Heaven Lost and Heaven Found

HEAVEN IS FOR REAL? Not to many people over the past 200 years. Belief in heaven has decreased in some parts of the globe, as both modern and postmodern thought offer reasons for not believing. But in other places, heaven is still as real as ever. 

Out of this world

While we may think of “modern” as something happening last week or last month, for historians the era of modern thought stretches from the seventeenth century to the late twentieth and is defined by the tendency to see natural science as the only way to truth. Copernicus (1473–1543) offered the first mathematical demonstration that the earth revolves around the sun, and Galileo (1564–1642) furnished telescopic evidence (among other supports) for the claim. 

By the eighteenth century, most educated people accepted that the sun is at the center of the “heavens.” This change had great consequences. Until Galileo it was still respectable to believe that heaven is above all the planetary spheres and hell is under the earth. After him, people began to use the idea of heaven being “up” only as metaphor. 

But the shift to a metaphorical “up” was not the only implication of Galileo’s work. His view that the Bible had to be reconciled with observation of the natural world had further implications in intellectual circles. Philosophers began to favor what they could see over what they could not—although some still approved of the doctrine of heaven based on fear that without a future life reward or punishment, people would abandon morality. 

Several thinkers helped point the way away from heaven. Francis Bacon (1561–1626) divided all knowledge into the practical and the speculative: Christianity at large, especially heaven, seemed wholly “other-worldly” ideas that needed to be replaced by practical natural philosophy (the original word for what we call “science”). 

Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) held that the Bible must be read, not as revelation, but as any other historical document. David Hume (1711–1776) was skeptical of everything, even natural science, but he found science less dubious than religion. Hume believed that only the knowledge attained by observation of the natural world is worth considering; all evidence from religion is suspect. Instead of evaluating personal testimony, Hume argued that people should focus on the empirical examination of evidence, preferably in ways that can be counted and measured. Among skeptics and Deists (those who believed that God, while he may have created the world, no longer intervenes in it in any supernatural way), the attitude became, “Since we can’t know about heaven, what is the point of talking about it?” 

Pie in the sky when you die

History, philosophy, theology, and experience still held roles in discussions of heaven. But the idea that objective truth could come from history, philosophy, theology, and experience was also undermined in the nineteenth century. Philosopher and economist Karl Marx (1818–1883) argued that religious beliefs are a “false consciousness,” deriving from the alienation of the underprivileged social classes from reality.

Belief in heaven, he thought, only suppresses any urge for oppressed people to improve their physical well-being on earth: “Man, who has found only the reflection of himself in the fantastic reality of heaven, where he sought a supernatural being, will no longer be tempted to find the mere appearance of himself. . . . Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” 

The material abundance achieved by technology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries further encouraged people to replace hope of heaven with hope of overcoming suffering and death in this world. Naturalist Charles Darwin’s (1809–1882) description of evolution through wholly natural means permitted materialists to construct a view that excludes any sort of overall purpose from the cosmos. 

While some nineteenth-century Christians saw no incompatibility between Christianity and evolution, it became a particularly useful philosophy for atheists who believed that all thought, and the human mind itself, develop gradually through genetic modification. John W. Draper (1811–1882) and Andrew Dickson White (1832–1918) famously declared, in the face of much competing evidence, that religion and science are necessarily at war (see CH’s issues 107, Debating Darwin and 76, The Christian Face of the Scientific Revolution). Pragmatism, another philosophy arising in the twentieth century, held that any knowledge that did not have positive practical results was useless. 

In fact, one of the ways G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936), C. S. Lewis (1898–1963), and other Christian public intellectuals rose to prominence was through their opposition to materialist and pragmatic views—such as the famous passage in Lewis’s The Silver Chair where the witch tries to convince the heroes that their idea of the “sun” is only based on lightbulbs and their idea of Aslan on house cats. Puddleglum the Marshwiggle responds, “Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. . . . We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play world which licks your real world hollow.” 

earthly bread

In more recent decades, the “modern” world of science and rationalism has given way to a “postmodern” one of feelings, images, and stories. Postmodernism too has long roots in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) and nineteenth-century romantics, who valued feeling more than thinking. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) argued that no ideals are real—truth, reason, progress, humanity, God, and heaven. We can’t know anything, Nietzsche said, and religious ideas least of all. German poet Heinrich Heine (1797–1856) expressed similar views: 

Enough bread grows here on earth,
For all mankind’s nutrition,
Roses too, myrtles, beauty and joy,
And green peas, in addition....
To the angels and the sparrows,
We leave Heaven and its Gods.
And, if after death, we’ve grown some wings,
We’ll pay you a visit up there,
To share the holiest tarts and cakes
Your heavenly cooks prepare.

Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) argued that the irrational, unconscious mind is a junkyard of repressed longings and wish-fulfillments. His idea of God and heaven as constituting “wish-fulfillment,” still influential today, derived from his theory of the Oedipus complex (named for mythical Greek hero Oedipus who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother). 

According to the Oedipus complex, all boys long to kill their fathers and marry their mothers; they repress this longing into their unconscious, where the feelings fester, causing such terrible guilt and remorse that they must create a God to relieve the guilt. Another founder of modern psychology, Carl Jung (1875–1961), while taking religion much more seriously than Freud, believed heaven is the product of the creative unconscious; he did not think it exists outside the human mind. 

Among twentieth-century intellectuals, deconstructionists such as Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) and Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) dismissed all knowledge as mere products of individual preferences, so that everyone creates his or her own reality (though that did not stop them from crediting science as being more “real” than religion). Existentialist Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) and the influential “Vienna Circle” that followed him insisted that all statements not verifiable by experience are simply meaningless. All these views undermined the idea that we can know about heaven through historical and theological examination. 

Philosopher and critic Michel Foucault (1926–1984), describing how society progresses in the absence of a dominant church influence, ended up convincing two generations of scholars that the pursuit of power is the dominant motive of human activity. Practical pressures reduced Christian influence as well: violent repression of Christians and their beliefs occurred under dictators such as Hitler, Stalin, Khrushchev, and Mao (see CH’s issue 109, Eyewitnesses to the Modern Age of Persecution).

But heaven was undermined by pressures internal as well as external to Christianity. The type of biblical interpretation known as “higher criticism” attacked the credibility of the Bible. Other scholars saw Christianity as a social phenomenon subject to sociological rather than philosophical investigation. In such views the “supernatural” is confused with “superstition” (though the two words have no connection any more than either has with “supermarket.”)

Under such influences, many Christian leaders from the late nineteenth century on worked to accommodate secular thought. The 1960s, which featured a revolt against the past and tradition in general, also brought growing interest in non-Christian religions and in New Age beliefs. Many who adopted these views replaced heaven as the goal of humanity with an undefined “progress.” Mainline Protestants became shy in talking about heaven, emphasizing social reform and theologies intending to make Christianity relevant to modern culture. This often led to viewing heaven as simply part of the Christian story, held up along with all the other valid “stories” of a postmodern world. 

“I want my stuff”

In addition to intellectual movements focusing on the material world rather than the supernatural one, heaven in the twentieth century also fell prey to plain old materialism: the collection of more and more stuff. 

As people attained a greater and greater prosperity in the things of this world, they became less and less interested in the other one: surveys indicate that (at least in the United States) belief in heaven declines among people making over $150,000 a year. On one exam asking students to compare Socrates and Jesus on the subject of worldly wealth, a professor got the honest answer: “I don’t care what Jesus or Socrates thought, I want my stuff.” 

But in many ways, heaven is reviving. Beliefs focused on a possible imminent return of Christ came back to prominence with the rise of fundamentalism and Pentecostalism. And heaven and hell appear in the contemporary Catechism of the Catholic Church (although not always in Sunday sermons). 

The Eastern Orthodox maintain a strong confidence in the doctrine, having always resisted attempts to pin down doctrines any more firmly than the church fathers did. For the Orthodox heaven is less a doctrine to be believed than a guide to the practice of discipleship—turning believers into the kinds of people who would want to go to heaven. 

In the twenty-first century, vibrant Christian beliefs have been spreading among the poor, and in Asia and Africa more than in Europe or the Americas (see CH issue 79, African Apostles). But even in developed countries, thinkers such as Lewis, Karl Barth (1886–1968), and Benedict XVI (b. 1927, pope 2005–2013) have emphasized heaven’s centrality and influenced secular and Christian thought. 

The future of belief in heaven seems to be brightening in some parts of the world and dimming in others. But as long as Christianity is rooted in the Bible, belief in heaven must persist—and belief in its prime characteristic: the immeasurable love that God has for his people and that Christian people are supposed to have for each other. Whether or not heaven remains in fashion among elites and intellectuals, God’s love for all his people, and his desire to have them with him always, will never cease. CH

By Jeffrey Burton Russell

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #112 in 2014]

Jeffrey Burton Russell is the author of A History of Heaven: The Singing Silence, and Paradise Mislaid: How We Lost Heaven—and How We Can Regain It.
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Issue 112

Christian History Magazine #112 - Heaven

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