Gagarin and the Seven Heavens (Sketch of an Outline)

In the wake of Yuri Gagarin’s historic ascent into “outer space”, Nikita Khrushchev remarked

As to paradise in heaven, we heard about it from the priests. But we wanted to see for ourselves what it is like, so we sent our scout there, Yuri Gagarin. He circled the globe and found nothing in outer space — just complete darkness, he said, and no garden at all, nothing that looked like paradise. We thought the matter over and decided to send up another scout. We sent Herman Titov and told him to fly around a bit longer this time and take a good look — Gagarin was only up there for an hour and a half, and he might have missed it. He took off, came back and confirmed Gagarin’s conclusion. There’s nothing up there, he reported. [1]

There’s a remarkable concentration in the saying by Khrushchev: it asserts that traditional talk about God “in the heavens” is referring to space that is above the sky. As we saw in a previous post that looked at the older models of the universe with regard to how the outer layers of the sky (or the spheres) were supposed to influence things on the earth, the sky was, at first, conceived of as a dome.

At a basic level, Khrushchev is correct (and this, despite Gagarin’s later religious beliefs). The biblical cosmos was seen as having three tiers, such as we see in Exodus 20:4:

You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness
of anything that is in heaven above,
or that is in the earth beneath,
or that is in the water under the earth [NKJV, italics removed]

In the three-tiered cosmology, God was conceived as located above the dome of the sky. This was understood very literally. In Isaiah 40, the scale of the biblical cosmos is vast: God “has measured” the waters, has “weighed with a scale the mountains” [Isa 40:12, Alter translation] and he “plucks up [the coastlands] like dust.” [Isa 40:15, Alter] There, we read that

He is enthroned on the rim of the earth,
and its dwellers are like grasshoppers.
He spreads out the heavens like gauze
and stretches them like a tent to dwell in. [Isa 40:22, Alter]

There is ambiguity, even, at the earlier strata of the biblical text, not only about whether God is located in three-dimensional space (he can be absent from the Garden in the second creation story in Genesis, or else walking in it), but even whether in some sense he has a body — indeed, it appears that he was thought to be embodied, even if his body was very different from ours. [2] (This also accounts for the changeability of God’s dispositions and emotions in the earlier strata — which became an interpretive problem for later Platonistic theologies amongst the Greek-speaking Pagans no less than Greek-speaking Jews and Christians.) This ambiguity does not disappear when a more Stoic or Platonic base is introduced to talk about how God “cannot be compared with his creatures” (Theodoret of Cyrus) and how he is invisible and immaterial (like the angels) and how he is uniquely (very much unlike the angels) “uncircumscribable” (without limit — not a substance endlessly extended, but no-thing, no boundary at all, true infinite, no shape or form even of an intelligible nature), –and so on. “Where is God?” is a question that can still be asked by those who do not feel God’s presence or care, but who wish to feel it; a God who is undifferentiatedly manifest in everything as a theophany has no distinct location in lived experience — but “the God of gods shall be seen in Zion” (Psalm 84), not as a future event, for Hannah says she will bring up Samuel to the temple at Shiloh “to see the LORD’s face” (1 Sam 1:22, Alter transl.). The God who is a theophany everywhere without differentiation, without being God who is manifest, never appears as such, and so that God is not particularly religiously interesting —  even though that God may be theoretically fascinating, and ground a certain way of life, or else the undifferentiated universal presence may be accessed by certain changes in our subjectivity. The Platonistic God of the developed Pagan and Christian Neoplatonic traditions can still be more or less present, his care more or less manifest — so there is still a religiously interesting “where is God” form of experience in this religious metaphysic. Any religiously interesting God or god must be made manifest in an experience, and so must have a shape of some sort in experience, if that experience is to be differentiated from everydayness. Platonistic theologies are rather sophisticated, and beautiful. They can account for modern religious experience well, I would say. How this relates to the cosmologically-situated God-in-the-heavens, however, is a bit complicated. Even Theodoret, with this Platonistic theology, will still (on biblical grounds) say that God “dwells” in the sky in a significant sense.

In the biblical text, God needs to change location to come to the Israelites, or else they need to change location to come to him, and the logic of having court messengers in the sky temple –angels– assumes that they need to travel across a distance from point A (where God is) to point B (where the recipient is). In Isaiah “the Name of the LORD comes from far away” (Isa 30:27), and God himself needs to “come” from various places (Isa 59:19). If we attempt to eliminate crude anthropomorphisms by metaphorization via a Platonistic metaphysics that is fine, but if location is evacuated entirely from this word “come” then the value of the metaphor dies entirely. In Luke, the angel Gabriel is sent to Zechariah, saying that he “stands in the presence of God” (from whom others are, presumably, absent by virtue of location). (Luke 1:19)  Gabriel “was sent to speak to [Zechariah] and bring [him] these glad tidings” (Luke 1:19), just as after this he “was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth” (Luke 1:26) to Mary. This all strongly implies a difference between near and far, present and absent, and a change of place: “being sent” is meant literally at some level (even if muddily conceived), and a moving across space is clearly implied (even if the mode of transport is unfamiliar).

The more intense iconoclasm of the Deuteronomic school seems to dial back on this theology substantially, but it assumes this same distance, as we see from exhortations such as Deut. 30:11-14:

For this command which I charge you today is not too wondrous for you nor is it distant. It is not in the heavens, to say “Who will go up for us to the heavens and take it for us and let us hear it, that we may do it?” And it is not beyond the sea, to say, “Who will cross over for us beyond the sea and take it for us and let us hear it, that we may do it?” But the word is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it. [Alter transl.]

One does not need to go “far”, to go into the sky (the upper tier) or across the sea (the lower tier), to acquire the commandments (they are already given from the sky as it touched down on Sinai, are already near in the speaking the commands –mouth– and the memorizing of the commands — heart). In the the second temple period, God –though one must ascend to him or he must descend to you, or else open the veil separating the sky places from the location on earth where any given human is– is still located some-where. The Deuteronomist is no exception. God’s voice is heard “out of heaven [vi&., the sky]” (Deut 4:36), and the personal presence has a location, for “face to face did the LORD speak with you on the mountain from the midst of the fire” (Deut 5:4, Alter transl.), so that the heavens –the sky– touched the earth in the giving of the Law, and touch the earth wherever the commands are heard and obeyed, for the sky has the preeminence as God’s original dwelling, and appears first in the priority list: “the LORD, He is God in the heavens above and on the earth below, there is none else” (Deut 4:39, Alter transl.). The Deuteronomist, however, seems to deny that God can be seen at all (Deut 4, esp. v.15), contradicting the very clear accounts in Exodus of God’s visibility (Exod 24), even if seeing God is awe-inspiring, potentially deadly, quickly deflected to the things around God (what is under his feet), and even these are difficult for ordinary speech (what is under God’s feet is only “like” lapis lazuli — the color of the sky).

The pre-Deuteronomic understanding of God is not described crassly, and many qualifications are often given to his appearance — but he can still appear. If one appears, one is here, and not there. (The only alternative is a ubiquitous divine presence that is typically hidden, but then becomes manifest at some times and places — but a presence that is everywhere the same, but not everywhere manifested, is only apparently different, and seems to have no room for special presence in the Torah, in the Temple, in the Eucharist, or in Jesus.) In Genesis, God comes and goes in the Garden; in Exodus, he says that Moses will see his “backsides”, as Robert Alter has it, because “no man may see my frontside and live” (Exod. 33). In Ezekiel, we see the “likeness” of amber, fire, and a man on God’s throne above the dome of the sky, and the “appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD”; in Mark the planter of the vineyard “goes away into a far country” (we like to spiritualize this change of locations in a manner to which a modernist might not strongly object, but the vineyard owner here absents himself), and in the Apocalypse of Abraham the Eternal One is “fire coming toward us round about” in the eighth heaven, moving through that celestial sky location in some significant sense. Space –location– was thought of as something that is close to being absolute, rather than relative. It was organized around a center, or a pair of centers: God in the sky and the axis mundi on earth (e.g., Zion, Olympus, &c.). There is ambiguity about this space across the sources: the location above the dome of the sky could be considered as a physical space (most of the early Jewish and Christian traditions seem to have thought this way), or as an intelligible one (the Greek tradition, adopted –or simply taken for granted– by many early Christians following Clement of Alexandria in the late 2nd century, but still somewhat contested in the 3rd). It is almost certain that the word “holy”, meaning “set apart”, carries with it a strong spatial element — the Israelites wait at a distance from the mountaintop (which is set apart from them), just as the earth is spatially seen as distant from the dome of the sky (which is set apart from us — or was, until we recently started flying).

Although Khrushchev’s comments pit the biblical cosmology against our modern cosmology for a rhetorical purpose, it does a lovely job at denying us a casual and easy (and perhaps sloppy) translation of images across historical distances. We do not live in a three-story cosmos; we do not think of our world as “midgard” (mid-yard) or “middle earth”, with an upper-story of sky (“heaven” is a synonym for “sky”) above us and a lower-story of ocean and She’ol/Hades below us. Instead, we think of our world as simply a planet, one of several orbiting a star, all moving through the void of space. Our cosmos is a single-tier cosmos, and its laws are homogeneous. There are things about the older cosmology that our interpretations would slide under the table. Typically, we move the imagery that was once located in the upper tier into a backworld, into something conceived as another dimension of sorts, however this is done — and there are many ways to do this.

As such, Khrushchev’s quote raises some fascinating questions about history, historically-bound figurations, interpretation, and historical distance. It makes one run to Walter Benjamin. It raises the question of what moves forward in a tradition, how it moves forward — and what does not move forward in history, across different epochs. Can we extract a trans-historical essence from historically particular things, and the constellation of images that define the recognizability internal to any given epoch? At some basic level, we have a naive view of truth that is offended by the differences between the simple three-tiered picture of the biblical cosmos (and the much more sophisticated medieval cosmologies) and our modern one. Should we simply discard the older images as irrelevant and false? Is Christian theology so hopelessly enmeshed in the three-tier cosmos that it cannot honestly or plausibly survive in any traditional form (without some split consciousness)? Can we both be honest about the older cosmologies, and receive them as saying something valuable? (Enns and Parry and Walton seem to want to do this — they seem to want to say that the older cosmology is empirically wrong, but that it has significant value in other ways.) Does the presence of these older cosmologies undermine the plausibility of those ritual and textual traditions that harbor them? The patterns of temple worship from the second temple period, and the patterns of Christian worship that take their patterns from this, all refer to this three-tiered cosmology: the temple is an analogue for the cosmos, the cosmos is represented as a temple writ large. Worship cannot be separated from cosmology any more than cosmology from appropriate worship. The origins of the cosmos are represented in a minimal mythological key [3]; patterns of proper worship are, at some basic level, legitimated by an ascent from earth to heaven (or a descent of heaven to earth) to verify the cult’s correspondence with what is found there (Exodus, Revelation, the purported origins of the Byzantine Trisagion hymn in St. Nikolai’s Prologue of Ochrid, where a young Byzantine boy flies up to the sky and then floats back down to earth).

The problem of historical differences in cosmologies that Khrushchev’s comment presents raises insurmountable obstacles to any naive view of scripture as normative (though Pannenberg should have disabused anyone of this long ago). Scripture cannot be trusted as a divinely sanctioned report on the world, or even about spiritual things, insofar as these are bound up with a three-tiered cosmos, understood literally. Changing the literal to the poetic without qualification makes a mockery of the self-understanding of the biblical texts and the basis for their alleged authority. At best, it becomes a time-bound and historically conditioned expression of some individual and communal religious experiences  — which experiences must be validated on external bases. (This is minimally done in figures like Ratzinger, and somewhat more maximally done in figures like Schleiermacher.) I say religion, not theology, because religion is anthropological, characterized by the various ways human beings open up to some infinite horizon through symbols. Religion is always referred to something theological, some notion or ritual that purports to relate to what is ultimately real or valuable, but its focus is on human beings and their activity. Theology, however, is centered on what is most real, most valuable, most ultimate — concerns speech directly about God, and so is theo-logical, whether this is Taoist or Muslim or Confucian or Christian. Cosmology and Theology are related. The disparate theological motifs that are bound up with the religious experiences reported in the Bible require translation across cosmologies — if anything can be translated at all, or even should be. These religious experiences can also contain historical information, and these historical experiences are essentially structured by this cosmology, but if there is any truth to the experiences, and the theology implied in them, it must be possible to separate the theology honestly –I stress honestly– from this cosmology. Most conservative Christians who translate this ascension language into a modern key understand that Jesus “ascended to a higher plane of existence”. When this is done as sloppily as it typically is, this is not honest, as it ignores, sidelines, or even ridicules the essentially spatial nature of this belief among those who generated it and those who sustained it. Any honest translation must be able to take this fully into account, without balking.

Further, just as the three-tiered cosmos is related to the tripartite wilderness tabernacle and temple in Jerusalem, so too is the tripartite soul (reason, spiritedness, appetitiveness in Plato; intellect, soul, and body more generally in the Fathers of the Church) mapped onto an ontological hierarchy, so that intellect becomes “the divine sense“. If there is no upper floor cosmologically, in which God dwells, there may not be a landing pad for God in the intellect. This is why figures like Schleiermacher, Dostoyevsky, seemingly Newman (from what little of him I’ve read), as well as other Romantic theologians in the modern era look to the heart –that is, to the affections, and to a cosmology and ontology in which the heart is a connective tissue to God and to the neighbor and to the cosmos in a way that the intellect is not– to ground religious contact with God, since the second floor is the highest one left, reason often demoted to an instrument of will and perception. (Of course, something needs to be said here about “those who descend into the chariot” in Merkhavah mystical Judaism, and the hesychastic practice of the mind descending into the heart in Orthodox Christian ascetic practices; they are not quite the same thing, even if they become attractive to us for contemporary reasons that are historically heterogeneous from the Late Antique & Medieval worlds that generated these practices. In the 4th century, I believe it was Athanasius of Alexandria who wrote that the heart and the mind were the same thing, regardless of which word was used. Our attraction to things like hesychasm comes from a totally different place than the hesychasts were coming from when they advocated for these practices — but we project onto them ourselves, and so we miss the real difference. Our term of appreciation is different from theirs.)

There is an ontological change in this, too. In Plato, to know is to know a timeless form, and to be is to be this-or-that form or forms. Form is immaterial. It is higher than matter, which receives form, and is itself formless and changing. The ascent from the cave to the sun mirrors the ontological ascent from the shadows of material objects to the form of the Good, which is even beyond being. In Plotinus’ Enneads 3.8, we read about how contemplation creates by motionless activity; this is much less plausible when the sky has been wiped away, and thinking ascends from matter, rather than descending from the sky in a kinship with the angels — and God. The metaphysical features rest on cosmological ones. The Platonists –and Christians following them– always had a hard time accounting for the causal power of immaterial principles on matter. Instead, things are bottom-up for us today. We have a hard time understanding how mind-over-matter works today, because we assume that matter is what causes things in the mind, even if this model fails in significant ways to explain certain features of living things. Even our reflexive instincts for self-maintenance suggest that we should jog to improve our focus, or meditate as a mental analogue to stretching or a sauna. A metaphysical hierarchy is possible to accept today, but much of the obviousness and plausibility of a metaphysical hierarchy –for thinkers in Late Antiquity and the Medieval eras– was derived from a presumed cosmological hierarchy. It is easier, today, to think of everything in terms of matter and energy, particles and forces, and history — so that God is to be thought of as…what? A field of force, or the power of the future, as in Pannenberg? When God’s power was absent from the earth in the older cosmology, it still tuned the song of the stars, and all terrestrial things moved to the unmoved mover; now, there does not seem to be a “where” to which God could be thought to retreat in his absence, except, and only perhaps, to the Eschaton. With the cosmologically induced metaphysical change, a theological change has occurred. We gloss over this difference in imagining continuities between ourselves and those who came before us. There is no simple repetition of their thinking across this gap, and any traditioning requires a change in what is handed on.

Notably, in the wake of the space race, Roman Catholic church architecture has departed from the tripartite altar-nave-narthex structure –still present in Byzantine Catholic and Orthodox churches more generally– to become more homogeneous after the fact of the publication of images of the empty heavens — not only is the altar pulled away from the wall, with all the people now facing one another, but the altar is even sometimes at a lower point in the more experimental parishes. Not only in Roman Catholic church architecture is there a change, but in the public imaginary that is manifested on religious book covers. So the reign of Christ is depicted on this Reformed book with an image from space that would hardly have been thought to be appropriate to anyone prior to the space race. This follows from the change in the public imagination about the role of the sky in the wake of the photos that were taken from space in the middle of the 20th century. Botticini may have meant his painting somewhat literally, but that only highlights the historical distance we have from this cosmology.

Similarly, the fallout of the evacuation of the sky can account for the loss of the tripartite God-humanity-world structure found in the Late Antique & Medieval periods, where God is either swallowed by humanity (so Descartes) or by the world (Spinoza). If memory serves, Michael Allen Gillespie has a bit to say about this. Either some form of dualism or monism –even if it is a differentiated monism– seem to be the fallout of the loss of the three-tier cosmos by the “wiping away of an entire horizon”, as Nietzsche wrote. Our notion of a “fall” is actually, also, geographical — paradise is typically figured as located on the cosmic mountain. In figures like Ephrem the Syrian, this is explicit. There is, of course, no such mountain. This is why explorers searched far and wide for paradise for centuries, but did not find it. Nietzsche mentions this, too — we thought we fell down from the heights, but, in fact, we have crawled out of the mud. It is striking what a contrast this historical take is on the narratives that are spun up, in the modern period, either to modify the story or to translate the story into existential categories. Maybe some version of the latter is honestly available, but not without looking hard at the disjunction between the modern, existential take and the ancient, very literal one (that grounded the ancient existential one).

The value and power of Khrushchev’s comments should, perhaps, better come into focus as we consider the Christian feast of the Ascension of Jesus, which was celebrated recently by Orthodox, Catholics, and some few Protestants with a robust liturgical calendar (mostly by Episcopalians). In the feast of the Ascension, the story in the dual book of Luke-Acts is commemorated in which Jesus, after rising from the dead, ascends into the sky in front of his followers. [4] The corresponding article in The Apostles’ Creed –“he ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty”– should also provide useful material for reflection on this point.

The cosmological error enshrined in the ascension story is everywhere in the details of early Christian storytelling, but we can engage in this subtle translation activity unconsciously, unbeknownst to us, translating the upper story of this three-tiered cosmology to a spiritual domain (like a fairy backworld to the material, dangerously making us like Nietzschean backworldsmen), when we deal with the error elsewhere. When we do this, we assimilate the texts to our modern cosmology, but with the ascension, the cosmological error is explicit and perhaps unassimilable, and grinds against the unconscious translation procedures of our modern minds.

It would be impossibly ambitious for me to presume to offer an exhaustive map of the cosmological history at which Khrushchev’s comment takes aim, but it seems appropriate to scan some instances of the cosmology in question, to raise the issue to attention. We have written here about disenchantment (in Augustine, in Protestantism, and then Charles Taylor’s treatment of disenchantment) as a feature of modernity, and the shifts in cosmology between the premodern and the modern periods are an important factor in bringing about this sense of disenchantment. In the end, we can sketch, also, a list of the possible ways we might respond to this awareness.

I won’t do that in this post, however. I’m already deep in the writing throes of a proper article; the outline (with notes) is twenty pages already. I will add bits of notes here on this blog about some authors as I go.



“Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any God there.” That is the quote as the Wikipedia entry on Gagarin has it.

I read here, however, that the actual quote by Khrushchev is “Why should you clutch at God? Here is Gagarin who flew into space, but, he saw no God there.”

Finally, the longer version of the quote cited above can be found in the scholarly literature — very, very strangely without citation — in Death, Ecstasy and Other Worldly Journeys ed. John J. Collins & Michael Fishbane (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1995), ix


I understand that Roger Scruton reports that Baruch Spinoza once argued to his fellow synagogue members –I suspect only to prove an exegetical point against his opponents– that the Hebrew Bible nowhere denies that God has a body. Mark Smith and Dale Allison, among others, have something useful to say about this.

See Mark S. Smith and Benjamin Sommer.


I say “minimal mythological” because it is distinct from the more florid mythologies that are typical of Babylon or Egypt, for example. It is still mythology, just restrained somewhat. In dialing-down the mythological elements from forte to piano, a kind of iconoclasm may be seen to be in play, and a kind of modest disenchantment of the world.


There are additions to Mark in which this ascension was added, and John’s Gospel has Jesus referring to his coming ascension to the Father, and how there are many mansions in the Father’s house to which Jesus is ascending, but does not figure this ascension as an event in the story.


Header image found here.


19 thoughts on “Gagarin and the Seven Heavens (Sketch of an Outline)

  1. Pingback: Aphrahat on Cosmology and Ascent in Demonstrations 14 | Into the Clarities

  2. Pingback: Ascent & Descent; the Sky & the Earth Kiss | Into the Clarities

  3. Pingback: Paul Tillich on Divine Omnipresence in a Spatially Monistic Universe | Into the Clarities

  4. Pingback: Ascent to the Eighth Heaven in The Apocalypse of Abraham | Into the Clarities

  5. Pingback: Theodoret of Cyrus on The Mash-up of Tiered Cosmology and Philosophical Theology, with An Eye to The Ascension, 1 | Into the Clarities

  6. Pingback: Theodoret of Cyrus on The Mash-up of Tiered Cosmology and Philosophical Theology, with An Eye to The Ascension, 2 | Into the Clarities

  7. Pingback: Theodoret of Cyrus on The Mash-up of Tiered Cosmology and Philosophical Theology, with An Eye to The Ascension, 3 | Into the Clarities

  8. Pingback: Theodoret of Cyrus on The Mash-up of Tiered Cosmology and Philosophical Theology, with An Eye to The Ascension, 4 | Into the Clarities

  9. Pingback: Theodoret of Cyrus on The Mash-up of Tiered Cosmology and Philosophical Theology, with An Eye to The Ascension, 5 | Into the Clarities

  10. Pingback: Theodoret of Cyrus on The Mash-up of Tiered Cosmology and Philosophical Theology, with An Eye to The Ascension, 6 | Into the Clarities

  11. Pingback: Theodoret of Cyrus on The Mash-up of Tiered Cosmology and Philosophical Theology, with An Eye to The Ascension, 7 | Into the Clarities

  12. Pingback: Millard Erickson on the Ascension of Jesus | Into the Clarities

  13. Pingback: Wayne Grudem on the Ascension of Jesus, and on Heaven | Into the Clarities

  14. Pingback: J.I. Packer on Heaven, and on the Ascension of Jesus | Into the Clarities

  15. Pingback: Polkinghorne on the Ascension of Jesus | Into the Clarities

  16. Pingback: Robert Jenson, 1: on the Ascension of Jesus & Modern Cosmology | Into the Clarities

  17. Pingback: Robert Jenson, 3: on the Ascension of Jesus & Modern Cosmology | Into the Clarities

  18. Pingback: C. S. Lewis on the Ascension of Jesus | Into the Clarities

  19. Pingback: Martin Luther, 1: On The Ubiquity of The Human Body of Jesus as God (Luther against Schwenkfeld) | Into the Clarities

Start a conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.