The Arctic explorer Donald B. MacMillan, who came along at the end of the final great period of global exploration in the early 20th century, may have been the last to set off for a destination that turned out not to exist. A member of Robert Peary’s expedition to the North Pole in 1909, MacMillan returned to the Canadian Arctic four years later in search of Crocker Land, a mountainous island that had first been sighted nearly a century earlier and that was later seen by Peary himself from the summit of Cape Thomas Hubbard. Looking to the northwestern horizon from the same coordinates, Crocker reported seeing a huge island with “hills, valleys, snow-capped peaks extending at least one hundred and twenty degrees of the horizon.” Four members of the expedition set out by dog sled to reach Crocker Land, ignoring warnings from an Inuit guide that the island was nothing more than “mist.” They traveled hundreds of miles across dangerous sea ice in their fruitless quest, barely making it back to safety before the ice broke up for the season. Belatedly, MacMillan realized they had risked their lives in pursuit of a mirage.
Macmillan was not the first to set off in search of the illusory. In earlier eras, explorers organized expeditions to El Dorado, Eden, Thule, the Seven Cities of Cibola, Marco Polo’s island of Cipango and Prester John’s mythical kingdom in the Orient. However, MacMillan may have been the first who actually laid eyes on the object of his quest, even if it was only a mirage. What he probably saw was a rare atmospheric anomaly known as a fata morgana, named for King Arthur’s shape-shifting half-sister Morgan le Fay. During arctic temperature inversions, light is refracted through layers of cold and warm air, enabling onlookers to view formations hundreds of miles away. The result is a chimera that shimmers tantalizingly just above the horizon but actually originates with objects on the ground well beyond it.
What is heaven, if not a destination that shimmers tantalizingly above the horizon while lying well beyond it? In reality, of course, we cannot see beyond the horizon of our mortal life, so there is no way to determine whether the vision that shines before us is a chimera or not. It is, so far as we can determine, a pure refraction of the human imagination, which does not mean there is no heaven, only that we cannot trace the vision back to its source. We would do well to remember that a fata morgana appears to float above the horizon but actually originates on the ground. The popular notion of heaven existing somewhere up in the clouds is at odds with biblical prophecy, which talks about eternal life on earth. Jesus himself had little to say about an afterlife as such. He wanted people to stop looking beyond the horizon and instead to look within their own hearts. “The kingdom of God is within you,” he said. In other words, we need to get our head out of the clouds and our feet back on the ground – in this case, the ground of our own being.