Of course I believed in heaven as a child. Every weekend, driving up to our country house in Vermont, I'd gaze out the window from the backseat of the family car and see the shape of God in the clouds. But I am a skeptic, a rationalist, and over time my childish imaginings gave way to disbelief. Heaven -- the hallmark card version, with people floating on clouds wearing wings and halos, the dead living "up there" as they did in life -- made no sense to me.
Not long after 9/11 I wrote a cover story for Newsweek called "Visions of Heaven." The theological conundrum it posed was this one: all suicide bombers think they're going to heaven. They imagine that they are martyrs who will be rewarded in Paradise for their heroism and sacrifice. The victims' families insist that their beloved ones are martyrs who, too, ascend immediately to God. Yet this puzzle makes no sense. Are there multiple heavens -- some for assassinated innocents and some for suicide bombers? Is heaven a true fact? Or is it based in individualistic conceptions that evolve through history and culture?
Reporting this story helped me sketch out some of the basic questions about heaven, questions that have haunted believers for millennia. Is heaven a "real place" or is it an idea, a metaphor? If real, what does it look like? A city? A garden? A banquet? Do we keep our bodies in heaven? And if so, do we do the things that bodies do: eat, drink, make love? Are we recognizable as ourselves? Do we have identities? Or are we disembodied spirits who achieve some mysterious union with a universal spirit?
And so I decided to write a book, which came out last month: Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife.
I had no idea, when I entered this project, how massive it would be: there are as many ideas about heaven as people who imagine it. Great scholarly overviews on the subject have been written, notably Heaven: A History, by Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang, and Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion by Alan F. Segal. Other scholars have broken off important parts of the heaven problem and written books about resurrection, the ancient world, salvation theory, utopian societies, spiritualism, the intersection of science and heaven, the Reformation, afterlife visions, cremation, and Muslim afterlife beliefs. Heaven has been painted, written, or sung about by Dante, Milton, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Tintoretto, Mark Twain, Seamus Heaney, Emily Dickinson, New Yorker cartoonists, David Byrne, Albert Brooks, Bruce Springsteen, the Winans and Alice Sebold. And then, of course, there are the visions given to us by Scripture and tradition. Our own individual visions are aggregations of all of these; sometimes our imaginings are ours alone.
The only way through all this material, I decided, was to get personal. And so I wrote a book with myself as the protagonist. Not a memoir, exactly, but a sorting and discussing of the main themes in the heaven conversation by someone -- me -- who wants to believe, a skeptical, observant Jew who happens to write and report about religion for a living. I spoke not just to dozens of scholars but to everyday believers and clerics, trying to find for myself visions of heaven that worked, inspired, provoked. This makes for an idiosyncratic book. It is not comprehensive (I don't include a section on Milton, for example); it is not definitive. I don't claim to know where heaven is or what it looks like. But it does, I hope, offer useful, complex images and ideas about heaven that people can chew on. For if 80 percent of Americans tell pollsters they believe in heaven, it might be useful for them to know a little bit about what they mean.