Back From Heaven
In May 2011, Gallup conducted its annual "Values and Beliefs" poll, seeking to quantify religious demographics and beliefs in America. One question struck a national nerve, eliciting a consensus that defied religious or cultural distinctions. The question: Do you believe in heaven? The answer: Yes, overwhelmingly. But while Americans may agree that heaven exists, figuring out what that exactly that means is a bit more complicated. And as death remains incurable, billions of people are quite curious about where they will (or will not) spend eternity. So, what comes next? Well, it depends whom you ask.
These days, many Americans are getting their information from Colton Burpo of Imperial, Nebraska. In 2003, three-year-old Colton was taken to the hospital with severe abdominal pain and rushed into the operating room for an emergency appendectomy. After the surgery, Colton casually remarked to his parents, "I went up out of my body and I was looking down and I could see the doctor working on my body." He continued: "that's where the angels sang to me."
Colton's father, an evangelical pastor, started writing this stuff down; in November 2010, he published Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of his Trip to Heaven and Back. The book has, in a word, exploded. It has spent 70 consecutive weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list—including 52 weeks at #1—and sold over 6 million copies, making Heaven is for Real the best-selling nonfiction book of 2011 (Steve Jobs: A Biography was a distant second). The book has also spawned a companion children's book, iPad app, and DVD-based study guide; Heaven is for Real: the Movie is being developed by Sony Pictures.
Colton, now eleven, had quite an experience up there. He describes meeting Jesus ("he has brown hair and he has hair on his face . . . his eyes are so pretty"), John the Baptist ("he was really nice"), and the angel Gabriel (also "really nice"). Colton later encountered deceased relatives, biblical characters, and God, sitting in a "really really big" chair.
For the most part, Heaven is for Real offers a pleasantly benign description of the afterlife. "Remember, Jesus really loves the children," Colton often repeats. The conclusion, however, is a bit startling: "There's going to be a war, and it's going to destroy this world," Colton tells his father one day. "Jesus and the angels and the good people are going to fight against Satan and the monsters and the bad people." There is good news: "Jesus wins. He throws Satan into hell. I saw it."
Amazing though it seems, Colton's story—and the success of Heaven is for Real—is hardly unique. On the publishing side, Heaven is for Real is just the latest in a string of bestsellers that claim to offer a glimpse of the afterlife: 90 Minutes in Heaven, The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, and 23 Minutes in Hell have all cracked the New York Times Best Seller list in the last decade. (Heaven sells better than hell, apparently.)
Moreover, according to the International Association of Near-Death Studies (IANDS), Colton is only one of the 13 million Americans who have had a near-death experience. Founded in 1981, IANDS has collected more than 800 accounts of near-death experiences, and publishes a quarterly journal (Journal of Near-Death Studies) on the topic.
According to IANDS, 83 percent of near-death experiences are "positive" ("involve intense feelings of peace, joy and love, often an encounter with an unconditionally loving light"), while the remaining 17 percent are not ("include extreme fear, isolation, non-being, confusion, occasional torment or guilt"). They've also found "no significant correlation between religious beliefs and the likelihood or depth of the near-death experience."
Near-death experiences and discussion of the afterlife are not limited to Christian bestsellers or quasi-academic institutes. Jewish texts also tackle these issues with varying degrees of detail and scope. However, like any other topic, finding the "Jewish view" of the afterlife can be challenging.
The Bible, which has spent roughly 100,000 weeks on the Best Seller list, never presents a comprehensive account of life after death, though it does contain many familiar characters from the near-death genre: Cherubs guard the entrance of Garden of Eden; a "destroying angel" wreaks havoc on Jerusalem in the book of Samuel; the angel Gabriel chats with the prophet Daniel; and Satan plays a critically acclaimed supporting role in the book of Job.
However, descriptions of the afterlife are limited. In the Book of Samuel, King Saul raises the title prophet's ghost in order to seek his advice. Samuel is not amused: "Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up?"
Where was Samuel coming from? Sheol is the next destination for departed souls in the Bible, but references to it are isolated and often contradictory in the text. On the whole, Sheol comes across as rather bleak, an underground pit where "silence reigns supreme," according to the Jewish Encyclopedia. Surprisingly, Sheol does not seem to differentiate between the righteous and wicked; it is—like this world, I suppose—the only show in town.
The Talmud includes several accounts of the afterlife, which are more detailed than the Bible but no less inscrutable. In tractate Pesahim, Rabbi Joseph ben Rabbi Joshua falls deathly ill. When he recovers, his father asks him, "What did you see?" Rabbi Joseph replies: "I saw a topsy-turvy world—the upper class was underneath and the lower class on top." Rabbi Joshua corrects him: "My son," he observes, "you saw a clear world."
In tractate Rosh Hashanah, Rav Huna recovers from a similarly life-threatening disease and recalls his own encounter with death: "I was indeed on the verge of death, but I heard the Holy One, blessed be He, pronounce, 'Since Rav Huna was forgiving of others in his lifetime and didn't demand strict judgment, we shall not judge him harshly and he shall return to life.'"
In both cases, the talmudic accounts are instructive rather than descriptive, light on details but heavy on morals. The lessons: There is an afterlife, it rectifies injustice in this world, and good behavior will be rewarded there.
So, what can one expect? Perhaps Dante's description of "Paradiso" may prove helpful: "As in a circle, light and love enclose it . . . only He who encloses understands." No matter whom you ask, the afterlife seems destined to remain a mystery.
Micah Stein was born in Cleveland, Ohio; he is currently a fellow at the Tikvah Fund.
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