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New book explores visions of heaven

“Heaven Is for Real,” “90 Minutes in Heaven,” “Proof of Heaven.”

All are books that tell the story of people – a 3-year-old boy, a Christian minister, a Charlotte-born neurosurgeon – who claim they died, went to heaven, and came back to report what they’d encountered.

And all are mega-bestsellers that testify to our continued fascination with the prospect of life after death.

Now there’s a new book, “Visions of Heaven: A Journey Through the Afterlife,” that traces the idea of heaven as it has evolved from ancient times to today’s near-death experiences. Author Lisa Miller tells us, for example, that Augustine (354-430 A.D.) wrote in “The City of God” that everybody in heaven will have the body of a 30-year-old, that women will be more beautiful in death than in life, and that those fat on earth will be thin in heaven.

“Visions of Heaven” is filled with striking portraits of heaven, as imagined by artists over the centuries.

Miller, who is Jewish and works as a contributing editor at New York magazine, told the Observer in a recent interview that she discovered one common thread in all the first-person accounts of going to heaven and back. Whether medieval, contemporary, Christian or Jewish, the authors all claim that no words could adequately describe the wonders they’d seen.

Here’s an edited interview.

Q. Heaven seems to bring out the best and the worst in people.

A. Heaven gives us great comfort – especially when the people we love are dying. We think, “I will see them again in heaven.” There is nothing more comforting than that.

It can also and has historically for millennia created in-groups and out-groups. “We the good ones are going to heaven and you the bad ones are not.” During the Crusades, Christians believed they were the good ones. Now, when we think of terrorist activities, we think of fundamentalist Muslims who say they’re the good ones.

Q. How is our fascination today different than in the past?

A. It’s the same and different. There have always been stories of people traveling to heaven and seeing wonders there and coming back to earth, changed forever and determined to tell the masses that heaven is real. That is essentially the plot of the (Bible’s) Book of Revelation.

So the narrative isn’t different. What is different now is that we’re not talking about Jesus to quite the same extent as we were in previous millennia. In general, you can say the popular visions of heaven contain God less often that they did even 50 or 60 years ago.

You have to be careful, though, because the various popular manifestations today are different. The (Colton) Burpo story (in “Heaven Is for Real,” a book and movie about a 3-year-old’s experience) is about God. But the story told by (Charlotte-born surgeon) Eben Alexander in “Proof of Heaven” is less about a traditional Christian God. There’s a God-presence, a God-spirit, and there’s obviously the supernatural. But you don’t see Jesus on the throne or the images from Revelation at all.

Q. Two former popes were recently canonized as saints at the Vatican. And we bestow a sort of unofficial sainthood on martyrs such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Is this fascination with sainthood related to our feelings about heaven? Do we think good people who have died have God’s ear or can intervene miraculously in our lives?

A. One of the big dividing lines in terms of heaven belief is: Who’s up there?

In the Catholic tradition, you see all kinds of people – relatives, saints, people from the Bible like Mary. It’s very comforting to imagine a heaven where the people we think of as the greatest exemplars of humans are up there, leading the way.

But the Protestant Reformation was very much a reaction against that. It’s not about social life, it’s not about hierarchy, it’s not about specific exemplars. It’s about you and God, it’s about communing with God. Period. So people in the Baptist tradition, for example, are very much opposed to any kind of elevating humans to that kind of position of sainthood.

Q. What about hell? I’ve seen polls that say many more people believe in heaven that in hell.

A. That is definitely true. With the decline in adherents to organized religion, the belief in hell is declining as well. It’s for the same reason: For people in an increasingly diverse country (like the United States), it’s very, very hard to hold fast to a condemning faith.

That has been the problem among young evangelicals with gay friends. They don’t want to believe that their gay friends are going to hell.

But there’s a counter-trend as well: The fastest-growing religions across the world are still the very conservative fire-and-brimstoney ones like Pentecostalism and very conservative brands of evangelicalism. They are growing very fast in Africa and parts of Asia and even here, where there is a liking for rules and clarity and a sense of certainty.

Q. You’ve studied heaven as much as anyone. Is heaven real for you?

A. There’s an early Christian idea of heaven that I really love, and it continued on through the 19th century. It’s about creating heaven among us. So we do good things on earth, we love each other, we try to be less selfish than we instinctively want to be. Because it’s what God wants of us and it sort of emulates the perfection of heaven. There is something in that idea that I find so moving, and that I can cling to.

There’s a second idea that’s more connected to my (Jewish) tradition: There was a group of first-century Jews who believed that when they prayed, they were opening the door to heaven and doing, in real time, what the angels in heaven were doing. And I have found that, during services, when we’re all singing, that you have a feeling of the past morphing into present morphing into future, that time stops having its normal meaning and that we are all together, all connected.