He was a newcomer to the clan, an orphan with the African name Lipopo— and he died, unexpectedly, of pneumonia.
It was a shock to the whole extended family, and though none of those who were present at the time of his death knew Lipopo very well, they tenderly cared for him, keeping vigil over his corpse and grooming it carefully, as if he had somewhere important to go. And when the caretakers finally came to take the body away, the family matriarch, who was named Mimi, rebelled, protecting the body as if it were her own child. She placed herself between the humans and Lipopo, screaming—howling—with rage and grief. At that point, a scientist who happened to be present crumpled with sympathetic anguish.
For Mimi was an ape, but her response to the death of a stranger was as human as anything he’d ever seen.
All living creatures die, the first and last fact of life. We begin dying the instant we are born, and humans, who unlike chimpanzees are imbued with self-knowledge, comprehend this terrible reality from a young age. Yet most people, for most of our lives, are able to put it aside. Each of us invents our own story as if we didn’t already know the ending: that we will lose the ones we love, that we will expire ourselves.
We learn, we hope, we plan, we have children, we work, we keep on trying—and we endeavor to ignore the existential truth, what George Eliot called “that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” Heaven, whether you believe in it or not, is the answer to the fundamental howl of human existence: How can this be, that life is a terminal condition? Heaven is the faith that all is not lost. If life has been full of sorrow and pain, then heaven offers respite. And if life has been full of bounty and pleasures, then heaven amplifies those delights beyond imagining.
There are a million disagreements about heaven, starting with the most obvious one: Does it exist? In the Western religious tradition, debates about the nature of heaven have raged for more than 2,000 years. When the Apostle Paul was traveling all over the ancient world preaching the truth of Jesus Christ and the promise of heaven, his pagan audiences laughed at him. A heaven, they thought, filled with resurrected bodies, was the most ridiculous thing they’d ever heard.
We are no closer to resolution now than we were then. Is heaven, as Eben Alexander insists in his 2012 book Proof of Heaven, “real”? Does it look, as he describes it, “brilliant, vibrant, ecstatic, stunning”? Is God so generous that he, as the Christian pastor Rob Bell argues in his 2011 book Love Wins, will allow everybody—including Jews, Muslims and atheists—to be saved?
The promise of heaven can be so powerfully motivating that it can compel young men to fly jets into skyscrapers screaming “God is great.” It can be so comforting that it inspires conversion from one religious faith to another. The hope of heaven has propelled men and women to build cathedrals with buttresses and steeples, to write poems and songs and symphonies, to paint frescoes on walls and ceilings and piece together murals on chapel floors. The dashed hope caused by catastrophe or grief— I thought I had this kind of faith, but I just don’t—has been the cause of many a turn toward disbelief.
The trick to having faith in heaven is to do so in spite of the fact that it is, on the face of it, implausible. What evidence in our physical world convinces us of the existence of “another place,” where you can live in perfect truth and beauty, forever, with God? None, for even the I-was-there accounts—like those of Dr. Alexander or Colton Burpo, the 4-year-old subject of the book Heaven Is for Real, who claimed to have ascended to heaven during an emergency surgery and to have sat on the lap of Jesus himself—are subjective testimony, impossible to corroborate.
And heavenbelief becomes more challenging the more you subject it to rational scrutiny. Where is heaven? (In the sky? In every leaf of every tree? Or is it, as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “among us”?) If it’s real, then what does it look like? (Times Square, a mountaintop, dinner for 12 at a fivestar restaurant?) What do you do there? What happens to your body? (Do you eat, drink, make love?) Are you, in any identifiable way, “you”? These questions are enough to make any person’s brain ache, but not enough to push Americans, at least, off course. Eighty-five percent of us say we believe in heaven, according to Gallup, despite a growing disillusionment with organized religion and a growing number of doubters among us. Heaven remains a pillar of even the most liberal liturgies in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions. “Blessed are you, Lord,” the religious Jew prays each day, “who revives the dead.”
When I published a book in 2010 called Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife, I attempted to guide readers through the biggest questions regarding the idea of heaven in the Western religious tradition. Where is heaven? Who do you see there? Isn’t it boring? Why do so few modern conceptions of heaven include an idea of God? The idea was not to answer these questions in any definitive way, but to raise them. For myself, doing that book was a revelation, for it helped me, a temple-going Jew but also a natural-born skeptic, to understand the transforming power of faith in a supernatural God. The idea of heaven is unbelievable, yet to believe in it is one of the most powerful sources of comfort and hope a human being might have.
The desire to defy death is so primitive that even before they believed in a heaven as we understand it today, populated with the souls of loving, departed grandparents and crisscrossed with streets of gold, proto-humans believed in something like an afterlife. Even prehuman creatures, in other words, believed in something beyond the end. We know this because they were buried with things—and why else would a community or a family put a loved one to rest with bones and tools and small, edible seeds unless those things were thought to be either precious or useful to them wherever they were going?
In a cave in the mountains of northern Iraq, archaeologists in the 1960s discovered a Neanderthal burial site from about 50,000 years ago. There, a woman seems to have been interred on a bed of boughs and flowers, leading scientists to guess at a religious rite devoted to her continued comfort and care. In 1999 the skeleton of a boy thought to have been buried 25,000 years ago was discovered in a cave in Portugal. He was buried with deer and rabbit bones and a pierced periwinkle-shell ornament in a grave in which pine branches had been burned. His body was covered with red ocher pigment. “He was probably quite important to his people, and was accorded special attention in death,” according to the journal British Archaeology.
Consider this book, then, a brief tour of the idea of heaven, mainly in the West, starting with its conception in the pre-Christian Jewish world, moving through its development as Christianity matured, and into the Middle Ages as Islam was born. I begin by outlining centuries of celestial questions and themes, designed to prod a reader to consider what he or she believes, to hold up one mirror and then another to the images of heaven that reverberate down the ages: What does Scripture say about life everlasting? What does tradition say? How do real people express their belief and how does that compare with what religious authorities teach? I then go on to discuss the problem of heaven being used as a radically intolerant idea: How does a heaven that consoles so many prompt others to murder? Later chapters describe heaven’s cultural legacy, explore the influence of Eastern ideas on Western concepts of the afterlife, and ponder what science might be able to tell us about what awaits us after we die.
It is my firm conviction that many of us who say we believe in heaven have not sufficiently wrestled with the puzzles and perplexities wrapped up with the idea. We owe it to ourselves and to the people we love to investigate its mysteries ahead of time, before, like Mimi or Lipopo, we find ourselves faced with the ultimate end and overwhelmed by the fear and grief that accompany it. Even if we can never know the answers, the examined afterlife may influence how we spend our time here on earth.
About the author:
Lisa Miller is a staff writer at New York magazine. She is the former religion columnist for the Washington Post, former senior editor of Newsweek magazine, and author of “Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife.” Miller came to Newsweek from The Wall Street Journal, where she was an award-winning senior special writer covering religion for the paper’s front page since 1997. She was also an editor for the Marketplace page (1993-94), where she helped launch the weekly “Health Journal,” and a travel reporter (1994-97). She started her journalism career as an editorial assistant (1984) at the Harvard Business Review and later became manuscript editor there (1985-87) before moving to The New Yorker (1987-92) and then Self magazine (1992-93), where she was senior editor for arts coverage and created their “In Focus” section in the front of the book. She graduated from Oberlin College with a B.A. in English in 1984.