The Seven Weirdest Depictions of Heaven

Written By Meg Elison

Meg Elison is a Philip K. Dick and Locus award winning author, as well as a Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and Otherwise awards finalist. A prolific short story writer and essayist, Elison has been published in Slate, McSweeney’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fangoria, Uncanny, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley.

For all that the Bible is meant to be a manual on how to get to heaven, the book is a little scant on details of what that hallowed place is like. There are some hints of glass and brass, jasper and gold. It’s a beautiful city but it’s also a garden. There will be no more sorrow or tears, but it’s hard to draw a lack of something. The result of this textural vagueness is that making visual representations of heaven has been a challenge filmmakers who want to tell stories about the presumed afterlife of dead Americans.

Sometimes they get real weird with it.

7. Heaven Can Wait (1978)

A promising young quarterback is snatched out of life too quickly by an overzealous guardian angel. The kid should get to live again, but oops! He’s been cremated. Panicked and aware that the souls of the rich are made up mostly of vacancy, the angels stuff the boy into the body of a millionaire industrialist and an old life is made new again. Most importantly, all the decisions about it are made in this low-budget nothingness they have the nerve to call heaven. White and grey walls and cubes are lit low and filled with clouds made from fog machines and the barfed-up guts of your dog’s favorite toy. This heaven is as featureless as an apartment where you’ve just signed the lease, and as absent of comfort. God might be single, but he doesn’t have to live without a bed frame.

6. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Young George Bailey wants more than anything to get out of Bedford Falls, but he never will. When he devalues his own life and is facing jail time, heaven sends a trainee to trick him into living through his own capitalist nightmare. Most of this film takes place in a beautiful upstate New York town, but the parts in heaven are spare, to say the least. Like painters before him, director Frank Capra collapses heaven with the heavens, and the administration and grunts alike are depicted as talking, twinkling stars. It’s clear in its intent, but how does one imagine going to that heaven? I hope the Enterprise swings by; heaven really needs a bar.

5. Thor: Blood and Thunder (2022)

To escape from Christianity for a moment, let’s pop over to Valhalla for just a second. Spoilers and all but: Jane (who is sometimes Thor) has cancer and will die. Listen, it happens to the best of us, even Natalie Portman. Tales of Valhalla from the people who reasonably hoped to go there are somewhat more detailed than those of heaven. Valhalla is a mead hall where the dead may feast, drink, sing, and tell stories. Sometimes there is fighting, but it’s the fun kind. It’s endless vacation, for the Viking who loved to live and wants to stick to the highlights for all eternity. However, the film’s version of Valhalla is just a landing pad where Heimdall greets the dead in their white robes and a shower of gold glitter, craggy mountains all around. Where’s the feast? Which way to the big mugs of mead? The white carpet does not indicate the deathless Chili’s for Vikings we were promised.

4. Defending Your Life (1991)

Albert Brooks plays an ad man who was maybe also a bad man, and so his afterlife is in question. Death places him in Judgement City; a highly bureaucratic location where souls are assessed for whether they managed to make decisions in life based on anything but fear. In a series of mortifying video clips, the deceased relives not only this life but previous reincarnations to see whether they were ever able to conquer fear and truly live. This all-white office park of a purgatory has all the charm of an HR meeting where you get documented for your shortcomings and issued a formal warning. Funny movie; undesirable afterlife location. Vacation request denied.

3. Soul (2020)

Let’s let the animators have a shot at heaven! In this Pixar attempt at depicting eternal bliss, Jamie Foxx plays a jazz pianist who is so excited at the prospect of not having to teach middle schoolers anymore that he falls down a manhole and dies. Dodging a great deal of religious implication, the film shows us the possibilities of the Great Beyond and the Great Before. The Beyond looks dull as usual: a set of slick black stairs leading into an amorphous heaven of nothing but blinding light. Why is heaven always white? Did the minimalists take a lack of detail as an excuse to paint our imaginations an even coat of eggshell and call it a day? Our pianist, now a vaguely anthropomorphic teal blob opts instead for the Great Before, to be recycled like the melty oil inside a lava lamp through the pinball machine of reincarnation. At least this part is colorful.

2. The Fountain (2006)

Is this Aronofsky film specifically about reincarnation, or do people just make the same mistakes across the centuries in very different outfits? He’s not a filmmaker for answers, but his vision of the afterlife is a visual feast to accompany difficult questions. Doctor Hugh Jackman’s beautiful wife Rachel Weisz is dying, kicking off a spiritual crisis focused on the Mayan idea of the afterlife. Their heaven is said to exist on a nebula visible from Earth that they call Xibalba, and through a series of metaphors about the old world and the new, the lovers pledge that their souls will meet there. That’s not exactly how it looks, but we do see communion and obliteration as Jackman eats the fruit of the tree of life before becoming compost, and flies into the gold glitter of the celestial supposition only to disintegrate into it. Are we eternal if we become the stars? Are we eternal if we rot and become food for plants that come back again and again? Aronofsky does not pretend to know the answer, but at least he’s not trying to distract us from the question with a fog machine, or babies playing the harp.

1. What Dreams May Come (1998)

Robin Williams is dead, and so are his children. Instead of accepting this and what dreams may come (a title lifted by author Richard Matheson right out of Shakespeare), he haunts his wife until she commits suicide. The two embark on a seesawing adventure through heaven and hell, trying to reunite and decide how to behave now that their lives are over, but still full of meaning. Director Vincent Ward leaned hard into the weirdness of the afterlife, depicting something both archetypal and individualized in this vision of the afterlife. The result is majestic and strange, containing libraries and rivers full of boats, places to mourn and places to wallow, places to learn and places to teach, and something that each individual contributes via their own consciousness to the eternal plane. This is a truly beautiful film about grief and accepting inevitability without ever being grim or giving up. It’s the best view of heaven in a movie, because it is the most weird.

If there is a heaven or some other afterparty following this long and mystifying function, I just hope it isn’t dull.

[graphic: Universal/Columbia 1998]