Heavens Above!

Yesterday, Cathnews ran a “featured website” piece on the author Lisa Miller, whose new book is called “Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With The Afterlife”.

Having taught a subject for Anima Education last year on “The Last Things” – which attracted a record number of students (for me anyway) – I am absolutely convinced that Ms Miller is correct to say that we have “an enduring fascination” with the hereafter. It is an area on which there is much speculation (given that only one person we know of has come back from the grave to reliably report on the situation after death) but on which the Church has quite definite teachings (based on the same evidence just referred to). Unfortunately, very little catechesis actually focuses on this area – meaning that there is a gap between the “enduring fascination” and our response in providing clear teaching about it.

Here is what Ms Miller’s website says about the book:

What is heaven? Eighty percent of Americans say they believe in heaven, yet very few of them can articulate anything specific about their belief. Numerous questions surrounding the concept of heaven have existed for ages, and Americans continue to grapple with these ideas. In her new book, Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife (Harper; March 23, 2010; Hardcover; $25.99), Newsweek Religion editor Lisa Miller provides a groundbreaking history of the afterlife and offers a new understanding of this cherished spiritual ideal.

Notions of what heaven is vary widely, but the desire for afterlife has remained universal across all religious traditions throughout history. In Heaven, Miller journeys back over 2000 years to explore the roots of different beliefs in heaven. Drawing on her interviews with religious leaders, academics, and everyday Americans, Miller sheds light on many of the intriguing topics that influence our perceptions of heaven, including the ideas of resurrection, prophets and visionaries, and salvation. By exploring the earliest biblical conceptions of the afterlife and ancient theologies as well as modern-day views of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian believers, Miller examines what exactly these beliefs in the afterlife are, how they have impacted one another, and how they have evolved to meet the needs of their followers – for both good and evil – throughout the ages.

In tackling the many intriguing and enduring questions about the afterlife, Heaven addresses this complex notion in an accessible and engaging manner. Miller’s enlightening work offers a definitive look at a shared religious ideal and allows Americans to reflect on how their own views of heaven compare to both traditional and popular ideas on the afterlife.

Anyone wanting to teach about this subject needs not only to be informed about “what the Church really teaches” on the subject, but also about the prevailing popular notions of heaven. The best book for the former is certainly Joseph Ratzinger’s “Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life”, which should be read from start to finish by any prospective teacher in the area. But for the latter, it seems to me that this book by Miller might be worth purchasing.

Her website also gives an extract from the book, and here it is with my comments in [italics]. The line of argumentation regarding the resurrection is interesting to say the least:

Excerpt from “Heaven”
March 25, 2010 by admin

It’s Easter—that most pleasant of springtime holidays—when children stuff themselves with marshmallows and stain their fingers with pastel dyes. In reality, of course, Easter is about something darker and more fantastic. It’s a celebration of the final act of the Passion, in which Jesus rose from his tomb in his body three days after his execution, to reside in heaven with God. The Gospels insist on the veracity of this supernatural event. The risen Lord “ate barbecued fish [Luke] and walked through doors [John],” is how a friend of mine, an Episcopalian priest, puts it. This rising—the Resurrection—remains at the center of the Christian faith, the narrative climax of every creed. Jesus died and rose again so that all his followers could, eventually, do the same. This story has strained the credulity of even the most devoted believer. For, truly, it’s unbelievable. [No, it isn’t, in fact. Billions have believed since it was first proclaimed.]

Resurrection—the physical reality, not the metaphorical interpretation [an important distinction to which she will come in a moment]—puts everything we imagine about heaven to the test. My new book, Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With the Afterlife, argues that while 80 percent of Americans say they believe in heaven, few of us have the slightest clue about what we mean. Heaven, everyone agrees, is the good place you go after death, a reward for struggle and faithfulness on earth. In most of our popular conceptions, we have bodies in heaven: selves, consciousness, identity. We do things. People yearn for reunions in heaven with friends and relatives—and even with their pets. “I want to lay my head on Grandma Lucy’s lap,” the Christian memoirist Barbara Brown Taylor wrote in an essay. “I want to shell field peas with Fannie Belle and listen to Schubert with Earl.” Some people imagine heaven as the place where their most material yearnings are fulfilled [it is interesting that it is virtually impossible to imagine pleasure – which is a commonly expected experience in heaven – without a material body to experience it]. The evangelist Billy Graham once spoke of driving a yellow Cadillac in heaven; the heroine of Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones eats peppermint ice cream; suicide bombers in the Middle East fantasize about the sexual ministrations of 72 dark-eyed virgins. In all these visions, embodiment is the crux of the matter. If you don’t have a body in heaven, then what kind of heaven are you hoping for? [An important question.]

Despite the insistence of the most conservative branches of all three Western religions on resurrection as an incontrovertible fact, most of us are circumspect. The number of Americans who say they believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ has dropped 10 points since 2003 to 70 percent, according to the most recent Harris poll; only 26 percent of Americans think that they’ll have bodies in heaven, according to a 1997 Time/CNN poll. [This suggests an interesting gap between the popular belief of a material body in the afterlife and the belief in the historical veracity of Jesus’ own physical resurrection.] Thanks to the growth here of Eastern religions, reincarnation—the belief that after death a soul returns to earth in another body—is gaining adherents. [This is certainly the source of a lot of changing beliefs in the hereafter.] Nearly 30 percent of 2003 Harris poll respondents said they believed in reincarnation; of self-professed Christians, that number was 21 percent. Reincarnation and resurrection have, traditionally, been mutually exclusive. Among Christian conservatives, a private hope of reincarnation would be seen as not just illogical but heretical. [Or, more to the point, the other way around: not just heretical, but illogical. They are mutually exclusive ideas simply on the basis of pure logic.]

Cremation, once viewed as the ultimate desecration of the human body, an insult to God who makes the resurrection happen, will soon surpass burial as Americans’ preferred way to dispose of a corpse. [Interestingly, at our recent Interfaith Symposium on Death and Dying, the Muslims and the Jews – and indigenous Australians – are still quite opposed to cremation. Cremation is more common in Eastern religions, which have a totally different attitude toward the relationship between body and soul.] Already, a third of Americans are cremated, not buried, and that trend line is headed straight up. Stephen Prothero, religion professor at Boston University and author of the forthcoming God Is Not One, believes that the rise in cremation is linked to a growing disregard for the doctrine of resurrection. “It seems fantastic and irrational that we’re going to have a body in heaven,” he says. Even the Roman Catholic Church has softened its stance on cremation: bodies are better, it said in 1997, but ashes will do in a pinch. [While God can and will resurrect bodies in whatever state they finally end up here on earth, this change in our practice has done nothing for our affirmation of the importance of the body. It is at least as questionable as many other changes in our practice in recent years. Memo to anyone responsible for my disposal when I die: Bury me.]

Resurrection presented credibility problems from the outset. Who, the Sadducees taunted Jesus, does the man who married seven wives in succession reside with in heaven? The subtext of their teasing is obvious: if the resurrection is true, as Jesus promised, then in heaven you must have your wife, and all the things that go along with wives: sex, arguments, dinner. Jesus responds in a typically cranky way: “You just don’t get it,” he says (my paraphrase) [and a good one]. “You are wrong,” he said in Matthew’s Gospel, “because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” [Precisely.]

Even in biblical times, resurrection deniers who hoped for an afterlife took an alternative route. This is what scholars call “the immortality of the soul.” Embraced by Plato and popular today especially among progressive believers (Reform Jews and liberal Protestants, for example) and people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” the immortality of the soul is easier to swallow than resurrection. [I have confessed before on this blog, that as a Lutheran I rejected the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. As a Catholic, I have realised – with the help of Professor Ratzinger – that the Catholic doctrine of the immortality of the soul is not only quite different from the Platonic – or Eastern – doctrines, but is absolutely essential to make sense of the doctrine of the resurrection as well.] After death, the soul—unique and indestructible—ascends to heaven to be with God while the corpse, the locus of our senses and all our low human desires, stays behind to rot. This more reasonable view, perhaps, has a serious defect: a disembodied soul attaching itself to God in heaven offers no more comfort or inspiration than an escaped balloon. [ROTFL! What a great analogy. Puts me in mind of those secular ceremonies that actually release balloons as a sign of this at funerals. Actually it is more serious than that though. The disembodied soul is not the whole self – the body is essential to the fullness of our identity, which is what God has promised to resurrect!] Consolation was not the goal of Plato’s afterlife. Without sight or hearing, taste or touch, a soul in heaven can no more enjoy the “green, green pastures” of the Muslim paradise, or the God light of Dante’s cantos, than it can play a Bach cello suite or hit a home run. Rationalistic visions of heaven fail to satisfy. [Quite.]

Another popular way out of the Easter conundrum—”I want to believe in heaven but can’t get my head around the revivification of human flesh”—is to imagine “resurrection” as a metaphor for something else: an inexplicable event, a new kind of life, the birth of the Christian community on earth, the renewal of a people, an individual’s spiritual rebirth, a bodiless ascension to God. Progressives frequently fall back on resurrection-as-metaphor, for it allows them to celebrate Easter while also expressing a reasonable [or what appears “reasonable” at the unthinking level of those who are deep divers at the shallow end of the pool] agnosticism. They quote that great theological cop-out: “We cannot know what God has in store for us.” [And this is indeed a cop-out, because we have a lot of revealed information about what God has in store from us from Christ and his apostles and the Scriptures.]

The intellectual flabbiness of this approach [that’s calling it as it is] causes agonies for such orthodox Christians as N. T. Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham, England [let’s hear a cheer for Bishop Tom!]. “People have been told so often that resurrection is just a metaphor,” he once told my editor Jon Meacham and me in an interview for this magazine. “In other words, [Jesus] went to heaven, whatever that means. And they’ve never realized that the word ‘resurrection’ simply didn’t mean that. If people [in the first century] had wanted to say that he died and went to heaven, they had perfectly good ways of saying that.” The whole point of the Christian story is that the Resurrection really happened, Wright insists. The disciples rolled back the rock on the third day, and Jesus’ body was gone. [The two main features of the Easter accounts in the Gospels are the bodily appearances of Jesus and the empty tomb. They go hand in hand.] This insistence on the veracity of resurrection is no less sure in Judaism, where the Orthodox pray thrice a day to a God “who causes the dead to come to life,” or in Islam. “I swear by the day of resurrection!” proclaims the Quran. “Yes, Indeed!”

And so, the paradox. Resurrection may be unbelievable [as I have pointed out, it isn’t], but belief in a traditional heaven requires it. I think often of Jon D. Levenson, a Jewish scholar at Harvard Divinity School who hopes to bring the idea of resurrection back to mainstream Judaism, where it has been lost in practice for generations. [This is true: even among the orthodox. I once queried an orthodox Jewish friend who had just returned from a funeral about this: resurrection, he said, didn’t even rate a mention at this or at most Jewish funerals he had been to.] I visited him one cold November afternoon because, as a literal-minded skeptic, I wanted him to explain to me how it works. How does God put bodies—burned in fire or pulverized in war—back together again? Levenson looked at me, eyes twinkling, and said, “It’s no use to ask, ‘If I had a lab at MIT, how would I try to resurrect a body?’ The belief in resurrection is more radical. It’s a supernatural event. It’s a special act of grace or of kindness on God’s part.” [Doesn’t that put it very well?] For my part, I don’t buy it. [One could ask, at this point and after so much of the above argument, why not? I suspect that it is doubt about what Jesus called “the power of God”.] I do, however, leave the door open a crack for radical acts of grace and kindness—and for humbling ourselves before all that we don’t understand. [And that’s nice. Openness to God’s grace and kindness is always a good thing.]

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25 Comments

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25 responses to “Heavens Above!

  1. Peregrinus

    Resurrection is difficult to envisage – it’s beyond our (present) experience, and we have no language to describe it. As you point out, “only one person has come back from the grave to reliably report on the situation after death”. Sadly, though, if, having returned, he did report on it, none of the evangelists bothered to record what he said.

    So we are left to our own inadequate speculations. If they are to be faithful to the gospel, the have to start from the empty tomb. I don’t think there is any plausible reading of the gospels in which we can believe that the evangelists intended that metaphorically. What they write about is an actual, material, physical resurrection – nothing less. So we have an empty tomb. We have a risen Jesus who eats fish. Look, you can put your fingers in the wound.

    But what we also have is a risen Jesus who is present – really present, in his resurrected reality – among us today. The resurrection is not a miraculous episode that that came to a convenient end with the Ascension, so that normal service could be resumed. It’s an ever-present reality. But we don’t see Jesus eating much fish these days, and nobody has managed the fingers-in-the-wound routine for a while. So where is the risen Christ, and how do we encounter him today?

    What does this tell us? It tells us, I think, that the Christophanies recorded in the gospels and in Acts tell us something real, true and reliable about what resurrection is, but they don’t tell us the whole story. Jesus eats fish to show that his resurrection is real, physical, material. But he doesn’t need to continue eating fish. More to the point, he has a real, material body, but it doesn’t always have to resemble my unresurrected body in having continuing individual and unique hands, feet, etc. The material Body of Christ today doesn’t have to look like a body with a torso, limbs, a head, etc. It may well be that our resurrected bodies don’t have to look like that either. The resurrection doesn’t become any less real because it may be manifested in a form that we cannot currently understand.

    • All quite true, Perry. Which is just to say that the Resurrection is not adequately described as “revivification of flesh”.

      “Sadly, though, if, having returned, he did report on it, none of the evangelists bothered to record what he said. “

      I don’t know about that. I think we can take it as granted that anything the apostles did say on the matter of our future hope was a direct outcome of their experience of the resurrection – and what Jesus “said” to them during the time he was with them between the resurrection and ascension.

      • Peregrinus

        “I think we can take it as granted that anything the apostles did say on the matter of our future hope was a direct outcome of their experience of the resurrection – and what Jesus “said” to them during the time he was with them between the resurrection and ascension.”

        One of the impressive things about the gospel accounts of the resurrection and the subsequent christophanies is their sparseness. The evangelists – who weren’t there – are scrupulously honest, recording only the concrete details that the first-hand witnesses recounted – the empty tomb, the folded cloth, who got there first, what time of day it was, etc. Nothing is included which could not have come from a first-hand witness. Beyond the bare fact that the witnesses came to understand that Jesus had risen, we are told nothing of what they understood or believed from the evidence described.

        Likewise, when it comes to the christophanies we are told where they happened, who was there, what Jesus did, what he said (which is never about the resurrection itself), etc. But we are not offered much about the participants’ understandings of, or reflections on, these events.

        By contrast, the bulk of what is in scripture about out future hope comes from Paul, who of course wasn’t a witness to the resurrection, had his own private and apparently immaterial christophany but didn’t witness any of the others, and makes no claim to be relaying to us things which others have said to him. What he says about resurrection are his own reflections on the subject – influenced, no doubt, by what he has heard from Peter and the others, but not attributed by him to their authority. We can’t assume, therefore, that he is telling us what they thought; he is telling us what he thinks about what they said, which is quite different.

        I don’t say this to impugn the authority of Paul’s writings, of course. In any event, while Paul is eloquent on the meaning of resurrection, he doesn’t have a lot to say about what it is like, beyond stressing its reality.

  2. Bruce

    The use of cremation is more an economic use in the U.S. than a spiritual issue.

    I have understood that the traditional opposition to cremation by the Catholic Church was the seeming denial of the physical resurrection. Today, as long as one isn’t having a cremation done in denial of the resurrection, it is permitted.

  3. Louise

    Cremation is permitted but burial is still seen as better. Cremation is arguably inherently pagan.

    The Last Things are probably my favourite aspect of theology.

    There are some things we can know about with reasonable certainty, which can help us to appreciate Heaven and abhor Hell.

  4. Christine

    Which is just to say that the Resurrection is not adequately described as “revivification of flesh”. Exactly right. Resurrection is not “reanimation.”

    Perhaps “transformation” might be a useful concept.

    The Gospels reports that the risen Lord now existed outside of the earthly limits that we know — he could appear and disappear at will. Yet he obviously had a spiritual “body” that was recognizable:

    “And when He had said this, He showed them both His hands and His side. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

    . . .

    See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”

    That’s good enough for me to believe that although life in heaven will be even more wonderful than I could ever imagine now, there will be some continuity. The glorified body of the Lord will be ours as well. The entire cosmos will also be changed, the “new heaven and earth.”

    Christine

  5. Christine

    And I see that I totally missed that Peregrinus covered those points very nicely.

    Arggghh!

    Christine

  6. matthias

    Both of my parents requested to be cremated,as being Believers,they were believed and assured that they would be resurrected with new bodies as Our Lord was.

    • Louise

      Cremation is no obstacle to the Lord resurrecting us, but the main problem with it is that it can seriously effect the beliefs of Christians re: the Resurrection.

      • Peregrinus

        Two comments:

        1. I think those days are past.

        2. If they’re not past, then the Christians concerned seriously misunderstand what the resurrection is, and they seriously misunderstand the power of God. This is a problem, but it’s not a problem we make worse, rather than solve, by discouraging or disparaging cremation.

        • Louise

          What days are past?

          • Peregrinus

            The days when the idea of cremation could seriously affect the beliefs of Christians re: the resurrection.

            • Louise

              Why can’t they now? Are we too smart for that?

              • Peregrinus

                Too well-educated. Primary education is pretty universal, and practically everybody either (a) can work out that if God can resurrect a body that has been reduced to its components by organic corruption, He can certainly resurrect a body that has been so reduced by combustion, or (b) has within the circle of acquaintance somebody who knows this, and can point it out.

                • Louise

                  Nup. Don’t agree at all. Formal education in most institutions is almost guaranteed to make people dumber.

                  • Peregrinus

                    Well, Louise, are [i]you[/i] smart enough to work out that if God can resurrect a decayed person he can resurrect a cremated one? And, if so, do you think you are smarter than most people?

                    • Louise

                      That cuts both ways. Do you think you’re smarter than people living in whenever it was? Besides, it is not in the area of conscious thought that these influences are effective, but in the practice: frequent attendance at funerals where the body is not placed into the soil, but sanitarily and temporarily placed into a neat, indoor hole in the floor.

                    • Peregrinus

                      Hi Louise

                      It’s one of the characteristics of the modern age that we have contempt for all generations that went before us and assume that they were very stupid, but it ain’t so.

                      I don’t think even moderately thoughtful Christians ever thought that cremation was a barrier to resurrection. What about all those martyrs of the Roman persecutions who were burned on their crosses? Nobody doubted their participation in the general resurrection. And the church always permitted cremation in cases of necessity, e.g. in times of plague or natural disaster, when there were simply too many bodies and not enough people to bury them. I don’t think anybody seriously thought that people whose corpses were disposed of in this way were precluded from resurrection.

                      From the outset. the church favoured burial over cremation not for its effect on our destiny in the afterlife, but for its sign-value. Corpses were buried and not burned partly to affirm the sanctity of God’s creation, and partly to affirm that the dead are not, despite appearances, finished with the material dimension of existence. Burial was also preferred to follow the example of the crucified Christ.

                      When cremation became fashionable in the West (from the Enlightenment onwards) it was to a large extent also because of sign-value – partly to express admiration for the pre-Christian classical world and its culture, where cremation was common, and partly to symbolize a lack of faith in any continued material existence. (There was also a typically eighteenth-century rational argument – since the industrial revolution, urban populations had become so large that it was simply not going to be possible to bury the dead anywhere near to where they lived, and where their families still lived.)

                      It was precisely because of the explicitly atheist, or at least anti-Christian, motivations for cremation in the West that the church was so opposed to it. The problem was not that cremated people could not or would not be resurrected but rather that the choice of cremation was seen as the expression of pagan or apostasising views, which the church did not want publicly expressed.

                      This is no longer the case. People choose cremation for a variety of reasons, cost and lack of space in urban cemeteries being the main ones. The church still prefers burial because of the sign-value already referred too, but readily accommodates cremation. Catholic cemeteries have columbariums, for example, as to the crypts in some Catholic churches.

                      I think the problem with cremation was never, as you suggest, that it could “seriously affect the beliefs of Christian re the resurrection”, but rather that, understood as a statement rejecting the reality of resurrection, it could scandalise Christians.

                    • The thing about things that have “sign-value” as you put it, is that they often work at the level of the subconscious rather than the conscious. Like using multiple little cups rather than a single chalice for the sacred blood in the Eucharist rather than the common cup. Does it affect validity? No. Does it affect what people think is happening in the Eucharist? Yes. Signs work deep. I also think you have to acknowledge that the early Christian practice was affected by the fact that the majority of them were Jews to start of with, and simply would not have considered adopting cremation because it was seen as a “pagan” practice. The fact that this then influenced those who were converts from paganism obviously showed that they found a deep meaning in the rejection of cremation. Certainly this wasn’t a simplistic “cremation denies resurrection” equation, but it could well have been, as you point out, “we don’t do that to God’s creation”. Burning a human body could well have been seen as tantamount to burning an image of the Saviour etc. I don’t know. I haven’t done any research into this. But there was a reason why cremation went out the door, and given that cremation was the standard cultural practice of the Greco-Roman culture, it seems that the early Christians must have assigned a pretty deep significance to the counter-cultural statement they were making by burying their dead.

                    • Peregrinus

                      Actually, the classical Greeks and the Romans practiced both burial/entombment and cremation. Among the Romans, cremation was associated with military honours. Those who died on campaign were cremated (otherwise, when the army moved on, who would maintain their tombs?) and this became the standard funeral ritual for soldiers and former soldiers in Rome itself as well. Military cremations were conducted on the Campus Martius. But, otherwise, people were buried. There were large burial grounds just outside the city, and the major roads into Rome were lined with tombs. Most of the early Christian tomb sites that we venerate are located in what were burial grounds. The only reason the Vatican is where it is, in fact, is because the Vatican Hill was the location of one of the largest of the public cemeteries serving Rome.

                      So burial wasn’t quite so counter-cultural as all that. And the rejection of cremation could have been based on the early Christians’ well-known distaste for Roman militaristic culture (as well as on their Jewish roots and on the theological considerations which made burial an appropriate sign of the Christian understanding of what death entailed).

                      I take your point, though, that signs do affect our beliefs and understandings in ways that are not entirely rational. I think it likely, though, that the official distaste for cremation reached its high point from the eighteenth century onwards, when cremation was advocated for the primary purpose of denying the resurrection.

                    • Yes, as I was writing my last comment, I thought, “Hold on a moment, what about all those burial grounds…?”, and that is why I said I hadn’t researched much on this. Thanks for your information. I think you may be right about the military thing, though I suspect that wasn’t the whole of it. Anyway, the point I think Louise and I are trying to make is somewhat along the lines of the following Chesterton quotation:

                      In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

                      In other words, if we are going to break a long standing tradition of rejecting cremation, we should first have an accurate understanding of why the tradition was there in the first place and what purpose it might conceivably continue to serve.

                    • Peregrinus

                      For the record, I’m not a fan of cremation. Bury me and let me rot. And for all the reasons given I’m quite happy for the church to discount it. I was just a bit concerned at Louise’s suggestion that “cremation can seriously affect people’s beliefs in the resurrection”. If this is true today, then we have a problem, and the problem ain’t cremation and ain’t solved by frowning on cremation. And the suggestion that it was true in the past seems to me to involve the assumption that past generations were unbelievably stupid in comparison to us, a key assumption of superficial modernism but not one that I readily accept.

        • Louise

          The Church’s preference for burial, I’m fairly sure, is listed in the catechism.

  7. matthias

    I can see whewre you are coming form Louise but if we believe in a God Who raised Jesus from the dead ,and as the Creatour of the Universe ,then I hope it would not affect the beliefes of Christians

    • Louise

      Unfortunately, I think it does, very much. I think many Christians really don’t have a deep belief in the resurrection of the body. That is, whatever else it will be, Heaven is a physical reality.

      I don’t think people these days are too clever not to fall into an Afterlife As Spirit Only world view.