Controversy over Heaven

The Red Hook section of Brooklyn recently renamed a street “Seven in Heaven Way” to honor seven firefighters who died trying to rescue victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks at the World Trade Center. The street was given this new name because the men who died — Joseph Gullickson, Brian Cannizzaro, Salvatore Calabro, Thomas Kennedy, Patrick Byrne, Joseph Maffeo, and Terence McShane — have long been known as “Seven in Heaven.” This simple act has provoked substantial debate over the public use of religious language and the afterlife.

The New York City Atheists organization protested that this renaming violated the separation of church and state. The group’s president complained that public signs with religious messages are “really insulting to us” because they are convinced that neither heaven nor hell exists. The spokesperson of American Atheists demanded the city remove the sign because “Heaven is a specifically Christian place” and therefore the claim that these “heroes are in heaven” is “preachy” and “not appropriate.” “It’s improper for the city to endorse the view that heaven exists,” he declared, because “it links Christianity and heroism.”

Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz countered that “these seven brave souls who … gave up the most precious gift that could be given … are in heaven for serving us so admirably.” These men who died trying to save others from burning rubble, another Brooklyn official stated, “are heroes and should be rewarded in a place like heaven.”

Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land pointed out that American cities such as Los Angeles, Corpus Christi, and St. Joseph have religious names. “In a country where 85 percent of the people say they are Christian,” he added, it makes sense for cities and streets to employ religious terms.

Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice asserted that “the claim that somehow ‘Seven in Heaven Way’ violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment is absurd. Acknowledging religion is not an endorsement of religion, and to suggest that this street name somehow crosses the constitutional line of establishing a religion is nonsense.”

One internet site received nearly 400 responses to the incident, many of which pointed out that heaven is not unique to Christians. Jews, Muslims, Shintoists, and others believe in heaven. One atheist proclaimed, “I think that naming the street ‘Seven in Heaven’ is a superb way of honouring [sic] those heroic firefighters. These moronic attacks on Christianity embarrass me.” Others complained “you can sneeze and offend an atheist” or warned “one day they will meet GOD…. Then they will know the truth.” Few, though, questioned whether heroic action guaranteed admission to heaven.

Debates over heaven and the nature of the afterlife are as old as humanity itself. The ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all depicted a future existence where heroes rested, pharaohs resided, or the righteous picnicked in Elysian Fields. Australian aborigines as well as early Polynesians, Peruvians, Mexicans, and Native Americans all developed ideas about the afterlife.

Many other Americans have been deeply interested in life after death. From the works of Puritan Increase Mather, to the sermons of theologian Jonathan Edwards, the writings of 19th-century revivalists like Dwight Moody, the books and sermons of evangelist Billy Graham, and the novels of Mitch Albom and Alice Sebold, thousands have offered visions of heaven or how to get there. Evangelicals have led the way, but mainline Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Mormons, spiritualists, New Agers, Muslims, and numerous others have also described heaven and its entrance requirements.

Thousands of books, articles, and essays on heaven have been published, countless sermons have been preached about the subject, and hymns about heaven have been popular. Jokes, works of art, and kitsch about heaven have proliferated in recent decades. Artists, musicians, social scientists, philosophers, theologians, pastors, evangelists, and novelists have all offered perspectives.

Recently, interest in heaven has become even greater. Polls consistently find that high percentages of Americans believe in heaven and expect to spend eternity there. Various polls show that 80-90 percent of Americans believe in heaven. A Gallup Poll reported that 77 percent of Americans rated their chances of getting to heaven as “good” or “excellent.” Several near-death experience accounts of heaven — Don Piper’s “90 Minutes in Heaven,” “Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back,” and “The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven” — are all best sellers. Given this and the deep impact of 9/11 on Americans, the lively debate over the naming of this street in Brooklyn is not surprising. Belief in heaven has provided millions of Americans with hope as they face earthly struggles and death and has frequently helped inspire them to improve conditions on earth.


Dr. Gary Scott Smith chairs the history department at Grove City College and is a fellow for faith and the presidency with The Center for Vision & Values. He is the author of "Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush."

  • Only the Magesterium canonizes. For everyone else we must offer our prayers. Heaven, if what Jesus says on the subject is accurate, is certainly not automatic, as books like those by Mitch Albom make it out to be.

  • Ken

    If novus ordo Catholics would spend one tenth as much time praying for the dead as they do declaring individuals Assumptions and Ascensions there would likely be a lot more souls lifted from purgatory to heaven.

    • Cord Hamrick


      I don’t understand: Are you saying that Catholics who attend the ordinary form tend habitually to declare that someone other than Jesus “ascended” (as opposed to “died and hopefully went”) to Heaven? And are you saying that these Catholics declare that someone other than Mary (and Enoch and Elijah and maybe Moses) was “assumed” into Heaven? And, are you asserting that they do this more often than they pray for the dead?

      If so, it seems a strange assertion, and one certainly not backed up by my experience. I’ve never known any Catholic, whatever form he attended, to say that a person other than Jesus “ascended,” or that a person other than Mary and her Old Testament antecedents was “assumed.” But I have known them to attend Mass and pray for the dead at the usual time, and probably during the “special intentions” part of the prayer unless I miss my guess; and, I have known them to attend the weekday evening prayer gatherings and special Masses for the holy souls in purgatory.

      I grant that I have known Catholics and other folk to casually talk about the deceased as if they were in Heaven, especially when the bereaved were nearby. But they say that “in lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath,” and I think talk of this kind is much the same thing: A bit careless about the truth, and I wouldn’t do it myself, but no formal kind of soteriological statement is being made.

  • Sam Schmitt

    What’s a novus ordo Catholic?

    • Ken

      A Catholic who attends the novus ordo liturgy. I guarantee you that a Catholic who attends the traditional Latin Mass exclusively would not assume someone who recently died is already in heaven.

      • Bridget

        What an incredibly arrogant presumption, presuming that the millions of people who happen to attend a different (and equally valid) liturgy are intrinsically less prayerful and less theologically aware than you! And you consider the ‘novus ordo Catholics’ to be presumptuous…

        • Ken

          You are free to prove me wrong on the general assumption with something more than emotion.

      • I’ve attended the Novus Ordo my whole life, and all this time, I’ve always called myself “Catholic.” Thanks for setting me straight!

    • Aengus O’Shaughnessy

      A novus ordo catholic is one who follows the ‘novus ordo’ (‘new order’) way of thinking. The novus ordo was established after Vatican II, though some still attend the Old Form, or Latin Mass. Some differences between the two include: 1. The novus ordo allows altar girls. 2. In novus ordo, women are not required to cover their heads. 3. The novus ordo is held in English, thus making it a little easier to understand (particularly for new converts).

  • Steve N.

    Perhaps the Atheist creed is presumption.

  • In my book “THE EIGHTH STORY MOUNTAIN OF BLOOD AND TEARS”, I have written many different things that I have experienced regarding Heaven. And as such, I do know that through experiential experiences that there certainly is a Heaven!

  • I’m sure the sensible atheist who said that it was “superb way of honouring those heroic firefighters…” was from Britain, hence the proper placement of the ‘u’!

  • Pete

    If these seven men were motivated by their Christian beliefs to risk their lives, then surely the atheists should shut up, irrespective of their understanding of ‘separation of church and state’.

  • Tom

    ,,,how about just “surely the atheists should shut up”

  • Cord Hamrick

    Well, folks, be careful how you say that.

    I’m sure it isn’t your intent, but you know that if you don’t decorate such remarks with qualifications and caveats, all the “old women of both sexes” will be yammering and bleating about how you want to violate the free speech rights of atheists, et cetera. And once they get started, you can protest as you like that you had no intention of locking them up for saying what they thought, but it won’t matter; that motive will be unreasonably read into your comment.

    So for clarity’s sake, so there is no misunderstanding: Atheists may say what they wish, as may members of all other faiths, without fear of forcible suppression. But some comments are more reasonable than others, and the protest about the street name is surely one of the less reasonable. Some of their own co-religionists have said as much. Hence, of their own free will, they ought not to have said it…for fear of looking silly, if for no other reason.