Okay, So Heaven Is For Real — But Which Heaven?

Christians have imagined many types of heaven. Which one do you want to go to?

The new movie Heaven Is For Real — adapted from the multi-million-selling book by pastor Todd Burpo — has people talking about heaven. But which one? Over time, Christians (along with other religious people) have developed several versions of what heaven might be. N. T. Wright notes that there is almost nothing in the Bible about going to a place called “heaven” when you die. Most of the things we think we know about the afterlife come not from our scriptures, but from human imagination. Our art, literature, and pop culture suggest that we have some very definite notions about heaven — but they also reveal that these notions may stand in contrast or even opposition to the core tenets of our faith.

So which of our heavens do you believe in? And what makes it a Christian heaven instead of something that simply reflects our earthly desires?

1. Paradise: A Place Where Dreams Come True

When John Kinsella (Dwier Brown) says in Field of Dreams that heaven is the place where our dreams come true, he verbalizes a core belief for many. Maybe that dream is buxom angels for Kenny McCormick, who enters heaven at the end of the South Park movie, or a rainbow horse for little Colton Burpo, who visits the afterlife in Heaven Is For Real.

Songs, stories, and images suggest that heaven must be like love. Or like sex. Or like good food. Or like swimsuit models in an idyllic location. (Several Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues have sported the headline “Paradise Found.”) Maybe heaven is even like dancing cheek to cheek, as Fred Astaire sings in Top Hat.

Does this heaven sound a bit sappy — or shallow? Is heaven just going to be a resort Earth where we can eat all the candy we want and not get fat? Or will its joys differ from the ones our culture extols in this life?

2. Haven: A Place We’ll Be Reunited with Those We Love

In this closing scene of James Cameron’s Titanic, Rose (Kate Winslet) passes through the ranks of those lost on the Titanic, ascends the stairs, and takes the hand of her beloved Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio). This scene reflects another popular assumption: that heaven is a haven where we’ll be reunited with those we love. (This reunion also happens to be the dream-come-true for the Kinsellas in Field of Dreams. Heavens collide!)

My grandmother — one of the most faithful women I’ve ever known — says she can’t wait to go to heaven so she can jump into my dear departed granddad’s lap and sit there through all eternity. Such reunions are promised in songs like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder” and “Reunion in Heaven,” and in these words of Billy Graham: “Heaven is a place of supreme joy — and one of its joys will be our reunion with our loved ones.” The Rev. Graham does go on to mention that our reunion with Jesus ought to be heaven’s supreme joy. But that doesn’t seem to be what many of us are imagining when we think about heaven.

How important should it be that we might see our family and friends in heaven? What does it say about us if that’s our primary motivation for going?

3. Zion: A Place of Refuge from Those We Hate

The closing scene of Les Miserables (both show and film) shows the Paris barricades populated by all who have died and gone before us, singing about how the fallen “will live again in freedom in the Garden of the Lord” — all, that is, except for that miserable Inspector Javert. There’s no room on the heavenly barricade for a distasteful and broken human like him!

Many of our depictions of heaven suggest not just that we will be reunited with those we loved. Or those we liked. They also suggest (as in the final scene of Titanic, above, or Field of Dreams, where Ty Cobb wasn’t invited to the field because nobody could stand him when he was alive) that we won’t have to hang about for eternity with those we didn’t like. The cabdriver in Marc Cohn’s “Saving the Best for Last” looks forward to heaven because he’ll never again have to listen to the idle chatter of his insipid customers; the main character in Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation” hopes for a heaven free of blacks and of white trash.

We seem to want to go on building little gated communities even in the next life. Why do we secretly (or not so secretly) hope that heaven will admit only those we love– and those like us? What does that say about our professed beliefs — and our actual ones?

4. Earth 2.0: A Place Where We Go On Doing What We Do

In Heaven Can Wait, the recently-deceased Warren Beatty carries his clarinet and prepares to board a supersonic Concorde to take him to the next life. In the last book (and final film) of the Harry Potter epic, Harry and Dumbledore take a post-mortem seat in King’s Cross Station to talk about the afterlife. And in the heaven presented by Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, the murdered Susie Salmon has a roommate named Holly and an intake counselor named Franny and she walks around a heavenly landscape that looks very much like the earthly future into which she will never live.

The flipside of the clichéd Fluffy Cloud Heaven is an afterlife where characters continue on in old patterns of behavior and operate in familiar settings. This heaven is a change of address, not a drastic change of status, and while it certainly makes heaven easier for us to visualize, does it seem probable that eternal life with God will look and feel just like the life we occupy at this moment?

Why might we want to think of heaven as being essentially an Earth that goes on forever? What does it say about us that we might prefer this vision?

These are not the only heavens on offer, of course, and other images of heaven may more closely reflect core Christian beliefs about who God is and who we are in God (see, for example, the heavenly reconciliation suggested by the final scene in Places in the Heart).

What’s your favorite depiction of heaven? What version seems least heavenly to you?

Greg Garrett
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  • allinthistogether

    And yet millions and millions of people, of many religious faiths, teach their children that we absolutely know that there is life after death, that heaven will be wonderful and that just having faith in a totally unprovable god is the key to getting to that heaven. People have the moral right to believe whatever religious teachings they want to believe. I’m not at all sure that we have the moral right to convince a child that we know a certain unknown is true just because we believe it – it is morally supportable to teach a child that “I believe that heaven is real and that by faith and good acts you may go there when you die.” It is morally questionable to teach a child that heaven is absolutely real.

    • Doug Wilkening

      I guess we won’t be seeing you there….

    • bakabomb

      Real is real. If there is a “hereafter” (let’s be generic), any individual’s religious belief or lack thereof is irrelevant to the fact of its existence.

  • bakabomb

    For me the closest option above would be #2, but minus the smarm and with a touch of #4. Yes, we’ll re-encounter loved ones (and some old friends), More significantly, we’ll also re-encounter the totality of ourselves — so much of which was, by necessity, shrouded from us when we entered into physical life. Yes, we’ll be “judged”, but the word’s a poor fit; it’s more like a cross between a job evaluation and a thesis defense. In some ways very humbling, in other ways almost a celebration of whatever we may have accomplished. And the goings-on aren’t all that different from being in graduate school either.

    Both here and hereafter, we’ve been given the free will to loaf and cruise (and thereby struggle needlessly with the lessons of our curriculum), or apply ourselves to making progress. The choice, the opportunity, is all ours.

  • Tom from North Carolina

    Believing something based on faith alone means that any faith based belief is equally likely. So the Muslim man who dies for his faith is just as likely to be greeted by 72 virgins as I am to be greeted by my Mom and Dad. Your column accurately portrays the huge variation in what heaven is when going from one believer to another. That variation reflects what happens when evidence is replaced with belief (or hope).

  • Trish

    Why on earth are all links seeking to source the Susan Jacoby quotes on this movie leading HERE?
    Many, many articles are using a juicy Susan Jacoby quote and attributing it to a ‘scathing’ Washington Post review.
    The review is nowhere to be found.
    What the hell?

  • Sonny

    John 3.13. Written in red, JESUS speaking. No man has ever been to Heaven except him who came from Heaven, even the Son of Man. Pretty simple.

  • Sonny

    So if people read this one verse with JESUS speaking they would have saved millions of dollars at the box office and millions on a false book sady 87% of people fell for this. I don’t care what the burpos or anyone else says. John 3.13 says no man has ever been to Heaven except the one who came from Heaven.