A history of cultural ideas of heaven.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Feb. 5 2004 3:05 PM

Paradise Lite

In heaven, you'll be thinner, happier, and smarter—or so Americans think.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Heaven has always been a touchy subject for religion. In fact, as Peter Stanford shows in his new study Heaven: A Guide to the Undiscovered Country, the greatest prophets have had little to say about it. Of course, the Old Testament contains references to a world to come, and the foundation of the New Testament is Jesus' promise of resurrection and "the kingdom of heaven." But Moses and Jesus—and, for that matter, Muhammad—didn't spend much time actually drawing a map of the afterlife. In First Corinthians, St. Paul laid down the orthodox line when he simply refused to speculate about what heaven had in store: "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for those who love him."

It is true that, logically, we simply cannot know what heaven will be like. If, as Christianity believes, it is the place where our souls are united with God, then it's no more possible to describe heaven than it is to describe God himself. That's why Dante, at the conclusion of Paradiso, declares that he is unable to write down what he saw: "From that moment my vision was greater than our speech." For austere or mystically inclined believers, this absolute otherness of heaven is what makes it absolutely desirable. "To be in paradise," John Calvin reminded his followers, "is not to speak to each other and be heard by each other, but only to enjoy God."

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But heaven is not just an embarrassment to human reason; sometimes it is just plain embarrassing, a wish-fulfillment fantasy that has more to do with appetite than faith. Stanford's book, though light on analysis, is full of examples of the strange and frothy heavens invented by ordinary believers over the centuries. In the Middle Ages, the legendary land of Cockaigne was one such folk heaven: an endless feast, complete with pigs that trotted, already roasted, to the dinner table. By the 18th century, celestial luxury had become more refined, but it was no less extravagant; the popular tract Friendship in Death imagined "bright cascades and crystal rivulets rolling over orient pearls and sands of gold."

By holding such populist visions at arm's length, the churches have tacitly admitted that heaven puts religious faith itself in a dubious light. Belief, it can easily seem, is just the quarter you put into the divine slot machine in order to win the jackpot of the afterlife. And certainly the greed for heaven is still alive and well. That much is clear from A Travel Guide to Heaven, a new Christian inspirational book. The author, Anthony DeStefano, takes his travel-guide conceit literally, declaring that paradise is "Disney World, Hawaii, Paris, Rome and New York all rolled up into one"—the "ultimate playground, created purely for our enjoyment." The disingenuousness of DeStefano's fantasy has to be read to be believed: He looks forward to a heaven where you are your earthly self, but thinner, younger, and prettier, and where you will do nothing but race from one game, hobby, or exotic sight to the next, "having fun" for eternity. No detail is too small for DeStefano's cruise-director God to take care of: "You shouldn't be shocked," he writes, if on Judgment Day "you feel a paw anxiously poking at your leg"—yes, Rover will be there, too.

Ironically, while A Travel Guide to Heaven is clearly the work of a true believer—and is shelved in the religion section of the bookstore—it has nowhere near the moral concern of two recent best-selling, secular accounts of heaven. Mitch Albom's The Five People You Meet in Heaven—the follow-up to Tuesdays With Morrie—and The Lovely Bones, the hugely successful debut novel by Alice Sebold, have a genuine thirst for heaven. These heavens are not easy consumerist paradises. Instead, both Albom and Sebold give us something new in the history of the afterlife: a therapeutic heaven. For both writers, heaven has nothing to do with pleasure; it is the place where you listen to your inner child, repair your self-esteem, and finally reach closure.

In The Lovely Bones, we see heaven literally through the eyes of a child: 14-year-old Susie Salmon, who has been raped and murdered by a serial-killer neighbor. The lurid violence and emotional manipulations of the tale are standard popular-fiction fare. What makes the book unusual is that Susie's murder, and its ramifications for her family, are all narrated by the dead girl herself as she watches from heaven. Sebold does make some attempts at describing what goes on up there, imagining a paradise tailor-made to Susie's childish fantasies. ("Our heaven had an ice cream shop.") But there is something forlorn and even frightening about Sebold's descriptions of heaven since what really interests her—and Susie—is Earth. Far from being content in the afterlife, Susie has her nose pressed against "the Inbetween," trying to witness and, if possible, affect events on Earth. Like a course of psychoanalysis, this eager observation must go on until Susie has made peace with her "issues." Once she can approve of "the lovely bones that had grown around my absence"—"the connections ... made at great cost, that happened after I was gone"—she is released to some other higher plane of the afterlife.

In almost exactly the same way, Albom's heaven involves not leaving oneself behind but studying oneself more intensely than was ever possible on Earth. Eddie, the 83-year-old protagonist, dies saving a girl from a roller-coaster accident. Arriving in heaven, he learns that he must confront the five people he has most intimately affected and been affected by. He reviews his whole life, with the goal—again as in therapy—of putting his demons to rest. Eddie feared and resented his father, but he learns to see him as just a flawed human being who meant well. He neglected his wife but gets to spend more quality time with her and earn her forgiveness.

What these visions of heaven have in common is their refusal of transcendence. They are unable to believe in anything more important than the individual human being or more significant than his or her earthly suffering. What makes them distinctly 21st-century heavens is the nature of that suffering. DeStefano's heaven is really just an updated Cockaigne, full of the latest refinements in luxury. Albom and Sebold, on the other hand, could only be the products of our affluent, post-religious society—not pious enough to be concerned with God and not hungry enough to fantasize about food. Instead, the afflictions they want heaven to cure are the very ones our wealth seems to aggravate: loneliness, alienation, emotional deprivation. Instead of being "God's spies," as Shakespeare wrote in King Lear, we will spy for ourselves, on ourselves; heaven means a chance to get our inner lives right at last. (The same principle is at work in the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day, which in its relentless focus on self-improvement, rather than self-sacrifice, updates It's a Wonderful Life for the 1990s.) Instead of angelic choirs, it now seems, we will be greeted in heaven by the sound of a billion voices, all talking about themselves.

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