Biblical Studies Heaven
J. Edward Wright
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0190


Speculation on heaven and the afterlife has been a central feature of the human religious imagination since the dawn of human consciousness. The care with which prehistoric peoples buried their dead attests their sincere concern about the deceased’s wellbeing as she/he departed the land of the living. As cultures developed, so did their rituals and beliefs about the dead and the afterlife. These ideas and practices stem from the natural but ultimately unanswerable question, “What happens after we die?” Death is the great separator; it separates the deceased from the people they loved and who loved them. Although an unavoidable fact of human life, death can be viewed as a great injustice. “Why did she/he have to die?” The death of an elderly person is more understandable, coming as it does after a long life, but the death of a person in their prime seems somehow inappropriate, unjust. Death ends relationships, and ending relationships is always in some way painful. But with death there is no second chance, no opportunity to say “Thank you,” “I love you,” or “See you again.” To assuage that frustration humans came to imagine that life might somehow continue, albeit on another, radically different level. This new phase of life has to be going on somewhere else because it obviously does not happen here; the dead are gone. This “afterlife” provided opportunities for relationships to continue, for amends to be made, for second chances. Although all knew that no one could escape death, belief in an afterlife enabled one to transcend death. The religious imagination of people from diverse cultures across time has inspired a stunningly vast complex of images and beliefs about heaven and the afterlife. These speculations reveal more about the people and cultures that created them than they reveal about postmortem existence or about any super-natural realm. Thus, a study of people’s beliefs about the afterlife and heaven tell us a great deal about their societies, as well as about their own personal concerns and aspirations.

General Overviews

The following volumes provide overviews that address specific periods or themes, and some offer more general surveys of afterlife beliefs. Bremer, et al. 1994 and Wright 2000 focus on images of heaven and the afterlife in the ancient world. Collins and Fishbane 1995, Culianu 1991 (cited under Ascent to Heaven), and Zaleski 1987 (cited under Heaven and Near Death Experience) treat the theme accounts of otherworldly journeys, that is, ascents to heaven. Casey 2009, McDannell and Lang 2001, McGrath 2003, Obayashi 1992, Segal 2004, and Zaleski and Zaleski 2000 provide wide-ranging surveys that trace the themes relating to heaven/afterlife across multiple cultures and religious traditions. Russell 1997, Russell 2007 (cited under Modern Era), and Walls 2002 (cited under Modern Era) explore the history with a view to understanding the modern relevance of heaven, both focusing mostly on Christian images.

  • Bremer, Jan M., Theo P. J. van den Hout, and Rudolph Peters, eds. Hidden Futures: Death and Immortality in Ancient Egypt, Anatolia, the Classical, Biblical and Arabic-Islamic World. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1994.

    Most of the essays included in this volume were presented originally in a symposium held by the Institute for Mediterranean Studies at the University of Amsterdam in 1992. As the title indicates, the contents cover a wide geographic and chronological range, so the editors organized the chapters thematically.

  • Casey, John. After Lives: A Guide to Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195092950.001.0001

    This book provides an extensive survey of beliefs about heaven, hell, and purgatory from roughly 3,000 BCE to the modern period.

  • Collins, John J., and Michael Fishbane, eds. Death, Ecstasy, and Other Worldly Journeys. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995.

    This is a collection of papers delivered at a conference held at the University of Chicago in May 1991. The conference and the resulting publication cover a broad range of topics, historical periods, methodologies, and literary forms. The book’s indices are thorough and helpful.

  • McDannell, Colleen, and Bernhard Lang. Heaven: A History. 2d ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.

    This volume explores the social structure of heaven and how images of heaven reflect culturally and temporally conditioned values. They posit two basic images of heaven: anthropocentric and theocentric. The former focuses on features of human life in the heavenly realm and the latter on the rapturous contemplation of the divine.

  • McGrath, Alistair E. A Brief History of Heaven. Blackwell Brief Histories of Religion. Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470690192

    A wide-ranging exploration of Christian images of heaven from antiquity to the 20th century. The author explains the many and diverse Christian images of heaven as expressions of piety and as forces intended to influence Christian belief and behavior. This admittedly “brief” book (184 pages) offers a valuable historical and theological overview of the idea of heaven and its impact on Western cultures and Christian faith.

  • Obayashi, Hiroshi, ed. Death and Afterlife: Perspectives of World Religions. New York: Greenwood, 1992.

    The chapters in this book were first presented in a lecture series at Rutgers University during the 1987–1988 academic year. Each chapter outlines basic beliefs, myths, and/or ritual practices relating to death and afterlife in various religious traditions. The book contains a useful index and a bibliography that is organized by topic.

  • Russell, Jeffrey Burton. A History of Heaven: The Singing Silence. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.

    Russell addresses the questions of how and why people imagine heaven as they did. Starting with biblical materials and extending through the medieval period, Russell describes and assesses Western, mostly Christian, images of heaven and the socio-religious needs they address.

  • Segal, Alan F. Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion. Anchor Bible Reference Library. New York: Doubleday, 2004.

    This hefty volume (866 pages) surveys afterlife beliefs from antiquity to the early medieval period. The author deftly explores how people in the ancient Near East, Greco-Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic eras imagined the afterlife and how those images are reflected in their literary and cultural products. This monumental study will long remain the standard history of the afterlife as it developed in Western societies.

  • Wright, J. Edward. The Early History of Heaven. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    This book explores images of the cosmos and the heavenly realm from the third millennium BCE to the early medieval period. Wright seeks to link evolving cosmological models or “scientific” images of the cosmos to developments in how various cultures and religious traditions imagined the heavenly realms.

  • Zaleski, Carol, and Philip Zaleski, eds. The Book of Heaven: An Anthology of Writings from Ancient to Modern Times. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    This is a collection of texts from a vast array of sources from ancient to modern times and from diverse cultures and religious traditions. These texts all touch on the theme of heaven.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.