Peter Kreeft, “Heaven: The Heart’s Deepest Longing”

I read this book because it was cited in another of Peter Kreeft’s books, namely his Handbook of Christian Apologetics (coauthored with Ronald K. Tacelli and discussed here on this blogsite). It was described there (250) as a book-length treatment of the Sehnsucht (longing) argument for the existence of God.

I recommend Heaven. Its thesis is not only sound but, literally, wonderful, and the book contains many excellent passages and arguments. Still, I must add that it’s not completely satisfying. The book is sometimes a bit too mystical, and the prose a bit too purple, for me, and I was left feeling reassured but not as better equipped as I’d hoped to argue the Sehnsucht point than before.

As usual, Kreeft includes plenty of quotations from C.S. Lewis and Blaise Pascal — and, also as usual, I like that (see the title of this blogsite). He considers Lewis to be the greatest Christian apologist of the twentieth century (210; Kreeft ranks G. K. Chesterton number two, by the way (239)). As for Pascal, the frequent quotations include discussion of his famous Wager (see especially 167-71; see also 208 and 223 in appendix A; but cf. 164-65).

I’ll note that there’s no index in the book, and — unless I missed it — no explanation or even citation in the main text of the book of the three appendices (added in the 1989 Ignatius press edition); more on those appendices, which were excellent and add 80 pages to this 200-page book, later. I’ll also note that this book is just a bit more Catholic than other, more “mere Christian” books of Kreeft’s I’ve read, citing some of the Apocrypha (149 n.43, 188 n.45) and hailing Mary (233-34); see also 180 (first full sentence) and 245 (last full sentence).


Let me quote some from the book to give you an idea of its scope and approach.

Kreeft describes the Sehnsucht argument this way (201-02, emphasis in original):

The major premise of the argument is that every natural or innate desire in us bespeaks a corresponding real object that can satisfy the desire. The minor premise is that there exists in us a desire which nothing in time, nothing on earth, no creature can satisfy. The conclusion is that there exists something outside of time, earth, and creatures which can satisfy this desire. This something is what people call God and heaven.

In the book’s introduction, Kreeft writes (34-35), “What you will find in your heart is not heaven but a picture of heaven, a silhouette of heaven, a heaven-shaped shadow, a longing unsatisfiable by anything on earth. This book tries to raise that picture to consciousness.”

On the next page (36), he writes:

Many books have explored the heaven-shaped hole in the modern head, the meaningless of atheist and secularist philosophies. But there’s not a single book in print whose main purpose is to explore the heart’s longing for heaven. For the heart is harder to explore than the head and has fewer explorers. The field of the heart has been largely left to the sentimentalists. But sentiments are only the heart’s borders, not its inner country. We must discover this “undiscovered country.” 

And a few pages after that (39):

The heart, then, has eyes. Its deepest love and longing, the longing that nothing earthly can satisfy, is an eye. It sees something; it tells us something. It is not merely a psychological fact, a piece of flotsam or jetsam on our inner psychic sea. Instead of looking at it and explaining it or explaining it away, let us look with it. This book is the thought-experiment of looking with the eye of the heart and exploring what we see of the deep desire hidden there, the desire for heaven.

From 116-17 (emphasis in original):

Now if earth is an image of heaven, we know at least three things about heaven. First, it is more real, more substantial than earth. We usually think of it as somehow thin, wispy, and cloudy. But it is earth that is as wispy as a wind, “like grass, that today is and tomorrow is cast into the oven” [citing Matt. 6:30]. Scripture’s imagery corrects this popular fallacy, if unthinking familiarity has not dulled its instructive shock.

Second, this principle means heaven has more dimensions than earth, not fewer. There are important consequences of this, especially concerning matter and time. It means heaven is not merely spiritual, lacking the four dimensions of matter (three of space and one of time), and eternity includes rather than excludes all of time, as we have already seen.

Third, heaven is clearer, more detailed and specific than earth, not vaguer. It is “too definite for language” [citing C.S. Lewis, Perlandra, p. 33]. That’s why the mystics and the resuscitated say it is “ineffable” [citing Raymond Moody, Life after Life, pp. 25-26]. Our ideas about heaven may be vague, insubstantial, and one-dimensional; but when we compare the real heaven with earth instead of comparing our ideas of heaven with earth, it is earth that is vague, insubstantial, and one-dimensional.

Kreeft argues that the love and beauty we see on Earth are from Heaven, or like Heaven, and a foretaste of Heaven. He repeatedly (e.g., 191) quotes C.S. Lewis’s line, “All that seems earth is hell or heaven.” I wonder, by the way, whether Heavenly “hauntings,” as he calls them (chapter 3), are like the items on my list of the sort of things for which we “adore” God (see this link to another post on this blogsite).


As promised, here are a few words regarding the aforementioned appendices.

Appendix A is “C.S. Lewis’s Argument from Desire” and begins with this overview (201):

This essay is about a single argument. Next to Anselm’s famous “ontological argument,” I think it is the single most intriguing argument in the history of human thought. For one thing, it not only argues for the existence of God, but at the same time it argues for the existence of heaven and for something of the essential nature of heaven and of God — four conclusions, not just one. For another thing, it is far more moving, arresting, and apologetically effective than any other argument for God or for heaven. At least it is that in my experience with students. Finally, it is more than an argument. Like Anselm’s argument, it is also a meditation, an illumination, an experience, an invitation to an experiment with yourself, a pilgrimage.

I shall first state the argument as succinctly as possible. Second, I shall show how C.S. Lewis, who more than anyone else is associated with it, uses it in three different ways (autobiographical, practical-pastoral, and logical). Third, I shall trace contributions to it back into four lines of historical influence (experiential, historical, epistemological, and practical). Fourth, I shall try to answer the main objections against it.

The third part of the essay in appendix A begins with these three interesting paragraphs (210-11):

I believe C.S. Lewis is the best apologist for the Christian Faith in the twentieth century. Many virtues grace his work, but the one that lifts him above any other writer who has ever written, I believe, is how powerfully he writes about Joy, or Sehnsucht, the desire we are speaking of here. Many other writers excel him in originality. He did not mean to be original. (“Our Lord never tried to be original,” he noted.) Perhaps a few modern writers excel him in clarity (though offhand I cannot name one) or grace, or beauty, or accuracy, or popular appeal. But no one has written better of Joy.

Yet he never wrote a whole book about this thing, though he admitted in his autobiography that it was the leitmotif of his whole life: “The central story of my life about nothing else.” Lewis says somewhere that he wrote the books he wanted to read, the books he wished someone else would write, but they didn’t, so he did. That is why I originally wrote Heaven: The Heart’s Deepest Longing: because, incredibly, no one had ever written a whole book about the deepest longing in human life. This essay differs from the rest of the book in three ways. It is, first of all, about the argument, not just the experience. Second, it pretends to scholarliness. Third, it tries to relate this experience more to the history of philosophy. We turn to the historical aspect now.

From a historical point of view I think one of Lewis’ chief claims to fame is that he pulled together, coalesced, and sharpened to a fine point a number of important strands in the history of Western religious and philosophical thought around this argument. The argument does not just float loose on the surface; it flowers from immense, deep tangles of growing things. Some of the most important names in our history are involved in this tangle: Moses, Solomon, Plato, Christ, Paul, Augustine, Bonaventure, Jung. I discern four distinct aspects of the argument, four strands of influence. One name that crops up in all four strands is Pascal, whom Lewis evidently read and admired, though he quoted him only sparsely. But lack of extensive quotation from Pascal is no proof of a lack of deep influence; such is the case with Kierkegaard, who fleshes out many of the Pensees but almost never mentions Pascal’s name.

Appendix B is “The Weight of Glory and the Weightlessness of Glory: A Dialogue between C.S. Lewis and the Mystics.” Here I’ll just note that I like Kreeft’s lighthearted suggestion that some of God’s animal creations are intended by Him to be humorous (see, e.g., 241).

Appendix C is “The Man Who Found Heaven in the Bronx.” It’s a fictional short story about, well, a man who found Heaven in the Bronx.


Additional notes:

  • There’s an obvious similarity between Sehnsucht and the common human feeling that Walker Percy (a fellow Catholic of Kreeft’s, by the way) wrote about frequently, namely that earth is not really our home, that we are like castaways and really come from and ultimately belong somewhere else. See, e.g., the title essay in Percy’s book The Message in the Bottle.
  • I like Kreeft’s womb-is to-life-as-Earth-is-to-Heaven analogy (174).
  • Consider this passage from appendix A (214), in the context of humans’ innate desire for our heavenly “home”:

Even the pagan at his best knew this. Plato in the Symposium let the cat out of the bag. Eros, love, desire, climbs the steps of a hierarchy and will not rest with the lesser, lower, particular, limited and material loves, beautiful as they are. Only Beauty Itself, absolute, pure, unmixed, perfect and eternal, will satisfy the soul. Lewis says somewhere that no one should be allowed to die without having read Plato’s Symposium.

Well, what choice did I have after reading that than to read Plato’s Symposium? Having done so, I still think that I’d rather read Lewis than Plato, but I will say that the eloquence of Agathon’s paean to love reminds me of Paul’s in I Corinthians 13.

  • Kreeft generally comes across as a nice guy, but in appendix A he has some brutally funny takedowns: John Stuart Mill is called “the hedonist utilitarian …, one of the shallowest minds in the history of human thought” (225); John Beversluis’s C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion is “one of those rare books that is even worse than its title” (226); later (230), Kreeft calls one of Beversluis’s objections to something Lewis wrote “just about the silliest and shallowest objection I have ever read” and that it “shows an astonishingly immature understanding of human nature.”