Paradise, a 1982 knock-off of the movie Blue Lagoon, stars Phoebe Cates and Willie Aames as teenagers who find themselves alone in a place of natural beauty and experiencing the ultimate joy together. Ann Wilson of Heart and Mike Reno of Loverboy can see forever in each other’s eyes in “Almost Paradise,” their Top Ten hit from the Footloose soundtrack (“Almost paradise / We’re knocking on Heaven’s door”). Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) references the Elysian Fields, a paradise beyond this one where the blessed go when they die. And the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue has more than once run a story – or titled an entire issue — “Paradise Found.” Literature and popular culture are awash with references to or appropriations of Heaven.
The Baylor Survey of Religion determined in 2011 that the vast majority of Americans (two thirds of us, and over ninety per cent of Americans who identify as “very religious”) believe that Heaven exists. Something about the idea of a heavenly realm — call it Zion, call it Paradise, call it Elysium, call it Shangri-La, call it Nirvana — meets a deep-seated need of human beings to hope for something more after this life. Whether because it fits our sense of justice that the good should be rewarded, or because it appeals to our ingrained hope that this sometimes difficult existence isn’t all that we will ever experience, the idea of Heaven has helped to dry the tears of the suffering and offered the possibility of some greater meaning in many earthly lives.
But Heaven is as much a concept as an actual place, even for those who believe in the actual place. The human imagination has served a vital role in helping us to imagine what Heaven might be. Dante and Milton, for example, crucially shaped our conceptions of a paradisiacal realm beyond human speech and reckoning. In Canto XXX of the Paradiso, Dante offers us a vision of light and joy, describing the saints in Heaven arranged as a rose with the Virgin Mary at its center even as he speaks at length about his inability to speak of what he has seen.
John Milton shows us God enthroned, and in glorious language supplies the dignity and beauty most human descriptions of Heaven would necessarily leave lacking:
Now had the Almighty Father from above,
From the pure Empyrean where he sits
High Thron’d above all highth, bent down his eye,
His own works and their works at once to view:
About him all the Sanctities of Heaven
Stood thick as Stars, and from his sight receiv’d
Beatitude past utterance; on his right
The radiant image of his Glory sat,
His onely Son; (Paradise Lost, Book IV, 56-64)
We require this sort of imaginative view of Heaven partly because the Bible (whether in the Hebrew or Christian testaments) contains very little teaching about Heaven as a place for the faithful departed. N. T. Wright notes in the book Surprised by Hope that most Christians assume that when the Bible speaks of something called heaven it is talking about the place where Christians go after death. Because they start with that belief, they misread Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God or, in the Gospel of Matthew, the Kingdom of Heaven. Assuming that Jesus “is indeed talking about how to go to heaven when you die” may make us feel secure about the afterlife, but, says Wright, it “is certainly not what Jesus or Matthew had in mind.” (18) So, barring those mentions of Heaven in Jesus’ cryptic kingdom teachings, we are left with some references to a heavenly realm in apocalyptic writings like Daniel and Revelation, and some few sayings of Jesus. (The Paradise of Islam is mentioned considerably more often in the Qur’an and in the hadiths and other teachings).
“How we live now may be shaped by what we believe is happening to us in a next life”
Many Christians formed their understanding of Heaven from one of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospel of John: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” (John 14:2-3, NRSV) This teaching has entered into our thinking from the King James Version, where “dwelling place” is translated as “mansions,” and prompted many to think of Heaven as a place where believers will have their own mansions (although the Greek monai« has no such denotative or connotative meaning; it simply means “a place where one may remain or live”).
But don’t tell those believers who have taken those expected mansions, shaken them with the Book of Revelation’s streets of gold, and served themselves a heavenly gated community where every occupant has a holy-water Jacuzzi with diamond handles. For many who have suffered in this life, it seems only just and right that they spend eternity in luxury. What is Paradise if it isn’t better than the world we know?
And if, like them, your image of Heaven is of a place where you will walk streets of gold and pluck a harp while holding forth with the saints, then you are certainly not in the minority. Jon Meacham notes in a recent TIME magazine cover story that this version of Heaven appears across Christian history, and is tied up in “culture, politics, economics, class, and psychology.” How we live now may be shaped by what we believe is happening to us in a next life, and can affect everything from how we vote to how we give. But more importantly, our stories about Heaven offer us consolation; they assure us that a just God will surely reward the faithful and punish the faithless, no matter what happens to us in this life. For that reason, those stories are vital to our peace of mind.