Imagine There’s a Heaven

An expert on the Devil writes a history of the celestial city.
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A History of Heaven: The Singing Silence,by Jeffrey Burton Russell (Princeton University Press, 220 pp.; $24.95, hardcover). Reviewed by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, who teaches history, literature, and women's studies at Emory University.

Traditionally, the promise of heaven has offered Christians—and, in different ways, Jews and Muslims—the reward for the suffering they endure and the virtues they strive to practice during their life on earth. The Christian understanding of heaven depends upon and embodies the realization of the victory over death that Jesus offered and, beyond that, the indescribable joy of abiding within the radiance of God's love.

Jeffrey Burton Russell, professor of history and religious studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara and author of a magisterial, four-volume history of the Devil, begins this extraordinary book with the reminder that heaven represents the fulfillment of our existential longing for ultimate connection. Normal human beings, he writes, long for "three things that cannot be attained in this life: understanding of self, understanding of others, understanding of the cosmos." Indeed, he insists, we are created precisely "for the connection with others, for the connection with the cosmos, for the dynamic connection among ourselves and with God." Our pleas for connection are often met with silence, "but if we listen, the silence sings to us." Heaven is that singing silence: "Heaven is reality itself; what is not heaven is less real. Hell is the contradiction of heaven; it is the absence of reality."

That the reality of heaven transcends human understanding, imagination, and expression has never dissuaded human beings from fashioning images and descriptions of it. ...

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