The History Of Heaven


Johann Hari reviews Lisa Miller's new book:

The heaven you think you're headed to--a reunion with your lost relatives in the light--is a very recent invention, only a little older than Goldman Sachs. Most of the believers in heaven across most of history would find it unrecognizable.

Heaven is constantly shifting shape because it is a history of subconscious human longings. Show me your heaven, and I'll show you what's lacking in your life. The desert-dwellers who wrote the Bible and the Quran lived in thirst--so their heavens were forever running with rivers and fountains and springs. African-American slaves believed they were headed for a heaven where "the first would be last, and the last would be first"--so they would be the free men dominating white slaves. Today's Islamist suicide-bombers live in a society starved of sex, so their heaven is a 72-virgin gang-bang.

The dark side of paradise:

Even some atheists regard heaven as one of the least harmful religious ideas: a soothing blanket to press onto the brow of the bereaved. But, in fact, its primary function for centuries was as a tool of control and intimidation. The Vatican, for example, declared it had a monopoly on St. Peter's VIP listand only those who obeyed the church authorities' every command and paid them vast sums for Get-Out-of-Hell-Free cards would get themselves and their children into it. The afterlife was a means of tyrannizing people in this life.

Miller described her book in last week's Newsweek. Douthat defends his faith.