The American View of Heaven

Dr. Paul Kengor & Dr. Gary Smith | WORLD Magazine | Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The American View of Heaven

Dr. Paul Kengor, executive director of the Center for Vision & Values, interviews Dr. Gary Scott Smith, the chair of the history department at Grove City College and fellow for faith and the presidency with The Center for Vision & Values, about his new book Oxford University Press, Heaven in the American Imagination.

Kengor: Describe the thesis of your book.

Smith: I examine two primary questions: how have Americans conceived of heaven, and on what basis do people gain admission to heaven? My thesis is that while Americans’ beliefs about the grounds for entry to heaven have remained rather consistent from the Puritans to the present, Americans’ visions of heaven have changed significantly. Throughout our history, Americans have debated whether admission to heaven depends on living morally or belief in Christ’s atoning death on the cross for human sins. Most Protestants have argued that individuals can enter heaven only by accepting Jesus Christ as their savior and Lord, while others have countered that good deeds play a crucial role in people’s admission to paradise.

American conceptions of heaven, as expressed in literature, sermons, art, and music, have typically been rooted in religious traditions and based on interpretations of relevant scriptural passages, but they have usually been closely connected to what was happening on earth. Deeply influenced by their own life experiences and their different political, social, economic, and cultural circumstances, they have sharply disagreed about what heavenly life will be like. Although most Americans have claimed to derive their images of heaven solely from the Bible, they also display their dreams, hopes, and visions of the good life. Their depictions of celestial life shed substantial light on what Americans have most treasured and feared in various eras.

Kengor:What motivated you to do this particular topic?

Smith: No scholar has examined what Americans have believed about heaven throughout our history. My goal was to explain how we have viewed the nature of heaven and how to get there.

Kengor:Which faith communities do you examine?

Smith: I explore how Catholics, liberal Protestants, Unitarians, Universalists, liberation and feminist theologians, Mormons, New Agers, and Jews have conceived heaven, but I pay the most attention to evangelical Protestants.

Kengor:Do most Americans today retain a traditional Christian understanding of heaven?

Smith: The conceptions that many contemporary Christians (and others) have of the afterlife have been significantly shaped by recent cultural trends, most notably: increased anxiety (caused by devastating terrorist attacks, severe economic recession, and global social problems), the impact of the therapeutic worldview (which exalts self-fulfillment and personal happiness), the emergence of an entertainment culture (which stresses pleasure and amusement), concerns about the breakdown of the family and the impoverishment of personal relationships, and the growing acceptance of a postmodern, relativistic perspective on life.

Influenced by these trends, many Americans have portrayed paradise as a place of comfort, self-actualization, bliss, enriching entertainment, and robust fellowship. These views are portrayed in a variety of best-selling books and in numerous pop, rock, country, and religious songs. These portraits clash with earlier ones that view heaven primarily as place of worshiping God and serving Him and others.

Kengor:How has the proliferation of reported visits to heaven during near-death experiences affected our views of heaven?

Smith: Three books that describe NDEs are currently near the top of the list:in 90 Minutes in Heaven; Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back; and The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven: A Remarkable Account of Miracles, Angels, and Life beyond This World.  Descriptions of NDEs are widely appealing because they can be used to support diverse worldviews and provide powerful testimony for life after death. Some Christians argue that NDEs corroborate biblical accounts of heaven, while others contend that they are highly suspect because in them God accepts everyone—regardless of belief or character—into His Kingdom, Jesus is “not consistently presented as unique,” and sin appears not to be judged.

Kengor:What would you like readers to take away from this book?

Smith: The types of heaven people hope for provide an “unconscious commentary on what they cherish or regret in this world.” These disagreements about the nature of heavenly life and the grounds for admission to heaven shed light on what has most troubled, perplexed, and inspired various groups of Americans during different eras. I hope that readers will be challenged and inspired by contemplating the awesomeness of the God who designed such a grand and glorious eternal abode for believers and the opportunities for worship, service, and growth that await us. I also hope that readers will carefully consider the basis upon which God admits us to heaven; it has eternal consequences.

Publication date: June 8, 2011