No consensus about the ultimate destination of good souls

Some creeds favour green fields, others a citadel, while more expect a vast city

Trips away from home can bring dull evenings with idle hours for contemplation. That’s when we might encounter the Gideons’ Bible that turns up mysteriously in hotel bedrooms.

Once in a while the quiet fall of darkness may stir a curiosity about our ultimate destination. One winter evening I did a planning search in the Gideons' book, looking for references to good and bad cities, the New Jerusalem versus Sodom and Gomorrah.

For Christians, Eden is the place where Adam and Eve lived in the biblical account of the creation. In my readings it was given a bountiful setting of greenery and there was an orchard ripe with apples. The fate of the original of the species was to be banished from that ideal garden.

Such rural greenery also occurs in Greek religious mythology where Elysium is the destination of desire for the heroic and the virtuous. It is a place better known as the Elysian Fields or even the Champs Elysées.

For Buddhists and Hindus, Nirvana is the ultimate destination for perfect peace, the place where a person may attain enlightenment.

The Ukrainian war reminds us that deep divisions between Christian denominations are not confined to this island. I have seen how the Russian Orthodox Church supports Putin’s war. It contradicts its neighbours to the west.

I’m finding out too that there is no consensus about the ultimate destination of good souls. Some creeds favour green fields, others a citadel, while more expect a vast city.

Over the past century the attractions of a Shangri-La became embedded in western literature. It was James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (1933) that introduced readers to that fabled paradise. Again, I noticed how Hilton described Shangri-La as a harmonious valley shielded from the outside world by high mountains.

Other versions of the ultimate paradise can be found in older literature. Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) is an imaginary island that enjoys perfection in its laws and its politics. I can see why it is so often cited as the model for the ideal state.

Early in the 17th century the Pilgrim Fathers set out from England to build a new world in what became the United States. That group included John Winthrop who expressed his vision for the model of Puritan perfection in New England.

It would be a shining city built high on a hill and it would become a beacon attracting good people. That model of the elevated bright city has echoes in the New Testament where it states: “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.”

Winthrop’s ideal (1630) was an urban hill-top community, living in peace and harmony. And it was more than that because it provided a good example to all the rest of humanity.

We might ask whether that was where American exceptionalism began? Over the past few decades I saw how that expression of the brave new world found notable supporters. It became a favourite theme for American presidents.

Early in the 1960s John F Kennedy was promoting his community in contented liberty. Drawing on Winthrop, he placed it within a city upon a hill, constructed and inhabited by men aware of the great trust and heavy responsibility placed upon them.

Pilgrim spirit

During the recessionary 1980s Winthrop was extensively cited by Ronald Reagan. His farewell address (1989) harked back to the pilgrim spirit of that tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans. For him it remained a welcoming place and a destination for "anyone with the will and the heart to get there".

It came as a surprise to me that, two decades later, Barack Obama was still referring to the same ideal community imagined by the Pilgrim Fathers. We might ask how that turned out, but don't mention Guantánamo.

What Winthrop was expressing can certainly be found in the Gideons’ Bible. Chapter 21 of the Revelations describes a new holy city, the New Jerusalem, being handed down from heaven.

It was placed well up on a mountain, square shaped and fortified with strong high walls. Each side was stated to be 12,000 furlongs (about 2,400km long), containing three gates, and each wall was 144 cubits (about 70m).

This vast place had streets paved with gold, all polished to resemble glass. We are told the gates were never shut and that this wondrous city was open to those who were saved. We might wonder about the function of such stout defensive walls when the gates were always left open.

What comes to mind for me is Robbie Burns’s scepticism about the best laid plans. All our aspirations confirm is that all we have are aspirations.

  • Dr Diarmuid Ó Gráda is a planning consultant and the author of Georgian Dublin: The Forces That Shaped The City.