Belief in hell is going to you-know-where. And belief in heaven is in trouble, too.
That’s the concern of some Christian thinkers, including Jeffrey Burton Russell, an emeritus professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of the new book Paradise Mislaid: How We Lost Heaven and How We Can Regain It.
Russell and other fretters aren’t impressed by fads like the girl’s name Nevaeh (heaven spelled backward) or polls that show most Americans believe in some sort of heaven.
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The growing problem, according to Russell and others, is that the way U.S. Christians conceive of heaven and hell is so feeble and vague that it’s almost meaningless — vague “superstition.”
It’s “not that heaven is deteriorating,” he said. “But we are.”
Gallup reported in 2004 that 81 percent of Americans believed in heaven and 70 percent in hell. A previous Gallup Poll said that 77 percent of ever-optimistic Americans rated their odds of going to heaven as “good” or “excellent.” Few saw themselves as hellbound.
“The percentage who say they believe in heaven has remained pretty constant the past 50 years, but what people mean by it has changed an awful lot,” Russell said.
Some people are so confused that they believe in heaven but not God — “I suppose a New Age thing,” Russell said.
But if today’s notion of paradise is off base, and sentimental images of clouds, harps and cherubs are the stuff of magazine cartoons, then what’s the best way to think of heaven?
“For Christians, basically, heaven underneath all of the decorations means living in harmony with God and the cosmos and your neighbors and being grateful,” said Russell, who studied hell and Satan for 15 years before turning his attention to heaven in a 1997 book.
To Russell, it’s healthiest to see heaven as starting on earth, not an existence that “suddenly happens when you die.”
What about hell and its fire and brimstone? “There is a tendency to overdramatize hell in order to get [it] across to people,” he said. But it’s simply “the absence of God, the absence of heaven.”
“Heaven has gradually been shut away in a closet by the dominant intellectual trends,” Russell writes. Likewise with hell: Russell cannot remember the last time he’s heard that unhappy subject treated in church or in religious literature.
What happened? Russell’s book is largely a heartfelt appeal against “physicalism,” the modern claim that knowledge comes only through the physical senses and empirical science.
Such an outlook is arrogant and impossible to prove, Russell believes, because it ignores humans’ moral sense and the supernatural — including heaven and hell.
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