by Ron Spencer
As late as 1997, belief in heaven was declared "dead" in the United States—in a cover article in Time magazine, no less. Preachers weren't talking about heaven, the article said; young men training to be priests didn't learn about heaven in seminary. Even evangelicals treated the topic with something like embarrassment. Besides, who needed heaven when life on earth was so good? In 1997, unemployment hit a 28-year low and the Dow exceeded 7,000. Titanic was the movie of the year and Celine Dion swept the Grammys. "Heaven," the Time article said, "is AWOL."
Yet a 2007 Gallup polls reports that now 81 percent of Americans say they believe in heaven (up from only 72 percent in 1997). Why the tremendous upsurge in this doctrine?
Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife, by Lisa Miller, the religion editor of Newsweek, attributes the change, in part, to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. "We Americans watched live on television as people jumped one hundred stories to their deaths, as—incredibly — those massive towers crumbled to the ground. In the days that followed we imagined the three thousand terrible deaths, one by one, as we read, with tears streaming down our faces, of last phone calls, e-mail messages, voice mails.”
The terrorists themselves believed that in death they would be transferred immediately to paradise. Writes Miller, "On September 11, religion left the provinces of American cultural priorities and took its place at the center. Because the attacks caused so much needless and inexplicable death, heaven was always nearby."
Since then, books, movies, and many popular songs have alluded overtly or obliquely to death and the hope of heaven, including The Rising by Bruce Springsteen, a tribute to those who died on 9/11. The title song describes the singer's own version of heaven, as a place where children dance in a bright sky.
In her book, Miller traces the history of the concept of heaven as an "apocalyptic" view that began to gain popularity in Judaism.
"Some Jews began to believe the faithful among them would ascend to heaven where they would live as themselves with God after they died," writes Miller, "This was a radical change. Until then, heaven was the home of God — not of people. But history and culture had begun to breed in certain Jewish sects an overwhelming sense of doom; they were having premonitions about the end of history. The Jews who wrote prophetic scripture began to talk about eternal life with God as a reward for those who were 'righteous.' It's enough to say here that until 200 BCE people didn't go to heaven. After 200 BCE, some of them did."
That the author shares the surname of William Miller, Adventism’s earliest promoter of Christ’s return, is certainly coincidental, but fitting. She also explores Muslim views of heaven, discovering they parallel those of Judaism and Christianity in significant ways. Interesting for Adventists who do not drink alcoholic beverages, Muslims (who are taught to abstain from alcohol) are told that in heaven they will drink wine, but will not become drunk. Muslims are also taught heaven will feature meals with flesh food entrees.
Adventist readers will find fascinating Miller’s in-depth look at the controversy over “grace vs works” as the ticket to heaven. This conundrum, though disputed for centuries, is anything but resolved, she says.
Readers will find her discussion of the changing concepts of heaven especially interesting. Because our culture was born (and remains) tied to the apocalyptic fervor of early American revivalism, Adventists would do well to read this moderate treatment of a subject common to all major faiths. It’s a touch point we share with all great religions, and on which we do well to become better informed, intellectually and historically. This book provides a coherent and useful overview of the topic for the busy reader.