Book Review of Who Goes There: A Cultural History of Heaven & Hell

 Book Review of Who Goes There: A Cultural History of Heaven & Hell by Rebecca Price Janney.

 The summary given by

  Princess Diana, John Ritter, Saddam Hussein, Mother Teresa, Chris Farley… Does it seem  reasonable to guess where each of these people ended up after they died? While it is  comforting to suppose that everyone who’s “good” goes to a better place when they die, and  everyone who’s “bad” doesn’t, on what is that hope based?

To adequately understand how these thoughts impact us today, Rebecca Price Janney goes back to the colonization and founding of the United States. From the Great Awakening to the American Revolution, through the tumultuous 19th century, all the way past two world wars, and a technological revolution, Who Goes There? pieces together a thoughtful narrative of American beliefs about the afterlife.

Who Will Like This Book – If you have an appreciation for history, specifically American, then you’ll probably like it.   For those who enjoy a decent popular read, the author gives solid summaries of significant cultural and spiritual moments and how they reflected people’s understanding of heaven and hell.  I found the historical parts to be a great review and it leads me to recommend this also for those who do not understand the summary of the last 100 years of Protestantism in the North American Church; it’s a nice book to read a few chapters of before headed to bed.

Most Beneficial Setting – This would make an EXCELLENT young adult Bible study/Sunday School-type for busy Relevant magazine reader types who read a handful of books a year.  The history would be very beneficial to those who have a fuzzy understanding of evangelical history and crave a better one.  It’s a religious history book written on a popular level.   However, I do no think that it will lead to provocative discussions after the second week or so.  Perhaps best used with a teacher with a solid grasp of history and theology.  

Who Won’t (or might not) – I just don’t think it’s for those who are really into the spiritual memoir books (Blue Like Jazz, Girl Meets God, etc.), I am not sure I see that person connecting with it.  I’m not saying that if you liked Blue that you won’t like Who Goes There? but I’m just saying it’s a different genre of book.  I guess I say that because it’s classic, “don’t judge a book by its cover”.  The cover is well-marketed and the book looks “fun”.  While it’s easy to read, short chapters, and a nice big font, it’s not a memoir.  Also, it’s not going to appeal to seminary students, academic types and anyone who likes to read Hauerwas, Wright, and Willard.  It’s just not written to appeal in that regard.

What I Found Difficult –  I didn’t find the concepts to be difficult and I don’t think anyone will be annoyed by the writing style.  My glitch was as the book continued, I found myself wanting more.   At first, it was hard to put my finger on it but I wanted a deeper analysis of the cultural mindset of heaven and hell.  I wanted to see more of the academic climate, the perspective of the pew-sitter, the debate, the tension, and the solutions that helped and failed.

What I Loved – Rebecca received her doctorate from Biblical Seminary and did graduate work at Princeton.  She knows history and was wise enough to focus on selective moments to build short chapters around.  I can only imagine the text before editing was 30 times the final edit.  Really enjoyed Chapter 12 that outlined the tension between liberalism and conservatism, the rise of fundamentalism that led to the genesis of evangelicalism.  As a frustrated post-evangelical, seeing a bit of the pre-evangelical mindset was helpful.  


  1. Thanks for the review of my book, WHO GOES THERE? A CULTURAL HISTORY OF HEAVEN AND HELL. I appreciate your description of it as a popular historical read; I aim to make historical events interesting, understandable, and relevant for Americans. I’d like to invite your audience to read the first chapter for themselves on my website,

    Again, thanks!

  2. Hello Rebecca,
    Appreciated you commenting on my blog and grateful that you took my comments the way they were intended.
    I do mean it when I think that teachers should consider using it as a Sunday School or Tuesday Night Study of some kind. While I am all for the Bible-based churches, I think we can gain a great deal from understanding our current context and the short history of how we got here.

    Grace and peace to you.

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