In his new book on heaven, appropriately titled HEAVEN, Randy Alcorn tells the story of an English vicar. When asked by a colleague what he expected after death, he replied, "Well, if it comes to that, I suppose I shall enter into eternal bliss, but I really wish you wouldn't bring up such depressing subjects."
If we're honest, a lot of us might agree with that vicar. The thought of spending eternity floating about on a cloud, strumming the proverbial harp, sounds a bit, well, boring. Huckleberry Finn certainly thought so.
"She (Miss Watson) went on and told me all about the good place. She said all a body would have to do was go around all day long with a harp and sing forever and ever. So didn't think much of it.… I asked her if she thought Tom Sawyer would go there, and she said not by a considerable sight. I was glad about that because I wanted him and me to be together."
It's exactly this kind of bland vision of eternity that Alcorn's book seeks to dispel.
"The pious Miss Watson had nothing to say about Heaven that appealed to Huck. What would have attracted him was a place where he could do meaningful and pleasurable things with enjoyable people. In fact, that's a far more accurate description of what Heaven will actually be like. If Miss Watson had told Huck what the Bible says about living in a resurrected body and being with people we love on a resurrected Earth with gardens and rivers and mountains and untold adventures --- now that would have gotten his attention!"
Indeed, and it got my attention too. Despite my education at a Bible college, I've spent little time thinking about or studying the logistics of eternity. And I'm not alone. Whereas heaven used to be on the forefront of the collective Christian mind, it receives little attention these days. Alcorn suggests a number of reasons for the waning interest in heaven, but the bulk of his polemic effort is to stoke curiosity and he does a tremendous job.
For example, do you realize that the place you go when you die is not the place where you will spend eternity? I'll let Alcorn explain:
"The answer to the question 'Will we live in Heaven forever?' depends on what you mean by Heaven. Will we be with the Lord forever? Absolutely. Will we always be with him in exactly the same place that Heaven is now? No. In the intermediate Heaven, we'll be in Christ's presence, and we'll be joyful, but we'll be looking forward to our bodily resurrection and permanent relocation to the New Earth."
Alcorn goes on to quote theologian Wayne Grudem who says, "Christians often talk about living with God 'in heaven' forever. But in fact the biblical teaching is richer than that: it tells us that there will be a new heaven and a new earth --- an entirely renewed creation --- and we will live with God there.… There will also be a new kind of unification of heaven and earth.… There will be a joining of heaven and earth in this new creation."
"Oh yeah," I thought to myself. "The New Earth!" If you've studied Revelation you know that Christ will return to remake the world after the Tribulation and Armageddon and all those staples of the Christian imagination take place. This is clear regardless of when or if you think the rapture will actually happen. Somehow I had never integrated Revelation's teaching on the New Earth with my thoughts about eternity. Indeed, it seems to support Alcorn's idea that the place we go when we die is only intermediate, temporary lodging until we can move to Earth part 2.
Frankly, I find the idea of living on a perfect earth full in a resurrected body in God's presence to be incredibly compelling. Forget the clouds. Where did we get that idea anyway?
HEAVEN is divided into three sections: a theology of heaven, questions and answers about heaven, and living in light of heaven. So after he explains his views on heaven, he provides practical answers to questions everyone has wondered about at one time or another. In HEAVEN you can find answers to questions including: "Can people see what's happening on the Earth from heaven?" "Will we experience time in heaven?" "Will the New Earth be like Eden?" "Will we maintain our own identities in heaven?" and "Will our resurrected bodies have new abilities?" And that's just scratching the surface. HEAVEN is nothing if not comprehensive.
It's important to note that, despite his clear conviction about his understanding of heaven, Alcorn is quick to welcome any biblical evidence that he has come to the wrong conclusions about eternity. Being biblical is his utmost priority.
"From the beginning, I want to make it clear that it's vitally important that this book be true to Scripture. I believe that most of my conclusions, even those that significantly depart from current evangelical thinking, will stand up to biblical scrutiny. Inevitably, however, some may not. In the context of prophetic statements, the apostle Paul says, 'Test everything. Hold on to the good' (1 Thessalonians 5:21). It's up to you to test by God's Word what I say, hold on to the good and reject the bad."
Such humility is refreshing, as is Alcorn's vision of the afterlife. It turns out that Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer might want to go to heaven after all.
Reviewed by Lisa Ann Cockrel on November 13, 2011