- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Bart Millard has often wondered what it will be like to meet God in heaven. Questions about eternity were especially important to him after his father died of cancer in 1991.

As lead singer of the band MercyMe, he chose to express his struggles through songwriting. Until 1999, when he wrote the hit single “I Can Only Imagine,” he constantly wrote the title phrase on everything possible, such as scraps of paper and random objects. As he grappled with his fathers death, the saying would remind him that his dad was in a better place.

MercyMes song about heaven - “I can only imagine/What it will be like/When I walk by Your side” - apparently expressed a feeling common among many Americans. It is currently No. 7 on the Adult Contemporary Chart in “Radio and Records” magazine and No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 Current Singles Sales Chart.

“Everyone has lost a loved one,” Mr. Millard says. “Deep down, we all hope for something bigger and wonder whats out there. This song probably brings up a lot of questions that people have at some point in their life, like, ‘What if we really go to heaven? What if I really do stand before God? How in the world am I going to react?”

Americans lately seem particularly interested in the hereafter. The topic of heaven has not only been appearing on radio charts, but also on best-seller lists.

Last month, Amazon.com ranked “A Travel Guide to Heaven” by Anthony DeStefano at No. 7 in overall sales. As a devoted Catholic, he wanted to write about the biblical teachings on heaven.

“Theres a tremendous misconception about what heaven is going to be like,” he says. “People have these very cartoonish images in their minds of clouds and harps and disembodied spirits floating around. Thats not what any of the denominations of Christianity teach.”

Instead of describing the hereafter as cloudy, hazy, nebulous and dreamlike, Mr. DeStefano cites Philippians 3:21 and says heaven will be a physical place where people have new bodies that resemble Christs body.

For instance, Mr. DeStefano says, after Jesus was resurrected from the dead, he had a physical body and allowed his disciples to touch him. Christ also ate with them. Mr. DeStefano assumes that heaven will be a place where Jesus will walk among people, as he did on earth, as the second person of the Trinity.

“If this world is real, our life in heaven is not going to be less real than that,” he says. “Heaven will be physical as well as spiritual. […] Right now the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. In heaven the flesh wont be weak.”

Chapter 22 of the Book of Revelation mentions “a tree of life” as part of eternity. Therefore, Mr. DeStefano believes animals will be present in the next life, along with plants. He speculates that extinct creatures will exist again.

“There are more than 120 different species of animals mentioned in the Bible,” he says. “Animals are part of the beauty of life. Do you think God is going to grant life everlasting to a shrub and deny the same gift to a puppy?”

Further, many people wonder why the Christian description of heaven does not include marriage. Mr. DeStefano says the institution of marriage on earth is a representation of Christs love for his church.

In heaven, he says, individuals will be so satisfied in Gods presence that they wont crave intimacy from another person. Even still, Mr. DeStefano believes people will have deeper relationships with their loved ones in heaven than was ever possible on earth.

Most important, he says belief in heaven does not stifle a persons ability to have a full life on earth. In fact, he agrees with Oxford scholar C.S. Lewis book, “Mere Christianity,” which says, “Aim at heaven and you will get Earth ‘thrown in; aim at Earth and you will get neither.”

“Sometimes, people knock Christianity, saying that you sit around in this life waiting for a reward,” Mr. DeStefano says. “If anything, strong belief in heaven makes you more concerned about what you do in this life.”

For all those people who have had tribulations on earth, Mitch Albom, author of “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” believes the mysteries of life will be explained in eternity.

The author of the 1997 best seller “Tuesdays With Morrie” says his new novel, released in September, was inspired by his Uncle Eddie, who told him about an experience he had during a heart operation.

“He remembered waking up in the middle of the surgery and seeing all his dead relatives waiting for him at the edge of the bed,” Mr. Albom says. “He told them, ‘Get the heck out of here. Im not ready for any of you yet. He scared them away, got back in his body, and lived a number of more years.”

Whenever anyone asks Mr. Albom about what happens after a person dies, he recounts his uncles experience. Therefore, the main character of the book, named Eddie, comes across five persons in eternity who answer his questions about life on earth. They explain lessons about individual worth, love, sacrifice and the interconnectedness of people.

“Its not as if someone from the department of questions comes and sits by your bedside before you die and says, ‘What do you want to know? We have all the answers for you?” Mr. Albom says. “It would be great if it did happen, but it doesnt. I think people feel as though the answers come on the other side.”

Not only will answers be revealed on the other side, but the fallen state of existence will be redeemed, says Joni Eareckson Tada, author of “Heaven.” A diving accident in 1967 left Mrs. Tada a quadriplegic.

She says the Book of Revelation declares God will reign on his throne and humans and angels will worship him forever. Chapter 21 says, “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.”

“Although Ill be happy to have a new body, Ill be much more happy to have a new heart to be rid of all the sin, doubt and second-guessing,” she says. “Heaven is like going home. Its the place where God lives. He is holy and he asks us to be holy. Its a prepared place for a prepared people. Its like a title page to a greater story.”

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