As usual, I was wedged between the preacher and the Imam in front of a World Religions class. We were doing our best to make our religions intelligible to a bunch of somnolent juniors and seniors. The kids perked up only at “Who goes to heaven?” The minister averred that only Christians do. The Imam was equally sure that only Muslims do. The only thing of which both were certain is that Jews don’t. I mustered the courage to say that Jews believe that all righteous people go to heaven. Surprisingly, a ripple of applause fluttered through the class.
Among mainstream Christians, I have never been taunted for my unsaved-ness, neither from the pulpit, nor from personal friends nor colleagues. But when I channel-surf on Sunday mornings, I hear my damnation flow forth from Fundamentalist pulpits like a mighty stream. Some Fundamentalists, knowing that I am a rabbi, have the inquisitiveness to raise the issue face-to-face. Though I understand their motives, I honor their integrity and explain where Judaism stands on the issue of heaven. My intent, I tell them, is not to delegitimize Christianity, but to establish the validity of my own faith.
My patience is short-circuited, though, by the countless times that I have had a Fundamentalist close encounter with “I’ll miss you in heaven.” Most recently, I was blessed by this lament from a man who had just told me that Dr. King was a “womanizin’ comm-o-nist.” Atypical for me, I had the wit to respond, “Frankly, Chuck, I’ve already seen enough of you down here on earth!”
In my momentary rage, I impulsively always want to jump into a theological spitting match. Here’s what I ache to say:
“Maybe it’s you Fundamentalists who have this idea of heaven all wrong. Maybe heaven isn’t a place where doctrine trumps deed. Maybe we’ve been dupes to empower you to define heaven and become its gatekeepers. Maybe the measure of who gets through the pearly gates has to do with the content of one’s character, not one’s beliefs. Maybe you’re the ones not going to heaven unless you have lived righteous lives, no matter what you believe.”
Then I calm down. No one, I say to myself, is out to delegitimize Fundamentalism. Instead, I have arrived at a theological proposition that is not nearly so rancorous, but just as radical:
I have come to believe that there are two heavens. The Fundamentalist heaven is a parochial place (or “state”) defined by faith in a set of doctrines, central to which is the redemptive power of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The broader heaven is the realm of souls who have lived righteous lives on earth. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi made the assertion even more succinctly: “The righteous person is one whose inclination to do good triumphs over his impulse to do evil.” For most of us, certainly for me, the struggle is exhausting and unending. Will I go to heaven? Every day, every hour, is a new test. Does it require faith? Certainly. Faith in God’s word that good is to be found in acting on God’s mandate. Faith that God desires our upward climb, not our perfection.
Hence, the question is not “Are you going to heaven?” but “To which heaven are you going?” I do have my prejudices. God knows that there are many saintly men and women that the two heavens would share. But, too many souls I yearn to encounter are excluded from Fundamentalist heaven because of their doctrinal shortcomings. If I should merit going to heaven, some of the sages that I would never meet in Fundamentalist heaven would include Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Bahaullah, Dr. King, Maimonides, Aristotle and Pope John XXIII. I’d also like to meet some of the saints who came before the “Big Split,” the ones who Fundamentalist preachers never seem to invoke, like Nicholas of Mitra, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, Ignatius Loyola.
Knowing that I might encounter the guy who said that Dr. King was a “womanizin’ comm-o-nist” and the preachers who reassured me that I was going to hell, let me concisely state the two-heaven doctrine: You have your heaven, and we have ours. We are satisfied to be in ours. If you are satisfied to be in yours, God bless you. I am willing to take my chances and never feel that any other justification is due.
“WILUDI” (Rabbi Marc Wilson) is a retired rabbi who writes from Greenville, South Carolina.