John Lennon urged us: “Imagine there’s no heaven/ It’s easy if you try/ No hell below us/ Above us only sky …” Yet Americans aren’t turning to Lennonism any faster than Leninism. Today, 81 percent say they believe in heaven—an increase of 10 percent since a decade ago. Of those, 71 percent say it is “an actual place.” Indeed, 43 percent believe their pets—cats, rats, and snakes—are headed into the hereafter with them to be stroked for eternity. America’s branch of heaven is crammed full, even as the European and Asian wings are long since dissolved by the brisk winds of reason and skepticism.
So why can’t Americans get over the Pearly Gates? In Heaven, Newsweek’s religion correspondent, Lisa Miller, has written a fascinating millenniums-long history of the idea of heaven, spliced with some surprisingly mediocre reporting on present-day believers. At its core is a (very politely administered) slap to the American consensus. The heaven you think you’re headed to—a reunion with your lost relatives in the light—is a very recent invention, only a little older than Goldman Sachs. Most of the believers in heaven across most of history would find it unrecognizable.