Anthony DeStefano, executive director of A Travel Guide to Heaven. He discussed his first book just before Christmas with NRO.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: However do you know enough about heaven to write a travel guide? You get some special deal with God that eludes the rest of us? Will you get a professional discount when your time comes?
DeStefano: I don’t care about getting a discount, I just hope He lets me in! What I really want is for the book to do so well and for it to help so many people, that God, in His infinite mercy, decides to, shall we say, overlook some of my more my more unpleasant character defects and some of my more flagrant violations of his commandments! But my wife thinks I’m trying to pull a fast one on God and that it’s not going to work. She may be right!
Seriously though, I’m not one of those New Age gurus, nor am I a television psychic, nor a palm reader, nor do I claim to talk to the dead. I’m actually a very skeptical person. I wasn’t even brought up in a very religious household. Everything I’ve come to believe about my faith has been the result of a painstaking examination of the tenets of Christianity. So I’m not some “fringe” person and this book is not the “Gospel According to Anthony.” The truth of the matter is that, while I haven’t personally been to heaven, I happen to believe (along with 94% of the general public) that God lives in heaven, and moreover, that he’s told us an awful lot about the place, starting with what’s in the Bible itself. All I’ve done is take what’s in Scripture, and what has been written by the church Fathers and other brilliant theologians over the centuries, and present these ideas in an exciting, fun, slightly provocative way.
Lopez: You’re young yet. Do people meet you and say, “Give me a break. What do you know about life, never mind death?”
DeStefano: I’m young yet? May I give you a big fat kiss on the lips before answering your question? At 38 I’m afraid I’ve seen enough of life, and, unfortunately, death, to be qualified to speak with at least a little wisdom–I hope–on certain important questions. Also, I think that in this case, a shot of some youthful adrenaline may be just what the doctor ordered. Newsweek reported last year that something like 76 percent of Americans believe in heaven, and yet nobody seems to be bubbling over with excitement about it. Some of that may just be because of the way the Christian teaching is being relayed. I believe that when it comes to the subject of heaven, we need to have a spirit of adventure. T. S. Elliot said human beings should be explorers, no matter what their age. We need to tap into that inborn, forever youthful, desire if we are going to understand the kind of outrageous paradise God is planning to give us. To tell you the truth, I think I’m the perfect age to write a book on heaven. I’m old enough to have been around the block a few times and to know human psychology and how life works, but at the same time I haven’t lived long enough to see my world destroyed, my body gone to pot, and all those other cruel things that can make a person grumpy and cynical.
Lopez: When did you sit down and say “Yes, I’m writing this.” And why?
DeStefano: Well there’s a spiritual answer, and a secular one as well. First the spiritual: I had an absolutely horrible year awhile back. I had to attend something like fifteen funerals in six months. Everyone in my family seemed to be dying on me. And I had the opportunity to listen to an awful lot of sermons, homilies, and eulogies about the afterlife. The thing that struck me was that, while all the pastors and priests who presided at these sad affairs were being truthful and sincere, their words weren’t resonating with the mourners quite as much as I felt they could have. The reason was that they weren’t driving home one very important, fundamental point about the Christian teaching on heaven, namely, that one day–after the resurrection–heaven is going to be physical as well as spiritual. Therefore, when we see our lost loved ones again, we’re not just going to be seeing ghosts. We’re going to see real, live human beings–with warm bodies, faces, eyes, hair, and voices. This fact, to me, is the single most consoling element of our faith, and I knew that something needed to be written which highlighted and proclaimed the point. The problem was that I didn’t know how to write such a book. I know I didn’t want to preach to the choir. But the dilemma I had was, how do you make a book about such a spiritual subject appeal to the secular masses?
Enter my second moment of epiphany. A few years ago, I took my wife, Kimberly, to California for our five-year anniversary, and, as a surprise, booked a one-night stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Unfortunately, when we got to the place, they had lost our reservations, and there were no other rooms available–except one, the presidential suite! The reason why that was open was because it costs $5,000 per night, which I just didn’t happen to have on me at the time! But the hotel, believe it or not, actually gave us the suite for the same price as a regular room, and we got to stay there. Now this place is absolutely decadent. Fireplaces in every room, a Steinway Grand Piano in the foyer, his and her bathrooms, saunas, a conference room, and a terrace that stretches the entire length of the hotel. Incredible. Well, I went out onto the terrace with my wife in order to make a champagne toast, and I said something goofy, like, “This is really heaven on earth.” The second I said those words, it was as if a light bulb went off in my head. I immediately knew that this was the way I could write a book on heaven and make it appeal to the mainstream. Just compare the afterlife to an eternal, five-star, celestial resort. Because everybody understands the thrill and fun of getting away from it all and going on vacation. I actually left my wife flat on the balcony, her champagne glass still hoisted in the air, and flew back into the room. I grabbed some Beverly Hills Hotel stationary and quickly scribbled down the title of the book and some chapter headings. It was as close to a grand moment of inspiration as I’ve ever had. Once I got back to New York, it only took me three months to write the book.
Lopez: How is heaven like The Wizard of Oz?
DeStefano: In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy thinks she’s going to find her true home “somewhere over the rainbow.” What she learns is that the thing she’s looking for–her heart’s greatest desire–is right there in her own backyard. In the same way, at least part of heaven is going to exist, someday, right here on good old planet earth. The Bible says there’s going to be a “new earth,” it doesn’t say there’s going to be something completely different. Our earth will be renewed, transformed, reborn, etc., but it won’t just be thrown into the incinerator, never to be seen again. It will experience “resurrection” in the same way that human beings will be resurrected. That means that heaven will be more recognizable to us than we usually imagine. It won’t just be cloudy and spiritual and unreal. This is the key to my whole book. If the life we’re living right now is real; then the life we’re going to have in heaven is not going to somehow be less real than that. If anything it’s going to be more real. We’re not going to suddenly go from living in a beautiful color world to a boring black & white world. We’re not going to go from leading lives of excitement and activity to lives of boredom and inactivity. We have to start giving God a little more credit than that. Our God is a God of creation–he loves creating things. He’s not going to stop creating things just because our little world comes to an end. Moreover, He’s a God of Life, and his kingdom is going to reflect that. Heaven is going to be a real place–it’s going to have lots of things to do, lots of living creatures, and it will be a feast for the senses.
Lopez: How is marriage like tennis?
DeStefano: The New Testament says that there’s not going to be anyone married in heaven. And there are many reasons why that’s the case. But some people get worried that if there isn’t any marriage in heaven, then there won’t be any other kinds of “relationships” in heaven either. What will become of the feelings I have towards my mother, my father, wife, my husband, my children, some people wonder. I try to explain in my book that we’re worrying about nothing. Just because the institution and sacrament of marriage doesn’t exist in heaven, that doesn’t mean the relationship we have with our spouse won’t continue forever. I compare it to a game of tennis. If you’re having a match with someone on the tennis court, you’re called “tennis partners.” You dress a certain way, use specific kinds of equipment, play by certain rules, stay within certain boundary lines, etc. Once the game ends, however, you’re no longer “tennis partners.” But that doesn’t mean your relationship with the person ends, or that you even drive off in separate cars. On the contrary, your relationship might be even deeper off the tennis court. The same is true for our relationships in heaven. God doesn’t destroy any of them. One billion years from today, your mom will still be your mom, and she’ll be able to say things to you only a mother can say. One billion years from today, your brothers will still be your brothers, and you’ll have a certain camaraderie with them only siblings can enjoy. Some people think that when we go to heaven we suddenly get amnesia! Or that we become boring, emotionless robots that go around loving and worshipping, loving and worshipping–for all eternity. If that were true, then we wouldn’t even be human beings any more, and heaven wouldn’t be a paradise at all.
Lopez: Is Christmas celebrated in heaven?
DeStefano: I have no idea, really. It’s certainly a nice idea. I’ll tell you what, if it is, it must be one great party, mainly because the man whose birthday we’re celebrating will actually there, in the flesh, to blow out the candles on His cake! When Christ appeared to His disciple after His resurrection, He ate some fish in order to demonstrate that He had a real body, and wasn’t just a ghost. Well, if He can eat a piece of fish, I guess there’s no theological reason why He shouldn’t enjoy a piece of birthday cake either!
Lopez: Dogs go to heaven?
DeStefano: Believe it or not there’s been a lot of controversy over this question in the long history of theology. Some prominent theologians have said that animals can’t go to heaven because they don’t have immortal souls, or because Christ didn’t die for them on the cross. And they’re absolutely right–animals don’t have any natural claim on heaven. But that doesn’t mean God won’t allow them to be in heaven anyway. God can do anything he wants, right? He can certainly allow animals to be in heaven by special permission. There’s going to be lush vegetation in heaven, and flowers and trees, and other beautiful living things, correct? They don’t have immortal souls, either. Christ didn’t die for them. Well, do you think God is going to grant life-everlasting to some shrub and then deny the same gift to a puppy? I don’t think so. You know, there are over 120 different species of animals mentioned in the Bible, and they play very prominent roles. Animals are part of the beauty of the world and the joy of living. I just don’t think God is going to leave them out of paradise. I firmly believe every single pet we’ve ever had is going to be there–every dog, every cat, every bunny, every gerbil! Now, will we need animals in order to be happy in heaven? Of course not. We won’t need anything. We’ll have God–we’ll have the Beatific Vision. Happiness will be our starting point. But God is so good and so loving that he’s going to give us a beautiful world full of all kinds of beautiful creatures as well–it will be like icing on a cake.
Lopez: People today–especially the ones doing the public talking–seem to embrace a cloudy, nebulous spirituality (a la Madonna’s Kabbalah) instead of tried and tested theology. Where are the people you are meeting? Do they just need some glimmer of hope for life after life or do they generally have an idea already?
DeStefano: Yes, it does seem that a lot of people embrace this kind of false spirituality. At least on the surface. C. S. Lewis said that human beings are like cars that are built to run on a certain kind of fuel–and that fuel is God. When God created us, he purposely gave us this inborn desire and need we have for spirituality. So naturally, when you have a culture where God is “dead” or so undefined and nebulous as to be nonexistent, then you are going to have a culture where a lot of “cars” are running out of fuel and starting to break down. Which is exactly what we see happening around us. Modern society has a big problem with the moral law, we all know that. Moral relativism is the order of the day. So these secular folks, especially people like Madonna, can’t very well embrace traditional Christianity because then they’d have to deal with all those annoying “Thou shalt Nots.” (Why, she might not even be able to French-kiss Britney and Christine on television in front of millions of kids!) But Madonna, like all other human beings, has this built-in need for spirituality and God, so in order for her not to feel as if she’s running on empty, she’s got to find something–anything–to make her feel connected to “god.” But obviously it’s got to be something that’s not really demanding, morally. Enter Kabbalah. Or Pantheism. Or whatever. This is the reason the whole New Age movement is so popular. It’s spirituality without either moral substance or consequences–it’s basically “religion-light.” But you know the interesting thing is that the second any of these people experience a real loss–the second someone in their family dies, or they themselves are told they have a life-threatening illness–you know where most of them head? Straight back to church. The church that they grew up in. This indicates to me that much of this interest today in New Age and other forms of nebulous spirituality may just be surface silliness–not even taken seriously by those who say they believe in it. Not when the chips are down, anyway.
Lopez: Especially at this time of year, even the ever-faithful can be sidelined by the pain of the loss of someone they love. Can your book help?
DeStefano: I certainly hope so. Obviously, when you’ve lost someone you really love, the suffering is intense and can go on for years and even decades. Nothing can prevent that kind of grieving from taking its course. But I think that knowing you are going to see that loved one again–and knowing that you’re going to see that person in the flesh–for real and forever, never to be separated–of course that can help a little. My book really tries to drive that point home, because that’s the “Good News” of the Gospels. That’s what all the worship, all the praying, all the churchgoing, all the faith, all come down to. The funeral is not the end of the story. Hospitals and doctors and coroners and death certificates and funeral parlors and cemeteries do not have the final word. That’s the message of Christianity, and that’s the message of my book. What I’ve tried to do is make that more real to people. I try to describe that first morning in heaven, when we see our dad and mom and grandma again for the first time. I try to describe all the sights, sounds, and sensations of that first incredible reunion. Even if I succeed a little, I think it may do some good. At least I hope so.
Lopez: Have you ever considered standing outside a taping of that John Edward show Crossing Over, handing out your book? Maybe a photocopy of your section on the resurrection of the body?
DeStefano: Well, it would be nice if someone did that, yes. Because I think it would prove what I’ve always said. That when it comes to the whole subject of life after death, the answers that are offered by traditional Christianity are infinitely more compelling and uplifting than any of this New Age nonsense. The Christian teaching on heaven–the fact that heaven is real, that it incorporates the best that this life has to offer as well as a whole lot more from the mind of God, that we’re going to see our loved ones again and live in a world where there is no death or suffering of any kind–that is an outrageously beautiful teaching. You may disagree with it, but there’s no question that it’s a heck of a lot more dynamic and exciting than anything the palm readers and television psychics are saying.
Lopez: What’s been the most surprising reaction to your book for you? The most moving?
DeStefano: The most surprising thing has been the way the book has taken off so fast. I’m a first-time author and don’t have the benefit of a million-dollar PR campaign. Also the book, while written in a pretty secular, mainstream style, is still very much a religious work. It’s all about God and what the Bible says about heaven. Usually those kinds of books are relegated to Christian bookstores or the back of Barnes & Nobles and Borders. Not so with A Travel Guide to Heaven. After just a few weeks, we’re already in our seventh printing! The book’s been #1 on Amazon.com a few different times, and it’s selling off the racks. Plus, over the next six months, it’s going to be published in 18 countries–even Japan! Of course I had high hopes about the book’s potential, but I promise I would have been happy to sell just a few hundred copies. Just to have a book published was a dream come true. So I’m very surprised.
By far the most moving thing has been the number of people who have written to me about their children who have died. I can’t tell you some of the heart-wrenching stories I’ve heard. (I’ve posted some of them on the “Memorial Page” of my website, at www.travelguidetoheaven.com). One little girl named Mary, an absolutely beautiful child in the second grade, was playing outside her house one day last May when she just collapsed and died. They think it might have been heart arrhythmia. [Her] mother was distraught, obviously. She saw a copy of my book in the local bookstore sometime afterwards, and she sent me an e-mail saying it gave her a little relief. What can I say to that? As far as I’m concerned, that validates my whole life. If you’re able to console people who are going through that kind of suffering–even if it’s only to bring them a temporary lift out of their misery and impart some hope and strength for the future–then nothing else matters. If I were to die tomorrow, I really wouldn’t have any right to complain to God. He’s given me a truly incredible gift.
Lopez: Is there any one thing in your book that resonates most with non-Christians?
DeStefano: I think the main thing that non-Christians can appreciate is the way the book portrays God. As I’ve said so many times, this is not a New Age book. It doesn’t espouse any kind of “fortune-cookie” spirituality. It’s about God–the personal God of the Old and New Testaments. The God who created the universe. The God who cares about how we act and what kind of lives we’re leading right now. It doesn’t make the “earth” our God–nor any kind of pet social theory. This idea that there is a real, personal God–a magnificent, awe-inspiring, loving God who is not distant–that’s something that can resonate with non-Christians too. In fact, non-Christians are free to believe much of what I’ve written in my book about what heaven is like. I’ve given copies of the book to several rabbinical scholars and also to several Muslims. Most of them have told me that they are free to believe that heaven is going to be physical as well as spiritual. They can believe that we’re going to see our loved ones again. They can even believe we’re going to see our pets in heaven. It’s just that they don’t have the kinds of “proofs” we Christians have. We’ve got the post-resurrection appearances of Christ, and the writings of Paul. We’ve got 2,000 years of eschatological theology behind us–theology that concentrates on the “end things.” Christians have such a tremendous treasury of this kind of theology on heaven. Non-Christians don’t have that benefit. They may indeed believe in my depiction of the afterlife, but they just might not buy into the proofs I’ve offered.
Lopez: Your next book is on prayers God says “Yes” to. Is that one of the secrets of Fatima? How did you find those out?
DeStefano: There’s actually a lot of them. And that’s really a key point to grasp. Traditional Christianity is so exciting and dynamic. We don’t even realize it sometimes because we’re so used to it. But the truth is, you don’t have to compromise one iota of theology and morality, and you can still write books that appeal to the mainstream. In fact, I believe that if we present Christian theology correctly and we’re not afraid to be a little bold and maybe even have a little fun with the subject, we can win millions of people over to our side who are lukewarm, spiritually. Why? Simply because, as St. Peter very accurately said to Christ, “To who shall we turn, Lord? You have the words of Eternal Life.” In the case of prayers, why not write a book about the ones God always says yes to? I mean, after all, he says “no” and “maybe” and “not now” to so many of the prayers we utter. Why not focus in a little on the ones he answers in the affirmative 99.9 percent of the time? There are plenty of them. Some, I admit, may not be very “sexy” in terms of their appeal to today’s consumer society, but they work! And that’s the important thing. For example, let’s say that tonight, before you go to bed, you quickly pray, “God, please make me an instrument. Send some people my way who are suffering and use me to carry out your will for them.” I tell you what, if you even utter that prayer, watch out! I guarantee you that within a week you are going to have more opportunities to “help God carry out his will,” than you can possibly imagine. That’s because there is so much suffering in the world. God wants to help people these folks, and he wants us to get involved in helping them. So when we actually ask him to set that situation up for us, he’s only too happy to channel some of the work our way. For God, it’s a “no brainer.” Well, there are many prayers like that. It’s time we focused on them. Because you know, in a way these prayers themselves become the greatest proof of God’s existence. It’s fine to study the “Five Ways” of Thomas Aquinas and all the other rational proofs that are in theology books, but we also have to remember that our God is a Living God. He doesn’t love us “from a distance” like that old song says. He actually gets involved in our lives. He reaches down from heaven and gets his “hands dirty.” So when we’re able to see the hand of God moving clearly in our lives, in response to actual prayers, that can help us to have a solid, unshakable faith. And that’s the goal of my next book.