Why did you write this book?
I have always been interested in the disparity between the greatness of the Christian teaching on heaven and the low level of enthusiasm for the subject. I mean, everybody's interesting in getting to heaven-76 percent of Americans believe in heaven, says a Newsweek poll-but nobody seems too excited about it.
Why this disconnect?
Two reasons. First, what you hear is so nebulous. How are you going to get excited about a concept that is so lofty and spiritual? We live in a concrete world-we're physical beings. If you posit the existence of a place that's totally spiritual, it's going to be hard to get excited about.
The second thing is, there's so many cartoonish images-heaven as disembodied spirits floating around with halos, playing harps and all that-all those images that come out of Hollywood and poetry. That's not exciting at all.
Could it be, too, that Americans have become so comfortable that we have less need to hear about the comforts of heaven?
It is. But then your mom dies. Your uncle dies. Your doctor tells you they've discovered a polyp. And all of a sudden, no matter how secular you've been, all that fortune-cookie spirituality goes out the window and you're back in the traditional places, because only those places have the answers to life after death.
It is easier to live in denial nowadays because of all the luxuries that we have. There's speculation that one of the reasons why my book has done so well and why there's so many books and television shows that focus on life after death, is that when you see 3,000 people die before your eyes, the threat of death thrusts itself back into our pampered lives.
In looking at these images of heaven, did you find a Catholic idea of heaven, and a different Protestant idea of heaven?
I think the Christian denominations are in agreement on the basics-the resurrection of the body, that heaven is going to be partly physical, all of that: New heaven, new Earth, worship of God, God being the highlight of the trip, seeing our relatives again. Within those parameters, Christianity, and particularly Catholicism, allows quite a bit of leeway.
The trick is, you have to stick to those parameters. New Age people or television psychics can say anything, based on their personal revelation. But if you stick within the parameters, you can use a certain amount of imagination and speculation. For instance, I firmly believe that if heaven is physical than it's going to be colorful as well. That's common sense. It doesn't say anywhere in the Gospel, really, that heaven is full of different colors but I think this is well within the parameters of Christianity, no matter the denomination.
Yes, I am. And had I wanted to make this a Roman Catholic book, I could have quoted popes and church councils. For instance, Catholics believe Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven and in the importance of relics. If you want to argue for the physical nature of heaven, the Catholic Church has a lot that you can use to back up.
But I wanted to communicate with all Christians. When I first sat down to write, I wanted to include Judaism as well. I found it's well within the scope of Judaism to believe you're going to see your relatives again and that heaven has a physical component. But they don't have the 2,000 years of eschatology-theology about what the afterlife is going to be. But I don't think there's anything in the book that a Jewish person can't believe.
While we're on the subject, does your vision of heaven include Jewish people?
The book doesn't go really near any of those kinds of questions. I purposely stay away from controversy. This is a sight-seeing guide. I don't want to push anybody away. If we basically all agree on the basics of heaven, why the heck should I come in with either political, moral, any kind of controversial questions, because then somebody who disagrees is going to wind up not reading the book and not getting the consoling message about heaven?
So your message is comfort.
Well, heaven is the most comforting message there is. Anyone who reads about heaven is going to be comforted. But I'm not into wishful thinking-I'm a skeptical New Yorker. I'm the last person to say, "Believe this because it's a happy pill." I've written this book to explain heaven in an exciting, provocative way and in the process because the teaching is so great, to help console people.