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Fair, but too speculative
on January 10, 2008
The first thing most people do when they pick up a book is to check the endorsements. Heaven by Randy Alcorn comes with an array of them. Interestingly enough, Jerry Jenkins--co-author of the Left Behind series--and Hank Hanegraaff--author of The Apocalypse Code--both give Alcorn's book the thumbs up. While Jenkins and Hanegraaff have written about cosmic eschatology and the book of Revelation, it is interesting to see two people with divergent views on eschatological issues endorsing a book dealing with eschatology. The obvious question is, "What has Alcorn done in this book!?"
Alcorn is a former pastor, and the founder of Eternal Perspective Ministries. He has authored numerous books, including a few on Heaven, ethics, and some fiction volumes. He has taught at Western Seminary and Multnomah Bible College. In some ways, his book Heaven is a sort of magnum opus for someone who has studied, written and taught about Heaven and the related theological issues.
Heaven contains two appendices, which Alcorn commends to the reader at different points throughout the book. However, it is possible that they should be read first, as it will help to understand where he is coming from and where he is going. The first is called "Christoplatonism's False Assumptions," and it deals with the dualism pervading most of Christianity--a sort of matter is bad, spirit is good. He asserts that Christians have, in a sense, baptized this Platonic philosophy, and therefore constantly interpret matters, such as heaven, in a purely spiritual manner. The second is called "Literal and Figurative Interpretation." Here, he asserts that medieval theologians began to allegorize much of Scripture, particularly about
Heaven, and that those allegorizations have been maintained until the present. This mentality is carried over from Christoplatonism. The difficulty is that Alcorn does not give a clear explanation of how to differentiate between texts which require a literal interpretation and texts which require a metaphorical interpretation.
The main text of the book is divided into three parts--a theology of Heaven, answers to questions about Heaven, and the lifestyle of one living in the light of Heaven. These parts are divided in subsections, and further into chapters, most of which are titled as questions. It would be nearly impossible to go through each of the chapters--46 in total--but the sections are cohesive enough to deal with them as units.
Section One is titled "Realizing Our Destiny." The main premise of this section is that most Christians are not looking forward to Heaven. This lack of excitement is due to misunderstandings about Heaven. These misunderstandings are partly due to Christoplatonism, and misinterpretations of Scripture. Alcorn dispels the idea that we cannot know anything about the eternal home by showing the correct understanding of verses commonly used to promulgate that idea. The reality of Heaven is that it can be understood, at least in part, and mainly because of the images used in Scripture being analogous to the earth we currently inhabit. He ends with the reality that some people will not inherit Heaven, but spend eternity in Hell, and then gives a presentation of the gospel.
Section Two is titled "Understanding the Immediate Heaven." As the title sounds, this section is about the intermediate state--where do believers go between death and the resurrection. Alcorn contends, based on Scripture and the bodily resurrection of Christ, that the intermediate stage will be a physical place. Another assertion that some will certainly have concerns about is that believers will be given temporary physical bodies during the intermediate stage. This is based off the fact that the intermediate is physical, and that Elijah and Moses had bodies at the Transfiguration. It must be said, however, that Alcorn is careful to say it is speculation and that he may well be wrong.
The third section is "Grasping Redemption's Far Reach." The key to understanding this section is a several page long chart showing what different aspects of life were like before the fall, are like during this fallen era, and will be like in Heaven. He notes the parallels between the opening of Genesis and the closing of Revelation, and asserts that the goal of redemption is not the annihilation of earth, but a redeeming of everything, ultimately placing believers on a New Earth that will be not entirely different from the one currently inhabited, though the Curse will be lifted from the earth in entirety.
Section Four is entitled "Anticipating Resurrection," he talks about the importance of physical resurrection, and the example of resurrection as shown by Christ. The reason Alcorn believes creation awaits the resurrection is that physical death was not part of the original design--after the resurrection, creation will be returned to that state. This seems to be a difficulty on many levels--and Alcorn realizes this--but his defenses of this idea seem less than adequate. Again, he is careful to assert that this is his belief, and there is a degree of uncertainty in it. As to the extent of the resurrection, it is hard to follow Alcorn where he goes. While he asserts that the scope of the resurrection is greater in his view, it is extremely difficult to agree with him that a baseball bat (his example) will be resurrected.
Section Five is called "Seeing the Earth Restored." He first goes through the Bible, showing the promises of a restored earth. He then reiterates what he has been saying all along--namely that the earth will not be destroyed, but refined and purified. There is another chart, this time comparing common beliefs about Heaven with the biblical teaching, and Alcorn furthers the prevalent theme of the New Earth being like this earth, and Christians misunderstanding this fact.
Section Six is called "Celebrating Our Relationship With God," and Alcorn says that this is the most important aspect of the book--he just needed to establish certain groundwork before getting here. He contends that Christians will physically see God, and that this should be the greatest source of joy. He continues on to say that God will dwell with believers, explaining what that will be like with the Father and the Son, but only a sentence long addendum about the Spirit. The last part of this section probably deserves more attention--as its being misunderstood is part of the problem Alcorn addressed early on--that of worship in Heaven. The main contention: that the knowledge of God will grow, so worship will by dynamic, and includes a thoroughly enamored view of God--not simply the eternal church service so often assumed of Heaven.
Section Seven is called "Ruling on the New Earth," and looks at Heaven as the Kingdom. In keeping with the theme of continuity between current and New earths, Alcorn asserts that the plan of history is to transform earthly kingdoms into the Heavenly kingdom. He treads in dangerous waters when he says that the 1st century Jews were right in expecting an earthly king to rule them, but his point is understood within the overall context of the book. He contends that believers will rule with Christ and each other in Heaven--the reason being that this is what God created mankind to do in Genesis. This idea of ruling is closely related to serving, and will be quite important in the remaking of things as they were originally intended.
Section Eight begins the second part of the book, answering questions about Heaven, and seeks to answer specifically, "What Will the Resurrected Earth be Like?" The New Earth will be a lot like this one, and only vaguely akin to Eden. The New Jerusalem will be an actual city with walls and gates, and will match the dimensions given in the Bible--Alcorn gives a description of just how big the city will be. The River and the Tree of Life will be literal. In the New Heaven, the planet Venus will be the morning star. Time will go on forever--a timeless Heaven is Buddhist, not Christian. The verses about there being no more darkness are figurative, as there will be some type of night. The verse about there being no more sea should not be understood as there not being any more sea--this is important, since Alcorn said earlier that there will be ships in the New Heaven. Lastly, there will still be seasons. And, Alcorn assures the reader that anything they may miss from the old earth will be there in the New Earth. This is a difficult section, and it is hard to follow his hermeneutic. The last statement could easily put him on the edge of universalism, too.
Section Nine asks the question, "What Will Our Lives be Like?" Alcorn answers that people will retain uniqueness and identity, will not become angels, and will retain good feelings and good desires. Resurrected bodies will have a natural beauty, and people will lose self-consciousness, keeping them from needing perfect bodies. However, resurrected bodies will not fail like bodies currently do. The shining of the body is figurative--it is about radiating glory. Handicapped people will receive good bodies. Gender will be maintained, and clothing will only be white robes with the possibility of gold sashes. Children who die will be raised by their parents in Heaven, but the negative effects of aging are bygones. There may be eating and drinking, but meat will be off-limits, since there was no physical death in Eden--Adam and Eve were herbivores until the Fall. The idea of there being no more thirsting or hungering should be taken figuratively, however. And, there will be coffee in Heaven. There will be no temptation, no ability to sin, yet there is free will in Heaven. The lack of sin will keep idiosyncrasies from getting on everyone's nerves. There will be learning--only God is omniscient. There will be great libraries, but it will be mostly old books. There will be work, rest and sleep. The statement of Jesus that he is going to a place (singular) to prepare many rooms (plural) is to be taken figuratively--people will have individual houses, and there will be a lot of hospitality.
Section Ten seeks to deal with the question, "What Will Our Relationships be Like?" Christ will be the center, but other relationships are important, too. There will be remembrance of the old earth, and everyone will know everyone. Somehow, marriage ends, but the relationship does not. No marriage also means no sex. Alcorn is concerned with the idea of an "age of accountability," since it lacks Scriptural support, but still contends that there will be aborted and miscarried infants, as well as children who died young in Heaven. Relationships will be more fruitful, overall. However, disagreements and even misunderstandings about God are still inevitable. There is not equality in Heaven. There is ownership. There will be racial, ethnic and linguistic identity in Heaven, and ancient culture will be resurrected.
Section Eleven is clear: "What About Animals?" Animals have some type of a soul, and will be present in Heaven. Animals will be ruled by humans, they will praise God, and God's attributes will be seen in them. Extinct animals and pets will reside in the New Heaven. And, animals will likely talk.
Section Twelve asks, "What Will We Do in Heaven?" For starters, there will be no boredom. Work will be enjoyable. Tasks that were commenced on earth may be completed in Heaven. Culture will progress, creativity will flourish. There will be music, singing, dancing and laughter. There will be sports and play as well. One need not fear missing out on earth, as dreams and opportunities will continue in Heaven. There will be not only normal travel, but space travel (though no extraterrestrials) and even time travel in Heaven.
Alcorn now moves on to the third and final part--"Living in Light of Heaven." Basically, Alcorn contends that the view of Heaven should reorient the lives of believers, that Heaven should cause believers to be optimistic, and that the resurrection should be a source of longing and hope. Ultimately, this life should be preparation--in many sorts--for the continuation of life in Heaven.
To evaluate this book is a difficult task. It is quite obvious that Alcorn has done his homework--there are references of other works as well as Scripture on every page. The bibliography and list of notes is incredibly long. For those reasons, this volume cannot be overlooked--this would provide a great resource, if nothing else. However, Alcorn's insistence in the literal interpretation of nearly everything is complicated. At times, it appears he haphazardly interprets one issue figuratively, for no other reason than the fact that his literal interpretation of a previous issue demands it. Other theological issues come into play and direct his exegesis--the complete lack of existence of death in Eden, for instance. There is a great deal of speculation--though it is usually prefaced as speculation. The biggest problem with the book is its incessant repetition. Most issues are repeated at least once, many are repeated multiple times. The issues of Christoplatonism and biblical ignorance (and his insistence that a figurative hermeneutic is wrong) are quite enlightening, but receive an abundance of attention. The book could have been shortened by at least a third if Alcorn had only stated his argument once. He seems to think that he is filling a theological gap--and he likely is. This may account for some of the repetition. Another problem is the quoting from sources such as The Chronicles of Narnia or The Lord of the Ring. While these are used for illumination at times (and they are helpful), at times it seems he uses them to back his point as one would Scripture. This book could be recommended, but only to be read with great discernment. Young believers may even need to seek a mentor to help them through the text. However, there is a great deal of helpful material to be found in the book. It is certainly though provoking, and it shows that Heaven is not something to be feared, but something to look for expectantly.