Conceptions of Heaven

Host: Ian Punnett
Guests: Lisa Miller

Ian Punnett was joined by Newsweek senior editor, Lisa Miller, who discussed various cultural-religious conceptions of heaven. The idea that a person's spirit continues after death is common in human history, she said, dating back to early man. Anthropologists think Neanderthals believed in an afterlife, as they buried their dead with grave goods (seeds, weapons, etc.), Miller explained.

The idea of a specific location known as heaven, where the faithful dead go to be with God, shows up much later. According to Miller, the earliest notion of heaven is found in the book of Daniel, where the concept is also related to a resurrection of the dead. Miller noted two exceptions that appear before Daniel in the Hebrew scriptures: Enoch and Elijah, righteous men who were taken to heaven by God (apparently without having to die first).

Heaven was a normative idea by the time of Jesus' birth. "Most people [in that time] had some idea that they would go to live with God after they died," she said. Many of our images of heaven come from early Christian literature, Miller continued. The book of Revelation portrays heaven as a sparkling city with jeweled walls, golden streets, rivers and gardens, angels, and a magnificent throne room where God sits with Jesus on his right hand. There is no consensus among Christians, however, if such descriptions are literal or metaphorical, she added.

Another depiction of heaven can be found in the Qur'an. The Islamic holy book describes heaven as a lavish paradise, filled with maidens, where inhabitants wear beautiful clothes, lounge on silk couches, and are served wine that does not cause drunkenness, Miller said. She pointed out that this vision of paradise has been used throughout history to motivate young Muslim men to go to battle. In fact, all visions of heaven included things that a particular group wanted the most, things they may not have had in life, she revealed.

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