Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Heaven by Lisa Miller

Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife by Lisa Miller is an intellectual history of the concept of heaven in the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths, with an emphasis on its development and importance in Christianity.

Miller's style reminds me of authors Lee Strobel and Bruce Feiler, journalists who write about religion and faith by combining literary research and interesting interviews with experts from a variety of fields whose viewpoints expand and deepen the reader's understanding of the subject. 

Lisa Miller states her own bias in the Introduction. She was raised in an non-observant Jewish family and is married to a former Catholic now "turned nonbeliever". She says " like so many Americans, I approach religion from an uneasy, untraditional place, and like so many I have struggled with what I believe about heaven." Many readers will identify with her struggle. Miller has devoted her career as a journalist to reporting about religion and is an editor at Newsweek where she writes regularly on the subject.

Heaven is thoroughly researched and well-written. It begins with the origins of the concept of heaven in the pre-Biblical Middle East and follows the development of the concept throughout history by Jewish, Christian and Muslim believers. It is fascinating to trace the changes in the idea of heaven through the ages and cultures. The heaven of the early Christians differs from the heaven of the medieval period and the heaven of the Reformers and the Puritans.

Miller skillfully weaves personal anecdotes and interviews with religious and scientific experts throughout the book which makes the text lively and relevant, although backed by sound scholarly research (just check out the tables of footnotes in the back of the book!). I thought her chapters on the development of the concept of resurrection and the debate over salvation were particularly enlightening. She does delve into the subject of near death experiences with those who claim to have seen heaven as a result and with scientists who proffer their explanations for this phenomenon.

I'm one of those Miller identifies as not giving a lot of thought to heaven, probably because my religious tradition (Presbyterian) does not emphasize it nor encourage speculation about what it will be like, although we believe in it. This book did not change my viewpoint, but reinforced it. I join with Maimonides (quoted in Heaven) who echoes St. Paul in saying "As to the blissful state of the soul in the World to Come, there is no way on earth in which we can comprehend or know it."

I highly recommend Heaven to my Gentle Readers! This is one you will want to keep on your bookshelf and would make a great study for an adult class or book club.

(I was given a copy of this book by TLC Book Tours. for  Harper Collins. I did not promise a favorable review and did not receive any other compensation for writing this review.)

Other reviews by blogging friends:


  1. This is now on my must-read list after reading your review and then Jan Edmiston's as well. I just discussed the subject of heaven tonight with a group of 3rd-5th graders at our congregation's Wednesday night program. We all yearn for heaven -- no matter our age -- and we all have lots of questions. I look forward to reading the book. Thanks!

  2. Some of the things that Lisa Miller was saying during a CBC radio interview regarding her book were either not true or they did not make any sense.
    Firstly, concerning the question if one can find rational answers to the question regarding life after death, her answer was: “You can go about it with your rational and sophisticated thinking but you have to be ok with the paradoxical.“ Just to clarify the matter, if it is paradoxical it cannot be rational. Those are contradictions in terms.

    Secondly, Lisa Millers comment that afterlife descriptions in all Holy Scriptures, i.e. Bible, Koran etc. are not to be taken literally. This might be true for the Bible but not for the Koran. The Koran is a religious text of Islam which Muslims consider the verbatim word of God. It is considered blasphemous to look for interpretations and different meanings in the Koran because ‘Man’ would put himself before God. This is an offense punishable by death according to Islamic law or Sharia. So, if we read in the Koran (Sura 9.52) that there is nothing more glorious than martyrdom and victory (against the unbelievers), then this it to be understood literally because it is Allah’s direct command.

    Thirdly, Lisa Miller's proclaims that pluralism came to an end with the ‘Islamic Center’ also called the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ in NYC. This supposed end to pluralism did not start with the building of this so-called Islamic Center but with the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in the name of Islam. With her statement, Lisa Miller, is putting the cart before the horse. If it wasn't for the 9/11 attack, there would not be any controversy regarding this so called Islamic Center whatsoever. The issue is respect for the 9/11 victims and their families and friends who are in mourning.

    I have not read the book, but with those questionable and unfounded comments, I am not sure I ever will.