22 Dec, 2005 230 Christianity

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss ideas of heaven and the afterlife. The great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote ‘that in the end language can only be related to what is experienced here, and given that the hereafter is not here, we can only infer’. Aquinas encapsulated a great human conundrum that has preoccupied writers and thinkers since ancient times: what might heaven be like. And although human language is constrained by experience, this has not stopped an outpouring of artistic, theological and literary representations of heaven. In the early Middle Ages men ascended up a ladder to heaven. In his Divine Comedy, Dante divided heaven into ten layers encompassing the planets and the stars. And the 17th century writer John Bunyan saw the journey of the soul to heaven as a spiritual struggle in his autobiography, The Pilgrim’s Progress. But what exactly is heaven and where is it? How does the Protestant conception of the afterlife differ from the Catholic conception? How does one achieve salvation and what do the saved do when they get there? And, if heaven is so interesting, why has western culture been so spellbound by hell?

Play on BBC Sounds website


  • Valery Rees 4 episodes
    Renaissance scholar and senior member of the Language Department at the School of Economic Science
  • Martin Palmer 22 episodes
    Theologian and Director of the International Consultancy on Religion, Education and Culture
  • John Carey 7 episodes
    Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Oxford University

Related episodes

Programme ID: p003k9lf

Episode page: bbc.co.uk/programmes/p003k9lf

Auto-category: 236 (Eschatology, heaven, and hell)