We used to race Thistles (sailing dinghy) in the Northwest. I loved hunting for puffs in light air, roll-tacks, the body English of keeping the boat flat in heavy air. It focused and occupied the mind. Races took three hours between set-up, checking out wind shifts pre-start, to take down in glorious victory, or abject defeat. The struggle for a favorable space on a crowded starting line, for an inside overlap at a mark rounding, of spinnaker sets sent adrenaline coursing through the blood. It was great! But not a place for free flowing rumination and conversation.
Now we ride bikes across the Golden Gate, into the headlands, up the golden haunches of Mt. Tamalpais. We ride leisurely, mostly, and enjoy fantastic views half a mile above the whitecaps at Stinson Beach below. The conversation is wide ranging, threads are started, developed, interrupted by the speed and thrill of the downhill, and picked up again. There are few places and occasions in our busy lives where such conversations can be found. It’s one of my favorite things about biking.
Heaven and hell don’t come up much around the office. I don’t hang out in churches where such things are discussed. I mostly run into church folk at work or social gatherings where the unwritten, but not unarticulated rule is “no politics, no religion.” On bike rides we get to break such rules, even when riding with clients. So last week, out in West Marin we got onto hell. I got to wondering how prominent the concepts of heaven and hell are in the bible. I was with an expert: a client’s wife. She’s read the bible through and through, 25 times.
The latest bike gizmo is made by Garmin. It tracks your progress via satellite, it computes how many feet you’ve climbed, it calculates (inaccurately we think) how many calories you’ve consumed, how fast you’re going, and how far you’ve come. After the ride you can download it all onto your computer and view your route on Google maps. But, alas, it doesn’t record your conversation . . . and it doesn’t have a search engine on board.
Our discussion on hell was inconclusive; but I did learn that you can do key word searches of the Bible on your computer. So when I got home, here’s what I found.
In the King James Bible the word “hell” appears in 54 phrases, sometimes as metaphor (as in “the sorrows of hell”; Psalms 18:5) and sometimes as a place (as in “thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit”; Isaiah 143:15) and sometimes ambiguously as a state of the soul (as in “Though has delivered my soul from the lowest hell; Psalms 86:13).
There is no description of “hell” anywhere in the bible. It would be interesting to know whether the same word is used in the original in all 54 of these instances. [Remind me to ask my friend Webb; he’s translated the entire Bible from the Greek into modern English, had plans to write “The Trinity for Dummies”] As translated, the phrase suggests that the term must have had some meaning in the imagination of the authors, but the meaning is not apparent from the text itself.
There are 691 references to the word heaven. Most of these refer either to the sky and the stuff in it, as in “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,”or as the place of abode for God. One of the more extensive references to heaven as the abode of God appears in the story of Jacob’s ladder. (“He dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. . . And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”; Genesis 28:12-17) This clearly suggest that the angels of God dwell someplace up there in the sky, and suggests some gateway to an unseen heaven, i.e. something other than the stars, sun, and moon.
Heaven is a mysterious place which can hail bread (Exodus 16:4), or from which are hurled stones (Joshua 10:11). By Psalms, heaven is also used metaphorically, as in "O Lord, thy word is settled in heaven" and as simile, as in "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways" (Isahiah 55:9). Heaven begins to sing (Isaiah 44:23) and "pour down righteousness" (Isaiah 45:8). In Jeremiah there is talk of burning incense to the "Queen of Heaven" (Jeremiah 44:17) who is often thought of as Mary, but Jeremiah is speaking of the Babylonian exile so the reference must be to something else.
By Daniel, the heavens "rule" (Daniel 4:26) and heaven is equipped with an army (Daniel 4: 45).
Malachi introduces the concept of heaven as a reward for the payment of tithes. Malachi 3:10. Heaven is equipped with "windows", but this seems to be pretty much metaphorical. "I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing of blessings” (unless you pay your tithe). Malachi 3:10.
Matthew promises that "the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 3:2), but offers not much concrete about what this implies. It's a place for the "poor in spirit" Matthew 5:3, and a reward for those "persecuted for righteousness" Matthew 5:10-12. Matthew says "ye shall in no case enter the kingdom of heaven" unless you are more righteous than the Pharasees and scribes (apparently a low standard). Matthew 5:20. Or simple as a child. Matthew 18:3-4. Thieves and burglars, once there, "do not break through nor steal." Matthew 6:20. The kingdom of heaven suffers violence and the violent take it by force. Matthew 11:20. It is like a man who sows good seed in a field. Matthew 13:24. Like leavening hidden in meal. Matthew 13:33. Like treasure found in a field. Matthew 13:44. Like ten virgins going forth to meet their bridegrooms. Matthew 25:1.
So "heaven" is a place in the sky, where angels ascend and descend, a place that opens and closes (when heaven is shut up there is famine, Luke 4:25). Heaven is a place where God lives and watches over the world, and where there is a "queen." Or, as the British soul band would have it, Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens. The same cannot be said for our bike rides.