The purpose of this short book is easily stated. It sets out to explore a few aspects of the development of the idea of heaven in Western culture, and the inspiration it has brought to Western literature and personal faith. It is a subject that has long fascinated me, both academically and spiritually, and I hope its readers will find themselves sharing at least something of my excitement as I wrote it.
Unlike some other excellent recent studies of the history of heaven,1 this book does not attempt to offer a chronological overview of the development of the idea of heaven, but looks at the ways in which Western literature - both Christian and secular - understands this notion, and the difference it makes to human life and thought. Its approach is thus primarily thematic, rather than historical.
1 The best studies currently available in English are Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang. Heaven: A History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988, and Jeffrey Burton Russell. A History of Heaven: The Singing Silence. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.
The origins of the book lie in research I undertook to expand the final chapter of my widely used textbook Christian Theology: An Introduction,2 which deals with the concept of heaven. As I researched this theme, I became aware of two major difficulties. First, there was no way I could include any more than a fraction of that research within the severely limited confines of that chapter. It called out for a book in its own right. And second, the exploration of the idea of heaven in the field of Western literature was far more interesting than anything I found in works of systematic theology. Although care has been taken to ensure that the theological foundations of the ideas are carefully explained, this book therefore focuses on the depiction and discussion of heaven in works of literature, rather than technical works of theology.
Alister McGrath Oxford, May 2002
2 Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction. 3rd edn. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2001.
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