In Heaven As On Earth:
A Vision of the Afterlife
By M. Scott Peck M.D. — Reviewed by David Bradshaw, My Idea Factory
What becomes of us after death? Resurrection, reincarnation, nothingness?
Seventeen years ago, bestselling author, lecturer, philosopher and psychiatrist Dr. M. Scott Peck (1936–2005) entered the afterlife, but first he left readers a personal, providential and visionary roadmap of what we might expect — which he’d thoughtfully written a decade earlier.
In Heaven As on Earth whimsically looks past the boundaries of life on earth to help readers imagine what the main character, Daniel (who serves as Peck’s stand-in on this mystical journey) encounters — starting at the moment of his death and taking us to the threshold of his heavenly “apprenticeship.”
Dr. Peck’s 1987 groundbreaking bestseller, The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth, described the importance of personal discipline, “true” selfless love, and grace which originates outside human consciousness.
The Road Less Traveled was quickly embraced by readers of virtually every wisdom tradition as a self-help classic, bridging the gap between modern science and ancient religion. Dr. Peck pointed readers toward a life characterized by; learning to delay gratification, accept responsibility for oneself, and a healthy dedication to seeking truth and balance in life.
Whether you’re a fan of Dr. Peck’s previous ten books, or like me, this is your first exposure to Dr. Peck’s wisdom, you will discover frequent quotes from the Bible, which indicates Peck’s deep respect for the Christian worldview, without sounding the least bit preachy. Dr. Peck acknowledges his special gratitude to C.S. Lewis’ classic The Great Divorce and to the Catholic church “for keeping the vision of purgatory alive.”
The subject of the afterlife is impossible to verify, but curious souls willing to explore the unknown with Dr. Peck may find this book an inspiration to continue learning and growing — both in this life… and in the next. I did.
We are first introduced to Daniel, who had been hospitalized in a coma for two days as a cancer victim. He suddenly finds himself somewhere near the ceiling, above his bed, looking down at the grey body of an old man below. He calmly notices his son and daughters softly weeping at his bedside, yet feels oddly detached and exultant.
Daniel finds this experience profoundly paradoxical.”There was no focus upon my sins that I’d consciously regretted or accomplishments I’d enjoyed.” Instead, his life review “framed all the scenes of cruelties, large and small, that I’d committed without being aware I’d committed them…It also framed a number of rather decent things I’d done unwittingly.”
Daniel confesses he has no idea how long this life review lasted — a few minutes or perhaps years — but he awakens to a welcoming light which beckoned the question, “Are you God?” “The light made no answer…but exploded with gaiety,” confirming for Daniel that he indeed had been admitted and accepted in the afterlife.
The following twelve short chapters give us glimpses of Daniel’s amazing and somewhat mysterious thoughts and feelings as he enters “The Adjustment” to his new body-less reality. He immediately finds himself in a little green room with nothing but a bed and two shelves, which might serve as chairs.
Daniel’s prayer for someone to help him grasp this new reality is instantly answered in Chapter Three with the appearance of Norma and Sam, his designated “Greeters,” who quickly calm his fears, saying, “Although you’ve left your actual body behind, your soul and personality are here and intact.”
“Is this heaven, hell, or purgatory?” asks Daniel. “Take your pick,” says Norma. Sam explains further, “The governing law of the afterlife is what we call The Principle of Freedom. There is absolutely nothing that is coercive here. Souls are free to respond to this place or level of existence in any way they choose. Some choose hell, some purgatory, and some heaven.”
What follows is a deluge of questions by Daniel in his desperate attempt to comprehend what the rules are in this new environment which allows him the freedom of time travel, earth visitation and fulfillment of his destiny. His Greeters graciously answer his scores of questions as best they can and reassure him that he will be safe as he explores this new boundary-less afterlife.
Sam and Norma warn Daniel that the greater part of The Adjustment would be dealing with his newfound freedom. “On earth I had extolled the virtues of ‘emptiness’ I’d taught thousands of people the ways they could empty themselves of preconceptions, expectations, their prejudges and judgementalism…through silence and contemplation…but I was also familiar with how terrifying such emptiness and freedom could be for most people.”
Why Some Choose Purgatory or Hell Over Heaven
As Daniel eventually ventures out of his small green room into the grey corridor to explore this strange new world he comes upon a door on which he knocks and meets Tish, a fellow sojourner who invites him into her pink room for an introductory chat about her experience as she faces her own Adjustment.
After a rather lengthy conversation, Daniel begins to grasp a clearer vision of purgatory — a self-imposed limiting of spiritual, emotional or physical progress that likely will require a period of time and some outside help for Tish to hopefully overcome.
“Maybe that’s a definition of purgatory, when one moves from life on earth to the afterlife and acts as if nothing has changed,” muses Daniel. Was Tish’s fate to remain stuck with her poor self image, having eternal issues with her 300-pound physical body on earth in the afterlife? We find out about her progress later in the book.
Meanwhile, Daniel’s next encounter in the grey corridor, surprisingly comes inside a trash can where he meets Robert Brown and Henry Smith of the Amalgamated Systems — which give him a glimpse of why some people choose for themselves a hellish afterlife existence of endless work and striving for more power, fame, and fortune.
“The intense misery of Amalgamated Systems was very real, but that didn’t mean that the poor employees considered themselves wretched…as I drifted off to sleep it occurred to me that perhaps today I’d been standing at the gates of Hell, or at least one of its subdivisions,” thought Daniel.
At this point a truism of Richard Rohr, the prolific contemplative author and Franciscan teacher came to mind, “It’s heaven, all the way to heaven…and it’s hell, all the way to hell.” This is a concise way to stating that we choose our path toward either heaven or hell in a series of small daily choices of what we will focus on and in what we decide to place our faith in.
What follows is an encounter with Timmy, his son who he lost at age 17, who appears in response to Daniels desire for a mentor, prior to visiting earth to check in on his grown children. The irony that he is now being tutored by his beloved son is a good example of the creative genius of Dr. Peck in helping Daniel (and readers) cope with this amazing new world of love and family reunion despite often heavy losses on earth.
Timmy reassures his father, “You will grow closer to God here. Yet, at the same time God will remain wonderfully mysterious…You’re safe here, you know. This is a safe place.” “I love you Tommy,” was all I could say. “I love you too Daddy,” he responded, and then he was gone.
This encounter helps to reinforce the truth, detailed in The Grace in Dying, by Kathleen Singh, which is that there is absolutely nothing to fear in death — which when properly understood is not tragic, but rather the final stage of transformational growth.
Enter Daniel’s Heavenly Spiritual Director
Following Daniel’s interactions with his son Timmy and wife Mary Martha, who had passed on three years prior, we are introduced to the next mentor, Isabel, who Daniel says reminds him of Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth century nun that had written “despite the inevitability, even the necessity of sin, ‘All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’… Her ‘revelation of divine love’ was the underlying reality.”
Isabel helps Daniel consider what his highest function and calling may be as a new member of one of The Committees, which seem to direct the affairs of both heaven and earth. Is Daniel ready to move from his period of Adjustment toward his ultimate role of Apprenticeship?
During his three days of preparation for the transition, Isabel tells Daniel to be prayerful and careful. He discovers why this warning is so important, similar to Christ’s temptation in preparation for his earthy ministry, Daniel must endure a final test by the devil to reveal his true inner motives and the purity of his devotion to doing God’s will, vs. falling for Satan’s lie; the offer of fame, fortune and physical pleasures.
During this final test, Daniel is swept off his feet by Susan, a beautiful young woman to the cliff above Assisi, a special place of spiritual renewal that he and his wife often visited — only to have her begin stripping off her clothes and inviting his sexual advances if only he would promise to worship her forever.
“Oh Daniel, dear Daniel,” Susan crooned. “Don’t you realize that I’m as close to God as you’ll ever get?” “You’re not Susan, “ I proclaimed…You’re Satan. Admit it!” Although this temptation is very great for Daniel, who had been instantly restored to his previous 18-year old body, pulsing with testosterone. Daniel’s faith was sorely tested, but not broken.
On the morning of the third day Isabel returns to find Daniel ready for his next major milestone, an introduction to one of The Committees, which he would serve as an apprentice. He likens the experience of coming into the presence of The Committee to the climatic scene in Encounters of a Third Kind, when the friendly alien spacecraft lands on earth with lights blinking and shifting in the ecstasy of communion.
“Is this God,” asks Daniel of Isabel. “You are looking at the surface of God. One surface, but the other surfaces are basically similar.” And thus, Daniel’s apprenticeship had begun. And the story ends, leaving readers wanting more, which is the mark of all brilliant authors.
In Heaven As on Earth is full of lessons on finding your place and purpose in this life and beyond. Daniel’s odyssey into eternity, like Dr. Peck’s other inspirational books, flows with nourishment for both the soul, the spirit and the psyche.
I found this book to be a perfect compliment to a year-long zoom study group I am presently involved in, which seeks to understand and better demonstrate the Kingdom of God, as explained by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. (See Following The Call).