Visions and Consciousness


« Peter’s Vision » Gordon Wilson

Where is the Garden of Eden?

According to the Talmud, it is either in Palestine, or in Arabia, or in Damascus. i

Where is the Underworld?

In Sion, says Rabbi Ismael’s school. ii

And where is the entrance to the Underworld? Rabbi Jeremiah ben Eleazar said, « Gehenna has three entrances: one in the desert, another in the sea, and the third in Jerusalem. » iii

Gehenna takes its name from Gaihinom, meaning a valley as deep as the Valley of Hinom. But Gehenna has many other names as well: Tomb, Perdition, Abyss, Desolation, Mire, Mire of Death, Land of Below. iv

This last expression is similar to the one used by the Nations: the « Underworld ».

« We speak in Latin of the underworld (inferi) because it is below (infra). Just as in the order of bodies, according to the law of gravity, the lowest are all the heaviest, so in the order of spirits, the lowest are all the saddest. » v

Everyone agrees that the Underworld is a sad place. But is it a geographical place, like being located « under Zion »?

Augustine, for his part, asserts that the Underworld is a spiritual place, not a place « under the earth ».

And he adds that this « spiritual place » is in Heavens.

In Heavens ? But which one?

Augustine indeed distinguishes three different Heavens.vi

First Heaven: The corporeal world, which extends over the waters and the earth.

Second Heaven: Everything that is seen by the spirit, and resembles bodies, like the vision of animals that Peter in ecstasy saw coming down to him (Acts, X, 10-12).

Third Heaven: « What the intellectual soul contemplates once it is so separated, distant, cut off from the carnal senses, and so purified that it can see and hear, in an ineffable way, what is in heaven and the very substance of God, as well as the Word of God by whom all things were made, and this in the charity of the Holy Spirit. In this hypothesis, it is not unreasonable to think that it was also in this sojourn that the Apostle was delighted (II Cor., 12:2-4), and that perhaps this is the paradise superior to all the others and, if I may say so, the paradise of paradises. » vii

How can one explain the difference between the second Heaven and the third one ?

One may get an idea of the difference by analyzing two visions of Peter as opposed to Paul’s own famous revelation:

« He felt hungry and wanted to eat something. But while they were preparing food for him, he fell into ecstasy. He saw the sky open and an object, like a large tablecloth tied at the four corners, descending towards the earth. And inside there were all the quadrupeds and reptiles and all the birds of the sky. Then a voice said to him, ‘Come, Peter, kill and eat.’ But Peter answered, ‘Oh no! Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is unclean or impure!’ Again, a second time, the voice spoke to him, ‘What God has cleansed, you do not defile.’ This was repeated three times, and immediately the object was taken up to heaven. (…) As Peter was still reflecting on his vision, the Spirit said to him, ‘Here are men who are looking for you. Go therefore, come down and go with them without hesitation, for I have sent them.» viii

Following the advice, Peter goes to Cornelius’ home, who was a Roman centurion. There he finds a large number of people waiting for him. Then Peter said to them, « You know that it is absolutely forbidden for a Jew to fraternize with a stranger or to enter his house. But God has just shown me that no man is to be called unclean or impure.» ix

This first vision had a very real and concrete effect on Peter. It induced this eyebrowed and law-abiding Jew to somewhat overlook some prohibitions set by the Law, and to fraternize and share food with a group of non-Jews, assembled in their own home.

Peter then had a second vision, in more dramatic circumstances.

Peter had been arrested, put in prison, and about to be executed, on the order of King Herod.

« Suddenly the angel of the Lord came, and the dungeon was flooded with light. The angel struck Peter on the side and raised him up: « Get up! Quickly, » he said. And the chains fell from his hands. »x

Then, « Peter went out and followed him, not realizing that which was done by the angel was real, but he thought he was having a vision.» xi

This was not a vision indeed, but a real event, since Peter was really set free.

Still, there was an element of « vision » in this « reality » : the apparition of the angel and his role in the escape of Peter.

Peter had yet to acknowledge that role.

« Suddenly, the angel left him. Then Peter, returning to consciousness, said, « Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent His angel and has taken me out of the hands of Herod and out of all that the people of the Jews were waiting for.» xii

It was not the reality of his evasion from the prison of Herod that awakened the consciousness of Peter.

He became conscious only when the angel left him.

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iAt least that is what Rech Lakich asserts in Aggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Erouvin 19a §16. Translated by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. Ed. Verdier. 1982, p.264.

iiThe passage « Who has his fire in Zion and his furnace in Jerusalem » (Is. 31:9) shows us this. According to the school of R. Ishmael, His fire in Zion is Gehenna; His furnace in Jerusalem is the entrance to Gehenna. In Aggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Erouvin 19a §14. Translation by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. Ed. Verdier. 1982, p.263.

iiiAggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Erouvin 19a §14. Translated into French by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre, and my English translation. Ed. Verdier. 1982, p.263.

ivAccording to R. Joshua ben Levi. Ibid. p.264

vS. Augustine. Genesis in the literal sense. Book XII, 34, 66: Desclée de Brouwer. 1972, p.449.

viS. Augustine. Genesis in the literal sense. Book XII, 34, 67. Desclée de Brouwer. 1972, p.449.

viiIbid. Book XII, 34,68; p.451

viiiAct. 10, 10-20

ixAct. 10, 28

xAct, 12.7

xiAct, 12.9

xiiAct, 12, 10-11