by Denise Kohlmeyer
In 1980, when I was in eighth grade, my paternal grandmother died. I asked my dad at the time if Grandma was in purgatory, which I understood from my Catholic catechism to be a temporary “holding place” for the not-yet-heaven-worthy, the not-yet-fully-sanctified. Dad answered yes, and that I—as well as the rest of our family—had to “pray Grandma to heaven.”
I took to my task seriously and prayed religiously. I did not want to be responsible for my grandmother not getting into heaven.
To that end, I pictured a long, straight, and beautifully iridescent-looking staircase that ascended from purgatory to heaven, with the departed ascending one step at a time, faces upturned toward The Light. Grandma, a newbie, was at the bottom of that flight. But, with every prayer said, I envisioned her going up another step, getting ever closer to Saint Peter and those pearly gates. Now, decades later, I have abandoned my belief in a literal purgatory and have left the eternal fate of my grandmother to God.
I have always been fascinated with staircases, and when I gave my life to Christ at age 21, I learned through my study of the Scriptures, that the concept of people reaching upward to connect with God via a staircase was not entirely off-base. In fact, this architectural feature of ascent is solidly rooted in the Bible, both as metaphor and illustration, and as a literal and visual means of transcendence and connectiveness. Staircases also represent progression into enlightenment—both personally, intellectually, and spiritually—as well as degression, as in going downward into darkness, into hell.
The first staircases were created—usually crudely constructed ladders or ramps—to access high elevations, either for protection, or to surmount an obstacle. They were likely copied from formations found in the natural world, like The Giant’s Causeway in Ireland. Stairs initially, they were simply utilitarian, to get one from Point A to Point B. Humans adapted this intuitive design for themselves, which is now considered one of the oldest structural and most malleable building aesthetics.
As the staircase evolved with mankind, so did its usage. It went from being merely a practical structure to one that helped man to transcend into the sacred. Or at least the attempt to. The first reference of a staircase in the Bible was not a good one, unfortunately. It was built in an act of rebellion, by an ego-centric people who feared separation and alienation. I am referring to the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9.
“Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise, we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (vv. 1-4).
To that end, the Babylonians collectively began construction on a skyward-reaching tower. In order to reach the pinnacle, a staircase was utilized. Both the tower and staircase were impressive structures, so much so that God came down to check them out and was alarmed at these peoples’ ingenuity and brazenness. “If as one people speaking the same language,” He said. “they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
And it was so. Not being able to communicate with one another anymore, construction on the tower and staircase came to an abrupt halt. The staircase, which was to help them “make a name for themselves,” now led to nowhere.
It was not the structure itself that God disapproved of, though. God would, in fact, use staircases later as a mean of reaching sacred spaces, of reaching Him. It was the Babylonian’s self-exalting attitude behind the structure’s creation that God frowned upon, and thus put an end to.
Interestingly, the same usage of the staircase is seen at archeological sites around the world, although the builders’ motivation was not so much self-serving as sacred, though misplaced. They desired to worship their man-made deities. Think of the Ziggurats of Mesopotamia, to worship the gods Nanna, Enki, and Ishtar, to name a few; of the Mayan Temple Chechen Itza in Mexico, to worship the God of Maize or Lady Rainbow; of Mount Tai in China, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where pilgrims and emperors offered sacrifices to heaven and earth.
The primary insinuation of these staircases was that the gods were above earth, above man, both symbolically and literally. Therefore, to pay homage and offer sacrifices, one had to mount a steep set of hard, stone stairs. The secondary insinuation was that it was (and still is) a difficult journey toward spiritual enlightenment, perfection, and connection. Each step was to be trod with care and conviction. The gods weren’t going to make it easy.
The staircase, in those situations, became a “ceremonial way,” writes John Templar in his book The Staircase: History and Theories. “The act of climbing became ritually significant.”
Another instance of sacred ascension came to the patriarch, Jacob, in dream, of a celestial ladder. Perhaps, subconsciously, this was where I had gotten my own concept of a staircase leading to heaven, even though I had never heard of this story until much later.
“Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the Lord, and he said: ‘I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you’” (Genesis 28:10-15, NIV).
What was symbolic potency of this ladder, of the Lord standing at the top? Relationship. Connection. Conversation. While the Babylonians tried to reach into the heavens of their own ingenuity, through the visual of a ladder, and with God at the top and Jacob at the bottom, God made it clear that He would be the one to initiate relationship, connection, and conversation between heaven and earth, Divinity and humanity. Later, our connectivity and relationship would be inaugurated by and through Jesus Christ.
Jacob’s ladder is actually an archetype of Jesus, as the ultimate means of ascending above our humanity to connect to and converse with God. Jesus did say, after all, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). That “way” is metaphorically illustrated through the staircase.
In 1987, I traveled to Jerusalem. It was a life-changing experience. I experienced the life of Jesus in a realistic, three-dimensional way. I walked where He walked (the Via de la Rosa), cruised where He cruised (the Sea of Galilee), wept where He wept (the Garden of Gethsemane). One day, our tour of that ancient city took us by the 15, 200-foot-wide steps up to the Huldah Gate. Thousands of pilgrims and priests—and most likely Joseph, Mary, and Jesus Himself—took these steps to enter through the gate on their way to the Temple. As the pilgrims climbed, they would sing or recite 15 of the Psalms (Psalms 120 through 134), known as the Psalms (or Songs) of Ascent, all written by King David
The steps and their corresponding songs were to prepare the pilgrims for the gravity of where they were about to enter—the house of God—and for the sacredness of what they were about to do—worship and pray. Their approach to God was not to be done lightly or flippantly, but reverently, as each step brought them closer to Yahweh.
This same ancient ascension-approach to God was later mimicked by medieval European architects. They specifically designed cathedrals to be elevated on a pediment. They also elevated the pulpits inside the naves, which were attained by a short flight of stairs.
I saw plenty of these architectural wonders during my travels in Hungary, Austria, and Germany this past summer. Rarely did I see a cathedral that did not have an elevated pulpit, many of them heavily canopied. The wooden stairs were intricately carved with religious motifs: grapes, doves, angels, trumpets. The strategic elevation of these pulpits was two-fold, both practical and theological. First, the elevation allowed the voice of the priest to carry throughout the cavernous nave, given this was a time before sound systems. Secondly, the height directed the eyes of the congregates upwards, heavenward, to the priest, who was God’s earthly representative. The elevation also invoked in the congregants a sense their smallness, of their “place” in the world, both humanly and religiously.
The last Scriptural reference to stairs is not an explicit one, but an implied reference: the upper room, so called because it was typically at the top of a house, on the roof. Throughout both the Old and New Testaments, the upper room was a significant site where sacred and transformative events happened.
It was in his upper room where Daniel retreated to beseech God for protection after King Darius issued his decree that prohibited anyone from praying to any god or man for a 30-day period, except to King Darius. The decree, signed by jealous, conniving court officials, was meant to trap righteous Daniel, to get him incarcerated and possibly killed. It didn’t work.
“Now when Daniel learned that the decree was published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day, he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before” (Daniel 6:10).
In the New Testament, the upper room was a popular meeting place for Jesus and his followers, and for miracles:
• Jesus washes the apostles’ feet (John 13:1-17)
• Jesus eats the final Passover meal, where the New Covenant was instituted and the Eucharist first celebrated (Matthew 26:17-30)
• Jesus appears to his followers after His resurrection (Luke 24:36-49)
• Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit first descended visibly upon the apostles (Acts 2:1-13)
And how did one gain access these upper rooms? Via a staircase, of course. Again, the inference is that one had to climb to commune with God, to enjoy fellowship with Him and with one another, and to experience the supernatural.
The staircase to this day remains one of my favorite architectural aesthetics, more so now that I know about their sacred symbolism. They are the first thing to grab my attention whenever I enter a building. My eyes instinctually follow the treads and risers upwards, wondering what lies beyond, in the upper realms. They are beautiful invitations to mystery and glory, to hallowed meetings and divine miracles, visual metaphors and sacred symbols of connecting to and conversing with God.
The hymn “Higher Ground,” by Johnson Oatman, I believe, captures the staircases’ metaphoric ascension-approach to God beautifully:
I’m pressing on the upward way,
New heights I’m gaining every day;
Still praying as I’m onward bound,
Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.
Denise Kohlmeyer is a former newspaper reporter and current freelance writer. Her work has appeared in numerous online and print publications, including Hearts of Flesh, Desiring God, Revive Our Hearts, Just Between Us, Unlocking the Bible. She is a regular contributor at Crosswalk.com. Denise lives outside of Chicago with her husband and three children.