Where’s heaven? Right here and now

(May 5, 2014)

The recent release of the film “Heaven is for Real,” based on a book by the same title, is an account of a 4-year-old boy’s near-death experience during emer­gency surgery. The movie has received an overwhelmingly enthusiastic ­response. The book has been on the ­best-seller list, and ticket sales have grossed in the millions of dollars.

The little boy’s account is a powerful family story, personally compelling and meaningful. However, the question ­remains whether this is a helpful religious narrative for all of us. It is certainly comforting to believe that something, someplace, exists after death, that somehow we are more than dust and ashes, more than a memory. Yet I worry that such accounts trivialize religious thought and theology. Too much attention on the other world frequently means too little attention on this world.

There is a folk legend that appears in many cultures about a man who wishes to see the difference between heaven and hell. First an angel takes him to hell. There is a large table filled with food, but everyone is famished. The man sees that their elbows have steel bands that make them unable to bend and they cannot feed themselves. The angel then takes the man to heaven. But there every­thing looks just the same — a table filled with food and people whose elbows are equally unable to bend so that they cannot feed themselves. Yet the people there are satisfied and happy. As the man comes closer, he sees why. The people’s arms are outstretched to feed one another. That, says the storyteller, is the difference between heaven and hell.

In other words, people aren’t in ­heaven, heaven is in people. And if we wish to make heaven real, then we had better start trying to fashion some kind of heaven here on earth. Thinking about this, I was reminded of a wonderful book, “I Am a Strange Loop” by Douglas Hofstadter. Hofstadter is a highly ­regarded professor of cognitive and computer science. He wrote to make some sense out of the tragedy of the sudden death of his wife in 1993. She was only 43 years old when she died, and their two children were 5 and 2.

Hofstadter suggests another way of looking at the afterlife that is both rigorously scientific and deeply religious. He proposes that when people die, their hopes and dreams don’t; they continue in the life of others to whom they were close. That is, in fact, how the brain works. We absorb so much of our loved ones in life that when they die, they do not totally perish, because they are still in us, literally in our brain. Our encounters change who we are. Human beings are not simply turned into dust and ­ashes but are, in fact, in significant ways, transportable to others. They do journey into another realm, the realm of other people. They have either made life hell for others or a bit more bearable, loving, just — heavenly.

There are many popular movies that attempt to capture the religious imagination, from Charlton Heston’s “Moses” to Russell Crowe’s “Noah.” The cinematic accounts should leave us yearning for a more serious discussion of what it means to grapple with religious narrative and questions. This world is not simply a waiting room for the world to come. This earth where we find ourselves is for real; so are its people. Religion and society ask that we reach out to one another, for heaven’s sake.


Sasso is rabbi emerita of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck and director of the Religion, Spirituality and the Arts Initiative at Butler University.