U.S. News & World Report

March 31, 1997

Heaven in the age of reason

New science suggests a `grand design' and ways to imagine eternity


Easter at its essence is about a belief in the triumph of life over death. It is one faith's response to the mystery that has haunted humankind since our first contemplative ancestors gazed into the abyss of death and trembled. What, if anything, awaits beyond the grave?

As Christians celebrate the Resurrection this holy season, they will affirm their faith that Jesus Christ arose from the dead and, in doing so, made "life everlasting" a possibility for all. "We are born," says Andrew Greeley, a Roman Catholic priest and University of Chicago sociologist, "with two incurable diseases: life, from which we die, and hope, which says maybe death isn't the end." To hope for life in the hereafter is a part of human nature.

All of this will strike some--as it did Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and other noted critics of religion--as wishful, largely superstitious thinking that does little more than sap human creativity and divert attention from earthly misery. It is easy to dismiss belief in the afterlife as a relic of ancient cultures that believed in a celestial city above the clouds and a fiery subterranean hell.

But to many modern believers, those old ideas are still vital, even if less vivid. While the notion of life after death has roots in ancient Greek philosophy and corollaries in other religions, the primary window on the afterlife for many Christians and Jews remains the Bible. The scriptures present an evolving picture with few concrete details, giving believers broad imaginative license.

Not for human souls. The Old Testament portrays heaven as a celestial sphere "above the vault of the earth" from which God, surrounded by his angels, rules his creation. But there is no suggestion in the most ancient Hebrew texts that heaven is the final repository of human souls. Throughout most of the Old Testament, deceased humans, good and evil, were said to end up in Sheol, a gloomy netherworld separated from God, much like the Hades of Greek mythology. Only in later Judaism did belief in a final resurrection of the dead and a heavenly "world to come" appear.

In the New Testament, Jesus spoke of the "kingdom of heaven" as a place of eternal reward with "many dwelling places." He tells his followers in the Gospel According to John:

I go to prepare a place for you, and if I go to prepare a place for you I will come again, and receive you to myself; that where I am there you may be also.

The apostle Paul assured believers that a "house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens," awaited them. Writing to Christians in Corinth, Paul even refers to his own mystical journey into "the third heaven" where he "heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak." But he gives no visual description of the heavenly landscape.

The most vivid and familiar biblical images of heaven appear in the apocalyptic book of Revelation. It is there, in the mystical vision of a prophet named John, that we find the often popularized descriptions of pearly gates and streets of gold, of a vast white throne, and of throngs of saints and angels gathered around God at the culmination of history. But the meaning and significance of those images are widely debated and often misunderstood. The picture of the end times in the book of Revelation, says N.T. Wright, dean of the Anglican cathedral in Lichfield, Staffordshire, England, "isn't about humans being snatched up from earth to heaven." Rather, he writes in a recent issue of the Christian Century, "the holy city, new Jerusalem, comes down from heaven to earth. God's space and ours are finally married, integrated at last." That, says Wright, is what Christians pray for when they say "thy kingdom come" in the Lord's Prayer.

Christian theologians traditionally have viewed Revelation as a glimpse not just into heaven but into future events, Judgment Day, and the end of the present world. Some scholars, on the other hand, contend it is more properly understood as "resistance literature" intended to exhort first-century Christians living in Asia Minor to "stand firm in the faith" against the threat of Roman persecution. Even so, the evocative imagery of Revelation continues to have a powerful influence on Christian views of the afterlife.

Should believers expect to see alabaster houses and gold-paved streets in heaven? Biblical scholars treat those images as vibrantly metaphorical. They illustrate what theologians regard as perhaps most important to understand about the Judeo-Christian concept of heaven: It means dwelling forever in the presence of God. Without the specific imagery of houses and gates and city streets, says Martin Marty, a University of Chicago religion historian, "we have no way of imagining what it's like being with God" in the hereafter.

Scientific faith. Strikingly, nearly 80 percent of Americans--of various religious faiths and of none--say they believe in life after death, and two thirds are certain there is a heaven. This may be explained by the religious nature of society today. By almost every measure, the United States is a nation steeped in religion, more so than all other Western nations except Poland and Ireland.

Yet this religious pitch occurs in an epoch of science. We can understand the anguished hope of those among us who, in the midst of pain, grief, or oppression, find solace in anticipating a better shake in the next life. But in an age of cloning and quantum physics, of supercomputers and the Hubble Space Telescope, some might reasonably wonder how "normal," educated people can cling to such archaic beliefs.

Despite the apparent contradiction, during the past half century science has moved from a dogmatic denial of realities beyond its reach toward an appreciation of their possibility. Dialogue between scientists and theologians has become increasingly common. Dozens of organizations worldwide now provide forums for exchanges of religious and scientific views on issues ranging from cosmology to the environment. From Albert Einstein to Stephen Hawking, scientists have grown more comfortable in using the word "God" in pondering questions of meaning and order.

New scientific revelations about supernovas, black holes, quarks, and the big bang even suggest to some scientists that there is a "grand design" in the universe--an argument that theologians like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas advanced centuries ago. The presence of intelligent, self-aware beings in the universe, writes Australian physicist Paul Davies in his 1992 book, The Mind of God, "can be no trivial detail, no minor byproduct of mindless, purposeless forces. We are truly meant to be here." Were scientists to discover a long-sought "theory of everything" to explain the workings of the varying mechanisms of the universe, wrote Hawking in his 1988 book, A Brief History of Time, "we would truly know the mind of God."

Perhaps as important, modern science has provided a new language and a new set of symbols for believers to more easily imagine God and eternity. Einstein's theory of relativity, which challenged the Newtonian view of absolute time operating everywhere in the universe, suddenly added a new level of meaning to the biblical injunction that "with the Lord, one day is as a thousand years."

Speculation in science about such things as parallel universes, new dimensions, and anomalies in the time-space continuum, even if not fully understood by laymen, has provided a conceptual framework for thinking about heaven and post-mortem existence in ways that were not available 100 or even 50 years ago. "We are no longer forced to choose between believing either that heaven is a city in the sky somewhere or that it doesn't exist at all," explains Richard McBrien, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame. "Now we can think of heaven as an alternate state, perhaps as another dimension." While such imagery is unlikely to foster belief where none exists, says McBrien, "it expands the options for those who are at least open to the possibility" of life after death.

In a society where science and religion flourish side by side, then, remaining open to the idea of the afterlife seems a reasonable posture. Science can't prove the existence of heaven, but its findings have made it easier for some people to believe. While the Christian creed asks adherents to affirm "life everlasting," it requires no assent to the speculative details. It's possible to adhere to the "hope of heaven" and be agnostic about the particulars.

In his book Teaching Your Children About God, Rabbi David Wolpe, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, recalls an ancient Jewish parable about twin fetuses lying together in the womb. One believes that there is a world beyond the womb, "where people walk upright, where there are mountains and oceans, a sky filled with stars. The other can barely contain his contempt for such foolish ideas."

Suddenly the "believer" is forced through the birth canal leaving behind the only way of life he has known. The remaining fetus is saddened, convinced that a great catastrophe has befallen his companion. "Outside the womb, however, the parents are rejoicing. For what the remaining brother, left behind, has just witnessed is not death but birth." This, Wolpe reminds us, is a classic view of the afterlife--a birth into a world that we on Earth can only try to imagine.