Last week, while I was ill, celebrating Easter, and enjoying time with family, I missed this excerpt in Newsweek. The excerpt is from the new book, Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With the Afterlife, by Lisa Miller. (The full first chapter is available from Harper.)
In most of our popular conceptions, we have bodies in heaven: selves, consciousness, identity. We do things. People yearn for reunions in heaven with friends and relatives—and even with their pets. “I want to lay my head on Grandma Lucy’s lap,” the Christian memoirist Barbara Brown Taylor wrote in an essay. “I want to shell field peas with Fannie Belle and listen to Schubert with Earl.” Some people imagine heaven as the place where their most material yearnings are fulfilled. The evangelist Billy Graham once spoke of driving a yellow Cadillac in heaven; the heroine of Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones eats peppermint ice cream; suicide bombers in the Middle East fantasize about the sexual ministrations of 72 dark-eyed virgins. In all these visions, embodiment is the crux of the matter. If you don’t have a body in heaven, then what kind of heaven are you hoping for?
Despite the insistence of the most conservative branches of all three Western religions on resurrection as an incontrovertible fact, most of us are circumspect. The number of Americans who say they believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ has dropped 10 points since 2003 to 70 percent, according to the most recent Harris poll; only 26 percent of Americans think that they’ll have bodies in heaven, according to a 1997 Time/CNN poll. Thanks to the growth here of Eastern religions, reincarnation—the belief that after death a soul returns to earth in another body—is gaining adherents. Nearly 30 percent of 2003 Harris poll respondents said they believed in reincarnation; of self-professed Christians, that number was 21 percent. Reincarnation and resurrection have, traditionally, been mutually exclusive. Among Christian conservatives, a private hope of reincarnation would be seen as not just illogical but heretical.
N. T. Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham, England. “People have been told so often that resurrection is just a metaphor,” he once told my editor Jon Meacham and me in an interview for this magazine. “In other words, [Jesus] went to heaven, whatever that means. And they’ve never realized that the word ‘resurrection’ simply didn’t mean that. If people [in the first century] had wanted to say that he died and went to heaven, they had perfectly good ways of saying that.” The whole point of the Christian story is that the Resurrection really happened, Wright insists. The disciples rolled back the rock on the third day, and Jesus’ body was gone.
And so, the paradox. Resurrection may be unbelievable, but belief in a traditional heaven requires it.