By Dr. Gary Scott Smith
Heaven and hell are in the news and on Americans’ minds a lot lately. “Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back” is currently number one on The New York Times Best Seller List for nonfiction. It details a four-year-old’s near-death experience as told to his pastor father. “The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven: A Remarkable Account of Miracles, Angels, and Life beyond This World” describes the similar experiences of a six-year-old after he awoke from a two-month coma caused by a car accident. Rob Bell’s controversial “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived” has provoked much debate, especially among evangelicals, by arguing that hell might not exist. Meanwhile, the death of Osama bin Laden has prompted considerable speculation about his eternal destiny.
Despite the secularity of our era and the assault of new atheism on orthodox Christian doctrines, large majorities of Americans still believe in heaven and hell. Many, however, are reluctant to consign anyone to hell except for the perpetrators of horrific evil like bin Laden and Adolf Hitler. In this age of tolerance and relativism, failure to believe in Jesus’ atonement on the cross for human sin or to live by traditional moral standards does not seem like a valid basis for anyone going to hell. To many, the concept of everlasting suffering is unjust, offensive, or even absurd.
Americans have long been fascinated with the nature of the afterlife, and many have provided detailed pictures of heaven and hell. While Americans’ visions of heaven are often rooted in religious traditions and scripture, they have been closely connected to what was happening on earth. As Alan Segal argues, Americans tend to imagine an afterlife containing what they judge to be the “best, most lasting, virtuous, and meaningful” aspects of this life and “eliminating those things” they consider “the most difficult, frustrating, evil, and inessential.” Depictions of the afterlife, he adds, “are mirrors of our cultural and social needs” that can be promoted and manipulated. The types of heaven people hope for, historian Paul Carter contends, provide an “unconscious commentary on what they cherish or regret in this world.” The general political, economic, and social climate has helped shape various conceptions of heaven as reflected in literature, sermons, art, and music.
At various times, Americans have pictured heaven as an unparalleled paradise, an unending banquet, a celestial city, a refuge of the redeemed, a glorious kingdom, a magnificent home, a haven from the world’s ills, a posh vacation resort, a perpetual playground, and a therapeutic center.
The Puritans depicted a God-centered heaven where the redeemed constantly worshipped the Trinity in a beautiful, blissful environment. While Jonathan Edwards agreed that heavenly life revolved around glorifying God, he also accentuated the communion of the redeemed. During the Victorian age (1840 to 1900) perceptions of heaven shifted from a God-centered heaven that focused on worshipping and serving the Trinity, to a more human-centered heaven revolving around family and fellowship. Deeply affected by the nation’s increased emphasis on individualism and voluntarism, during the mid-19th century heaven was depicted principally as a heavenly home where relationships with earthly family members were extremely important. During the antebellum years, Southern slaves combined African and biblical ideas to produce a distinctive portrait of the afterlife that emphasized God’s punishment of cruel owners and rewarding of faithful slaves, which supplied them with hope and comfort.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many depictions of heaven emphasized service, education, and personal growth as these concepts, promoted by progressivism and the Social Gospel movement, became dominant in American society. By 1900, these themes had replaced rest and worship as the principal occupations of heaven’s residents and realizing earthly dreams became as important as glorifying God. After 1930, the increasing growth of theological liberalism, the fundamentalist counteroffensive, and the rise of neo-Orthodoxy produced disagreements among Protestants over the reality and nature of heaven.
Beginning in the 1960s, many African-American, feminist, and liberation theologians echoed the arguments of Social Gospelers that Christians must work primarily to establish a just society on earth rather than help individuals get to heaven. Recently, evangelicals, Mormons, and New Agers—groups that espouse very different perspectives—have most discussed the nature of the afterlife.
Increased anxiety, the impact of the therapeutic worldview (which exalts self-fulfillment and personal happiness), the emergence of an entertainment culture, concerns about the breakdown of the family and the impoverishment of personal relationships, and the growing acceptance of a postmodern, relativistic perspective on life have prompted many Americans during the past decade to portray heaven as a place of comfort, self-actualization, bliss, amusement, and robust fellowship.
As Americans continue to ponder and discuss the nature of heaven and hell, understanding our history and recognizing that contemporary conditions affect our portraits of the afterlife can be quite helpful.
— Dr. Gary Scott Smith chairs the history department at Grove City College and is a fellow for faith and the presidency with The Center for Vision & Values. He is the author of “Faith and the Presidency From George Washington to George W. Bush” (Oxford University Press, 2009) and the newly released “Heaven in the American Imagination” (Oxford University Press, 2011).