Heaven in the American Imagination: An Interview with Dr. Gary Scott Smith

Dr. Paul Kengor: Dr. Gary Smith, describe the thesis of your new book.

Dr. Gary Scott Smith: My book examines two primary questions: how have Americans conceived of heaven, and on what basis do people gain admission to heaven? My thesis is that while Americans’ beliefs about the grounds for entry to heaven have remained rather consistent from the Puritans to the present, Americans’ visions of heaven have changed significantly. Throughout our history, Americans have debated whether admission to heaven depends on living morally or belief in Christ’s atoning death on the cross for human sins. Most Protestants have argued that individuals can enter heaven only by accepting Jesus Christ as their savior and Lord, while others have countered that good deeds play a crucial role in people’s admission to paradise.

American conceptions of heaven, as expressed in literature, sermons, art, and music, have typically been rooted in religious traditions and based on interpretations of relevant scriptural passages, but they have usually been closely connected to what was happening on earth. Americans have tended to imagine an afterlife that contains what they judge to be the “best, most lasting, virtuous, and meaningful” aspects of this life and eliminates those things they consider “the most difficult, frustrating, evil, and inessential.”

 Deeply influenced by their own life experiences and their different political, social, economic, and cultural circumstances, they have sharply disagreed about what heavenly life will be like. Although most Americans have claimed to derive their images of heaven solely from the Bible, they also display their dreams, hopes, and visions of the good life. Their depictions of celestial life shed substantial light on what Americans have most treasured and feared in various eras.

Kengor: This is quite a topic, and it’s terrific that it has been accorded the scholarly legitimacy of an Oxford University Press book. What motivated you to do this particular topic?

Smith: In 1988, Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang published Heaven: A History, which surveyed views of the afterlife from the ancient Jews to the late 20th century, but no scholar had examined what Americans have believed about heaven throughout our history. My goal was to help Americans understand how we have viewed the nature of heaven and how to get there.

Kengor: America has been the world’s greatest ethnical and spiritual melting pot. Which faith communities do you examine?

Smith: My book explores how Catholics, liberal Protestants, Unitarians, Universalists, liberation and feminist theologians, Mormons, New Agers, and Jews have conceived heaven, but I have paid the most attention to evangelical Protestants because they have been the largest and most influential group throughout American history.

Kengor: Do most Americans today retain a traditional Christian understanding of heaven?

Smith: As I have explained, my book details how images of heaven have changed over time in response to different social, political, intellectual, and economic conditions and challenges. Not surprisingly, the conceptions that many contemporary Christians (and others) have of the afterlife have been significantly shaped by recent cultural trends, most notably: increased anxiety (caused by devastating terrorist attacks, severe economic recession, and global social problems), the impact of the therapeutic worldview (which exalts self-fulfillment and personal happiness), the emergence of an entertainment culture (which stresses pleasure and amusement), concerns about the breakdown of the family and the impoverishment of personal relationships, and the growing acceptance of a postmodern, relativistic perspective on life.

Influenced by these trends, many Americans have portrayed paradise as a place of comfort, self-actualization, bliss, enriching entertainment, and robust fellowship. These views are portrayed in a variety of best-selling books and in numerous pop, rock, country, and religious songs. Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones is the tale of a murdered 14-year-old girl who watches events on earth while exploring heaven, while Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven is a story about an octogenarian amusement park worker’s life review while in heaven. Both have been made into movies. Anthony DeStefano’s A Travel Guide to Heaven is a highly speculative tour of the wonders and joys of paradise, which topped Amazon.com’s best-seller list several times. These portraits clash with earlier ones that view heaven primarily as place of worshipping God and serving Him and others.

Kengor: How has the New Age movement affected our views of Heaven?

Smith: Since 1980, Americans have displayed considerable interest in the New Age’s syncretistic worldview that involves a wide variety of individuals, organizations, ideas, and practices. It has infiltrated many areas of contemporary American society, including psychology, education, medicine, business, science fiction, and movies. New Age philosophy stresses mystical experiences that transcend space and time. It maintains that liberated selves can produce a glorious new age of peace, light, and love. Rejecting traditional Christian conceptions of the afterlife, many Americans have accepted New Age belief in reincarnation and death as a transition to another stage of life.

Kengor: What influence has moral relativism had?

Smith: Postmodernism and cultural and ethical relativism have helped produce widespread belief that all (or at least many) views are equally plausible and that tolerance of differences is the supreme virtue. This has powerfully impacted traditional views of biblical interpretation, heaven, hell, and salvation by leading many to maintain that all conceptions of the afterlife are equally plausible and valid. Strongly influenced by a society that denies the possibility of absolute truth and prizes tolerance, most Americans have rejected the traditional Christian position that people must accept Jesus as their savior to go to heaven.

Kengor: How has the proliferation of reported visits to heaven during near-death experiences affected our views of heaven?

Smith: Public fascination with this subject exploded after the 1975 publication of physician Raymond Moody’s Life After Life: The Investigation of a Phenomenon—Survival of Bodily Death and cardiologist Maurice Rawlings’s Beyond Death’s Door, both of which featured dozens of accounts of near-death experiences (NDEs). Many members of the medical profession and academic community documented these stories, making them more credible and respectable.

Three books that describe NDEs are currently near the top of the Amazon.com list:in 90 Minutes in Heaven, Texas pastor Don Piper describes the marvels of heaven he experienced during his alleged sojourn there following a near fatal automobile accident; Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back details a four-year-old’s time in heaven as told to his pastor father; and The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven: A Remarkable Account of Miracles, Angels, and Life beyond This World describes the similar experiences of a six-year-old after he awoke from a two-month coma caused by a car accident.

Descriptions of NDEs are widely appealing because they can be used to support diverse worldviews and provide powerful testimony for life after death. Norman Vincent Peale, Ralph Wilkerson, and other Christians have argued that NDEs corroborate biblical accounts of heaven, while others such as Tim LaHaye contend that they were highly suspect because in them God accepts everyone—regardless of belief or character—into His Kingdom, Jesus is “not consistently presented as unique,” and sin appears not to be judged.

Kengor: What surprised you most about your research?

Dr. Smith: That American views of heaven and hell are so powerfully shaped by people’s cultural and social milieu. This is especially surprising for those who hold a high view of biblical authority and inspiration and claim to be guided first and foremost by what Scripture teaches.

Kengor: What would you like readers to take away from this book?

Dr. Smith: The types of heaven people hope for provide an “unconscious commentary on what they cherish or regret in this world.” These disagreements about the nature of heavenly life and the grounds for admission to heaven shed light on what has most troubled, perplexed, and inspired various groups of Americans during different eras. I hope that readers will be challenged and inspired by contemplating the awesomeness of the God who designed such a grand and glorious eternal abode for believers and the opportunities for worship, service, and growth that await us. I also hope that readers will carefully consider the debate over the basis upon which God admits us to heaven; it has eternal consequences.

Kengor: Dr. Smith, your previous book with Oxford University Press was a seminal work titled, Faith and the Presidency: from George Washington to George W. Bush. This was an extremely important work that I urge people to purchase. I understand that you’re planning a follow up, because your book only analyzed 11 presidents. What’s the status of your research?

Dr. Smith: My second volume will cover an additional 11 presidents: John Adams, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, William McKinley, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. I’m in the early stages of researching the faith of these presidents and its impact on their policies.

Dr. Gary Scott Smith chairs the history department at Grove City College, is a fellow for faith and the presidency with The Center for Vision & Values, and is the author of Faith and the Presidency From George Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford University Press, 2009) and Heaven in the American Imagination (Oxford University Press, 2011).

(© 2011 Paul Kengor)

Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He is also co-author (with Patricia Clark Doerner) of The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007).
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