A recent Harris Poll found that 68 percent of Americans do believe heaven exists. / (Sioux Falls, S.D.) Argus Leader
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- A 4-year-old Nebraska boy claims in a New York Times best seller that he once visited heaven during an emergency appendectomy.
Little Colton Burpo says it's real.
Skeptics will shake their heads, but the boy insists he met a miscarried sister no one ever told him about. He offered up details about a great grandfather who died 30 years before he was born. He saw Jesus riding a rainbow-colored horse.
Whether they buy it or not, 68 percent of Americans surveyed in a Harris Poll last November do believe the realm exists that Colton says he visited. Slightly less - 64 percent - believe in the survival of the soul after death.
On Easter Sunday, observed today, Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which gives believers a place in heaven when they die.
Local and area theologians, religion professors, pastors and others say there's enough definitive detail in the Bible, Koran and other religious writings to be fairly confident about some of what believers will find in eternity.
Students of Islam and Christianity, Catholicism and Lakota spirituality, say historical religious texts are fairly specific about a realm where nature abides, where believers recognize each other's physical forms, where food is consumed, where disease and disfigurement are eliminated, where there are buildings and structures.
"We do know some things," said Chris Burgwald, director of adult discipleship and evangelization for the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls. "We do believe that at the end of time, our body will be reunited with our soul. Whether in heaven or hell, we'll have our body back."
That's a common theme among religions that focus strongly on the afterlife. Where the divergence begins then is when experts start talking about where it is exactly that body and soul will be reunited.
The Bible in Revelation and 1 Corinthians tells her that eternity in paradise actually begins when Jesus returns to earth and those who believe in him are raised from the dead, said Christina Hitchcock, associate professor of practical theology at the University of Sioux Falls.
"The Bible is very, very concerned with resurrection," Hitchcock said. "Jesus returns, and all those who put trust in him also will be raised from the dead here on this earth. This earth will be renewed and recreated, and God's people will be renewed and resurrected. But it's very earthy."
What people think of then as "heaven" really is a nondescript place of safe-keeping until the resurrection occurs, Hitchcock said. It's like a layover in an airport on the way to some exotic vacation destination. The focus then on eternity becomes misguided, she said, when people seem more interested in hearing about the airport than the vacation destination.
"That's Christians getting all obsessed with heaven," Hitchcock said. "The point is, it's just this time, this place after we die, where God keeps us safe and you wait for Jesus to come back. It's not the main event."
It may not be a place at all, Augustana College religion professor Richard Swanson said. People seem to want something more after death, he said, because they can't imagine their own non-existence, or being separated from loved ones with no chance of reunion.
"I hear people at the edge of the death of someone they've always known, and they're going to be separated so they imagine a reunion even if they can't put it in the context of a religious constellation," he said. "That's not evidence of heaven. It's evidence of a deep connection of living things and people who love each other."
In many historical religious texts, heaven was never envisioned as a place to go at all, he said, but as creation in its entirety coming to life again through resurrection and healing. Those images of streets of gold and mansions with many rooms? They're simply metaphors for that healing.
Swanson worries that heaven as a place is built on a foundational notion that life on earth with its many shortcomings is something to be escaped.
"That notion ... is troublesome because it turns into the refusal to see the beauty of life, which is regrettable," he said. "For all the pain and ugliness of this world, it's really a beautiful place. It's God's good creation. So I think whatever heaven could be, our notions of it have to arise out of a deep awareness of the goodness of life."
That falls into the mainstream thinking within the Jewish faith in some ways, said Peter Schotten, a professor of government and international affairs at Augustana. It's too simple to say there is only one Jewish perspective on heaven, he said, "but for the most part, Jews tend to emphasize ethical and responsible behavior in this world and de-emphasize the afterlife."
For many of the other faiths, however, the hope and belief that some realm of existence continues after death are at their core. The experts in those faiths insist that religious writings do in fact reveal what some of that existence will include.
Jesus appearing to his disciples after his crucifixion and being recognized by them leads Christians to believe that the physical body will be reunited with its soul in eternity, said Burgwald, who earned his doctorate of theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. That they recognized each other also suggests to him that those in heaven will recognize people they knew on earth.
knew on earth.
Muslims believe that as well, said Dr. Bassel Salem, a neurologist for Sanford Health in Sioux Falls and vice president of the Muslim Community Center of South Dakota.
"Paradise first is a physical thing, so we will live it in a physical way," Salem said. "So we will be in our bodies. You will see, you will hear, you will have senses like ours here on earth. And yes, families will be together. That is a guarantee. If my wife, my kids, all of them pass the judgment, and they are all going to paradise, then in paradise we will be together."
Like the boy who said he saw his miscarried sister in heaven, those who enter eternity will recognize loved ones who died at any age, said Rick Two Dogs, a Lakota medicine man from the Pine Ridge Reservation.
"I think there's no limitations as far as who we are and what age we are in the spirit world because you are a spirit first," said Two Dogs, who traces his lineage as a "wakan yeska" - Lakota for "interpreter of the sacred" - back 500 years. "We believe if you go into the spirit world, and you did have in your life a son or a daughter who was stillborn, you will meet them. They will come up and tell you who they are."
People ask him how old they will be in heaven, Burgwald said. Do they appear as they were at the time of death? He said Catholic traditions hold to the belief that glorified bodies in heaven will be adult bodies that are mature and have not started to break down because of aging.
"Probably something early adulthood would be the general thought," Burgwald said, "though we don't know for sure."
That's similar to Islamic belief, Salem said. One of Islam's hadiths - a collection of traditions containing sayings of the prophet Muhammad and considered the major source of guidance apart from the Koran - suggests that those in paradise will appear as they did around age 33.
"The strong hadith very specifically says the person will be in their young age," Salem said. "No one is old. No one is too young or too little. They live eternally in this age. They don't grow up. They don't grow old."
Do you sleep and eat in heaven? In a glorified, perfected body, neither one should be necessary, Burgwald said. Certainly Jesus ate fish with the disciples after he was resurrected, but he was trying to show his humanity, Burgwald said.
Salem said the prophet Muhammad specifically referred to eating in paradise. And Two Dogs said the Lakota place food in the casket to feed the spirit on its journey to the next world. The essence of that food - as well as food served during the wake service and during the traditional Lakota giveaway ceremony a year after the death to release the spirit - help to feed relatives in the next world, he said.
As for nature in eternity, streams and forests, animals and pets, those who have studied religious writings suggest the answer is "yes."
"Actually, the most described feature of paradise in the Koran is nature," Salem said. "When you're laying on a couch, for example, the trees will bend down so you pick what you want to eat, probably rather than you go and pick it."
The Lakota believe those in the spirit world will exist as they did on earth at the time they died. So when Two Dogs travels there, he expects to find Sitting Bull in a tipi teepee. His relatives who left more recently will be in houses.
Yet again, as Augustana's Swanson suggested earlier, Burgwald sees references to nature and structures in heaven as being more metaphorical than anything, "speaking about the unsurpassed beauty of the new heavens and the new earth."
"It could be that it will literally be lined in gold," Burgwald said of heaven. "It's probably more likely that it's imagery used to describe the incredible beauty we'll see. And the structures, again, we don't know. There could be. But that's probably also metaphorical for the joy and the peace and the security and comfort we'll have in heaven."
And what of departed loved ones looking down from heaven, keeping watch over their living connections on earth? Is there reason to believe that is so?
It's a nice thought, the theologians, pastors and others say, even if it's not in fact what happens.
Salem said Muslims can visit the graves of the departed, talk to them and expect those conversations to be heard. "But beyond that," he said, "there's nothing. (The departed) can't act on it."
The Catholic church doesn't speculate on that possibility, Burgwald said, though it believes the saints and the departed in heaven can pray for those living on earth.
"Whether they can see us or " he said, "we don't know."
The Lakota speak of their dead relatives coming back from the spirit world to talk to them in dreams about the past and the future, Two Dogs said. That tells him such things are possible.
Hitchock at the University of Sioux Falls understands the thought process behind that hope. As her colleague Swanson said, people struggle with the idea that death severs connections. It's difficult for them to let go of those connections.
"I get the emotion that is driving that," she said. "We want to feel that even if we can't see them, they can see us. We don't want to lose our connection.
"But what the Bible and God are saying is, 'I understand you're sad and you're lonely and you wish that person was still here.' But the answer is not, 'They're looking down on you.' The answer is Jesus coming back, and you'll all be raised up together. So wait, wait, and then it will be good again."
For how long? No one knows for sure, she said. But if you really think about it, Hitchcock and Swanson, Burgwald, Two Dogs and the others say, does it even make sense to believe that anyone can truly fathom what eternity is, and what it holds in store?
It could be a place of rainbow-colored horses, if you want to believe Colton Burpo. Perhaps the streets really are paved in gold.
The single most knowable truth about heaven is this, the experts say: There's only one way to find out.
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