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Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?
—Robert Browning

According to a recent snippet in Harper's magazine, the reach of American entrepreneurship has exceeded that of the builders of the Tower of Babel and extends into heaven itself. Afterlife Telegrams offers to deliver messages to the dead for a price of $10 a word (with a five-word minimum) by way of terminally ill patients who promise to deliver the messages upon "passing into the afterlife."

In the fine print of the agreement, however, it warns customers that it cannot guarantee the message will get through. "The truth is," Afterlife Telegrams solemnly warns, "no one knows what happens when someone dies."

According to a spate of books reaching back several years, however, it is clear that lots of people have thought they knew what happens when someone dies, and they have described it in considerable detail. Indeed, the description of heaven and other aspects of the afterlife occupies a prominent place in the history of Western ideas. Describing heaven has rarely been the result of idle speculation or objective biblical theology, but has customarily been about what is, and what should be, going on in this world.

Rose Bowl or Garden City

Several recent books present startling historical arrays of portraits of heaven. Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang's Heaven: A History has won considerable notice for its sweeping coverage of both popular and élite accounts of heaven. Jeffrey Burton Russell covers much the same ground in his more recent survey, A History of Heaven, but is stuck on Dante's vision. In The Early History of Heaven, J. Edward Wright examines views of heaven outside Israel and the church that might have influenced biblical concepts. ...

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June 2003

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