John Lennon urged us: “Imagine there’s no heaven/ It’s easy if you try/ No hell below us/ Above us only sky …” Yet Americans aren’t turning to Lennonism any faster than Leninism. Today, 81 percent say they believe in heaven—an increase of 10 percent since a decade ago. Of those, 71 percent say it is “an actual place.” Indeed, 43 percent believe their pets—cats, rats, and snakes—are headed into the hereafter with them to be stroked for eternity. America’s branch of heaven is crammed full, even as the European and Asian wings are long since dissolved by the brisk winds of reason and skepticism.
So why can’t Americans get over the Pearly Gates? In Heaven, Newsweek’s religion correspondent, Lisa Miller, has written a fascinating millenniums-long history of the idea of heaven, spliced with some surprisingly mediocre reporting on present-day believers. At its core is a (very politely administered) slap to the American consensus. The heaven you think you’re headed to—a reunion with your lost relatives in the light—is a very recent invention, only a little older than Goldman Sachs. Most of the believers in heaven across most of history would find it unrecognizable.
Heaven is constantly shifting shape because it is a history of subconscious human longings. Show me your heaven, and I’ll show you what’s lacking in your life. The desert-dwellers who wrote the Bible and the Quran lived in thirst—so their heavens were forever running with rivers and fountains and springs. African-American slaves believed they were headed for a heaven where “the first would be last, and the last would be first”—so they would be the free men dominating white slaves. Today’s Islamist suicide-bombers live in a society starved of sex, so their heaven is a 72-virgin gang-bang. Emily Dickinson wrote: ” ‘Heaven’—is what I cannot Reach!/ The Apple on the Tree—/ Provided it do hopeless—hang—/ That—”Heaven” is—to Me!”
We know precisely when this story of projecting our lack into the sky began: 165 B.C., patented by the ancient Jews. Until then, heaven—shamayim—was the home of God and his angels. Occasionally God descended from it to give orders and indulge in a little light smiting, but there was a strict no-dead-people door policy. Humans didn’t get in, and they didn’t expect to. The best you could hope for after death was for your bones to be buried with your people in a shared tomb and for your story to carry on through your descendants. It was a realistic, humanistic approach to death. You go, but your people live on.
So how did the idea of heaven—as a perfect place where God lives and where you end up if you live right—rupture this reality? The different components of it had been floating around “in the atmosphere of Jerusalem, looking for a home,” as Miller puts it, for a while. The Greeks had believed there was an eternal soul that ascended when you die. The Zoroastrians believed you would be judged in the end-time for your actions on earth. The Jews believed in an almighty Yahweh.
But it took a big bloody bang to fuse them together. In the run up to heaven’s invention, the Jews were engaged in a long civil war over whether to open up to the Greeks and their commerce or to remain sealed away, insular and pure. With no winner in sight, King Antiochus got fed up. He invaded and tried to wipe out the Jewish religion entirely, replacing it with worship of Zeus. The Jews saw all that was most sacred to them shattered: They were ordered to sacrifice swine before a statue of Zeus that now dominated their Holy Temple. The Jews who refused were hacked down in the streets.
Many young men fled into the hills of Palestine to stage a guerrilla assault—now remembered as the Hanukkah story. The old Jewish tale about how you continue after you die was itself dying: Your bones couldn’t be gathered by your ancestors anymore with so many Jews scattered and on the run. So suddenly death took on a new terror. Was this it? Were all these lives ending forever, for nothing? One of the young fighters—known to history only as Daniel—announced that the martyred Jews would receive a great reward. “Many of those who sleep in the dust shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt,” he wrote and launched us on the road to the best-selling 1990s trash 90 Minutes in Heaven. Daniel’s idea was wildly successful. Within a century, most Jews believed in heaven, and the idea has never died.
But while the key components of heaven were in place, it was not the kumbaya holiday camp it has become today. It was a place where you and God and the angels sat—but Jesus warned “there is no marriage in Heaven.” You didn’t join your relatives. It was you and God and eternal prayer. It was paradise, but not as we know it.
Even some atheists regard heaven as one of the least harmful religious ideas: a soothing blanket to press onto the brow of the bereaved. But, in fact, its primary function for centuries was as a tool of control and intimidation. The Vatican, for example, declared it had a monopoly on St. Peter’s VIP list—and only those who obeyed the church authorities’ every command and paid them vast sums for Get-Out-of-Hell-Free cards would get themselves and their children into it. The afterlife was a means of tyrannizing people in this life.
This use of heaven as a bludgeon long outlasted the Protestant Reformation. Miller points out that in Puritan New England, heaven was not primarily a comfort but rather a way to impose discipline in this life. It still gets used that way. For example, Mormons order women within their ranks who try to argue for full equality to recant—and if they don’t, they are told they will be sent to a separate afterlife from their families for eternity.
Worse still, the promise of heaven is used every day as an incentive for people to commit atrocities. I have seen this in practice: I’ve interviewed wannabe suicide-bombers from London to Gaza to Syria, and they all launched into reveries about the orgy they will embark on in the clouds. Similarly, I was once sent—as my own personal purgatory—undercover on the Christian Coalition Solidarity tour of Israel. As we stood at Megido, the site described in the Book of Revelation as the launchpad for the Apocalypse, they bragged that hundreds of thousands of Arabs would soon be slaughtered there while George Bush and his friends are raptured to heaven as a reward for leading the Arabs to their deaths. Heaven can be an inducement to horror.
When she is tracking the history of these ideas, Miller is highly competent (if rarely more). But she also interweaves a travelogue across America, during which she interviews believers in heaven—and here the book becomes insufferable. She describes herself as a “professional skeptic,” but she is, in fact, professionally credulous. Instead of trying to tease out what these fantasies of an afterlife reveal about her interviewees, she quizzes everyone about their heaven as if she is planning to write a Lonely Planet guide to the area, demanding more and more intricate details. She only just stops short of demanding to know what the carpeting will be like. But she never asks the most basic questions: Where’s your evidence? Where are you getting these ideas from?
She gives plenty of proof that the idea of heaven can be comforting, or beautiful—but that doesn’t make it true. The difference between wishful thinking and fact-seeking is something most 6-year-olds can grasp, yet Miller—and, it seems, the heaven-believing majority—refuse it here. Yes, I would like to see my dead friends and relatives again. I also would like there to be world peace, a million dollars in my checking account, and for Matt Damon to ask me to marry him. If I took my longing as proof they were going to happen, you’d think I was deranged.
“Rationalist questions are not helpful,” announces one of her interviewees—a professor at Harvard, no less. This seems to be Miller’s view too. She stresses that to believe in heaven you have to make “a leap of faith”—but in what other field in life do we abandon all need for evidence? Why do it in one so crucial to your whole sense of existence? And if you are going to “leap” beyond proof, why leap to the Christian heaven? Why not convince yourself you are going to live after death in Narnia, or Middle Earth, for which there is as much evidence? She doesn’t explain: Her arguments dissolve into a feel-good New Age drizzle.
True, Miller does cast a quick eye over the only “evidence” that believers in heaven offer—the testimonies of people who have had near-death experiences. According to the medical journal the Lancet, between 9 percent and 18 percent of people who have been near death report entering a tunnel, seeing a bright light, and so on. Dinesh D’Souza, in his preposterous book Life After Death, presents this as “proof” for heaven. But, in fact, there are clear scientific explanations. As the brain shuts down, it is the peripheral vision that goes first, giving the impression of a tunnel. The center of your vision is what remains, giving the impression of a bright light.
Indeed, as Miller concedes: “Virtually all the features of [a near-death experience]—the sense of moving through a tunnel, an ‘out of body’ feeling, spiritual awe, visual hallucinations, and intense memories—can be reproduced with a stiff dose of ketamine, a horse tranquilizer frequently used as a party drug.” Is a stoner teenager in a K-hole in contact with God and on a day-trip to heaven? Should the religious be dropping horse dope on Sundays? But Miller soon runs scared from the skeptical implications of this, offering the false balance of finding one very odd scientist who says that these experiences could point beyond life—without any proof at all.
Miller also only scratches the great conceptual hole at the heart of heaven: After a while, wouldn’t it be excruciatingly dull? When you live in the desert, a spring seems like paradise. But when you have had the spring for a thousand years, won’t you be sick of it? Heaven is, in George Orwell’s words, an attempt to “produce a perfect society by an endless continuation of something that had only been valuable because it was temporary.” Take away the contrast, and heaven becomes hell.
And yet, and yet … of course I understand why so many people want to believe in heaven, even now. It is a way—however futilely—of trying to escape the awful emptiness of death. As Phillip Larkin put it: “Not to be here,/ Not to be anywhere,/ And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.”
Yes, there is pain in seeing this, but there is also a liberation in seeing beyond the childhood myths of our species. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, written in Babylon 4,000 years ago, the eponymous hero travels into the gardens of the gods in an attempt to discover the secret of eternal life. His guide tells him the secret—there is no secret. This is it. This is all we’re going to get. This life. This time. Once. “Enjoy your life,” the goddess Siduri tells him. “Love the child who holds you by the hand, and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.” It’s Lennon’s dream, four millenniums ahead of schedule: Above us, only sky. Gilgamesh returns to the world and lives more intensely and truly and deeply than before, knowing there is no celestial after-party and no forever. After all this time, can’t we finally follow Gilgamesh?