates other people and who appreciates life, even though from one perspective, life has been less than kind to him.

The debilitating disease, which first emerged in his early twenties, eventually left him paralyzed. To be able to communicate with anyone at all is very strenuous for him, and yet this man, who has spent his life in a wheelchair, has led a very remarkable life.  Hawking loves life.  He has children, and he has even gone into space.  His personal web site asks that people interact with him as they would with anyone.  He does not want to be treated special because of his disease.  I admire such a spirit. 

Let’s go back to the notion of heaven and fairytales, shall we?  Undoubtedly, heaven is not the result of a mathematical equation any more than life is. Heaven is not something we can put into a logical test-tube. Life is not that easily analyzed either.  Indeed, the great things in life are always beyond us.

Take something as common and as inscrutable as love.  We know what love is, but to explain it, we cannot.  Indeed, love is real, as real as a sunrise, and just as important to life.  We could not live without the sun. Perhaps, then, to say that love is as important makes the point.  Love is the supreme undertaking of a lifetime.  Nothing we ever do in life can replace our need to love and to be loved.  We might say that love is greater than life.  The need for love is that indispensable.

A man will give all that he has for love, and do so without regret.  Without love, a child will die in infancy.  Out of love a mother will neglect her own comfort for the welfare of her sick child.  We see love all around us and we see it every day.  Yet, love cannot be explained.  Love cannot be weighed.  We cannot tell its color, or measure its length, or put it in a box.  Certainly, we cannot take the square root of love.  Love defies logic, and yet, no man would deny that love is real.  Indeed, we might even say that love is more real than life is real.  Life ends, but love stands at the grave and weeps.

To cite Elizabeth Barrett Browning—

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach . . . .

— I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! — and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death. —Sonnet 43

Such things as dreams

S omeone may argue that Browning should be dismissed as easily as a fairy tale.  When we say something like that, though, it is because we do not really understand a fairy tale.    Let me explain.  Snow White and the Prince may have lived happily ever after but it is not really Snow White and her Prince that attract us.  Not at all.  These are but fictional characters in a story which we recognize as having roots beyond what we see and hear.  Somehow, phrases such as they lived happily ever after strike a chord in our soul.  We sing because we instinctively know the song.  We might dismiss Snow White as fanciful imagination, but we cannot dismiss what Snow White represents.  We are enthralled by the fairy tale because in the story are traces of a world beyond this world, of a world more real, of a world eternal, of a world far beyond our imagination.  The fairy tale works because there is an authentic story beyond the fairy story.  We hear it in the wording; we see it in the romantic quest and love. 

Admittedly, the fairy tale may be idyllic, but dreams have to have touchstones in reality.  Otherwise, there is no dream.  To paraphrase Prospero, we are such things as dreams are made of (Tempest, IV.i).  We can identify with the dream called Snow White because something within us identifies with an external reality that goes beyond the dream, that goes beyond even our own life.  In the words of Ecclesiastes, God “hath set eternity in their hearts” (3:11). God has made us for this world and also for the unseen world to come.  We live in two worlds: the here and the now, as well as the eternal and the timeless.  We are creatures of two dimensions: the seen and the unseen.  We never see love for love is from that unseen dimension.  We see only the effects or absence of love.  So, it is with heaven.

We sometimes say that we cannot readily comprehend eternity, but in some small way we do understand eternity.  We understand because something within us understands what is far beyond us.  Eternity is not something we can make up any more than the story beyond the fairy tale can be made up by us. This expanse we call universe has no end, yet we do not need to travel to the ends of the universe to understand that the universe has no end.  To grasp eternity, we do not have to travel at all: “He hath set eternity in their hearts.”


Let’s look at the notion of timelessness for a moment.  What is eternal cannot be bound by space or time.  While this may be true, and while all of us live in a dimension called time, we also live in a timeless dimension. Here is a simple illustration.  Think back to a time in your life when you were twenty years old.  Even if we are in our nineties, memories of a bygone youth are as immediate and real as the chair in which we now sit.  We can think back through the years, and we can travel backwards through time. Whether 30, 40, or 50 years, the images are as real as yesterday.  We can travel into the long ago and we can do so without ever leaving the moment where we are now.  We live both in the past and in the present at the same time:  “He hath set eternity in their hearts.”  There is a timelessness about us.  We, who are bound by time, are not bound by time.  There is a faint trace of eternity within us. We are built to live in time, and we are also built to live where time will be no more.  We cannot measure eternity or timelessness, but we easily understand both. 


Self-deluded illusions

Let me go a little further, if I may, about this whole notion of the imaginary being unreal.  The choice is not between mathematical precision and illusory hope.  That is the wrong comparison.  If a man becomes delusional, usually it is because he wishes either to escape reality, or to make reality something other than what it is.  He puts himself someplace else because eternity is within him.  Let me explain, if I can. 

Even the arrogant man lives in a delusion brought about by how he sees himself.  He is not mentally deranged, but he lives in an unreal reality.  We might say that he lives in a world of exaggerated self-importance.  His pride prevents him from seeing the reality of other people and the needs of their lives.  His world is a very constricted one.  He cannot get out of himself and his love of self prevents him from thinking clearly. In a similar way, we may become deranged because of some traumatic experience or some schizophrenic imbalance in our mind which prevents us from seeing reality.  We may hear voices that are not there, much in the same way a drunk man might see pink elephants walking about.  In our delusion, we see and hear what others do not.  The reality, though, is of our own making.

There is also a sense in which our perspective can delude us. We enter a room, fearing that others may notice the spaghetti stain on our shirt.  Our reality becomes one of self-imposed embarrassment.  What usually happens, though, is that other people never notice the spaghetti.  Apparently, they are far too focused on their own spaghetti stains, and hope against hope that we will not notice.  Maybe it is because we see the world through our own eyes that we convince ourselves that others will see the same things we do. Whether our reality is a self-imposed reality, or the result of drinking too much, or due to some schizophrenic imbalance, the delusion always ends up distorting reality, either by denying what is real, or by exaggerating what is real.  In either case, though, the real becomes unreal and the unreal becomes real.  We cannot see what is before us because our focus is somewhere else.  Our perception creates an illusionary reality.  The man who is hard of hearing is confident that people are talking about him when they are not.

A different type of fairytale

D oes the fairy tale work like this?  Should we understand heaven as something we thought up?  Hawking seems to be proffering a viewpoint along these lines.  If heaven is only a perception and not a reality, we are at a loss as to why the illusion of heaven is unlike other illusions.  What I am trying to suggest is that heaven is not a delusion of our own making at all.  Granted, people might be delusional about heaven, but heaven itself cannot be a delusion.  The reason is evident. Heaven does not fit the pattern of either a denial of reality or an exaggeration of reality.  As we have seen, arrogance can make a man delusional, can cause him to believe things about himself that are simply not true.  Heaven, though, does not warp the mind that way.  Heaven gets a man out of himself for a man must live for others to be able to go to heaven.  Pride may make us think only of ourselves, but not heaven.  Wine may cause us to see pink elephants, or cause us to want to sleep with our neighbor’s wife, or cause us to fight against a friend, but the thought of heaven does none of these things.  Heaven is not like arrogance, or wine, or schizophrenia.  The drunk man may count the pink elephants in the room.  The arrogant man may sing a chorus of his achievements.  The schizophrenic man may talk about what no one else can see.  Not so with heaven. 

The man who talks of heaven is embarrassed by the vagueness of what he tries to describe.  The best he can do is use metaphors, and then tell us that what is he trying to say, he cannot say.  Usually, a man will confess that he does not know exactly what heaven is like, but he knows its streets are of gold, but it is not gold as we know it.  Nor can he explain why gold in heaven would be important, or why heaven would need a gate.  He knows there is music, but the music is unlike anything he can describe.  He knows that there are people there, but he cannot count them, or explain exactly what they are doing. The drunk man, on the other hand, may describe his hallucination about pink elephants, but the man who talks about heaven can only explain in the most vague and general terms what heaven must be like.  Indeed, it is this very vagueness that confirms the reality of heaven.  Heaven is unlike earth and therefore, unlike any delusion our mind may conjure up.  If we have imagined heaven, then the imagination should be like other imaginations we have in life, but heaven is beyond our imagination.

Black Holes in how we think

A ll this assumption about the differences between the imaginary and the real can be rather misleading.  Whether there are black holes in the universe and how those black holes actually function we can only imagine.  We know that the phenomenon of the black hole is real, but the black hole remains a phenomenon nonetheless.  We cannot visually see the black hole, but the black hole, or something like it, is there, or so we think. 

Even the mathematics we use to measure and analyze the black hole has an element of the unseen within it. We sometimes talk about mathematics as if mathematics were the opposite of the fanciful, as if mathematics could only deal with absolute certainty and with nothing else.  We may talk like that, but when we work out the algebra equation, we make use of an imaginary number to solve that equation.  No one has ever seen the imaginary number.  No one has ever counted its value, but the imaginary number is part of the algebraic world.  It is imaginary, but it is real.  You might say it is a number from another world.  Further, we understand the limits of the mathematical perception.  We cannot take the square root of love or write an algebraic formula on the meaning of life. Mathematics cannot do that.  Mathematics cannot tell us how to live, or whom to love, or how to raise our children.

Einstein, photo from Hulton Archive



We might also want to consider Gödel’s incompleteness theorems as to mathematical certainty.  Here, as in the algebraic imaginary number, something is happening that we do not quite have an explanation for.  At the risk of oversimplifying Gödel’s theorems about the role of axioms in theoretical mathematics, let me simply say the puzzle has missing parts.  Wittgenstein is sometimes said to have misread Gödel, so I suppose that I could easily misread Gödel as well.  Yet, for the purpose of this article, what we need to know is that mathematics is not quite the tidy and closed logical system that layman sometimes believe.  We desperately want to believe in certainty, but when the mathematical system slips on ice, we fall and hit our head.  We may want to believe that this world is all there is, but there is something beyond us, even in mathematics.  We might summarize Gödel by saying that in mathematics there are uncertainties we are uncertain of. 

When we began this article on an unseen heaven, we said that we would defer to the inadequacies of evidence on heaven.  The best we can do is to offer a reasonable basis for a world beyond this world.  The rest is faith.  Just as a child believes in goodness, I believe in heaven and for the same reasons.  That’s what I would tell Steven Hawking if he and I had the chance to talk and share a few thoughts about life.  I might also share with him what a West Texas friend once shared with me, “If we miss heaven, we have missed it all.”

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