A strange fact about modern American life: although 71 percent of us believe in an afterlife (says George Gallup), no one much talks about it. Christians believe that we will spend eternity in a splendid place called heaven. Percentages don’t apply to eternity, of course; but for the sake of argument, assume that 99 percent of our existence will take place in heaven. Isn’t it a little bizarre that we simply ignore heaven, acting as if it doesn’t matter?

The past four annual volumes of the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature record a grand total of zero articles on heaven. Many articles concern old age, many are about death, some are on out-of-the-body experiences, but none are about heaven. More surprisingly, the Religion Index to Periodicals references only a handful of articles on heaven: two, for instance, during the years 1981–82.

This modern situation differs from the past, when heaven aroused great interest. A good library will contain dusty 1,000-page anthologies from the nineteenth century, of poetic and prose imaginings of what heaven will be like.

What happened? At least three reasons may help explain the mystery.

1. Affluence has given us in this life what former generations longed for in anticipation of heaven. We now have (most of us in the West, at least) relief from pain, plentiful food, and surroundings of beauty and luxury. The biblical promise of such a state has lost some of its luster.

Karl Marx criticized religion as the “opiate of the people” because it promised the lower classes “pie in the sky” in order to lull them away from wanting it now. Marx’s critique sounds quaint today, because few people are promising pie in the sky anymore; religious organizations such as the World Council of Churches and ...

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