The God Squad: We're not privy to mysteries of heaven

I get a huge number of questions about heaven, and even though I keep reminding readers that I'm in sales, not management, the queries keep coming:

Q: Raised in a religious atmosphere, I was led to believe that when we reach heaven, we'll experience eternal joy and happiness. But what if our loved ones don't get to heaven, and we do? How could we then experience eternal joy and happiness?

A: There are only two possible entrance standards for heaven: 1) Almost every soul gets in except for Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, Osama bin Laden, and telemarketers who call at dinnertime, and 2) only true believers in whatever turns out to be the true faith get in. I vote for No. 1.

Q: I'm in a second marriage and often wonder what heaven will be like. My hubby's first wife died of cancer. Will they meet again in heaven (as I've always thought) and then ... what of me?

A: I think all three of your souls will be together in heaven. I think there will be no jealousy because you'll all realize the inclusive power of love. I also believe that your husband's first wife will ask you, "Did you ever get him to pick up his socks?" Some things even heaven can't change.

Q: With regard to pets in heaven, I came across this Bible verse: "For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same; as one dies so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts; for all is vanity. All go to one place." Ecclesiastes 3:19-20. Any thoughts?

A: I know this verse, but 1) there's no concept of heaven for people or animals in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament); 2) the author of Ecclesiastes was a grumpy cynic. The author of, "Vanity, vanity, all is vanity" never had his granddaughter, Daisy, wrap her arms around him and say, "Pappa, I love you!"

Q: Do Jews believe in signs or angels? I lost my dear father in June 2009, and I never stop thinking about him. Several weeks ago, right after Rosh Hashanah, while driving home, a white Jeep pulled into my lane, directly in front of me. The license plate read, "ILUVWILL." I gasped. My dad's name was William. Was this a sign or just a happy coincidence?

A: Abraham received a visit from angels, Jacob wrestled with an angel, and an angel spoke to Moses from the burning bush. However, none of them had license plates. I believe in angels. I believe in signs but try not to make too much of them. (It makes people think I'm crazy and there are already too many people who think that about me already.)

The great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber thought that miracles were really the accounts of natural events recorded and retold by very enthusiastic participants. I mostly agree with him, except for the old woman who looked just like my dead grandma, Sara, who appeared in a Cincinnati synagogue the day I was ordained. We tried to find her after the service but she'd disappeared. I thought I saw a license plate on that day that read, "WHYDONTUCALL." But I could be wrong.

Q: I'm an agnostic Methodist who grew up in a small Southern community. I earned my Eagle Scout and God and Country Awards.

A while ago, I discovered that several older church members participated in KKK rallies, got drunk and did other despicable things. That got me thinking that much of what I'd learned in church was subjective and phony, appealing to simple-minded people who either can't or won't do any critical thinking.

I understand the need of most people to believe that something special happens after we die. I'm not one of those people anymore. I'm comfortable with the fact that when I die, that will be the end — period. Nevertheless, some churches do good work. Maybe if we took religion out of churches and just concentrated on "good work" the world would be a much better place, with less crime and no war. I think religion makes many people crazy.

A: I'm sorry about your disillusionment with religion, but congratulations on your Eagle Scout award. (By the way, did you return half of your God and Country Award?) I agree with you that organized religion can sometimes attract people who don't take the time to learn and live its moral teachings. However, these hypocrites no more refute religion than corrupt politicians refute democracy, or bad artists refute beauty.

Try to get over the idea that only dumb hypocrites are religious. Start with reading Francis Collins, go on to C.S. Lewis, then work back through Einstein and Kant to Maimonides, Augustine, and all the way back to Aristotle and Plato. You'll be amazed at how many really smart people are very religious.

Also, look at the good done by truly religious people while the drunken bigots of your childhood were disillusioning you. The good people in organized religious institutions who run the soup kitchens, and provide life-saving hope and care for millions of oppressed people are doing all that good work to make God's love real in our broken world. That's a clear, coherent and sustaining reason for their efforts and sacrifice.

Of course, non-religious people also do good work, but I'm proud to detail for any skeptic the massive record of goodness compiled by people of faith. I'll tolerate shallow, condescending religion-bashing on some days, but not today. Good luck doing the good works I agree we should all be about in our broken world.

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