Why is it that people point up when referring to heaven? It’s a fascinating phenomenon. Are they pointing to the sky, to outer space, to the stars? And why do many languages use the same word for sky as they do for heaven?
All of this seems to be embedded in the human psyche: God is high and his dwelling place up.
But we know God is everywhere, and, as pure Spirit, He takes up no space. Wouldn’t this mean God is no more (or less) present across the galaxy than He is in our back yard?
Further, throughout human history, people have not only thought of heaven as being up, but also of hell as down. And the bible is no different. Divine Revelation refers to God as the “the most High,” Jacob’s ladder reaches up to heaven, and the second Person of God came down from Heaven in the Incarnation. After His crucifixion, Jesus descended into hell and is then taken up into a cloud as He ascends into heaven.
What does all this up and down language even mean to us in our age of astronomy and space exploration? Let’s go beneath the surface.
There are at least three ways of looking at this up-ness mystery. Let’s take a quick look.
One is to look at this metaphorically. For example, the cloud on which Jesus ascended symbolizes the presence of God, which also surrounded the Ark of the Covenant and overshadowed Mary at the Annunciation. In this way, perhaps upness and highness are metaphors for greaterness of being. That is, God is not only the most high, but the most, period. It points to the truth that God is infinite and eternal Being with no limitation while we are mere dependent and limited creatures. It’s no coincidence that in the book of Exodus God named Himself ‘I AM’ when Moses asked Him.
More philosophically, God is pure Act, with no potentiality. Heaven, one might therefore say, is the realm of created beings fully actualized in Christ and transformed by His divine life. Since, however, these concepts transcend our imaginations, we settle for up-and-down spatial thinking in metaphor.
A second theory points to the reasonableness of intuitively looking beyond that which we know to be tainted. Here on earth, our world is permeated with sin and injustice, beginning with Adam’s fall. Yet, out in space there seems to be no moral disorder. So, in this mode of thinking, since God is pure Perfection, we look past what is not of God to find Him – we look up to space.
A third possibility is that we are not referring to the sky, the stratosphere, or outer space when we look up. Rather, we are subconsciously projecting our minds beyond space and time – beyond the created universe to God and heaven that transcend it all. We seek beyond ourselves and what we know, and look up and outward to Him.
There are many possibilities about why people see God as up even though He’s believed to be everywhere, and point to God’s transcendence even though they believe Him to be fully imminent. As a side, it’s worth noting that Christian mystics tend to look in, not up, when seeking God. Loving God, regardless of ‘where’ we find Him, is most important.
Despite the apparent inconsistencies, God and heaven are indeed up, since inspired Scripture has revealed it. The challenge of living in our modern scientific age is to understand what this means.