Ordained Servant Online
Weighing the Weight of Glory: A Review Article
Heaven, by Randy Alcorn. Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale House, 2004, 560 pages, $24.99.
The topic of heaven is under appreciated by most Christians. Meditating on the future life and meditating on heaven are important means of grace. The Christian's life is strengthened by thinking about the life to come. Books on heaven can help us to "not lose heart" in our pilgrimage by "weighing the weight of glory" (2 Cor. 4:16-18). Misleading books on heaven can also do much damage to the Christian.
Strengths of the Book
Alcorn is concerned that believers have misunderstood heaven. He thinks that most believers are influenced by the false idea that to be physicalin a physical body and in a physical worldis "worldly." Alcorn believes that this idea leads believers to think that heaven is not really physical. Alcorn is correct as he describes the goodness of creation in a prelapsarian state which included physicality. Alcorn gives useful examples of wrong thinking about heaven among Christians and Christian authors, which have their source in denying the goodness of God's creation.
Alcorn uses some Reformed theologians and the Westminster Confession of Faith to support his study of heaven. In his process of analyzing the weaknesses of much writing about heaven, Alcorn invents a term that is used repeatedly"Christoplatonism." His term refers to Christianity being wrongly influenced by false ideas from Plato that physical bodies are a hindrance to the good life. Christoplatonism results, Alcorn believes, in some Christians viewing physical activities in heaven as unspiritual (e.g., eating, drinking, even talking). He presents the physical nature of Eden, this current earth, and the future glorified heaven and earth as all being good, enjoyable, and physical.
Alcorn presents the goodness of the physical nature of things starting with God's pronouncement on the creation as "good." Adam and Eve had real bodies before and after they sinned. Jesus had a real body before and after his resurrection. Much of Alcorn's analysis is correct about other aspects of heavenit will be like paradise, like the current earth, and have human relationships. He compares the new earth to this current earth and to prelapsarian Eden, each of them being "earthy" or physical. Alcorn argues that the continuity of the current earth with the eschatological earth and heaven is like the relationship between our current bodies and our resurrected bodies. Our resurrected bodies will be different, yet they will still be our bodies. After the resurrection we will still be who we were, but glorified and transformed. So, too, the new earth will be the same as the current earth. Alcorn draws out the implications of the continuity between this world and the next world.
When Alcorn is good, he is very, very good. The following quotes are examples of many excellent parts of Heaven:
If I were dealing with aspects of Heaven in their order of importance [emphasis his], I would have begun with a chapter about God and our eternal relationship with him ... Our longing for Heaven is a longing for God [emphasis his] ... Being with God is the heart and soul of Heaven. Every other heavenly pleasure will derive from and be secondary to his presence. God's greatest gift to us is, and always will be, himself. (171)
Later in the book, Alcorn gives an excellent description of the purification of our thinking and desires which will occur in heaven:
Because our hearts will be pure and we'll see people as they truly are, every relationship in Heaven will be pure. We'll all be faithful to the love of our life: King Jesus ... We'll love everyone, men and women, but we'll be in love [emphasis his] only with Jesus. We'll never be tempted to degrade, use, or idolize each other. We'll never believe the outrageous lie that our deepest needs can be met in any person but Jesus.
Often we act as if the universe revolves around us. We have to remind ourselves it's all about Christ, not us. In Heaven we'll see reality as it is and will, therefore, never have to correct our thinking. This will be Heaven's Copernican revolutiona paradigm shift in which we'll never again see ourselves as our center of gravity. Jesus Christ will be our undisputed center, and we won't want it any other way. (314)
Weaknesses of the Book
Despite the excellent parts of Alcorn's book, there are weaknesses that sometimes become dangerously misleading. First, Alcorn uses the books of Daniel and Revelation and many parables as sources for his study of heaven. These are easily misinterpreted. Revelation itself is a genre that primarily uses symbolism to communicate truths. Parables are difficult and ones which seem to be about heaven may not really be about details of heaven. In general, Alcorn's exegesis is too literal.
Another major weakness is that Alcorn blurs the distinction between a good and necessary deduction from the biblical text and fantastic speculation. There are many examples in the book of wild speculations that begin with a biblical truth, but then Alcorn's vivid imagination takes it too far.
For example, it is clear from Scripture that angels are real and are present on earth now ministering to people. Alcorn states that "every once in a while I say 'Thank you' out loud" or "I look forward to meeting you" to an angel that may be in the room with him (284). No one in the Bible ever practices such behavior, nor is it ever encouraged in Scripture. Alcorn has no biblical warrant to do or say such things to angels who may be present in his room.
In another example, Alcorn is extremely imaginative in his belief that ancient civilizations, such as ancient Babylon and Rome, will be resurrectednot only the people, but their civilizationso that you can "walk among redeemed [ancient] civilizations" (383).
Alcorn has similar speculations about dinosaurs and pets being in heaven. Alcorn's weakness is that he does not limit his interpretation of Scripture to truths deduced "by good and necessary consequence" from it (WCF 1.6).
Dangers of the Book
Alcorn briefly warns of our sinful tendency toward idolatry, but he does not apply his brief warning to himself, or throughout the book (177). Because Alcorn does not consistently see the idolatrous nature of indwelling sin, he writes that our desires now are God-given and are good, and our current desires will continue in heaven and will be purified and satisfied in heaven (160). Alcorn never states that many of our desires now are sinful and should not be satisfied at any time, but should be mortified now and will be eliminated in heaven. Alcorn knows that in heaven people won't have to "worry about putting people or things above God" (177), but he fails to show enough concern about people now having sinful desires that should be discouraged. He does not see the broad, idolatrous nature of human desire and worship of creation and creatures that Paul teaches in Romans 1:22-23.
Without any cautionary statement about sinful desires and sinful thinkingespecially as it applies apply to our imagining heavenAlcorn presents some extreme speculations about heaven.
We know God will put one world under his children's authorityEarth. If the rest of the planets and the entire universe fell with and will rise with mankind, I can easily envision our inhabiting and governing other resurrected planets. (263)
Alcorn follows up this extreme speculation with the statement that "God has built into us the longing to see the wonders of his far-flung creation. The popularity of science fiction reflects that longing" (264).
Alcorn quotes C. S. Lewis favorably, "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world" (166). However, a sinful desire may never be fully satisfied in this world, and it may prove that the sinner was made for hell, not heaven. Desires in themselves are not a proof of anything. God warns us not to believe lies or have sinful desires. Sadly, Christians often do both (Rom. 1).
Hermeneutical Problems with the Book
Alcorn's literal interpretation of Revelation is a persistent problem, and he acknowledges this in the book. Also, Alcorn's use of parables is not sensitive to the special interpretive problems with parables. A literal interpretation of all details of a parable is usually not the best interpretation.
Alcorn over-emphasizes the continuity between this earth and the new earth of Revelation. There are biblical passages that describe the destruction of this earth which Alcorn does not fully pursue as evidence of discontinuity (i.e., 2 Pet. 3:13-15). As a result, Alcorn tends to see too much continuity between this present earth and the new earth and little discontinuity between this world and the next. This is most evident in his wild speculations about the new earth of Revelation.
According to Alcorn, almost anything you can imagine or dream of doing, you will do in heaven (429). Alcorn encourages Christians to imagine God fulfilling whatever dreams they have now. Instead of having wild imaginations, many Christians should repent of their dreams, rather than hope God will fulfill their dreams in the world to come.
For a thoughtful Christian there are at least three questions that this book does not raise, but should have:
- What limits should there be on the use of the imagination in thinking about heaven and the eternal life in heaven?
- Where is the line drawn between continuity and discontinuity between this earth and the new earth?
- What effect does our current sin nature have on our thinking about heaven?
These are difficult but important questions to ask and ponder. Alcorn does not directly ask or answer these questions. In fact, Alcorn encourages limitless use of the imagination.
The author doesn't describe sexuality in heaven, but let me use human sexuality as an example of how one might be confronted with the above questions. Human sexuality was part of human nature for Adam and Eve before the Fall. They were told to be fruitful and multiply as male and female. We can assume, correctly, that they had guilt-free sexual pleasure, but we are not explicitly told that they did. After the Fall, we know that human sexuality continued and that it was still intensely pleasurable and good within marriage. The Song of Solomon and Paul encourage us to delight in sexual pleasure and fulfill sexual desires through marriage. Indeed, Paul suggests that one should marry in order to satisfy sexual passions if one cannot control them (1 Cor. 7:9). There is only one biblical passage that contradicts what seems like a good and necessary deduction that human sexuality continues in heaven. This passage is Jesus' teaching that marriage does not continue in heaven. This teaching is a valid corrective to speculation about human sexuality in heaven (Matt. 22:28-30).
This raises an important question: How many human desires have undergone change going from pre-Fall to post-Fall? Answer: All human desires are corrupted by sin now. Follow-up question: Which specific human desires will cease at the resurrection? Answer: No one knows exactly which will cease, but we know that all desire will be free of sin. However, we know that one desire will continue and intensify for believerswe will continue to enjoy God now and forever (WSC 1).
Sadly, Heaven has more of Alcorn's imagination about heaven than sound biblical thinking. Reading Heaven must be done with several serious warnings in mind.
- Don't imagine your wildest dreams will come true in heaven. All dreams are corrupted by sin.
- Don't believe all the literal interpretations of Revelation, Daniel, and the parables.
- Don't believe the highly speculative ideas about heaven.
In Heaven, there are many sections that are weak and some that are dangerous. The remaining sections I could enthusiastically recommend to any person. Parts of this book are very, very good, but when it is bad, it is dangerous.
Stephen A. Migotsky is an Orthodox Presbyterian minister serving as the pastor of Jaffrey Presbyterian Church in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. Ordained Servant Online, February 2011.