What is this heaven? Where is it? Is it “up”? …It so happens that the question of the “location” of heaven (and hell) is one that has been very widely misunderstood in modern times. It was only a few years ago that the Soviet dictator Krushchev was laughing at religious people who still believed in heaven — he had sent cosmonauts into space and they had not seen it!
No thinking Christian, of course, believes in the atheist caricature of a heaven “in the sky”, although there are some naive Protestants who would place heaven in a distant galaxy or constellation; the whole visible creation is fallen and corrupt, and there is no place in it anywhere for the invisible heaven of God, which is a spiritual and not a material reality. But many Christians, in order to escape the mockery of unbelievers and avoid even the slightest taint of any materialistic conception, have gone to the opposite extreme and declare that heaven is ‘nowhere’. Among Roman Catholics and Protestants there are sophisticated analogies which proclaim that heaven is ‘a state, not a place’, that ‘up’ is only a metaphor, the Ascension of Christ (Lk. 24:50-51, Acts 1:9-11) was not really an “ascension”, but only a change of state. The result of such apologies is that heaven and hell become very vague and indefinite conceptions, and the sense of their reality begins to disappear – with disastrous results for Christian life, because these are the very realities toward which our whole earthly life is directed.
All such apologies, according to the teaching of Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, are based on the false idea of the modern philosopher Descartes that everything that is not material is “pure spirit”and is not limited by time and space. This is not the teaching of the Orthodox Church. Bishop Ignatius writes: ‘The fantasy of Descartes concerning the independence of spirits in space and time is a decisive absurdity. Everything that is limited is necessarily dependent on space’ (vol. III, p. 312). ‘The numerous quotations from the Divine service books and the works of the Fathers of the Orthodox Church decided with complete satisfaction the question as to where paradise and hell are located… With what clarity the teaching of the Orthodox Eastern Church indicates that the location of paradise is in the heavens and the location of hell is in the bowels of the earth’ (vol. III, pp. 308-9; the emphasis is his). Here we shall only indicate just how this teaching is to be interpreted.
It is certainly true, as Bishop Ignatius’ numerous citations indicate, that all Orthodox sources – the Holy Scripture, Divine services, Lives of Saints, writings of Holy Fathers – speak of paradise and heaven as ‘up’ and hell as ‘down’, under the earth. And it is also true that since angels and souls are limited in space…, they must always be in one definite place – whether heaven, hell, or earth. We have already quoted the teaching of St. John Damascene that “when the angels are in heaven they are not on earth, and when they are sent to earth by God they do not remain in heaven” (Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, II.3, p. 206), which is only the same doctrine taught earlier by St. Basil the Great (On the Holy Spirit, ch. 23), St. Gregory Dialogist (Morals on the Book of Job, Bk. II,3), and indeed all the Orthodox Fathers.
Heaven, therefore, is certainly a place, and it is certainly up from any point on the earth, and hell is certainly down, in the bowels of the earth; but these places and their inhabitants cannot be seen by men until their spiritual eyes are opened… Further, these places are not within the ‘coordinates’ of our space-time system: airliner does not pass ‘invisibly’ through paradise, nor an earth satellite through the third heaven, nor can the souls waiting in hell for the Last Judgement be reached by drilling for them in the earth. They are not there, but in a different kind of space that begins right here but extends, as it were, in a different direction. (The Soul After Death, pp. 128-131)