Newsweek explores heaven and hell
Why doesn't Newsweek let its religion reporter write its religion cover stories anymore? Last summer, music writer Lorraine Ali got to write about Christian music. Managing editor Jon Meacham wrote on the Catholic Church's abuse scandal earlier this year. Ken Woodward got to write his piece on the Qur'an vs. the Bible, but this week (as with the abuse package) he's again relegated to sidebar status. It's up to senior editor Lisa Miller to examine "Why We Need Heaven." "In the '00s, a decade known so far for its calamities, the question of what heaven is and who gets to go has taken on new urgency," she writes. "Suicide bombers and terrorists, similar to those who killed seven people at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem last week, often invoke heaven before they act, and, afterward, the survivors invoke heaven to guide them forward."

A Newsweek poll found that 76% of Americans believe in a heaven, and 71% of them believe it's a real, physical place. (The magazine's online poll is currently running at 72% believing in heaven.) Three quarters of respondents say their actions on Earth determine whether they'll go there.

Much of the article is very good, though one finishes the piece feeling like heaven is probably a nice psychological construct—in the words of a 14-year-old vacation Bible school counselor who's either not well-trained theologically or not well-quoted, Heaven is "whatever you dream it is."

There's the occasionally odd sentence, such as "Heaven was designed in part to bolster constituencies under stress," but these are fortunately rare.

Evangelicals definitely get their say, and are mainly represented by Anne Graham Lotz (whose new book, Heaven: My Father's House, is on the CBA bestseller list) and Columbia University historian Randall Balmer. Lotz's description of heaven is written off as Pollyannaish—"the theological version of comfort food," Miller calls it. It helps grieving people, but it's not intellectually respectable. Descriptions like Lotz's, she says, make "more-progressive Christian theologians go crazy."

Balmer, meanwhile, points out that mainline Christians don't preach about heaven—let alone hell—because of the "demise of the conviction that actions have real consequences." But then that's tied back to Lotz's rejection of works righteousness: "The only thing you need to do to get to heaven is accept Jesus Christ as your savior, says Lotz. With that simple act, murderers can get in, she says, and terrorists can, too." This could have used much more nuance on Newsweek's part. It's not that heaven has such a lax immigration policy that it'll even let known terrorists in—it's that the immigration policy is so tight that none of us can get in without being personally accompanied by Jesus.

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"The urge for heaven is universal; we need it the way we need love," Miller writes. But it's also divisive. "When a religious community feels endangered or at odds with the mainstream culture, a vision of heaven can be like a badge of belonging. 'This heaven is mine,' believers say. 'If you don't join me, you can't come.' And when that feeling of oppression turns to war, heaven can be a flag waved in battle."

This might have been the theme of Ken Woodward's article, "Why We Need a Hell, Too," but he knows better. Hell isn't just a psychological weapon to use to bolster faith and attack enemies. Ultimately, hell isn't for other people. It's potentially for us. "Can we have a heaven without a hell? Not if, according to the three prophetic religions, we all live under divine justice," he writes.

"If what we do now is to make no difference in the end," argued the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, "then all the seriousness of life is done away with." Ultimately, we become what we love. Hell is not a not place, but a community of those who remain outside the circle of Divine Embrace. All are called to enter heaven, but it is hubris to suppose that any one of us is worthy of a free ticket.

Emphasizing hell's essential feature as separation from God? Noting that none of us deserve heaven? Seriously, Newsweek: get Woodward out of sidebar city and assign him another cover.

Missions & ministry:

  • Bad luck foiled Christmas rescue of Burnhams | Philippine commandos were within minutes of pulling off a Christmas Day rescue of a U.S. couple held hostage by Abu Sayyaf rebels when a woman stepped on a hiding soldier's head, sending the operation into chaos. (The Philippine Star)

  • Bush authorizes payment of missionaries' settlement | U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra said President Bush's signing of the supplemental spending bill includes instructions to the U.S. Department of State to pay the family of slain Muskegon missionary Veronica "Roni" Bowers and her infant daughter (The Muskegon [Mich.] Chronicle)

  • Florida missionary killed in Romania | Pastor found body a day after 21-year-old Timothy "Luke" Snow was stabbed to death in his apartment (The Daytona Beach News-Journal)

  • Enter faith conventions, his and hers | Single-gender Christian events have different messages but loyal fans (The Dallas Morning News)

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Rowan Williams, the next Archbishop of Canterbury:

War protests:

  • Clergy protest against war on Iraq | Future archbishop of Canterbury among signers of protest document (BBC)

  • Also: Church protest on war role strongest since Suez | In contrast to the splits that appeared within the Church over the Falklands conflict, the first Gulf War and last year's Allied invasion of Afghanistan, there is a strengthening consensus against any attempt to depose President Saddam Hussein by force (The Times, London)

  • The morality of war | The threat of military intervention against Iraq has brought about a resurgence of the Church of England's moral authority (Editorial, The Guardian, London)

  • Church leaders petition No 10 | New archbishop among 3,000 signatories deploring use of war as instrument of foreign policy (The Guardian, London)

  • New war—old church rhetoric | Which war were they discussing at an international ecumenical meeting in Chevy Chase, Md., Monday—Vietnam or the war on terror? (UPI)

School vouchers:

  • AP Poll: Public mixed on vouchers | Americans tend to favor the idea of school vouchers that help send children to private or parochial schools, says an Associated Press poll, at least until they hear that could decrease the money available for public schools (Associated Press)

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Stem-cell research:

Pop culture:

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  • Sermons mounting at the fringe | After years of standing outside venues attempting to ban the filth, Bible experts have moved on to the stage at Edinburgh's Fringe Festival (The Guardian, London)

  • Earlier: From the Fringe to the Fold | The Scottish Bible Society offers cash to performers who use arts festival to spread gospel (Christianity Today, June 19)

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