Tuesday, May 11, 2010

"Heaven" by Lisa Miller - a book review

When I was a little kid, first grade or so, I had a nightmare about Chilly Willie, the penguin cartoon character. Chilly was out in the ocean and he drowned. But that wasn’t the scary part. The scary part was seeing the bird sitting on a cloud in heaven. And he was going to be there, doing nothing for ever. That boredom was what scared me.
That’s why I was happy to see that Lisa Miller, in her book Heaven (Harper Collins 2010), included a chapter entitled “Is Heaven Boring?” Because a lot of adults wonder about that, it isn’t just the mini-me. Miller explores many interesting questions about heaven and the answers provided by the monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) for the last few millennia. Ideas about Heaven from culture (Dante) to pop culture (The Lovely Bones) are also presented.
Miller is Jewish, the religion editor of Newsweek and skeptical herself about the existence of heaven. But her interviews with followers of various faiths are fair and respectful. She calls Anne Graham Lotz (Billy’s daughter) a friend and listens politely (and uncomfortably) to Anne pleas to take the Christian path to Heaven. She also writes about her respect for prominent atheists.
It is interesting to follow the history of views of Heaven through the years and the various ways heaven is viewed today. Is Heaven a physical place or purely spiritual? Does one get entrance to Heaven through faith or works or does everyone get in? How does one’s view of Heaven affect the way one lives life? The varied answers to these questions that Miller finds are intriguing, sometime funny, and thought provoking.
I knew a lot of the things that Miller writes about. I remembered from my seminary days about Augustine’s teaching that unbaptized babies would not get into heaven. (The Bishop of Hippo wrote that just as the thief on the cross would enter Heaven based on his faith, though he was not baptized; babies who are baptized enter Heaven though they have not faith.) I hadn’t known (or remembered) that the church father went on to argue that there was a special baby hell, wherein baby souls wouldn’t really even notice their torture. (Baby hell is a concept worth pondering.)
I was unaware of some of the Muslim theories of the intermediary state between death and the Resurrection. This is a theory that two angels with green eyes and long fangs test the newly dead with a series of questions. Those who pass the test with flying colors will get a window view of heaven. Second tier corpses will get a window to hell with the assurance that they won’t go there. Third level is pretty bad because your grave will be set afire and fourth is worse because your sins are turned into wild animals that will attack you.
I also found fascinating the archeological evidence that in ancient Israel, people kept their ancestors bones under there house and may have consulted and/or worshiped them.
Miller can, of course, present no definitive conclusions with her research. But she seems to believe that it is a challenge to rationalism to believe in Heaven and is very uncomfortable with the idea that there is only one route to get there.
Obviously, these are difficult questions. But I believe in a powerful God who can do as He chooses. And that He has graciously choose to give life to His people after life on this earth.
And as to that question of whether Heaven is boring, I came to my own conclusions when I attended camp as a kid, a few years after that penguin dream. A speaker at camp pointed to the beauty around us (the spectacular Sierra Nevada Mountains) and the fun we’d had though the week (swimming, games, archery, great food) and said that a God who thought up such great things would have even better things to come. For me, that answered my fear. That’s when I trusted Christ for forgiveness of my sins and began looking forward to Heaven.

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