Heaven in the American Imagination

Heaven in the American Imagination

Heaven in the American Imagination

Heaven in the American Imagination


Does heaven exist? If so, what is it like? And how does one get in? Throughout history, painters, poets, philosophers, pastors, and many ordinary people have pondered these questions. Perhaps no other topic captures the popular imagination quite like heaven. Gary Scott Smith examines how Americans from the Puritans to the present have imagined heaven. He argues that whether Americans have perceived heaven as reality or fantasy, as God's home or a human invention, as a source of inspiration and comfort or an opiate that distracts from earthly life, or asa place of worship or a perpetual playground has varied largely according to the spirit of the age. In the colonial era, conceptions of heaven focused primarily on the glory of God. For the Victorians, heaven was a warm, comfortable home where people would live forever with their family and friends.Today, heaven is often less distinctively Christian and more of a celestial entertainment center or a paradise where everyone can reach his full potential. Drawing on an astounding array of sources, including works of art, music, sociology, psychology, folklore, liturgy, sermons, poetry, fiction, jokes, and devotional books, Smith paints a sweeping, provocative portrait of what Americans - from Jonathan Edwards to Mitch Albom - have thought aboutheaven.


A minister concluded his sermon by asking
parishioners to stand up if they wanted to go to
heaven. Everyone except one man rose. “Brother,”
asked the incredulous pastor, “don’t you want to go
to paradise when you die?” The holdout declared,
“When I die? Sure! I thought you were getting up a
group to go right now.”

Heaven goes by favor; if it went by merit, you
would stay out and your dog would go in.

During a children’s sermon at an evangelical
church, the director of children’s ministries asked,
“What do you have to do to go to heaven?” She,
like most of the congregation, expected one of the
children to answer, “Accept Jesus as your savior.”
Instead, a little boy responded, “Be dead.”

WHAT IS MORE alluring, intriguing, controversial, and confusing than heaven? Is heaven a reality or a fantasy? Is it God’s home or a human invention? Is it an inspiration for earthly action or an escape from earthly problems? Is it a helpful source of comfort and consolation or a harmful opiate that dulls people’s sensitivities to their actual condition? Is it a place of continuous worship or a perpetual playground? Is it a realm of eternal rest or of vigorous activity? Is it a site of static perfection or of everlasting progress? Is it an exhilarating, enchanting paradise or a boring, dull place?

Americans have described heaven’s wonders as luscious, stunning, spellbinding, exhilarating, and captivating. We regularly use the adjective heavenly in literature to describe life’s most joyful experiences. To the faithful, majestic mountains, cascading waterfalls, breathtaking canyons, magnificent cathedrals, pealing organs, angelic choirs, and sensational symphonies all pale in comparison to the dazzling beauty and splendor that awaits them in heaven. If God could create such a spectacular earth and endow human beings with such marvelous gift s, the heavenly home, which He has prepared for them to live in forever, must be even more fantastic.

Throughout our history, a large percentage of Americans have believed that heaven exists and have expressed a desire to go there, although most have not been in a hurry to arrive. Americans’ depictions of heaven have been significantly shaped by their understanding of biblical teaching (heaven is mentioned about 550 times in . . .

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