Heaven and America

Gary Scott Smith’s book, Heaven in the American Imagination (Oxford, 2011), was on the seminary’s new aquisition shelf a while ago, so I picked it up. A professor at Grove City College, Smith has done an admirable job of creating a history of how Americans have viewed Heaven. From Jonathan Edwards’s sermons to the mass hysteria following Michael Jackson’s death, he examines records, largely from popular culture, to explain what people in the United States have thought about the afterlife. In addition to mainstream ideas, which occupy most of the text, Smith also explains what various cults and fringe groups have taught and believed about where people go when they die. The research that went into the work is impressive, and Smith’s organization of the material makes it easy to keep track of many ideas over some 360 pages.

With no lack of fascinating material, the one fault running through the book is what must be Smith’s historiographical approach: he chronicles much, from idiocy to heresy to biblical truth, but rarely makes evaluative comments. It would have been very balancing to have Smith compare errant perspectives on Heaven with Scripture’s truth, perhaps pointing out why unbiblical views are so clouded by man’s sinful, very limited ability to derive or imagine a truly happy and holy place. If I read the book again, I will likely have Ted Donnelly’s Heaven and Hell in my left hand.

That said, the book was helpful in understanding this country (of which I am not a native), especially the last two chapters that deal with views of Heaven in the last 100 years. Smith left me feeling thankful that Americans – or any creatures – have no say in what Heaven is really like. “[N]o eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him, but these things God has revealed to us by the Spirit”. (I Cor. 2:9-10)