2017-07-12
Anthony DeStefano's "A Travel Guide to Heaven" is one of those books that are published without great fanfare, gather momentum by word of mouth, and pop onto the best-seller lists without warning. DeStefano, a Roman Catholic who heads the New York-based pro-life organization Priests for Life, takes scripture and the writings of church fathers as a jumping off point for an emphatically positive tour of heaven. Beliefnet talked to him recently about why he believes the afterlife is a consolation none of us should do without.

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.

You're Roman Catholic.
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.

You seem to expect a lot of physical pleasure in heaven.
I've emphasized the sensual element of heaven. A corrective has been needed. I believe that. If I have swung the pendulum a little far in the direction of the sensual, it's okay. Too many people, when they think about heaven, eliminate the good things here on earth. We go from a color world to a black-and-white world in heaven. God is not going to just do away with all the good stuff here.

And yet Christianity has a strong anti-sensualist tradition.
If you look back to the beginning, Christians did have this vision. The early Christians were able to go singing to their deaths. How does a father allow his wife and three little daughters to be taken into an arena and used as food for a lion or tiger? There were so many martyrs because they were certain about the resurrection. They had it very clear in their minds that they were going to be real human beings like Christ was after he died. This is why Christianity spread like wildfire.

Do you think that personal visions of heaven are going to be fulfilled? If someone likes to eat ice cream, will they be eating ice cream all day?
We have to be careful here. Heaven is not going to be so radically subjective that my heaven is different from your heaven. If you get too subjective, you're going to have the same problems that you have here on earth, where everybody's morality is different. Heaven is objectively a paradise created by God.

But heaven is going to be so vast, with so many things to do and we are going to have so much time that it may be that a lot of heaven is going to subjective. I can eat ice cream if I want, or I may want to have a nice conversation with George Washington, while you go speak to Mozart. We're not going just be robots walking around loving each other.

In what sense is it going to be physical? To me, a physical place means you can take a ruler and measure. It means that it exists contiguously with the reality we're sitting in now.
Well, that heaven doesn't exist right now. No Christian believes that that heaven-the physical component-exists in the present as we understand it. If I drop dead today, I am not going to be able to run up to my grandmother and kiss her and feel her skin, not at this point. Christianity teaches that we have to wait to the end of the world, until the last judgment.

Now, I don't know what the passage of time will feel like. We'll experience a lot of the joys of heaven-being with God, being with the spirits of our loved ones-but at some point it's going to be physical. I don't see it as exactly continuous with what we're experiencing now.

This is where people start losing faith in religion and God, because it appears that when we can't understand something, we just say, "It's a mystery." But we have the same kind of mysteries if you're an atheist or you're purely a scientist. In college I learned about the properties of light. Light is very special. Most things can be broken down into waves or particles. Light on the other hand has both qualities. Particles and waves. It's absolutely a contradiction in terms. Nobody understands it, yet we know it exists. We just have to accept it because it exists.

And yet the book comes across as very certain about one of the most mysterious questions we have to face.
Some passages are more speculative than others. When I say, "The World Trade Center is going to rise again," that's a heck of a lot more speculative than saying we're going to have bodies again.

At one point you say, "I'll tell you exactly what the resurrection will be like." Can any human being know exactly what the resurrection will be like?
That's a literary device. Do I know exactly how it's going to be? No. But St. Paul says we're going to change in the blink of an eye, he says it's going to be instantaneous. So I'm not pulling that out of thin air.

When I was growing up, I heard these stories at Mass or wherever else about being raised from the dead. It used to scare the heck out of me. I used to picture the movie "Night of the Living Dead," where these people get up and it's gory and all the rest. I know a lot of people who have confessed that they have similar things.

Well listen, I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that the resurrection is not going to be like that. If the resurrection is going to be like that then all of Christianity doesn't make any sense. It wouldn't be worth believing in a God who has orchestrated something so ridiculously scary like a low budget movie. So with the line, "I'll tell you exactly what it's going to be-it's going to be instantaneous," obviously I'm reassuring people. The certitude is that it's not going to be in a scary way.

What's not in this book is how to get to heaven.
It's not supposed to. If you want that, speak to your pastor or go read one of the thousands of books on morality. This is not a book on moral theology. The second you do that, it becomes controversial and people will throw out the baby with the bathwater. Christianity has got the carrot and the stick. Heaven is the biggest, juiciest carrot there could ever be. Why not emphasize that?



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