Reviews > Culture

Heavenly reading

Culture | A book on the wonders of the Christian hope breaks through into the "spirituality" market

Issue: "Iraq: The WMD debate," Feb. 21, 2004

WHEN WE READ WORKS BY AND ABOUT THE great Christians of the past, we have to be struck by how they yearned for eternal life in heaven. Today's Christians still believe in heaven, but it has faded from our imaginations.

Those other-worldly Christians tended to be more fearless, zealous, and effective in addressing this-world concerns than we are today, enduring like their Lord every kind of suffering for the joy that has been set before them. Modern Christians have tended to displace the promised pleasures of heaven to the here and the now, emphasizing how following Christ will bring some utopian society or personal happiness, though that hardly happens either. We have become too worldly to be of any earthly good.

In the meantime, postmodern Americans say that they are not interested in religion but are looking for "spirituality." The spirituality sections of bookstores are full of New Age mysticism and self-help pablum, with hardly a Christian title to be found.

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Now a book has broken through into that market-hitting No. 1 on Amazon's "Spirituality" charts-that is grounded in historic Christianity, bringing up truths that many Christians have all but forgotten, namely, how wonderful heaven is going to be.

Anthony DeStefano's book, A Travel Guide to Heaven (Doubleday), attempts to evoke what "a place where there is no pain, no evil, no disappointment, no death"-a place of "unlimited pleasure, happiness, and joy"-would be like.

"What I intend to do throughout this book," he writes, "is take well-known, commonly accepted, rock-solid Christian teachings and draw out their exciting implications." Footnoting his book with Bible passages and drawing on theologians from Augustine to C.S. Lewis, Mr. DeStefano shows just how mind-blowing Christian doctrines can be.

He reminds us, for example, that the Bible teaches not just a "spiritual" afterlife in the clouds, but the resurrection of the body. Although we do have a spiritual existence with God immediately after death, he believes, which can be called heaven, the afterlife really shifts into high gear when Christ returns to earth and the dead are raised, when our souls will be reunited with our bodies.

Heaven, he says, is a place. It is right here, the new earth that will be part of the new heaven that God plans in His great consummation.

This means we will enjoy a physical life forever. Mr. DeStefano argues that God will preserve His good creations, so this new world will be continuous with the old in the beauties of nature, the pleasures of the senses, the love of our family and friends. What we treasure in this world will be magnified in the next, since there will be no sin to get in the way.

Whereas in this life, our souls are in bondage to our bodies, in heaven, our bodies will do whatever our souls desire. We will have unimaginable powers and experiences. Above all, we will know God, and, with Him, all of His providential design. And we will never run out of time.

Stressing the physical dimension of heaven-also, as the book does, the physicality of the Creation, the Incarnation, and ourselves-helps us get beyond the Gnosticism that has infected American Christianity with the anti-biblical view that the material world is bad and only the ethereal spiritual realm is good. This is the worldview of the Eastern religions and of the New Age books that clutter the spirituality shelves, but it was condemned as a heresy in the early church.

Mr. DeStefano is a Roman Catholic, and while this shows at some points, he tries to stick to what all Christians would affirm, with nearly as many evangelical sources in his bibliography (Billy Graham, Joni Tada) as Catholic ones. He builds up to an old-fashioned evangelistic invitation, urging a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Some might be put off by the breezy style, by his emphasis on "fun," and on God as wanting to make sure we are all having a good time. Some of his speculations may be way over the top. (We will be able to play ball with Joe DiMaggio? Might that be his hell?) It is indeed "popular," and one might question some of what he says. Still, in addressing questions people worry about (Will my dog be in heaven? Won't it be boring to praise God all the time?), he sends the mind and the imagination reeling in some exhilarating directions.

A Travel Guide to Heaven reminds us that the way to make Christianity compelling is not to eliminate doctrine, as is so often done; rather, it is precisely the doctrine that can make it most exciting. And if it makes contemporary Christians more heavenly minded, we will be of more earthly good.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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