How Heaven Became a Secular Word

A new movie shows how difficult it is to portray the afterlife in a non-religious culture.

Hieronymus Bosch / Wikimedia

In 1997, when Kate Bosworth was in her teens, she had a small role as an extra on 7th Heaven. The show was the late-’90s, early-aughts version of Leave It to Beaver with just a touch more church, full of family-centered plot lines and values like love and hope and perseverance. Nearly two decades later, the actress has returned to her wholesome, otherworldly roots, starring in 90 Minutes in Heaven as the strong-willed wife of a preacher (Hayden Christensen) who dies, goes to heaven, and reluctantly returns to spread the message of hope on earth.

When Bosworth thinks about heaven, she doesn’t particularly think of a man on a white horse, or Jesus, or thrones. She and her film-director husband, Michael Polish, worked together on the movie, and when I asked whether it had made her think about the existence of God and heaven, she said it would have been “impossible not to.”

“I would love to have either Mike waiting for me or me waiting for Mike with our dogs running around—I mean, that’s heaven, you know?” she said. “Whatever heaven is for each individual, that would certainly be it for me.”

This sense of a vague, happy afterlife, filled with romping animals and loving relationships, is the one embraced by 90 Minutes in Heaven. The story and its depictions are based on the testimony of a real-life preacher named Don Piper, who described the Pearly Gates in great detail in his best-selling book about his experience. The movie spends a good number of minutes imagining scenes from the beyond, filled with trippy pastels and all the smiling white people you’ll supposedly see in heaven. According to Polish, these images are at least somewhat based on those described in the Christian scriptures, but they’re light on concrete details—Jesus, for example, is nowhere to be found.

That’s what’s so curious about the project. It’s a movie funded by Christians and based on the testimony of a Christian, yet it lacks any of the detail work of a heavenly kingdom ruled by God. 90 Minutes in Heaven is no Dante or Hieronymus Bosch, but for that, Polish and co. can be forgiven: It’s a fascinating example of how hard it is to engage with the idea of the afterlife in modern times. Even for overtly religious art, it’s difficult to escape the expectation that the imagery and message should be palatable to a secular audience, which leads to a certain fuzziness in portraying what heaven might actually be like.

According to Polish and the Pipers and the lead actors, the movie isn’t just intended for a religious audience; it’s an attempt to take a faith story and make it a human story, “a classical, epic tale,” as Bosworth put it. As far as Hollywood goes, this goal is noteworthy, in itself; faith-themed films are on the rise, but it’s unusual for these kinds of movies to embrace high production values and a non-preachy, cinematic air. The result, though, is a bit perplexing—something in the mushy middle between strong theology and the grim embrace of rotting bodies among the earth and worms. Heaven is depicted as neutral-good, as ethereal a place as CGI animation could be expected to muster.

To be fair, it’s almost a trick question to ask a film director how he goes about “accurately” depicting heaven. “I don’t think it’s possible not to follow a Hallmark route,” Polish said. “What you’re doing is taking creative license, almost like saying, ‘I’m going to redo The Last Supper.’”

This is one of the major challenges of making a heaven-themed flick: There will always be an impossible burden of literality. Most major religions have texts that describe an afterlife, and while a lot of them include similar imagery (rivers, happy people), they’re all slightly different in the details. And presumably, if heaven is a state of being beyond this life and this consciousness, it’s also beyond human comprehension—a difficult challenge for post-production.

The heaven of 90 Minutes is more than a metaphor, but just barely.

But there’s a contextual challenge, too. Even in the United States, where roughly 71 percent of Americans identify as Christian, it’s impossible to assume that all members of an audience share the same convictions about the nature of life after death. Some religious people believe in a very specific story of the afterlife, with a new Temple and court systems, or with a rapture and ascension. Some non-religious people believe life is confined to its material form; we are our physical bodies, and after death, our matter will meld with the other atoms of the earth. But in the common parlance, heaven is mostly a generic synonym for pleasantness, comfort, and happiness. This is the “heaven” in heavenly chocolate cake, the sexual paradise of Bruno Mars’s imagination. The heaven of 90 Minutes is more than metaphor, but just barely—it’s mostly a stand-in for hope, a salve for difficult times.

There’s a rich history of art made about heaven, and it hasn’t always been this way. Dante had the benefit of writing the Divine Comedy in a time when pretty much everyone in his sphere of influence agreed about the nature of the afterlife. Accordingly, his imagery is awe-some, in the hyphenated sense of the word. In the final book of his famous trio, Paradiso, Dante follows his guide, Beatrice, to the dwelling land of God, which he describes in stunning detail:

In fashion, as a snow-white rose, lay then
Before my view the saintly multitude,
Which in his own blood Christ espous’d.  Meanwhile
That other host, that soar aloft to gaze
And celebrate his glory, whom they love,
Hover’d around; and, like a troop of bees,
Amid the vernal sweets alighting now,
Now, clustering, where their fragrant labour glows,
Flew downward to the mighty flow’r, or rose
From the redundant petals, streaming back
Unto the steadfast dwelling of their joy.
Faces had they of flame, and wings of gold;
The rest was whiter than the driven snow.

In trying to make a mass-market film for 2015, Polish had no such luck. He did seem to understand the awkwardness of his position; as he was describing heaven in an interview, he flipped back and forth between asserting the truth of heaven and offering a more relativistic shrug. “Heaven means different things to different people. I would like my heaven to have a little more grass, maybe a white-picket fence, maybe some animals,” he said. But to depict heaven in the movie, “I ended up asking [Don Piper], the person that had been there … It’s very hard to hit a home run on this one. I did Don Piper’s heaven—I believe it’s the heaven he saw.”

God does show up in the movie here and there. Throughout the film, the fictional Don frequently calls out to the Almighty, lamenting his pain and the responsibility he’s been given to keep living. The last few minutes also show the real-life Don preaching about his experience—his message, as the tagline to the movie puts it, is “Hope lives!” In an interview, the Pipers affirmed their desire for the movie to serve as a form of witness. “We are Christians. We believe that the way to heaven is clear,” Don Piper said. Even so, the couple was mostly focused on sharing the broadly accessible meaning of heaven: comfort. “People were looking for hope about overcoming tragedy and suffering and loss,” Piper said.

More than anything else, this seems to capture the purpose of the movie: It’s a story meant to make people feel good. “I’m personally drawn to sort of darker material,” Christensen told me. “But half of the appeal in this story is that you feel like you’re showing the triumph of the human spirit.”

The heaven of 90 Minutes is not secular in the sense that it’s totally unconnected from God and religion. But it is secular in that it transforms a theologically specific concept into something totally general, an afterlife destination open to all. There’s nothing wrong with that, and in a way, it belies a certain kind of pluralistic progress. For example: Christensen said he grew up identifying as a Christian, despite having parents who weren’t very religious. In making 90 Minutes, “I felt a connection to those beliefs,” he said. “I walked away from the experience feeling like I had met some of the classiest, most decent people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.”

This is a movie made for an culture that is attached to and admires the hope of faith. But it isn’t a film of conviction, one that embraces the teeth of theology alongside the nice parts. Maybe that’s what religious art in a pluralistic, largely secular culture has to look like. The creations to mourn aren’t the Ben-Hurs; they’re all the Empyreans that have yet to be imagined.