The top branches of the other trees of the forest now peeped through the clouds; they, too, were growing, lifting themselves up to the sky, toward the sun. Bushes and flowers followed; some of them had freed themselves from the earth and were flying…
“But where are the little blue flowers from the pond?” shouted the oak tree. “And the red harebell and the little primrose?” The old oak did not want anyone to be forgotten.
“We are here, we are here!” sang voices all around it.
“But the woodruff from last summer and all the lilies of the valley from the summer before that, where are they? I remember the year when the wild apples bloomed so beautifully. Oh, so much beauty do I recall through all the years of my life! If it only were all alive now and could be with us!”
“We are, we are,” came cries from somewhere higher up; they must have flown there earlier.
“That is the most marvelous of all,” rejoiced the old oak tree. “Everything that I have known is here. Nothing has been forgotten, not the tiniest flower or the smallest bird. How is such joy possible? Where is such happiness conceivable?”
“In heaven it is possible,” sang the voices.
And the tree felt its roots loosen their grasp on the earth.
— from “The Old Oak Tree’s Last Dream” by Hans Christian Andersen
Modern readers are bound to be surprised at the prominence of heaven in so many of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories. “The Little Match Girl” has a vision of being reunited with her grandmother in heaven, and this adds some hope to an otherwise harrowing story of a little girl slowly freezing to death. “The Dead Child” comforts his grieving mother before returning to God in heaven. “The Little Mermaid” wants to become a human because she is in love with a prince, but most of all so she can have an immortal soul and spend eternity with God.
Modern Christians are clearly embarrassed by the idea of eternal beatitude, but this was not the case for our ancestors. Saint Augustine and his dying mother famously speculated on the joys of heaven. Pascal in Pensee 427 expresses astonishment that anyone could fail to find our fate after death the most important of topics. In contrast, the 20th century’s best-known apologetic work, C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, mostly confines discussion of heaven to a small chapter near the end on the virtue of hope. Lewis’ understanding of the desire for heaven is based on a rare sort of aesthetic experience, one I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced. Anglican theologian N. T. Wright wrote a book attacking the idea of heaven in popular piety. By the end of the 20th century, Christianity had returned to an Old Testament-style reticence about the afterlife.