The problem with Peter Kreeft’s eloquent and moving book Heaven is not the author but the author’s faith. Kreeft follows a particular Christian thread that portrays heaven as the place of our ultimate longing and our highest reality. It’s what we should aspire to and yearn for, with a craving best captured in the book’s subtitle: The Heart’s Deepest Longing. Here’s Kreeft subordinating everything to the aspiration for heaven: “If life on earth is not a road to heaven then it is a treadmill, a merry-go-round minus the merry.”
These are curious words. Really? If we lived a full and glorious life on this earth, filled with the laughter of children and the love of a good woman, and suffused with kindness to strangers, it is still just a worthless treadmill? Statements such as these, founded as they are on an otherworldly theology in which heaven is everything and earth is virtually worthless, are what give atheists endless ammunition to lob against religion. Their principal compliant—that faith has focused on the heavens and abandoned the earth—becomes justified.
The Christian and Jewish views of heaven could not be more different. Christians believe heaven is just that: in the heavens, detached from earth, a “higher” reality, filled with the light of disembodied spirits. Jews, however, view heaven as the way this world will become when it is perfected in Messianic times. What is heaven? It is the earth in a faultless state, purged of hatred, hunger, and hostility.
Why do we naturally assume that the sky is more sacred than the earth, or that the life of a soul outside a body is higher than that of a soul within? The denigration of the physical can only lead, as a tributary, to the denigration of life as well. Kreeft goes down this unfortunate path: “The real present is something to be endured while you await the hoped-for future, where your heart is.”
Hence, one finds Kreeft quoting leading Christian thinkers who extol death, like C. S. Lewis, who refers to death as “a severe mercy.” You’re kidding, right? How does this approach differ from that of Dr. Kevorkian, who went to jail for performing “severe mercies”? Kreeft also quotes Heidegger: “My very being is a being toward death.” Whoa. That’s pretty macabre.
But Kreeft can give as well as he can quote, and he finds eloquent metaphors to add to the morbidity: “As soon as we are born we begin to die. This world is like a rocket ship; we are already launched into the beyond. Life is like an escalator, and there is no way off except at the end.” And he seems strangely enamored by the brilliance of death. “Death is the ‘golden key’ to my identity. Death is the door not only to life but also to selfhood.”
The problem with these sentiments is not their degradation of only life, but especially of a life lived nobly. Let’s imagine for a moment that God loses the battle with Satan, and the reward for a righteous life is that the honorable soul goes straight to hell. Would Kreeft and other Christian theologians of his persuasion tell us that such acts of righteousness on this earth are now all for naught because they do not result in heaven?
In Auschwitz the reward for being Jewish was the gas chamber and cremation furnace. Did that make the experience of living a Jewish life any less vibrant? Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves and saved the Union. His reward? A bullet to the neck. Martin Luther King ended Jim Crow and segregation. His reward was to be cut down by an assassin’s bullet on the balcony of a cheap motel. Luckily, noble effort is judged not by the reward but by the effort itself. Life is the same, and whether or not we go to heaven should have no bearing on the value of our lives.
What I am saying is that heaven is…er…overrated, especially by people of faith. Indeed, it seems counterintuitive to the religious experiment. Aren’t we supposed to serve God sincerely and not out of any desire for reward? And isn’t serving God supposed to be about doing the right thing with no thought of spiritual bliss or ecstatic enlightenment?
DON’T GET ME WRONG: As a religious Jew I believe in heaven. It’s just that I don’t much think about it. We Jews have been conditioned to think about this world, not the next. Our objective is not to use heaven as an escape from a world filled with pain, hunger, death, and disappointment; but rather to rid the world of those curses so that the earth itself becomes more heavenly.
The difference between the Jewish and Christian approaches to heaven comes up in nearly all my public debates with Christian missionaries, especially in light of my book Kosher Jesus, which seeks to introduce Jesus’ Jewishness into the Christian theological equation. My opponents will invariably ask me, toward the end of the debate, how I can expect to get into heaven if I don’t accept Christ as my personal savior, given the New Testament’s emphatic statements that only through Jesus can one be saved. My response is cynical but clear: Heaven? Who cares about heaven? I couldn’t give one damn where I am going. Even one moment of thinking about it is a moment taken away from my duties here on earth to clothe the naked, house the homeless, and comfort the bereaved. Charity and righteousness are not portals through which one ultimately caters to one’s own spiritual needs; and religion dare not become a ticket one purchases for a heavenly lottery.
But Kreeft, for all his beautiful writing, seems oblivious to the contradiction in touting religion as a means to escape modern narcissism—“Our deepest destiny is death, not just to the body but to the ego”—all while saying that if we seek God enough, we will receive the ultimate narcissistic reward, an eternity indulging the ecstatic heavenly pleasures of our own souls.
It’s time for religion to refocus its efforts on bettering our world, rather than getting us into heaven. We can only start by reversing the idea that life in this world is just a means to an end.
“Earth is only the castle’s drawbridge, the road to the great hall or the dungeon, upstairs or downstairs.” No, Professor Kreeft. Earth is the whole game, the players and the arena, the bees and the hive. Heaven is a mere afterthought, a place of spiritual indolence where souls wait around until they are resurrected back into a body and can do some good in the world.
IN JUDAISM there is a law that says when visiting a cemetery, we must tuck our tzitzit, fringes we wear to remind us of God’s commandments, in our pants so that they not mock the dead. The dead may be in heaven, but they wish they were performing God’s commandments here on earth.
It turns out that heaven, like retirement, is vastly overrated. I prefer what Rabbi Menachem Schneerson once said: That retirement should involve re-tiring, or putting on new tires and doing even more than before. Let us recommit to making heaven on earth.