Book Review of A TRAVEL GUIDE TO HEAVEN by Anthony Destefano (Doubleday, 2003) by Michael A.S. Guth
“If heaven is anything at all, it’s fun.” With that opening line Anthony Destefano sets a tone for his book that turns out to be as much fun to read as the place it is describing. Reading these words in the preface, I was buoyed up with the hope that A TRAVEL GUIDE TO HEAVEN would combine sound theological teachings on the afterlife with a bit of humor and grace – but without the stuffy jargon of philosophers. Destefano does not disappoint his readers. He gives us concrete images of heaven that we can grasp (a perfect rose, a beautiful sunset, breathtaking views) combined with new ideas of what it means to go on the vacation of our dreams (frolicking simultaneously with tame “wild” animals and even dinosaurs).
A little background on this book will help to explain its wonderlust theme. This international bestseller actually represents Destefano’s second attempt at writing a book on heaven. After attending 15 funerals of friends and relatives over a seven-month period, Destefano wrote his first manuscript, which he called HEAVEN, designed to make the afterlife more physically real than what the priests and ministers had done in the 15 funerals he attended. But this attempt at writing turned out to be so boring that Destefano never finished it.
A few months later on his fifth wedding anniversary, he wanted to treat his wife to a surprise overnight stay at a posh Beverly Hills hotel but found the hotel had lost his reservation. The Presidential Suite at the hotel was not in use that night, and when the hotel generously allowed him to stay in the suite instead, Destefano walked into a room so immaculately furnished that one might say it was a little piece of heaven on earth.
“You enter and there’s a beautiful Steinway grand piano, and it’s a Steinway, not some (cheap imitation), and there are fireplaces in every room and his and her bathrooms and saunas and Jacuzzis, and a dining room for 12 and this giant kitchen and butler service, OK? There’s a bottle of champagne in every room and a terrace that extends the whole length of the hotel overlooking Sunset Boulevard, and at first my wife says, ‘You did this for us?’ And I say, ‘You’re worth it, baby’. I got away with that for about five minutes.”
The feeling of joy from being surrounded by luxurious accommodations immediately suggested to Destefano the ingredient he needed to make a book on heaven seem more tangible to his readers: comparison to a vacation in the Presidential Suite of a five-star resort. Of course, in heaven the luxurious accommodations don’t stop with the hotel furnishings, they include a fabulous makeover of a new body (Chap. 2), interesting fellow travelers on the vacation (Chap. 4), and angels for tour guides (Chap. 7). Forget about resting in peace, heaven is going to be filled with so many fun and interesting activities that we will naturally go from one activity to the next learning more, experiencing life at its fullest, and growing in our own spirituality.
Destefano contends that the physical location of heaven is Earth. Citing portions of the New Testament that refer to “a new heaven and a new earth,” Destefano argues that eventually earth itself will experience death, resurrection, and transformation so that the “new earth” will in fact be heaven. Many of us have assumed heaven exists in another dimension beyond the three-dimensional limitations of earth, but Destefano argues continually that heaven is not a spiritual concept but a physical place that we will inhabit with our new and improved physical bodies. Given that humans have existed on the earth for about a million years, the physical size of this newly transformed earth must obviously be much larger than earth today, otherwise there would be congestion and shortage of space for all those people.
Because of this nexus between heaven and “the new earth,” Destefano is able to depict concrete images of life in heaven based on the best scenery that has existed throughout all of history on earth. God spent millennia creating beautiful waterfalls, golden meadows, as well as various exotic plants and majestic animals. “God is not going to waste anything he spent so much time and effort creating.”
Throughout his book, Destefano provides citation to the bible to back up his claims about what life will be like in heaven. Judging from the praise his book has received from people in different Christian denominations, his scriptural citations seem to please a wide Christian audience. For example, Destefano claims that prior to Christ’s resurrection, none of the souls of the faithfully departed were allowed into heaven; the gates of heaven had been closed. Destefano cites 1 Cor 15:20-23; Phil 2:8; Rom 5:18-20. His first citation contains the phrase “For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life.” His second citation contains “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” The third citation states “In conclusion, just as through one transgression condemnation came upon all, so through one righteous act acquittal and life came to all.” None of those citations indicate the gates of heaven were closed.
Destefano would have had stronger support for his claim by citing John 3:13, “And no one has ascended into heaven, but he who descended from heaven, even the Son of Man.” Yet biblical scholars have noted that line is contradicted, e.g., by 2 Kings 2:11, which says Elijah went up to heaven (hundreds of years before Christ was born). Reading John 3:13 in context, Christ is pointing out to Nicodemus that by questioning whether Christ is correct, Nicodemus does not yet understand he is speaking to the Son of God. In our modern language, Christ might have said, “No human being can speak from personal knowledge of heaven, as I do, who came from heaven. No human has traveled up to heaven and come back to earth to talk about it based on direct observation.”
A TRAVEL GUIDE TO HEAVEN is well-researched and draws from scripture for inspiration. I conclude with a quotation from the book that will inspire the reader to contemplate a paradise in which “eye has not seen, ear has not heard” the marvels that await us. “And don’t forget the children. God knew very well when he created the first tyrannosaurus and brontosaurus that little boys and girls would be thrilled by the very thought of them billions of years later. In fact, God might have made the dinosaurs and allowed them to roam the earth for millions of years for that reason alone.” In order to enter the kingdom of God, we must accept it with the eager anticipation of a child. We should not underestimate God’s desire to make us happy in heaven and give us child-like joy at the wonders of his creation.
By Michael Guth
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