Is There a Heaven?

alex atkins bookshelf musicImagine you are a father and your six-year old daughter, who is exposed to man’s inhumanity to man on a daily basis (broadcast on television and the internet), comes to you horrified; with a quivering voice she asks, “How can evil like this exist? Is there something better than this…? Papa, is there a heaven?” Those are challenging questions for adults to ask, let alone a child of six years. Throughout mankind’s existence, some very wise individuals have wrestled with these difficult questions. But here you are. How should you answer?

She’s not looking for a philosophical, psychological, or religious treatise. She is looking for some sliver of hope in what appears to be a cruel, violent world. It’s moments like this that you turn to poetry. As U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins noted so eloquently, “In times of crisis, poems, not paintings or ballet, are what people habitually reach for… The formalized language of poetry can ritualize experience and provide emotional focus… Poetry also can assure us that we are not alone; others, some of them long dead, have felt what we are feeling.” To that, I would add: and have thought what we are thinking.

However if you are Chris Rea, a talented singer-songwriter and guitarist, you write your daughter a beautiful, eloquent song that attempts to arrive at an answer and comfort her. Rea’s touching song, “Tell Me There’s A Heaven,” appearing on the paradoxically titled album “The Road to Hell” (1989) was inspired by such an event in his life, when his daughter Josephine was trying to make sense of a news report from South Africa about a man who was burned alive. Rea’s poignant words (sung in his iconic deep, gravelly voice) and music provide a reassuring message that is both haunting and hopeful. And just like Saint Expert’s classic fable, The Little Prince, Rea’s memorable song is not just for children — it speaks to adults, particularly those who have grown cynical or disillusioned about humanity. This song is a beacon of hope in an otherwise dark landscape, scarred by what seems to be an unending cycle of violence, hatred, and intolerance. For those who have suffered and lost their lives needlessly through violence, we can only hope that “they [the departed] sit with God in paradise/with angels’ wings… [and] they’re all happy now.”

As a child I asked that question: “Is there a heaven?” As an adult, as a father, who has witnessed those who have slipped away far too early and unjustly, I have had to answer that question: I tell her that it’s true. Because, sometimes, it’s the only thing that makes sense. If we can imagine a paradise where others are happy now, it just might give us the strength to muddle through the mayhem and the madness of this world. And if we can imagine a paradise, it helps us look at the face of a teary-eyed six-year-old and say that there is a place called heaven; a joyful place — in the distant future — for me and you…

Here are the lyrics to “Tell Me There’s a Heaven” by Chris Rea:

The little girl she said to me
What are these things that I can see
Each night when I come home from school
And mama calls me in for tea

Oh every night a baby dies
And every night a mama cries
What makes those men do what they do
To make that person black and blue

Grandpa says their happy now
They sit with God in paradise
With angels’ wings and still somehow
It makes me feel like ice

Tell me there’s a heaven
Tell me that it’s true
Tell me there’s a reason
Why I’m seeing what I do

Tell me there’s a heaven
Where all those people go
Tell me they’re all happy now
Papa tell me that it’s so

So do I tell her that it’s true
That there’s a place for me and you
Where hungry children smile and say
We wouldn’t have no other way

That every painful crack of bones
Is a step along the way
Every wrong done is a game plan
To that great and joyful day

And I’m looking at the father and the son
And I’m looking at the mother and the daughter
And I’m watching them in tears of pain
And I’m watching them suffer

Don’t tell that little girl
Tell me
Tell me there’s a heaven
Tell me that it’s true
Tell me there’s a reason
Why I’m seeing what I do

Tell me there’s a heaven
Where all those people go
Tell me they’re all happy now
Papa tell me that it’s so

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Read related posts: The Meaning of I Dreamed a Dream
The Poem I Turn To
Why We Read Poetry
How To Grieve for a Lost Friend
Best Books on Eulogies

For further reading: The Poem I Turn To: Actors & Directors Present Poetry That Inspires Them edited by Jason Shinder

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