Book review: 'Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife,' by Lisa Miller

Sunday, April 11, 2010


Our Enduring Fascination With the Afterlife

By Lisa Miller

Harper. 331 pp. $25.99

"Everybody talking about heaven ain't going there." So runs the refrain of an African American spiritual, one source that Lisa Miller happens not to cite in her thorough survey of notions about the afterlife. The material she does reference covers a wide range, from ancient Jewish, Christian and Islamic scriptures through medieval and modern theology to recent novels, films and songs. Readers may finish this intriguing volume no more certain as to who will or won't get into heaven, or whether there's a heaven to get into, but they will be convinced that for the past 2,000 years or so, just about everybody has been talking or writing about it.

Miller's bibliography totals some 500 items, but she wears her learning lightly. As religion editor of Newsweek, she knows how to translate theological ideas into plain language. She is as lucid in deciphering the arguments of Thomas Aquinas or Martin Luther as in interpreting a lyric from the Talking Heads or testimony from survivors of near-death experiences or data from opinion polls. Through interviews, she brings in the voices of rabbis and priests, ministers and imams, as well as ordinary believers of many faiths, including a Mormon genealogist, an Islamic legal scholar and a Trappist monk. She introduces us to Pentecostalists who speak in tongues, an astrophysicist who imagines heaven as an alternative universe, a daughter of Billy Graham who believes the world will end any day now, pet owners who look forward to cuddling their lost dogs or cats in the hereafter, and a spiritual medium who earns his living by communing with the dead.

Miller identifies in these varied notions of the afterlife a few common elements: "Heaven is a perfect place. It is the home of God, and a reward for living the right kind of life. In heaven, we live forever." Those elements came together for the first time, she argues, in Judea around 200 B.C., among Jews who combined monotheism, a touch of Zoroastrianism, a Greek philosophy that distinguished between mortal body and immortal soul, and a tribal history of recurrent exile and return. Later, the vision was picked up and elaborated by Christians and Muslims, "but heaven, at its root, is a Jewish idea."

It is a durable idea, and a seductive one, especially in the contemporary United States. According to polls cited by Miller, more than 80 percent of Americans believe in some form of afterlife, 61 percent believe they will go straight to heaven when they die, nearly half believe they will be reunited with loved ones there, and nearly a quarter believe it's possible to talk with the dead. More ominously, a third of white evangelicals -- some 20 million people, Miller estimates -- not only believe the world will end within their lifetimes, they welcome the apocalypse. What impulse could be more contemptuous of Creation than to yearn for the abolition of Earth, sun, stars, every living species except humans and every human outside the charmed circle of true believers?

Miller reports on the wild array of heavenly visions without either endorsing or debunking them. Despite her evenhandedness, however, she occasionally reveals her own longings and beliefs. When Billy Graham's daughter tries to convert her to Christ, Miller remarks, "I don't believe that my ultimate destiny has anything to do with Jesus." After quoting Saint Paul's promise of resurrection -- "We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet" -- she confesses, "I think again of my beautiful mother, and I hope." Of the near-death survivors who claim to have glimpsed heaven, she says: "I believe they saw what they said they saw. But I don't believe that their testimony, as consistent and thrilling as it is, adds up to proof that there's a heaven." After interviewing a professor of world religions, she comments, "Like so many people I've met -- and like me -- he mourns the disappearance of traditional heaven."

Her book shows that visions of "traditional heaven" are as prevalent as ever; what has disappeared, for many of us, is the conviction that such a place exists outside the human imagination. In the epilogue, Miller describes most directly what she believes: "If God is love, and heaven is where God lives, then heaven exists in the love between people -- and between people and God." Who wouldn't want to dwell perennially in love, whether in this world or another?

Scott Russell Sanders is the author of "A Private History of Awe" and "Hunting for Hope."

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