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 hip 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, Todd Burpo. 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, neither failure to believe in Jesus' atonement on the cross for human sin nor failure to live by traditional moral standards seems 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 in Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion, 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 pastor and theologian Jonathan Edwards agreed that heavenly life revolved around glorifying God, he also accentuated the communion of the redeemed. …