Interview with Gary Scott Smith
Thinking in Public
October 3, 2011
This is “Thinking in Public”, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about front line
theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your
host, and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Mohler: Historian Jeffery Burton Russell once said, “To the modern mind heaven seems bland or boring, an eternal sermon or perpetual hymn. Evil and the devil seem to get the best lines.” Well, you might say, until now. Professor Gary Scott Smith of Grove City College has written a new book entitled Heaven in the American Imagination.
Professor Smith chairs the History Department at Grove City College, where he also coordinates the curriculum in the Humanities. He’s a fellow with The Center for Vision and Values. He’s an award-winning professor. And he’s written books including Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush. And his latest book – Heaven in the American Imagination.
Professor Smith, welcome to Thinking In Public.
Smith: Thank you, Dr. Mohler, it’s good to be on.
Mohler: Well, it’s good to have the conversation and when you consider all the books out there that have been most recently written about heaven, I think it’s fair to say that nothing’s been written, well at least until your book, that I would think would be published by Oxford University Press. But out there in the popular world, there are so many books that seem to be fascinated with the topic of heaven. I know how those books originated. Tell us how your book originated.
Smith: I was looking for a subject that I thought would be of interest to a broad audience, and I noted that the only book that I could find on the subject was a 1988 book called: Heaven A History. Which surveyed views of heaven from antiquity to the present, and had a couple chapters on what Americans thought about heaven. So, very little work had been done on the subject. And it seemed to me to be a subject that would have a great deal of interest. And one, as a historian of American religious history that I was very interested in. So the field was white unto harvest, and I decided that I would begin an investigation of it. And I’m certainly glad that I did because it was a fascinating study.
Mohler: Well I can only imagine that it would be. The topic of heaven, along with the topic of hell, has been a rather perpetual human fascination in one way or another. Certainly in terms of Western civilization, it’s hard to imagine the worldview held by most westerners and the regions that had once been most identified as Christendom, without an almost reflexive reference to heaven, as well as to hell.
But I am struck by the fact, and your book makes this very clear, that by the time that you come to heaven in terms of our contemporary culture you’re really talking about something that has continuities with heaven as it has been understood and imagined by people through the centuries but also some discontinuities. And I do have to put this over against the background of the fact that there is so much popular fascination with heaven right now, in terms of these books about near-death experiences and all the rest. But you’ve really taken a deeper look at how heaven has been understood throughout the history of the American experience.
Smith: Well, I certainly have. I began with Puritans, and I end with the present day. And survey all the time periods and groups in between. I certainly do focus more on Protestants especially Evangelicals Protestants than other groups. But I pay some attention to Catholics and Jews and certainly in more recent times to New Age prospectives and the near-death experience craze that began in the 1970’s and as you indicate is very popular today. So I try to look at a broad spectrum of groups over time. And as you indicate, I did find a lot of continuities, but I found a lot of changes in response to different cultural trends and perspectives that existed at different time periods.
Mohler: Now speaking of Evangelical Protestants and the American experience you argued two things that I think are very crucial. And the first is that the expectations about heaven itself, the imaginations of what heaven would be like, those things have shifted significantly. Whereas the more theological and biblical question about how it is one gets to heaven, you suggest at least among Evangelical Protestants has held fairly constant. And that is through the knowledge of Jesus as Savior and Lord.
But when you go back for instance to the Great Awakening, as you do in your book, that very seminal and formative period for the Protestant experience in America, you point out that the evangelists of the Great Awakenings more often used hell in reference to their preaching rather than heaven.
Smith: Yes, there was much more of a cultural acceptance to talk about hell, much less of the trend toward universalism that exists today, or some type of post-mortem opportunities for salvation. And of course in that day and age without the creature comforts that we enjoy today, I think people are more attuned to the subject of suffering and the more physical imagery of hell and what that might have involved. So, yes, certainly the first and second Great Awakenings, 1730’s, 1740’s and then into the first four decades of the 1800’s, the evangelists did put quite a bit of emphasis on hell. But they also did paint very alluring pictures of heaven too, so it was kind of the carrot and stick approach I would say.
Mohler: One historian of Christianity in the medieval era points out that very high rates of the death of infants and children led Christian parents to think a great deal about heaven, simply because of the lives that have been so short in terms of this earthly experience. And there was at least during, you would say, most of the centuries of the Christian experience a tremendous sense of almost necessary longing for heaven. Simply because the lot of the average Christian was not to experience many of the joys and many of the pleasures that they knew existed in the world. They lived hard lives of hard labor. They had hard experiences and even in the midst of the joys of being a follower of Jesus Christ, they experienced tremendous pains. They could not fool themselves by the kind of creature comforts that you talk about. They could not occupy themselves with the kind of things that we fill our lives with. And so they almost necessarily yearned for heaven.
Smith: Well, that’s absolutely true and I point out in the book that the whole concept of heaven as a place of rest and relaxation from the arduous nature of live was a major theme up through the latter part of the 1800’s. But it hasn’t been much of a theme more recently when a lot of people enjoy, at least in the west, a great deal more leisure time and opportunities for travel and vacationing and things like that. That there’s been a shift more toward such things as what type of service will I render when I am in heaven. What type of opportunities will I have for personal growth? What type of therapeutic experiences will I have? What type of relief from my earthly anxieties in a kind of conflicted type of world in which we live? So certainly from that perspective and the broader theme you might think that it has been a shift from a more theocentric of worshiping of God in heaven that dominated from the Puritans up through the Second Great Awakening to more of a focus on fellowship with other people and almost an anthropocentric purpose that focuses on more human relationships: fellowship, heavenly reward, recognition of other people that has been more dominant since say the middle of the 19th Century.
Mohler: For the last several decades, at least to some theologians, have been talking about a problem that they perceive, and I think rightly perceive, and that is what was called the demystification of transcendence. Which to put in different terms means basically that trying to take a theistic worldview and reduce it to the kind of the anthropocentric, therapeutic worldview that quite frankly is so much a part of the age that even so many American evangelicals simply don’t know how to distinguish that from the worldview of the Bible.
In your book you point out, and you trace this through others who have also considered the question of heaven, the fact that it was through the Victorian Age and in particular through this key decades of the 19th Century that this shift happened between a theocentric understanding of heaven and a more anthropocentric understanding of heaven. Why was that characteristic of the Victorian age?
Smith: Well because the Victorian Age was an age when home was highly exalted; this was a period of time when the focus of people, particularly women on what was called the cult of domesticity. The idea was the primary role that the women had been wives and homemakers. And in the absence of the kind of modern entertainments that we have, there was a great deal of emphasis on developing family, spending time being together as a family, fellowship with friends. So that was picked up by a lot of the folks who wrote about heaven both in England and the United States. And some of the books from England came across and were widely available here. So it fit very well I think with the culture, the cultural setting. And of course in the middle of that time we had the Civil War. And the Civil War was a huge tragedy with 620,000 death count. And so almost every family was affected in some way by the Civil War. So the theme of reunion with the people who have in your family, particularly the young men who have died in the war was obviously very much on people’s minds.
And as I point out in the book too, revivals were very common during the Civil War, there were hundreds of thousands of people who were converted because of their concern about eternal destiny, but also because the churches and various religious organizations were doing such a great job through chaplains and tracts and other means of getting the message out there. And holding revival services and encouraging soldiers to repent and be right with Christ before they went out to fight these important battles.
Mohler: Now as you trace the history of heaven back even beyond in history, the American experience. For instance you site Peter Greeft who has written “the medieval imagery of heaven featuring light, jewel, stars, trumpets and angels” has been replaced with, and to quote Greeft, “pathetic modern substitutes of fluffy clouds, sexless cherubs, harps and metal halos, presided by chairman of the board.” Now how did this happen? I mean this is very, very interesting. Christians throughout history as they thought about heaven, thought of it as a place of greater intensity than what we experienced here on earth. Whereas it seems that many contemporary Christians just in terms of their own imaginations of heaven, think of it as a place of far less intensity than we experience here on earth.
Smith: The basic thesis of the book is that there’s a strong correlation between what’s going on in any particular time period and how heaven is being envisioned. Obviously the people who are writing about heaven are tying to interpret the same Scriptures and there are a fairly limited number of Scriptures and the kinds of themes that are evident in the Scriptures are in many cases figurative and symbolic so that it gives opportunity for interpretation. And so I think that people are influenced by their cultural setting and by the kinds of worldviews that they have embraced and by the way that they have experienced life on earth to paint heaven in ways that are similar with what they are experiencing. And so I think that shift that you described in that quotation is commensurate with – it’s consistent with the kinds of shifts that have occurred with our culture. Broadly speaking, I mean, obviously we have people who continue to hold on to the kinds of theological positions that the Puritans held, and we have people who embraced much more eclectic positions. And of course, we have wide numbers of people who have embraced more theological liberal positions within Protestantism.
So, I think it’s just truly a reflection of kind of messages that we get in our culture, and I also stress that in the last 30 or 40 years many people have drawn their prospective from media, not necessarily from sermons or books written by Christians. They have been very influenced by television shows and by media, by popular novels. And of course they have featured these kinds of themes that you just described.
Mohler: Now, let’s talk about that for just a moment because I think popular culture is always a more influential factor in terms of the Christian imagination than we would like to think. But if we just look out at the secular world and listen to that conversation concerning heaven, what do you pick there as the dominant kind of motif or concern that is out there in a more popular and secular understanding of heaven.
Smith: Well, I think the basic message there pertains more to the fact that – rather than what it will be like, more than everyone is eventually get there. The question of how you get there is based on the kind of life you’ve led and as long as you have led a generally good life and tried to be a morally upstanding person that you will be acceptable in the realm to come, whatever that realm contains. That it would be very unjust for people to not get there simply because they did not believe the right things when there are so many different opportunities for belief, so many different worldviews out there in our day and age, and supposedly so many absences of proof that there is for the Christian prospective. So I think that’s a major theme.
Of course a significant number of secularists deny that there is a heaven at all and that we are going to live on only through our progeny or through our contributions. Or through the way we try to make earth a better place. And certainly that’s been a theme back to the social gospel here that even if there is a heaven our focus ought to be on trying to reconstruct earth and bring justice to earth and make earth the best possible place. And of course for secularists that’s the only life that we are going to have for sure, so let’s make it as good as possible for here and now. And if we happen to have a life after death then that is an extra added bonus.
Mohler: Every time I read a book, I’m looking for something that really helps me to think through the reality that I might not have seen it before. I’ve done a great deal of writing and publishing and speaking as a theologian on the transitions to the understanding of hell that took place certainly over the past two to three hundred years. And interestingly enough, the big change that came in terms of the theological arguments concerning hell also emerged in the Victorian era, and for reasons that are also well understood. That’s when you also had the Victorians begin to redefine the criminal code. Certainly Great Britain’s first and then the United States. That’s when the penitentiary emerged rather than the prison or the jail. So there were clear cultural references that had determinative effects in terms of the questions that many people were asking. And when I read your book it was also, I must say, that it was that great era that struck me more than anything else. That great transition between a theocentric understanding of heaven that was true during, you might say, during the colonial and early republic era. Then contrasted with where we ended up in the 20th century with the kind of anthropocentric concerns.
Now I want to turn to you as author, because every author doing a book of this magnitude finds and encounters certain surprises. What surprised you the most in writing this book?
Smith: I was struck by both the continuities that existed from the Puritans to the present. And there were quite a few of those, as you noted particularly in the idea of how you get to heaven. There seems to be a pretty strong continuity from the Puritans to contemporary evangelicals. And I think that there has been a pretty strong stress throughout the 400 year history that I described in the fact that you have to believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior and that it by grace through faith and that it is not by a matter of the works that we do. Although I was also struck by the fact that from the Puritans to the present, there’s been a pretty strong emphasis on that, works are still important, they’re response to the faith that you have, their response to the gift of salvation that God gives you.
I guess I was also struck by the fact that themes though emerged as more important in different times. In some periods of time, there was much more focus on fellowship with other saints, fellowship with the heroes of the Bible, fellowship with the great leaders of church history. In some periods of time, there was much more emphasis on what the rewards of heaven are going to be like, or whether those rewards are just going to be laid at Christ’s feet, or whether you are actually going to enjoy them in heaven. I think that there was a lot of emphasis on – changing emphasis on what kind of activities people are going to engage in over time with more, as I said emphasis on opportunities for service and growth. I was certainly struck with those kinds of things. I guess I wasn’t surprised to see the views of heaven became more eclectic over time. That there were more competing images of what heaven would be like as different groups emerged. I didn’t mention earlier Mormons, but certainly they’ve offered a distinctive view of heaven.
So it’s been more of an intellectual smorgasbord that has developed over time. I guess one of the end result questions has been how are people going to be happy in heaven if they have a knowledge of some people that they love aren’t there? And interestingly I really haven’t seen any group that’s really provided a compelling answer to that question, except that if God loves people, and He is ok with them not being there, that we will be able to be so as well.
Mohler: It is important that we have a conversation with ourselves so that we can determine for ourselves if our own understanding of heaven is actually drawn from the Bible and how much of it is drawn from the culture around us?
When Professor Smith writes about heaven and the American imagination one thing becomes clear, Americans have had a very vivid and often times unbiblical imagination.
Mohler: James Reston once commented that the White House is the pulpit of the nation and the President is its chaplain. The issue of faith and the American presidency has concerns all the way back to George Washington our first president and is as relevant as controversies that are even now surrounding the 2012 Presidential campaign.
Professor Gary Scott Smith has not only written about heaven, he’s also the author of Faith and the Presidency a massive work published by Oxford University Press. And he has done remarkable work in investigating faith and how it operates in the American presidency, in particular eleven presidents in this volume, beginning with George Washington and ending with George W. Bush.
Professor Smith when you consider faith and the presidency, how central do you think this is to the American concern and our chief executive?
Smith: I think it is a very important question from the perspective that poll after poll indicate that Americans care about that their president has a fairly strong religious faith. In that he attends church and particularly prays and believes in God and seeks God’s wisdom in the decisions that he makes. So from that perspective and poll after poll says that Americans, as high as 40% wouldn’t vote for an atheist for president. I think that the faith of presidents is very, very significant in American history and again it’s been a subject that has been very understudied until about the last decade.
Mohler: The issue of faith and the American presidency is not a concern to historians and academics but it’s as central to the headlines that would be appearing in terms of this very presidential election coming up in 2012. Americans not only at the academic level but very much at the level of popular discourse and political concern think that the faith of their presidency is a matter of great importance. Professor Smith as you traced the trajectory of these issues from George Washington to George W. Bush, what are the continuities, and what are the contrasts that you traced?
Smith: One of the continuities is that people have cared about the religious convictions of their presidents. And president’s while in office have said that they have become deeper in their faith. And a lot of presidents have tried to set a good example by going to church regularly. George Washington being a leading example, he went pretty much every Sunday while president, but not much prior to his presidency. Of course fighting war definitely has a role to play there for a while. And of course Eisenhower would be a second example of that as someone who didn’t actually join a church until shortly after he became president. But then made it a point to try to get to church every Sunday regardless of where he was and what his schedule was. So that has been certainly a major issue.
And then seeking out people who could provide religious advice and counsel. I think has been a major factor among presidents throughout history, obviously from Truman on particularly from Eisenhower on it’s been Billy Graham as a leading confident. And that shifted recently. So that’s been a major issue. I think that obviously different time periods depending on the different level of religiosity of folk and what’s going on in the culture has played a role. In my book, I try to look at elections where religion has played a major role. And 1800 with Jefferson and Adams and the accusations that Jefferson was an atheist or deist was big. Of course 1928 with Hoover and Al Smith the first major Catholic candidate was a big election. The election of 1960, obviously. Reagan and Carter in 1980. George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000. And as you alluded to, religion, depending on who the Republican nomination ends up being, but it’s going to be a pretty big issue in the election of 2012. It’s certainly been a big issue in the Republican Primary contest.
Mohler: Yes, I think it is certainly going to be so as we look to the future, if for no other reason in fact, the candidates especially on the Republican side have clearly identified themselves with constituencies almost first and foremost given their Christian convictions and their identification with the evangelical culture. And even the President, Barak Obama, whose religion, by the way, has been quite an issue of controversy, he has felt the need to address that in a very clear way. Now you wrote about President Obama and the question of his faith and frankly offered the president some advice. How did that come about?
Smith: After his election, after he took office, churches were trying to recruit him to attend in the Washington D.C. area, and of course he had broken off his relationship with Trinity Church in Chicago and Jeremiah Wright. And so there was a concern about where he would go and lots of congregations wanted him to come despite the security issues when a president attends your church and despite potential distractions. But he really has gone to church very little except when he’s been at Camp David, and no one seems to be able to give us an accurate account of how often he had attended the Evergreen Chapel there at Camp David. So he hasn’t really followed through with that particular aspect. He’s basically decided that he is not going to choose a church in Washington, and he’s only gone to church a handful of times since he’s become president.
Mohler: You offered some advice to him about the fact that if he indeed wants to identify himself as a Christian, and this again in terms of the cultural context, which is clearly a political context you suggested that he needs to speak more about his conviction than about for instance labels of identification.
Smith: Well, he certainly does, but I would note that he has spoken a fair amount if you do some searches of the various speeches that he has given since the presidency. In the campaign, all the way back to 2006, at the call to renewal, he shared his testimony with quite a number of groups. And in his presidency he has had a number of occasions to speak about his faith, I don’t think that he has directly connected his faith convictions with public policy to the extent that his campaign would lead us to think that he would do. And that would be my criticism. I think that he needs to make more of those kinds of identifications because we still have this mass of confusion out there in terms of well is he a Muslim? Is he an advocate of Black liberation theology? Is he a mainline Protestant? What exactly does he believe?
Mohler: Now in your book, again, on the presidency, Faith and the American Presidency, you point out that of the 11 presidents you considered some of them were quite overt in terms of the way that they spoke of their faith and particularly to Wilson, Carter and Bush. But you also say that the others and many of those had deeply held religious beliefs, were intensely private about their religious convictions. Is that something that we can look at and say that is more or less a matter of the past? That now this is so much of a frontline issue that we can count on it. Because I think that argument can be made, I think that whether you are on the Democratic or Republican side, looking at the future, it’s hard to imagine a time when this would not be a question.
Smith: Yes it’s going to be a question. Obviously the Democrats looked at John Kerry’s election candidacy in 2004, and they said, well we don’t want to repeat that, we turned off a lot of religiously committed folks because of Kerry’s inability or unwillingness to talk about these issues. And so Obama and others set out to get help by Jim Wallace and Sojourners that we really need to bring Democrats back into the conversation about faith. And so really the three leading democratic candidates for 2008 all did that, Clinton, Edwards and Obama. And I think that you can continue to expect that to happen in the future because particularly the evangelicals constituencies is so large but also you’ve got another number of religious constituencies to deal with. But I am not sure it’s going to happen in every case because John McCain, I think one of his problems in 2008 besides the Bush legacy in the economy and all those other things, He ended up winning close to the same percentage of the evangelical vote that Bush won in 2004 but they didn’t turn out and vote in as high of numbers. But he was very reticent to speak about his faith and when he told his testimony about what happened in the POW camp he basically talked more about the faith of the guard than his own personal convictions. So I think there are people who temperamentally are going to have trouble talking about these issues.
Mohler: Now as you did this historical survey, let me ask you, what did you see as the dangers that an evangelical Christian should be concerned about when you look at the issue of the faith of the American president? What kinds of things should concern us? And where do you see the boundary lines of the appropriate display of presidential piety and appropriate expectation of the electorate in terms of the convictions of a president?
Smith: Well that’s a great question. I guess one of the great dangers would be, you would expect the president to be more favorable towards your particular religious constituents and fail to recognize that he has to be the president of all Americans. All Americans represent a wide variety of religious perspectives and while his faith can inform his work as president and his public policy making, he’s going to have to be somewhat guarded in his language because he does represent the entire American constituency. And he’s going to turn off certain people if he uses certain language, and that’s going to be counter productive.
I think that also you’ve got to be concerned that, and of course Bush was accused of this on a number of occasions, that he was you know having these, of course he denied this, that he was making decisions based on having a direct pipeline to God, handwriting on the wall rather than informed policy decisions guided by his various advisors. And I think that we’ve got to be concerned about single issue kinds of approaches when we like a particular candidate just because of their stances on a single issues or a couple of different issues. I think we need to look more broadly at the stances they take across a wide range of political issues. So I think all of those are dangers that we need to careful with. Evangelicals have been rather dissolutioned going all the way back to Jimmy Carter that evangelical presidents are going to do more for them. That they are going to put more of their type of people in the prominent positions within government. And that really didn’t happen with, I mean I think it happened more with Bush than with Reagan or Carter, but I think you can set yourself up with dissatisfaction and for being with what the president does if you don’t look at the full political spectrum and all the pressures upon him.
Mohler: As you look at the entire list of the presidents of the United States, as of now we had one Roman Catholic president and the rest were all Protestants of one sort or another, mainline Protestants or more Evangelical Protestants. But now America is facing some very different types of arguments.
Let me ask you, you have argued that it is very unlikely, and I think you are right about this by the way, that it is very unlikely that we would have an atheist for a president of the United States. But we are now facing the reality and a lot of people quite frankly, people are beginning to face the question, is America ready for a Mormon president? How does that fit within your historical consideration?
Smith: Well we have, as you say had nothing but Protestant presidents except for John F. Kennedy. But we have had at least 3 presidents that identified with Unitarianism. And we’ve had 2 presidents that have identified themselves as Friends or Quakers and certainly those positions are not mainstream American religion. So we have already had the experience of those kinds of positions. Which theoretically at least could have been troublesome to certain large constituencies in society. I think Mormonism raises more red flags than either Quakerism or Unitarianism. Because of the perception among evangelicals that it is cult-like, as more distinctive differences from mainstream evangelical or even mainline Protestantism than even being a Friend or even being a Unitarian. Although Unitarians certainly disagree on big issues with Protestants and with many Catholics obviously, all Catholics. I think that Mormonism can be a problem and will probably decrease. Probably some people will not go for Romney, although again it comes down to who is the alternative? They might not vote at all. But again I am fond of saying that if you were to ask Evangelicals in 1980 would you vote for a candidate who is divorced and who was a Hollywood movie actor, if you just asked them that question in the abstract, most of them would have said no. But then they voted for Ronald Reagan in droves because they so many other things about him.
Mohler: The final question on this topic as you consider the importance of the faith of American presidents to our own national self-understanding and as well as to our political conversation. And frankly the way we even envision the nation. Let me ask you to what extent is this peculiar to America? You could envision as a matter of fact that Australia has had an atheist Prime minister. Other nations have very different kinds of political cultures. What makes America in this case rather distinctive?
Smith: You are absolutely right to point out that America is distinctive. The Europeans can’t quite get their minds around why we are so concerned about their religious convictions of presidents and why we think that makes such a difference and why we would be so reluctant to vote for a secularist or an atheist, as Australia has done. And obviously we have had Christian leaders of other countries. Tony Blair stands out in Great Britain. But I think it is the political culture. The fact that we are a nation that has a much higher percentage of people who say they believe in God, believe in heaven, and believe in hell. Also for whom faith is significant, are members of church, attend church, obviously we would like to see them much higher than they are. And then people who go to church at least weekly or bi-monthly, people who read the Bible regularly. So I think faith forms people’s lives a lot more here than in the United States than it does in other parts of the world. And then of course the other thing would be that we have had other organizations that have been created particularly back into the late 70’s from an evangelical perspective that have encouraged people to think about these issues from a distinctly biblical basis or at least within the context of religious faith. So that certainly played a role. And then we have had an extraordinary number of candidates who for various reasons have emphasized the nature of their faith since Jimmy Carter in 1976, also Gerald Ford that year, to the present. So I think all those things have come together to bring about this difference that you are describing.
Mohler: The books are Heaven in the American Imagination and Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush. The authoris Professor Gary Scott Smith of Grove City College and Professor Smith it’s been an honor to have you with me today on Thinking in Public.
Smith: Well, thank you Dr. Mohler it’s been a privilege to be on your show.
Mohler: I may at first seem unusual to go from talking about heaven to talking about faith in the American presidency. But both are very much a part of understanding America, the American culture and the American mind. Both are important also to understanding American history. That’s why it’s an historian that has written these two very important volumes. But of course we can’t ask questions that are limited to history. Some of our concerns are very much about the present.
Recent polling and survey research has indicated that the vast majority of Americans who say they believe in God, also say they believe in heaven. It’s also clear by a similar plurality the vast majority of Americans believe that they are also going to heaven and for reasons that turn out to be unbiblical in their assumption. One thing is for certain, heaven has been very much a part of the American imagination, if not the American experience. We understand heaven to be a necessary reference not only to understanding where we are in space and time and history. But what we aspire to and what we think of, what we even fear about the future. Heaven and hell will have to be taken together. It seems to me that a great deal more historical and theological investigation of late has gone into the question of hell. And perhaps that’s explainable by the fact that so many in the modern age have tried to redefine or to reject the biblical understanding of hell.
It’s also rooted I think in the fact that Jesus himself had far more to say about hell than about heaven and the fact that the urgings and the warnings about hell are so urgent. What we saw in the last two or three hundred years since is a significant number of liberal theologians and biblical scholars try to retreat from the Bible’s very clear teachings about hell. There’s been a reformulation of hell, so much so that one theologian pointed out there’s been an effort to air-condition hell . I’ve written a great deal about this myself in terms of published literature. And it’s been a major concern because when we redefine hell, we are also redefining the gospel. But of course that is true about heaven as well. And Christians should long for heaven, yearn for heaven, look forward to heaven. I think one of the most important gains of Gary Scott Smith’s book Heaven in the American Imagination is pointing out just how much our American culture has at various twist and turns influenced our understanding of heaven. What exactly are we hoping for?
Now let’s think of this in an Evangelical conversation for a moment. Let’s just remember that there is a larger conversation that includes Protestants and Catholics and Jews and Evangelicals and New Agers and Secularists, but let’s leave that for a moment and just have a conversation amongst ourselves as Evangelical Christians. We should be the people who know to find our moorings and groundings and conceptualizations concerning heaven from the Scriptures. But reading this book I think that most of us would be rather humbled by the fact that a good many of our expectations and anticipations about heaven have actually come from a larger culture around us.
Professor Smith makes a very good point of pointing out that there was this great transition in the understanding of heaven. A transition not so much in the secular understanding. But quite honestly even in the Protestant and Evangelical understanding. From a theocentric understanding of heaven to an anthropocentric understanding of heaven. He pointed out the Victorian concern about the family as a very important part of this. And we can understand how that would happen. We want to see heaven as the continuation of the greatest joys that we see here on earth. And one of the greatest joys comes from the domestic sphere, from marriage, from family and from children, and from the extended family. And so many people naturally gravitated towards an understanding of heaven that is domestic. It is the continuation of the great joy we have known in our own families as we get to heaven.
But, I think the historical investigation helps us to understand the loss in that. There is a very urgent concern for heaven in the Bible and especially as we come to the end of the Bible, which points to the end of all things in the book of Revelation. Where we are told that there is a coming of a new heaven and a new earth. A new holy city, a New Jerusalem. Jesus himself told his disciples before he left them that he was going to prepare a place for them. Now as you look at the biblical understanding it is clear, as to at least some ages of Christianity have had a better understanding than we. That this means that heaven is a place of greater joy, of greater pleasure, of greater employment, of greater identity, of greater intensity than what we know here on earth.
There’s a humbling realization that comes from reading Gary Scott Smith’s book, Heaven in the American Imagination. And it comes down to this; even as the secularists have domesticated transcendence it’s clear that in terms of popular Evangelical piety, we’re largely guilty of the same thing. If indeed what he traces in this book is the fact that there is kind of a natural inclination and for us to make an eschatological reality of heaven, what we most enjoy and aspire for here on earth, then it’s clear that many Christians have kind of a commodified reality. A rather materialistic understanding of heaven, in terms of streets of gold and all the rest. And promises that those who did not have such things here on earth will have great material pleasures in heaven. Now, I am certain that the pleasures of heaven are infinitely greater than the pleasures here on earth. I am absolutely confident that when Jesus said to his disciples that he went to prepare a place for them, and he used the language of such a beautiful, magnificent, priceless place. He was telling us that it was going to be infinitely better than what we know. But it is certainly the case that heaven is not just a place where the commodification is infinitely magnified; rather there is an even greater good – material goods we know that is the Bible’s first and foremost concern about heaven.
There are other issues here of course. And what Professor Smith makes clear, one of the continuities that is rather reassuring in terms of American Evangelicals is the question of how persons get to heaven and as you trace through the American Evangelical experience the reflexive answer that clearly is based on biblical conviction is that one gets to heaven by personal faith and trust in Lord Jesus Christ.
But even as we are rather assured by the continuity, we need to be rather concerned by the data that is coming to us now that large numbers of Evangelicals in the present hour are beginning to soften in terms of their conviction. That they do know that the Bible says that Jesus is the only Savior. They are beginning to try to renegotiate what Jesus said as He told his disciples, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” Also as you look younger, in terms of the evangelical population, you see that the confidence in terms of the exclusivity of the gospel of Jesus Christ is being deteriorated before our eyes in the midst of a culture that is not only talking about heaven and hell and all kinds of aspirations and fears. But is also saying to young evangelicals, there is simply no way to say, there is only one way of salvation. There is no way you can say that heaven is restricted to those who have personal knowledge and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus the question of heaven like the question of hell as we saw, turns out to be a gospel issue. And what we anticipate about heaven, what we believe about heaven, and what we tell others about heaven is going to tell us also what we believe about the gospel. And how we communicate, or do not communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Well, it was a fascinating thing to turn the conversation from turning about heaven and the American imagination to talking about faith in the American presidency. But of course they are very much related. It has to do with the fact that if you look at America as a culture. And you listen to the conversation of the American society, it’s almost impossible to talk about anything of importance without theistic reference, without reference to faith and religion and belief in God and all that these things entail. This is as Professor Smith said something that makes America distinctive. It’s possible, indeed, it’s very likely that most European and especially even British leaders would be very reticent to talk in this way. As former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s aid once said, “We don’t do God.”
Well, it is clear that American presidents have been “doing God” for a very long time. Being put in a context where their own faith is a matter of very public concern. It that was true for George Washington and even more true for George W. Bush, it’s true for the incumbent President Barak Obama and it will be a key factor in the 2012 Presidential race, and as so far as we can see, for races yet to come.
I think that it’s very interesting that Professor Smith observes it’s very unlikely that there will be an atheist president of the United States. It is because the American people by conviction and by moral reflex seem to understand that one’s worldview is absolutely central to how one will govern. I think it also has a great deal to do with how Americans have the intuition to consider character, and it has become clear in recent conversations about atheist public figures and at least one congressman who has said that he is indeed an atheist, this leads many people to the automatic question about character. Now this is going to be a very interesting conversation in America for some time to come, even as we are experiencing an increased secularization certainly among the intellectual elites in the culture class, and also on the college and university campus. It’s going to become clear that there are going to be Americans who are going to come at this question with very divergent expectations. That’s going to have political ramifications of course. It’s going to be fascinating to watch.
Christians need to pay particular heed to this discussion because we need to have a very mature, responsible, honest conversation about exactly what we should and shall expect of presidential candidates and of those who hold office. How should we expect a candidate to tie his political convictions to his mode of public philosophy, or her own religious faith to her own intensions and public policies once in office? These aren’t questions that are going to be avoidable.
Evangelicals have often been just listening with the ear to have the kind of reassurance that tells us that a candidate knows who we are and wants to identify with us. A candidate can get away with saying some things that are quite theologically superficial, and it seems that assures a good many Evangelicals that they know who he is or what she believes. In reality, as we start looking at these questions in all likelihood we’re going to have to ask harder questions. We are going to have to face more complicated issues. For instance in the 2012 election it’s very likely that we might find ourselves asking the question, what about a Mormon candidate? How do American Evangelicals think about this? On the one hand how do we make very clear our theological convictions concerning Mormonism? Convictions that require us to make clear that Mormonism is not another form of Christianity. And that it is indeed a rival belief system to Evangelical Christianity and at the same time say but we are electing a president and not a pastor. That’s not an easy issue. It’s not going to be easy for American evangelicals to think this through. But it’s going to be our responsibility none the less. If not now, then very soon. That’s why we need to be thinking, and that’s why we need also to be Thinking in Public.
Before signing off I want to invite you to join us for an important conference taking place on the campus of Southern Seminary on November the 2nd. La Reforme: Celebrating the French Reformation on the Quincentennial of Pierre Viret (1511 to 1571) will provide an introduction to the French Reformation and include lectures on three important French Reformers: Pierre Viret, John Calvin, and Theodore Beza. For more information visit sbts.edu. Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.