Why We Need Heaven

In troubled times, the afterlife beckons with visions of dark-eyed virgins, gardens and palaces, the bliss of God’s eternal presence and the joy of uniting with loved ones. How can the promise of paradise inspire so many to goodness, and few to murder?

By Lisa Miller
NEWSWEEK, Aug. 12, 2002 issue

Aug. 12 issue — Hagar Zar is sure her husband, Gilad, is in heaven. Perhaps that’s why she looks so serene and clear-eyed when she talks about the gruesome way he died—gunned down by Palestinians early one morning while he was at work.

IN HER LITTLE HOUSE in the Jewish settlement of Itamar, with the Biblical landscape stretching all around her, Zar says she doesn’t know exactly what the next world looks like, but she knows that it’s good, and that her husband has a special place there “at the feet of the throne of the Almighty” because he died for God.

There is nothing at all unusual about Hagar Zar’s religious beliefs, except for the theological puzzle they present: can her enemy be in heaven, too? Just months before Gilad Zar was killed, Akram Nabiti blew himself up near a bus stop in a tony residential Jerusalem neighborhood, injuring at least 20 people. And though his grieving Muslim father, Ishaq, says he would have locked up his son in a cage had he known about Akram’s plans, “I have no doubt whatsoever that he is in paradise.”

In the ’00s, a decade known so far for its calamities, the question of what heaven is and who gets to go has taken on new urgency. Suicide bombers and terrorists, similar to those who killed seven people at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem last week, often invoke heaven before they act, and, afterward, the survivors invoke heaven to guide them forward. On the West Bank and in the States, visions of heaven separate religious fundamentalists from moderates.

For believers, heaven can be inspiration, incentive, comfort or ballast. It can be metaphoric, or concrete—”built to last,” as Billy Graham’s daughter Anne Graham Lotz puts it in her popular little book “Heaven: My Father’s House.” According to a NEWSWEEK Poll, 76 percent of Americans believe in heaven, and, of those, 71 percent think it’s an “actual place,” but after that, agreement breaks down.

The urge for heaven is universal; we need it the way we need love. “It’s threatening to one’s entire sense of self” to imagine the end of life, says Sherwin B. Nuland, author of “How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter.” “So essentially we have to convince ourselves that there is an afterlife. Even those of us who don’t believe in one sneakingly wish there was one.” For more than 2,000 years, theologians and children have been asking the same, unanswerable questions: Do we keep our bodies in heaven? Are we reunited with loved ones? Can we eat, drink, make love? Can you go to my heaven? Can I go to yours? How do you get there? And though they answer these questions in varying ways, the Jews, the Christians and the Muslims share some common ground. Heaven is the home of the one God, who is just and merciful, and at the end of life metes out rewards and punishments. Heaven is a perfect place, devoid of anger, lust, competition or anything like sin. In heaven, you live forever.

Even when clerics insist that heaven is symbolic, most people continue to think about heaven in terms of what they want.

And so visions of heaven divide people—even those who worship the same God. When a religious community feels endangered or at odds with the mainstream culture, a vision of heaven can be like a badge of belonging. “This heaven is mine,” believers say. “If you don’t join me, you can’t come.” And when that feeling of oppression turns to war, heaven can be a flag waved in battle. Ismail Abu Shanab, a Hamas leader who lives in Gaza, says Palestinian youth believe much more strongly in heaven than they did 20 years ago. They believe that if killed fighting in the name of Islam, they will go straight to the seventh level of heaven and delight in the company of beautiful virgins. Abu Shanab says that this idea of heaven gives the martyrs comfort—and power. It “gives Palestinians the advantage over Israelis,” he says.

Heaven was designed inpart to bolster constituencies under stress. Until the Greeks desecrated the Jewish temple in 167 B.C., for example, the Jews had a largely inchoate idea of the hereafter.

Through the years, Christian visions of heaven changed as society evolved. Dante saw heaven as the universe, and Thomas Aquinas thought of it as a brilliant place, full of light and knowledge. In the 18th century, Emanuel Swedenborg imagined heaven as a tangible world, with public gardens and parks. Jennifer Vavrek, 14, a counselor at Vacation Bible School, in Monroe, Conn., takes the contemporary, mainstream view. Heaven, she says, is “whatever you dream it is.” For Vavrek, heaven has angels and white clouds; her grandparents are there.

On the West Bank and in Gaza, talk about heaven is as common as dust. In the Dahaishe refugee camp near Bethlehem, youngsters who have spent most of the past month indoors confined by the Israeli curfew are roaming the streets, waiting for tanks to rumble by so they can vent their anger with stones. They talk about being martyrs the way other children talk about being doctors or firemen. “Everyone here wants to be a shahid [martyr], everyone has a friend who died and went to heaven,” says Salem, a genial 10-year-old. “Everything I could wish for is in paradise,” says Abdullah, who is 13. “I would have green gardens and fresh fruit trees and we would have freedom. Not like here.”

This isn’t the first time Muslim extremists have immolated themselves in the name of heaven. As recently as the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war, tens of thousands of Iranian soldiers died walking headlong into Iraqi artillery and land mines, certain of their rewards in the hereafter. Many were heeding a book, written by an Iranian religious leader, called “Ma’ad” (literally, “Resurrection”), which made paradise sound something like a deluxe Vegas hotel: “There is a castle in Paradise made of marble. In that castle there are 70 houses made of rubies and in each house there are 70 rooms made of emeralds … In each room there are 70 female servants.” An Iranian field commander who served in battle for five years calls this heavenly vision “propaganda,” written expressly for young, unmarried men living in material poverty and sexual repression.

Detail from a painting in a book of poems by Nizami that shows the heavenly ascension of the prophet Muhammad, as described in the Qur’an

For at least a decade, groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad have preached similar messages to would-be suicide bombers. The heaven they promise offers martyrs easy access to God, better conditions in the hereafter for family members and beautiful, available women. At home in Gaza recently, SheikAbdul-Karim al-Kahlot, who is a leading religious authority for the Palestinians, answered a reporter’s questions about heaven. “Real martyrs,” he said, “are those who fight for the sake of Allah and raise the flag that says there is no God but Allah. Those martyrs will reach the highest level of heaven.”

Moderate Muslim scholars vehemently dispute the fundamentalist view. For one thing, descriptions of heaven are metaphorical, human attempts to describe the indescribable, these scholars say. For another, Muslim teachings contain strict injunctions against suicide. And while Islamic texts do promise heaven to soldiers who give their lives for Allah, they require those soldiers be engaged in what contemporary Westerners would call a “just war.” “There’s a verse in the Qur’an that says, ‘If you’ve killed one innocent person it’s as if you’ve killed all of humanity’,” says Basit Koshul, a lecturer in comparative religion at Concordia College, in Moorhead, Minn. “To kill someone unjustly and then say to yourself that you’re going to go to heaven and won’t have to submit to judgment, it’s very problematic.”

On The West Bank, Jews and Arabs are engaged in a life-and-death political struggle. In America, our anxieties are more personal. Lotz looks around her and sees a world devastated by sadness and fear. Her beloved parents are ailing. Her brother-in-law died last year of a brain tumor. Disease, the economy, drive-by shootings, school shootings, kidnappings and other perils of contemporary society have left us in need, she says, of “assurance and hope.” Her book “Heaven: My Father’s House” was in the works before the September 11 attacks, but afterward, her publisher rushed it into print. The book, which describes in detail what heaven will be like based on her interpretation of Revelation, has spent the past six months on the Christian Bookseller Association best-seller list.

The book appeals because it’s like the theological version of comfort food. Lotz compares heaven to a dream home, one that is safe, that’s all paid for, that shelters your loved ones. In Lotz’s heaven, God is the head of the house, the kind father who leaves the porch light on for the arrival of his beloved children. Lotz even gives the dimensions of heaven. It’s a cube, 1,500 miles on a side, “as large as the area from Canada to Mexico, and from the Atlantic Ocean to the Rockies. It could easily accommodate 20 billion residents, each having his or her own private 75-acre cube or room or mansion. This would still leave plenty of room for streets, parks, and public buildings.”

More-progressive Christian theologians go crazy when they hear someone give the coordinates for heaven. “There’s no specific teaching on where heaven is or what it is,” says Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College and author of “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven … But Never Dreamed of Asking.” “The Bible doesn’t give directions from downtown Cleveland.”

So does heaven, as a concept, actually motivate people to action? Well, yes, but not by itself. There is no doubt that the heaven being promoted on the West Bank provides disaffected youth with powerful visions of a better place. Georgetown’s Voll doesn’t think that the virgins carry much weight with the Palestinian martyrs; unlike the Iranians in the 1980s, teenagers on the West Bank do have access to sex. More seductive is that you would have “a house, regular food, prosperity,” he says. “You would have flowing water; someone wouldn’t be bombing your well. If you had lived without all that stuff for the first 15 or 20 years of your life, heaven would sound pretty good with or without 72 virgins.”

But while heaven talk is motivating and justifying, and an integral part of the rhetoric of jihad, it’s not the sole impulse behind any terrorist act. The suicide bombers as well as the Qaeda terrorists are also motivated by baser passions, whether they be political beliefs, personal hatreds, financial concerns or yearnings for notoriety. “We have to see some sort of personal motivation on the part of these terrorists,” says Jonathan Brockopp, assistant professor of religion at Bard College. “They’re in this in some ways for themselves.” Indeed, on the West Bank, a new breed of secular martyr is emerging, young men and women who use the rhetoric of politics, not religion, to justify their acts.

It wasn’t that long ago that the majority of Americans still went regularly to church or synagogue and could probably recite the catechism or the Ten Commandments. And to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the nature of their faith, believers saw these acts of devotion—going to confession, giving to the shul, helping other people, saying your prayers—as assurance of rewards in the hereafter. Now, among mainline Christians, hardly anyone in the pulpit preaches about heaven anymore, and among the faithful there’s a “demise of the conviction that actions have real consequences,” says Randall Balmer, professor of American religion at Barnard College. Even evangelical Christians, who do preach on heaven, eschew the idea that a lifetime of good works guarantees entree to paradise. The only thing you need to do to get to heaven is accept Jesus Christ as your savior, says Lotz. With that simple act, murderers can get in, she says, and terrorists can, too.

If one can make the mental leap to imagine God in heaven, meting out judgment at the final hour, it’s not so much more of a stretch to believe that, in his or her wisdom, God must be able to sort out the bad guys from the good, and twisted rationalizations from what is true.

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