DOES HEAVEN EXIST?

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Lo! I shall tell you a mystery. --I Corinthians 15: 51

The sun is shining in an azure sky, mockingbirds are chirping in the snow-white blossoms of the pear trees, and the bees are buzzing from one glorious daffodil to another. It is early March, the middle of Lent, and Catholics all over the world are immersed in contemplation and penance over the passion and suffering of Christ. But just outside the chapel where David Burton is teaching a class for new Catholic initiates, on the green grounds of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville, Tennessee, the season seems intent on fast-forwarding beyond late winter and penance right into renewal--to Easter, perhaps. Or perhaps to something even more glorious.

Burton likes to think about heaven. He might even be said to revel in it. Oddly enough, he has had to struggle to think about it or at least to find fellow believers and pastors whom his thoughts don't embarrass. And more oddly still, his struggle is not unique. It began about 14 years ago, when Burton, then attending the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, converted from his childhood Southern Baptist faith to Catholicism. For the most part, the switch suited him fine. The Baptists were a little too easygoing for him; he preferred the Catholic view that salvation depends not only on accepting Jesus but also on what you do with your life. There was one hitch. As the months following his conversion turned to years, it dawned on him that the same Catholic chaplains who had welcomed him into the fold were reticent about discussing salvation's reward. This was disturbing. "I felt a real lack in my life," says Burton, who now teaches mathematics at Vanderbilt University. "There was this hope of heaven I thought we all should have. But the priests didn't like to talk about it. We have the Commandments from the Lord: feed the hungry, and clothe the naked. Most of us don't just have the knack for those things; it takes willpower. But as soon as someone would say, 'Let's do this so we can go to heaven,' someone else would say, 'No, no, no, no. Let's do it because we should do good.' It got to the point where I began to think that heaven was too much like an ace in the hole, that it was sort of like cheating. I almost felt guilty thinking too much of heaven."

Now there's a peculiar idea. Is it possible for a Christian to think of heaven too much? How can one enjoy robust faith without envisaging faith's ultimate consummation? "Heaven is the greatest good," says Peter Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College and author of the 1990 volume Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven...but Never Dreamed of Asking. "It is the reason that God banged out the Big Bang 18 billion years ago. Next to the idea of God, the idea of heaven is the greatest idea that has ever entered into the heart of man, woman or child."

It is certainly one of the most powerfully joyous in the cosmology of practicing Christians, who can affirm: heaven is destination and reward, succor and relief from earthly trials. It is reunion with those we love, forever, as we loved them. It is our real home, our permanent address, our own true country. It is the New Jerusalem and Paradise Regained, the community of Saints and the eternal Eucharist; everlasting Easter and a million Christmases. It is an end to death's sting; it is the eternal, ongoing, ever growing experience of God. It is the ecstatic dream of St. John: "Holy, holy, holy."

And yet, in a curious way, heaven is AWOL. This is not to say that Americans think death ends everything or even that they doubt heaven's existence. People still believe in it: it's just that their concept of exactly what it is has grown foggier, and they hear about it much less frequently from their pastors. To reverse the words of the old spiritual: Everybody's goin' to heaven, just ain't talkin' 'bout it. The silence is such that it sometimes seems heaven might as well not be there. Kreeft complains that even if our basic belief has not wavered, "our sense of beauty, glory, wonder, awe, magnificence, triumph has shrunk" into something "joyless." Marked by an apparent combination of lay ignorance and pastoral skittishness, the minimization of paradise not only creates problems for heaven-hungry believers like Burton; it also suggests the marginalization of one of Western civilization's greatest ideas.

When heaven comes up in public debate these days, it is often just as metaphor for the concerns of a perfectible secular kingdom of man, as in the debate that started in the Washington Post last month and continued online in Slate over Jesus' statement that "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." Peter Wehner, policy director for Jack Kemp's think tank, Empower America, decried the worldliness of Christians who feel they can serve both God and Mammon--resulting in too many people left in poverty. The Rev. Robert Sirico qualified Christ's admonition as being against only the "unjustly" rich, and accused Wehner of trying to win attention by "bashing rich Christians." As aspersions were cast and tax credits argued, heaven fell to the wayside.

In the '60s, clerics and scholars pondered the question Is God dead? (the subject of a 1966 TIME cover). Asked what is going on now, they first cite denominational differences and the ongoing religious split between modernists and traditionalists. Episcopalians have always been less eager than Baptists to stress the hereafter. Liberal mainline pastors are more reluctant than Evangelicals to review the joys of eternal communion with the living God. Yet with some notable exceptions, the phenomenon seems transdenominational. Martin Marty, the respected University of Chicago religious historian, says, "I can recall from my [Lutheran] childhood many sermons on what used to be called the geography of heaven and the temperature of hell. Now the only time you hear of heaven is when somebody has died." David Wells, a theology professor at Massachusetts' Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, notes, "We would expect to hear of it in the Evangelical churches, but I don't hear it at all." He pauses. "I don't think heaven is even a blip on the Christian screen, from one end of the denominational spectrum to the other. The more perplexing question is, What explains this?"

What, indeed? University of California at Santa Barbara professor Jeffrey Burton Russell, author of the upcoming A History of Heaven (Princeton University Press), says, "I think [clerics] want to stay off the subject because they feel they're going to have to climb a wall of popular skepticism." A spokesman for the United Methodist Publishing House is reluctant to comment at all about heaven, explaining that the subject is "controversial." A brother in faith, the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, whose Foundry Methodist Church is up the street from the White House, explains bluntly, "I'm not interested in speculating on the architecture or the geography. I don't think of heaven as a specified place in the universe to which we could somehow go if we could find the right galaxy. We dig a lot deeper. I preach on trust in God."

Might a robust conception of heaven be the victim of an unbelieving era? Perhaps, but if so, unbelief is selective. Lynn Garrett, religion editor at Publishers Weekly, who has tracked the recent popular vogues for angels and miracles, observes that there is almost no corresponding interest in the place where angels live and from which miracles erupt into our lives. Perhaps the biblical heaven is too big to be marketable. Perhaps it is a victim of its own, centuries-long hype: so much has been claimed for it, much of it contradictory, that our literal-minded age overloads and calls the whole thing a wash. Or perhaps America has finally got heaven just right. Plain. Unvarnished. Stripped of harps and halos. The current generic heaven still delivers when people need it most, say some unsentimental observers--at the death of a loved one. Why bother with it any other time?

Why listen to the song of a mockingbird amid the pear blossoms?

But, as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard...the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. --I Corinthians 2: 9

Those who shy away from too much conversation about heaven can point out that detailed description of its charms has hardly been the historical rule. The two ancient peoples who probably contributed most to the heavenly notion both started out imagining a gray, undifferentiated afterlife, called Hades by the Greco-Roman culture and Sheol by the Jews. By 600 B.C., bodily resurrection had been incorporated into Judaism: the book of Ezekiel describes a field of dry bones, which at God's bidding "came together, bone to bone" and lived again. The motif recurred in the later books of the Hebrew Bible, sometimes in combination with a nationalistically tinged Messianism or the re-establishment of a paradise located in a new Jerusalem. In Greece the privileged dead gradually came to inhabit the Isles of the Blessed, later the Elysian fields, and in the 4th century B.C. Plato championed the concept of judgment after death in his Gorgias, and, in Phaedrus, postulated an immortal soul that strove ever upward after gaining its freedom from the flesh. What made Jesus' synthesis of these traditions new was the teaching that heavenly happiness consisted not of material pleasures, tribal triumph or an undifferentiated union with the cosmos, but of a glorious personal transformation in the flesh and an eternal communion with a living God. Far more than a reward, it was the believer's true home, the ultimate human destiny.

Jesus was hardly tentative about proclaiming the world to come. His first words as a preacher were, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." However, most of his famous metaphors for heaven (as the treasure hidden in a field or the pearl of great price) address humankind's ideal relationship to God's kingdom more than a specific paradise. Regarding heaven's actual "mysteries," he tells the Apostles that it is not given to most people to know them. An exception to this rule is his chilling parable of Lazarus and Dives: The rich master, consigned to hell, lifts up his eyes to the beggar, who has been "carried by angels into Abraham's bosom," requesting that Lazarus dip a finger in some water to cool him. Impossible, says Abraham, for "between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence."

Paul, too, seems closed-mouthed. Although he claims to have been "caught up to the third heaven," he is bound to secrecy and offers no travelogue. The first detailed Christian heaven explodes to life in the book of Revelation. Its author, John, is as extravagant as Jesus and Paul are reserved. Here, the One and the Lamb of God occupy a double throne of jasper, fronted by a sea of crystal and framed by a rainbow, attended by 24 elders dressed in white and praised eternally by four winged beasts, who "rest not day and night, saying Holy, holy, holy, Lord Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come." In attendance are angels, "ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands."

Did John expect his readers to accept his heavenly portrayal--and his subsequent spectacular descriptions of the Beast, Armageddon, the Last Judgment and Christ's final triumph--as the literal truth? Most scholars today regard his heaven, at least, as symbolic and mystical, its images painstakingly retrieved from the Old Testament and reorganized to frame an allegorical argument rather than an actual detailed reality of the next world. The same applies to hundreds of other heavenly visions generated by various holy men and women in the next two centuries that were eventually excluded from Scripture but some of which nonetheless exerted influence on early Christians.

From those visions and their successors in Christianity's first millennium, a colorful, sometimes contradictory mystical vocabulary of heaven emerged. It was a garden, a city, a kingdom, a temple or, less often, a nut, a womb, a navel. It featured buildings and streets of precious metals and jewels, doves, palm trees (first discerned by the church father Lactantius), singing stones (a late borrowing from Celtic myth), white clothing, milk, honey, wine, olive oil, harps, fountains and ladders. It also developed a set of intractable controversies.

As church fathers such as Irenaeus, Tertullian and Augustine hashed out Christian orthodoxy (and thereby some of the pressing philosophical questions of their day), their investigations inevitably spilled over into the hereafter. A centuries-long battle over the nature of human identity was waged in terms of whether the inhabitants of paradise would consist of body as well as soul. (The orthodox answer, confounding all heresies, remained yes.) If the virtuous soul departed the body at death and had to wait until Christ's Second Coming to reunite with it at the Resurrection, what did it do in the meantime? (A medieval Pope eventually ruled that it lived in heaven in an interim state of blessedness but eagerly anticipated a bodily reunion. That doesn't even address the issue of purgatory.) Exactly where was heaven anyway? The most beautiful explanation had it surrounding the outermost of nine nested spheres, of which earth was the innermost, and composed of a substance that was neither earth, air, fire nor water but rather a marvelous "fifth essence"--or, as the word has come down to us, the "quintessence."

In the 1988 social survey Heaven: A History, Colleen McDannell and Bernard Lang observe that over two millenniums human conceptions of heaven tended to alternate between God-centered visions and more humanist arrangements focused primarily on the reunion and interactions of the sainted dead. Medieval heaven, approached intellectually by the Scholastics or passionately by the mystical school of love, expanded St. Augustine's idea of the Beatific Vision, the saints' rapturous and direct communion with God. The Renaissance Catholic heaven more resembled an ongoing human-to-human celebration presided over by the Virgin Mary. But Protestant reformers of the 1500s reinstated a vision severely centered on Christ and his Last Judgment. This became the dominant understanding in America from its Puritan period through its first century, despite some founding fathers' attraction to the ideas of the Enlightenment.

By the mid-19th century, however, heaven had hit a sort of ornamented bankruptcy. The stark vision of the Puritans had given way to what would later be called the Victorian heaven. Here was the humanistic heaven with a vengeance, calmly convinced of its own literal truth but with a spiritual core seemingly provided by House & Garden. Its strongest proponents were not clergy but a new breed of popular novelists like Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, whose 1868 The Gates Ajar, set in heaven, was a runaway best seller through the end of the century. Wrote Phelps of one celestial interlude: "We stopped before a small and quiet house built of curiously inlaid woods...So exquisite was the carving and coloring, that on a larger scale the effect might have interfered with the solidity of the building, but so modest were the proportions of this charming house, that its dignity was only enhanced by its delicacy ... There were flowers--not too many; birds; and I noticed a fine dog sunning himself upon the steps." There was dog, but there was very little God. The vision, like the age itself, honored human progress: it assumed almost all respectable people would reach heaven; if there were problems, they could continue working them out once they got there. The happiest prospect in this heaven was a slightly more idealized (and eternal) version of that already sugar-coated icon, the Victorian family. The model finessed the doubts about God that were seeping into the cultural mainstream by relegating God and even Christ into a nearly invisible role in the background. But it did so at a price. Without a compelling spiritual center, the vision of the future was hostage to the endurance of the society it mirrored.

Which meant that the 20th century blew it apart. Some indication of the shift can be had by studying the learning curve of Billy Graham. In his 1950 Boston revival, a young Graham was ebulliently specific about the world to come. Heaven, he said, was a place "as real as Los Angeles, London, Algiers or Boston." It was "1,600 miles long, 1,600 miles wide and 1,600 miles high." Once there, "we are going to sit around the fireplace and have parties, and the angels will wait on us, and we'll drive down the golden streets in a yellow Cadillac convertible." Graham went on to a magnificent career, but he dropped the Cadillac, which nonetheless haunted him for years. Late 20th century America had little patience for detailed, literal views of heaven. Two world wars and the prospect of nuclear disaster made the idea of a comfy, progressive afterlife seem suspect. Modernist attacks on God's place in this world made people allergic to bold predictions about his kingdom in the next.

By 1988, McDannell and Lang concluded their survey with the bleak assessment that "scientific, philosophical and theological skepticism has nullified the modern heaven and replaced it with teachings that are minimalist, meager and dry." Many scholars, especially conservatives, are inclined to agree. Kreeft, the Everything You Wanted to Know author and an old-style Catholic, says the cause lies in mainline religion's skittering away from strong faith statements and the notions of absolute morality. "Heaven," he says, "is uncomfortable because it's righteous and holy, not just fun." Agrees David Wells, the Evangelical: "Today the objective is to try to feel better about ourselves rather than to differentiate people morally. If you reduce salvation to our state of well-being, heaven doesn't make a lot of sense." Wells wonders about the perils of prosperity: "It's difficult for some people to conceive of anything that is really much better than this life. Sure, they go to bed appalled by the 11 o'clock news. But those buddies on the beer commercial saying 'It doesn't get much better than this' are speaking more deeply than they realize."

In the more liberal congregations, heaven is found mostly in hymns, preserved like a bug in amber. There are still some churches where one can find a robust heavenly vision in the late 1990s--among Southern Baptists, and African-American denominations as a whole. But most late-20th century American Christians, observes Jeffrey Burton Russell, have a better grasp of heaven's cliches than of its allures. "It's this place where you've got wings, you stand on a cloud, and if the concept is more sophisticated, where you see God and you sing hymns. It's a boring place, or a silly myth, or something people invent in order to make themselves feel better, or all of the above." Had Russell spoken these words a decade ago, it would surely have been in something close to despair. His tone today, however, can only be called cheerful.

So we do not lose heart...Because we look not to things that are seen but things that are unseen. --II Corinthians 4: 16, 18

It is hard to say whether there wasn't enough heaven in Russell's life or simply too much hell. Throughout the 1970s and '80s, Russell may have been America's foremost scholar of Satan, having published five acclaimed tomes with titles such as The Prince of Darkness and Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World. But by the fall of 1987 he was suffering internal torment, compounded by a dreadful event in his personal life (a friend killed her son and then herself). "I was clinically depressed and spiritually in a very dark place," he says. "Fifteen years of studying evil was not an entirely healthy thing."

Then two things happened. He underwent psychotherapy and a course of the antidepressant Prozac. And his Italian publisher asked him whether he would be interested in writing a volume on heaven. Russell, who belongs to both Episcopal and Roman Catholic churches, notes that up until then, heaven "had been real for me. I had spent a lot of time thinking about moral choices, free will and salvation." But here was an invitation to a deeper immersion, culminating in a study of Dante Alighieri's 14th century epic Paradiso and its celebration of heaven as a "state of being in which we open up more to love." He accepted the assignment.

The book he eventually wrote, A History of Heaven, will be out in May. At minimum, it is the most rigorous modern study of the various strains of Western tradition that culminated in the Paradiso. But its introductory chapter goes beyond that to sketch out an apologia for passionate heavenly belief. In effect, Russell tries to re-establish the honor of the Christian mystical tradition. Scientific method is based on establishing known facts and eliminating contradictions about the material world. Russell points out that those in search of spiritual truth traditionally employed another perspective. To them the material world was at best a distortion, and so rendering it down to indisputable "facts" was of little interest. Instead, they built outward from crabbed reality in a never-ending series of spiritual metaphors, hoping eventually to approximate the all-encompassing divinity they recognized as the actual truth. Russell says he would never hope to convince a nonbeliever of heaven. But "to understand heaven" as Dante and its greatest champions did "is not to narrow down and define but rather to open up to beauty."

And he illustrates. The "space" taken up by heaven is neither the original Eden nor the kingdom of God within us nor a paradise at the end of the world, but all three. The time frame it occupies is not the future or even infinity, but an enveloping eternity in which Christians already participate during the Eucharist. Heaven is "not dull; it is not static; it is not monochrome. It is an endless dynamic of joy in which one is ever more oneself as one was meant to be." Neither a place where the saints commune exclusively with God nor one where they socialize with one another while cold-shouldering their host, it encompasses both communions like "a weaving in which each thread touches every other thread in a spark of loving light." Like Dante's, Russell's paradise is deeply God-oriented and devoid of the cluttered detail that made the Victorian model seem like an ornate mirror of human pride. Heaven, he concludes, "is reality itself; what is not heaven is less real."

Such a vision, expressed so unabashedly by a bona fide member of the academic elite, stands to make a splash in the upmarket reaches of academia, theology and perhaps even among mainline Protestant preachers. In the meantime, however, a fellow revivalist is stirring up more populist waters. Joni Eareckson Tada, a quadriplegic since a diving accident at age 17, is well-known in conservative Protestantism. She appeared on a Billy Graham Crusade, wrote a best-selling autobiography whose royalties she used to found a religious organization to aid the handicapped, and has a radio program airing on 700 stations. Like Russell, she approached heaven in need--in her case, of the bodily resurrection. "I haven't run, I haven't walked, I haven't embraced anybody, so it's good news for me," she says. Previously convinced that heaven "was an esoteric discussion for meditating mystics," she was moved two years ago to write Heaven, Your Real Home. Tada has scant patience for halos and pearly gates ("Boooooring!"). Her alternative is an ebullient pastiche of Scripture, highlighted study questions ("Time out! Have you feared the loss of certain things when you get to heaven? Yes/No") and pungent metaphors, such as this further meditation on the glorification of the human body in heaven: "Compare a hairy peach pit to the tree it becomes, loaded with fragrant blossoms and sweet fruit." Like Russell's, Tada's heaven is firmly God-centered ("Most of all, together we shall fall on our faces at the foot of the throne and worship our Savior forever"). Her musings are scripturally solid, although she points out that even biblical tropes are "only shadowy images of the real thing." Perhaps most important, she is not afraid to sell. "Oh, the things that we shall do!" she writes. "You and your friends will rule the world and judge the angels...Together, we shall receive the morning star and be crowned with life, righteousness and glory." Her book was originally published in 1995 by Zondervan, now a subdivision of HarperCollins. But the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board was so taken with it that it picked it up for educational use, and 50,000 copies are now in print.

"[Heaven is] the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience...We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it."

The Rev. Richard McBrien feels that we have quite enough heaven now, thank you. McBrien, a liberal Catholic theologian at the University of Notre Dame who has skirmished on occasion with the Vatican but whose theological and historical grasp few would question, believes that before the Vatican II reforms of the mid-1960s, his church had slipped into the lazy role of using heaven and hell as "stories meant to encourage and frighten." Catholicism's once vivid otherworldliness had devolved into a sort of rote board game, in which preoccupation with involved scenarios of the life to come became an excuse to measure out one's life in Hail Marys and First Fridays while ignoring real moral concerns. Not only did this baroque stasis "go beyond the knowledge provided in Scripture: 'Eye hath not seen nor ear heard,'" McBrien maintains, but it also essentially "forfeited the game to the critical scientific mind that dismisses it as unbelievable." What some describe as today's apathy or scanting of heaven, he calls health. It allows Catholics "to focus on our life in this world and our responsibility to one another now, and let God take care of the rest." Do they believe in heaven? "Of course they do, and at no point more vividly than when burying a loved one. At a funeral Mass, they have a vivid sense that somehow they will be reunited someday, or that somehow they are at peace or in a better place. And that's when the best of the tradition comes out."

The University of Chicago's Marty agrees that heaven has lost none of its potency in what he sees as its primary assignment, as the proof of Romans 8: 35--Nothing shall separate us from the love of Christ. "You turn over to God how that will be expressed in unimagined realms," he says. "We can negotiate everything about the paving, the mapping and the furniture of heaven. I don't know of a church, even a conservative one, where I could get run out for saying the language about pearly gates and golden streets is symbolic. But the love of God after death is nonnegotiable. I would get run out of all churches if I were to say physical dust is the end, mere dust, annihilation."

Amen to that. David Burton, however, has managed to find a church that is not waiting for a funeral service to talk to him about that which touches his soul. When he moved to Nashville five years ago, he found Fathers William Fleming and Patrick Kibby of the Cathedral of the Incarnation. Burton says they were not only willing to state in their homilies that heaven is the appropriate reward for a life of faith and work. They were, in fact, "always reminding us that this life is not all there is. We're being called to something much greater. That it is the ultimate goal for all of us."

That was all Burton needed to hear. There is a cheerful babble today as his Catholic ritual class, having completed an earnest discussion on the intricacies of Lenten observance, joins the rest of the congregation for coffee and doughnuts. A woman comes up to Burton carrying a beautiful, cruller-smeared little girl in her arms and tells a visitor how much help, both spiritual and practical, Burton gave her in adopting a Chinese child. He is embarrassed but obviously pleased. The present and the future both look pretty good. "The important thing," he says, "is I know what I'm living for, and I'm O.K. with that. I'm living for heaven, and that's all right."

--Reported by Richard N. Ostling/Santa Barbara, Elisabeth Kauffman/Nashville, Victoria Rainert/New York, Greg Burke/Rome and S.C. Gwynne/Austin