As Christians around the world celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ this Easter, heaven is naturally on the minds of many. Recent polls indicate that between 75 and 90 percent of Americans believe that heaven exists, percentages that far exceed the belief by residents of other Western nations.
As the author of “Heaven in the American Imagination,” I have recently been interviewed for both a television special and a “Time” magazine article on heaven. The widespread belief among Christians that we, like Jesus, will live after our death, has led many to ask what heaven is like. Throughout history Americans have offered many different answers to this question.
Although their interpretation of biblical passages has guided most Christians in describing heaven, their cultural settings, dreams, and hopes have also shaped their portraits as expressed in music, art, and literature.
Throughout American history, theologians and pastors have typically depicted heaven as an actual place of dazzling beauty, unending delight, and greatly expanded knowledge. Americans have largely agreed that heaven is a spectacular and delightful home for people who are aware of their own identities and life histories, enjoy rich fellowship with others, enthusiastically worship God, do meaningful work, and experience fantastic joy.
However, deeply influenced by their own life experiences and differing political, social, and economic circumstances, American Christians have provided conflicting portraits of heavenly life. From the Puritans in the 1600s to the Second Great Awakening of the antebellum years, most Christians depicted a God-centered heaven that focused on worshiping and serving the Trinity. Since the Civil War, many portraits of heaven have focused on service, education, and personal growth as these concepts became more important in American society.
During the last decade, several major cultural trends—especially increased anxiety, the prominence of our entertainment culture, the impact of the therapeutic worldview, and concerns about the breakdown of the family and the impoverishment of personal relationships—have shaped American views of heaven.
This has led Christians to offer competing pictures of heaven as a place of comfort, enriching entertainment, self-actualization, robust relationships, and bliss. Heaven has been depicted as a haven from the world’s ills, a magnificent home, a posh vacation resort, a perpetual playground, a therapeutic center, and a place of incredible happiness. Some conceptions of paradise provide a soothing antidote to the anxiety-arousing and disconcerting events that lead many newscasts and newspaper headlines. Heaven promises a pleasant respite from the world’s perils, tragedy, and despair.
America’s focus on entertainment, and fear that heaven may be boring, has prompted depictions of paradise as the ultimate recreation center. Anthony DeStefano’s best-selling “A Travel Guide to Heaven” portrays the celestial realm as “Disney World, Hawaii, Paris, Rome, and New York all rolled into one.” “Heaven is a pleasure palace, a fairyland … and a never-ending vacation…. It’s the ultimate adventure for travelers of all ages.”
For others, the afterlife is principally about introspection and self-actualization. It is the place where individuals listen to their inner child, repair their self-esteem, and finally attain closure. In phenomenally popular books, “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” and “The Lovely Bones,” Mitch Albom and Alice Sebold respectively explain that heaven exists to help people make sense of their earthly lives.
Influenced by a culture that promotes and prizes personal happiness, still others make happiness a key feature of heavenly life. “God will supply us with everything we’ll ever need” to be happy in heaven, declared Billy Graham. Another evangelical predicts that the saints will have “the athleticism of Michael Jordan, the mind of Albert Einstein, and the creativity of Charles Dickens.” Finally, for many, heaven is primarily a place of reunion with family members and friends, characterized by love, intimacy, and comfort.
Americans’ great interest in heaven is evident today in book sales, television and movie themes, art, and music. Books based on the near-death experiences have been especially popular and influential in shaping American conceptions of the afterlife. More than a year after its publication, “Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back” is still number one on The New York Times Best Seller List for nonfiction.
As Christians celebrate Easter this year, they rejoice that Christ’s resurrection promises that those who trust in him as their Savior will someday join him in paradise. Until that occurs, Christians will continue to debate the features and wonders of heaven.
The Moral Liberal Guest Writer, Dr. Gary Scott Smith, chairs the history department at Grove City College and is a fellow for faith and the presidency with The Center for Vision & Values. He is the author of “Faith and the Presidency From George Washington to George W. Bush” (Oxford University Press, 2009) and “Heaven in the American Imagination” (Oxford University Press, 2011).