Heaven’s fire department?

Early in the morning of August 31, 1997, Americans awakened to the startling news that Princess Diana had died in a Paris car crash. Even as the world mourned that week, another iconic woman passed away; eighty-seven-year-old Mother Teresa died quietly after a long and meaningful life of Christian service. The two women had met each other through their shared passion for alleviating suffering, and many media personalities commented on the irony of their dying at the same time, adding that they are “up there now, looking down on us.” 

At the British Embassy in Washington, DC, amid thousands of floral tributes, someone placed a seven-foot-high plywood placard with a painted angel, its arms outstretched. An inscription across the top read, “The angels rejoice for heaven welcomes Princess Diana and Mother Teresa.” 

While Mother Teresa’s final destination was easy for most to predict, Princess Diana’s case was less certain. Most of Diana’s fans simply assumed she had gone to heaven, that it had happened immediately upon her death, and that she was able to see, and perhaps influence, those she loved who were still on earth. Why did they think that? Was it because of her beauty or fame? Perhaps it was her tragic death or her reputation for doing good. 

Ten years later at a memorial concert in Diana’s honor, the performer Diddy offered a musical homage in which he encouraged the audience to raise their faces to the sky and tell Diana how much they miss her, confident that she is “up there” listening. 

Today, the prevailing American attitude is that all people go to heaven. Even in cases of extreme evil, studies show that Americans want to give others the benefit of the doubt, with the possible exception of child pornographers, racists, drug lords, and terrorists. According to surveys, many think that most of us are merely victims of the circumstances in which we were raised and not responsible for our actions. Many Americans can’t believe that a loving God would send people anywhere but heaven.

Survey says . . . 

According to a recent Gallup Poll, 81 percent of Americans believe in heaven; this statistic has remained steady for some fifty years. Even so, what people mean by “heaven”

has changed significantly. 

For example, some who believe in heaven also say they don’t actually believe in God. But the prevailing view in the survey was that no matter one’s religion, or lack thereof, all people will eventually attain heaven. This idea has historically been called universalism, although in previous centuries people often assumed that lengthy purgation and suffering would precede reaching those heavenly heights. 

Among news commentators and celebrities—today’s cultural arbiters—universalism is the most commonly expressed philosophy. After the planes flew into the World Trade Center towers on 9/11, a New York City firefighter told a reporter, “Heaven has some fire department now,“ expressing the view that all of the rescuers automatically went to heaven based on the honorable way they died. 

This was a common philosophy during World War II when American soldiers seemed to be fighting against the very forces of evil. It seemed somehow absurd to many that those who died fighting Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo, often in extremely horrifying circumstances, could go to hell, and it wasn’t uncommon for Americans to say things like “They’ve already been to hell”—referring to their wartime experiences. 

Ironically, Mohammed Atta, one of the 9/11 hijackers, also believed that as a result of that day’s events, he would go to heaven. Traditional Muslim teaching contends that martyrdom is the only sure way of getting to paradise. Atta wrote these instructions to himself before he boarded the plane: “Be happy, optimistic, calm, because you are heading for a deed God loves and will accept. It will be the day, God willing, you spend with the women of paradise.”

Yet, on that same day, Virginia DiChiara sustained third-degree burns over 30 percent of her body during a dramatic escape from the North Tower of the World Trade Center as a result of Atta’s desire to enter paradise. A Newsweek reporter wrote of her recovery, “She had gone to hell and then, slowly, painfully, come back.” Many others commented that people had experienced hell that day. It seemed clear to them that hell is unspeakable suffering that happens on earth, rather than a place or condition in the afterlife. 

In times of tragedy, or on the death of a beloved celebrity, national figures often echo this implicit assumption, but not always. When the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon reentry in February 2003, President George W. Bush told the stunned nation, “The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we lost today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to earth, yet we can pray that all are safely home.” These comments expressed faith in a loving God without assuming that all the astronauts knew him personally. 

More typical, however, were remarks made at the memorial service in Houston three days later by Captain Kent Rominger, chief of the Astronaut Corps. During the eulogy, he remembered the astronauts’ brave and honorable lives and addressed the deceased heroes as if they could hear him. “I know you’re listening. Please know you’re in our hearts. We will always smile when we think of you.” 

When former Beatle George Harrison died of cancer at fifty-eight, one reporter stated, “He was a cultural explorer, introducing Indian sitar to Western ears and adding Hindu thought to our consciousness. And he was a humanitarian, conceiving the all-star benefit with his 1971 Concert for Bangladesh. But let’s face it, Harrison was a Beatle, first and forever. Not a bad deal for eternity.” Because he was good-hearted, innovative, and famous, Harrison supposedly attained eternal life. Nothing else about him mattered, not his personal morality or even his religious convictions. 

Monkey shopping?

At times, public impressions border on the bizarre. When actress Elizabeth Taylor died in 2011, someone suggested that now Richard Burton could be her “forever husband,” in spite of her other six spouses. Another commentator mused that Taylor and singer Michael Jackson, her close friend who had died two years earlier, were probably in heaven . . . going monkey shopping. 

In an AARP Magazine article about afterlife attitudes among older Americans, the writer concluded, “Generally, the traditionally clear Christian vision of Heaven has declined, while the vaguer visions of the continuation of life have taken its place.” A case in point was author Edwin Shrake who, during a medical emergency, said he had an “after-life experience” that taught him “there is no heaven and hell, no Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist. Life is the gasoline that runs our engine. The machine breaks, but your spirit goes on.”

The recent popularity of the book and movie Heaven Is for Real shows how afterlife experiences have gained acceptance in our culture Many people accept near-death accounts because, after all, who can argue the validity of someone’s personal experience? A common theme among such afterlife stories is that there is nothing to fear in death, that everyone is welcome in heaven. But some argue that while these are soothing reassurances, they are not biblical—and others question how far into death people who have those encounters actually were, as they always live to tell about them. Some scientists argue that hallucinations cause these manifestations.  

When we all get to heaven

Even among some American clergy, the idea that everyone goes to heaven has taken a strong hold. Ellison Research interviewed 700 ministers from several Protestant denominations. While 96 percent of evangelicals agreed strongly that Jesus is the only way to heaven, just 65 percent of their mainline counterparts did so. 

The traditional evangelical teaching has been that the believing dead are with Christ at death—although with some debate about whether that involves immediate consciousness or whether that will occur at the Second Coming. The evangelical clergy surveyed agreed that heaven is a glorious place with an absence of pain, disease, and distress, where people get new spiritual bodies and live eternally in the presence of Jesus, while those outside of Christ go to hell. 

Conversely, the mainline clergy surveyed were more likely to state that most people go to a heaven where their fondest desires are realized and that it can either be a place or a state of being—with hell framed mainly as a concept, not a place of punishment. 

Traditionally, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches regard heaven as a gift from God following whatever purification may be necessary in purgatory (see “Another stop on the glory train?,” pp. 28–30). Hell is reserved for all those who die alienated from God. 

Most Americans today seem content to believe that just about everyone goes to heaven. They don’t want to hear that they might be mistaken, and they aren’t especially eager to delve into the subject of hell. But the traditional Christian teaching on heaven, and images of its glory, are much deeper and more challenging—as the rest of this issue of Christian History will

explore. CH

By Rebecca Price Janney

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

Rebecca Price Janney is the author of Who Goes There? A Cultural History of Heaven and Hell.
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Issue 112

Christian History Magazine #112 - Heaven

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