The modern image of heaven—clouds, harps, and a perpetual Sunday service—is hardly inspiring. Even hell sounds like an improvement. It may be fiery and dark, but interesting people live there, and at least the demons have some fun.

Such views would have seemed ludicrous to Christians in Dante's day. Dante and his contemporaries had inherited rich images of heaven and hell from the Bible, early Christian writings, and the great imaginations of the Middle Ages. These shifting images reflect both the enormous range of human creativity and our ultimate inability to grasp what only God understands.

Biblical descriptions

The Bible mentions heaven frequently and hell rarely. Both are depicted as places with physical characteristics but also as conditions: heaven is a state of being eternally with God in unending love for him and for our neighbors, while hell is a state of being eternally separated from God and neighbor, owing to a person's refusal to accept love.

The Old Testament focuses on the covenant (contract) between the Lord and the community: the people of Israel. For the Hebrews, salvation involved the whole community, not just the individual. As an extension of this community experience, the Hebrews identified heaven with the City of Jerusalem.

The prophet Zechariah proclaimed that Jerusalem was the center of Israel now and in the future: "This is what the Lord says: 'I will return to Zion and dwell in Jerusalem' " (Zech. 8:3). There the resurrection and judgment will take place, and the Messiah will bring the Kingdom of God to earth with the return of the people of Israel to the Promised Land.

The New Testament epistles and gospels say little about the celestial realm. The Book of Revelation contains the most descriptive treatment of heaven, revealing that the world will be renewed: "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. … I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband" (Rev. 21:1-2).

Revelation continues with more lavish imagery:

"The city was laid out like a square, as long as it was wide. [The angel] measured the city with the rod and found it to be 12,000 stadia in length, and as wide and high as it is long. He measured its wall and it was 144 cubits thick, by man's measurement, which the angel was using. The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass. The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third chalcedony, the fourth emerald, the fifth sardonyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysophase, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst. The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of pure gold, like transparent glass" (Rev. 21:16-21).

The New Testament gives no such detailed description of hell, though Jesus says that at the final judgment his father will tell the unrighteous, "Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matt. 25:41). Jesus also describes hell as "the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 25:30) and, quoting Isaiah, as the place where "their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:48).

Revelation adds a few more vivid descriptions of unrepentant sinners' agony. An angel says of those who receive the beast's mark, "the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever," and they have no rest day or night (Rev. 14:11). Later in the book, death and Hades are "thrown into the lake of fire," which is "the second death" (Rev. 20:14).

Early church speculations

Of all the early Christian writers and philosophers who expanded the concept of heaven, the most important was Irenaeus (c. 130-200), a bishop, theologian, and opponent of heresies. He summed up the tradition of heaven as it was in his time: Paradise is the beginning, heaven the end. Humanity was created in paradise without flaw but fell through its own deliberate sin; humanity redeemed by Christ is in heaven without flaw. All the blessed in heaven will see Christ, the glory of the communion of saints, and the renovation of the world. They will dwell in their true home, where with Christ they enjoy eternal peace and comfort.

Hell plays only a minor part in the writing of the orthodox Christian writers. Early Christian apocalyptic literature, however, which was often unorthodox, greatly amplified and popularized the more vivid aspects of Matthew and Revelation.

For example, the "Apocalypse of Paul," a widely circulated (and roundly denounced) early fourth-century manuscript, describes the horrors reserved for the damned: "And I saw there a river of fire burning with heat, and in it was a multitude of men and women sunk up to the knees, and other men up to the navel; others also up to the lips and others up to the hair."

In this account, different types of sinners receive different punishments. "Pits exceeding deep" hold those who refused to trust God, while worms crawl out of the mouth and nostrils of an immoral deacon. The merciless are "clad in rags full of pitch and brimstone of fire, and there were dragons twined about their necks and shoulders and feet, and angels having horns of fire constrained them and smote them and closed up their nostrils."

Dante was almost certainly familiar with this work.

It was more common for early writers, more spiritual and poetic than theoretical, to describe heaven vividly. Ephraim (306-373), a monk in Syria, wrote:

"If you wish to climb to the top of a tree, its branches range themselves under your feet and invite you to rest in the midst of its bosom, in the green room of its branches, whose floor is strewn with flowers. Who has ever seen the joy at the heart of a tree, with fruits of every taste within reach of your hand? You can wash yourself with its dew and dry yourself with its leaves. A cloud of fruits is over your head and a carpet of flowers beneath your feet. You are anointed with the sap of the tree and inhale its perfume."

An anonymous "Vision of Paul" from the third or fourth century describes "the third heaven": "I looked at [the door] and saw that it was a golden gate and that there were two golden pillars before it and two golden tables above the pillars full of letters."

The "Passion of Perpetua" (203) records the visions of a young mother taken from her family and condemned to die because of her faith in Christ. She saw "a golden ladder of great size stretching up to heaven. … I saw a garden of immense extent, in the midst of which was sitting a white-haired man dressed as a shepherd; he was tall, and he was milking sheep. And he raised his head and looked at me and said, Welcome, child. And he called me and gave me a mouthful of cheese from the sheep he was milking; and I took it with my hands and ate of it, and all those who were standing about said, Amen."

The most influential theologian of all time, Augustine of Hippo (354-430), expressed his ideas of heaven most fully in his greatest work, City of God. He develops the ideas of Paul and John the Evangelist, contrasting the Kingdom of God with the Kingdom of This World.

Augustine is careful about describing heaven, because it is ineffable (unable to be expressed in speech), but he is sure in describing the human need for heaven. At the outset of his other famous book, Confessions, he observes that "our heart does not rest until it rests in God," and in City he declares that "God is the font of our beatitude and the goal of our desires." At the end of City, he affirms that there we shall "rest and see, see and love, love and praise."

Augustine's heaven is a free and unshakable embrace. Ever here, ever open to those who long for it, heaven is the enjoyment of God and of our fellow lovers of Christ by the whole human person, body and soul. Each of the blessed retains his or her own personality, distinct from God and from others. More important, though, salvation incorporates the whole community of those who love God.

Augustine's personal experiences deeply influenced his theology, including his theology of heaven. In Confessions he describes a day, not long before his mother's death, when he and she were standing together at the window of an inn in Ostia looking out at the garden. There they experienced the presence of God:

"Rising as our love flamed upward, … we passed in review the various levels of bodily things, up to the heavens themselves, whence sun and moon and stars shine upon this earth. And higher still we soared, thinking in our minds and speaking and marveling at Your works: and so we came to our own souls, and went beyond them to come at last to that region of richness unending, where You feed Israel forever with the food of truth: and there life is that Wisdom by which all things are made: … it is as it has ever been, and so it shall be forever."

Medieval dreams and nightmares

Augustine's thought dominated medieval Catholicism as it would Reformation Protestantism. Still, his experiential vision of heaven was hardly the last word on the subject. Bede (673-735), the great English monk, historian, and natural scientist, reports the vision of a man named Drythelm who had returned from the dead:

"When we came to the wall, we were presently, I know not by what means, on the top of it, and within it was a vast and delightful field, so full of fragrant flowers that the odor of its delightful sweetness immediately dispelled the stench of the dark furnace [of hell]. So great was the light in this place that it seemed to exceed the brightness of the day, or the sun in its meridian height. In this field were innumerable assemblies of men in white, and many companies seated together rejoicing."

That was as close as Drythelm got to innermost heaven before he was obliged, like Dante, to begin his return to earth.

In tenth-century Ireland, a Saint Adamnan experienced a remarkable vision of how the blessed in heaven all face God without facing away from one another:

"A gentle folk, most mild, most kindly, lacking in no goodly quality, are they that dwell within that city; for none come there, and none abide there ever, save holy youths, and pilgrims zealous for God. But as for their array and ordinance, hard it is to understand how it is contrived, for none turns back nor side to other, but the ineffable power of God has set, and keeps, them face to face, in ranks and lofty coronets all round the throne, circling it in brightness and bliss, their faces all towards God."

Dante communicates a similar idea with his heavenly rose.

In about 1150, an Irish monk named Tondal had a vivid experience of heaven:

"Looking in, he sees holy men and women like angels, hears their voices more exquisite than any instruments, smells their delightful scent. The firmament above is shining intensely. From it hang golden chains through which are woven silver boughs, and from these hang chalices and cruets, cymbals and bells, lilies and golden orbs. A throng of golden-winged angels flying among these ornaments make sweet music. Now Tondal turns and sees a great tree in a green meadow flocked with lilies and herbs; the tree bears sweet fruit, and birds sing in its branches."

An angel explains that the tree is the church and that the men and women under its branches are builders and defenders of churches. As with Drythelm before and Dante afterward, the vision ends before Tondal can see God himself.

Hell always played a more vivid role in folk religion than it did in theology. With lurid descriptions of darkness, fire, worms, and torture, hell, the Devil, and death often took on striking, malevolent personalities. For Tondal, as for many other medieval writers, hell became at least as vivid as heaven:

"This horrible being [the Devil] lay prone on an iron grate over burning coals fanned by a great throng of demons. … Whenever he breathed, he blew out and scattered the souls of the damned throughout all the regions of hell. … And when he breathed back in, he sucked all the souls back and, when they had fallen into the sulphurous smoke of his maw, he chewed them up."

This sort of dire medieval vision set the tone for Dante's Inferno, whereas medieval theology set the tone for Paradiso.

Scholastic insights

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, scholastic theologians, usually university professors, applied rational philosophy to traditional doctrine. Scholasticism culminated at the University of Paris in the brilliant, detailed philosophy of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).

According to the scholastics, our salvation or blessedness—our complete fulfillment, where each person realizes his or her complete potential—cannot consist of any created good, but only of the universal good, which is God. Yet Aquinas and most scholastics argued against the idea that in heaven we are dissolved in or merged with God. Rather, we enjoy the beatific vision, which means seeing, understanding, and loving God and his creatures in peace and harmony and with dynamic and growing intensity.

The beatific vision is based in the New Testament: "We shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2), and "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'? Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?" (John 14:9-10).

The scholastics attempted a complete, coherent view of the cosmos through philosophy, as Dante did through poetry. But unlike Dante, the scholastics showed little interest in concrete imagery.

For Aquinas, heaven consisted of perfect vision and the satisfaction of all desires, especially desires for delight, honors, knowledge, and security. He writes in the twelfth article of his catechism, "In heaven there will be the happy society of all the blessed, and this society will be especially delightful." He makes no further attempt to describe it.

Aquinas gives only a slightly more vivid picture of hell, that place where the wicked, separated from God, suffer remorse and despair: "It is the fire of hell which tortures the soul and the body; and this, as the Saints tell us, is the sharpest of all punishments. They shall be ever dying, and yet never die; hence it is called eternal death, for as dying is the bitterest of pains, such will be the lot of those in hell: 'They are laid in hell like sheep; death shall feed upon them' [Ps. 49:14]."

The scholastics gave scant attention to imagery because they were primarily interested in the moral, not the physical, cosmos. For them, knowledge of the material world yielded only inferior truth that pointed to the greater truth—theological, moral, and even divine.

By contrast, the modern worldview assumes that material things are more real than spiritual things. Perhaps this is why so many people have impoverished ideas about heaven and hell—places they cannot see or touch and therefore fail to imagine. Visualizing the striking images of Dante and others restores a sense of wonder to the ancient creedal affirmation: "I believe in the resurrection and the life of the world to come."

Jeffrey Burton Russell is professor emeritus of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of 17 books including A History of Heaven and The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity.