John F. MacArthur, Jr. The Glory of Heaven: The Truth about Heaven, Angels, and Eternal Life. Crossway, 1996. See here to purchase the book.
I am on a bit of a John MacArthur kick, so I decided to read The Glory of Heaven, which is on my Logos Bible Software.
A. I am intrigued by the thoughts of those MacArthur critiques. He extensively critiques a Mormon woman who claims to have gone to heaven, as well as a free grace teacher who holds that unfruitful believers are merely deprived of a reward, not cast into hell. I am interested in reading what they have to say! The woman who claims to have gone to heaven offers an attractive explanation for why God allows different religions to exist, an explanation that relates to personal spiritual growth and destination. At the same time, MacArthur’s critiques are largely effective, as he notes details in Scripture. For example, the Mormon lady said that all people were present at creation, but John MacArthur refutes this with God’s question to Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” The implication is that Job was not present when God created the heavens and earth, and, by extension, neither were we.
B. The book is rather light, but, every now and then, MacArthur offers an exegetical or interpretive gem. Why is the heavenly Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation shaped like a cube? According to MacArthur, this echoes the Holy of Holies in the Old Testament being a cubed-shaped room. MacArthur engages I Corinthians 15, the resurrection chapter, and MacArthur there does much more than cite prooftexts. He lays out an exegesis that seeks to explain what Paul is saying, why Paul is saying it, and how that fits into the broader texture of Paul’s argument.
C. MacArthur is skeptical that authentic supernatural occurrences are commonplace today. On some level, MacArthur’s points are valid. Paul was reticent about going to the third heaven, and his implication was that this sort of thing does not occur often. Why, then, should we accept all these claims about people today going to heaven and back? Against the current obsession with angels and visions, MacArthur refers to Paul’s warnings in Colossians about people basing their theology on angels and visions rather than Christ. These points are valid, but MacArthur does somewhat put God in a box by depicting experiences with angels as rare. They occur more than once in the Bible, plus angels are servants to the saints (Hebrews 1:14), so why wouldn’t experiences with angels be more than a rarity?
D. MacArthur inveighs against soul sleep, the idea that people are unconscious until the resurrection. But he also critiques the view that Jesus or anyone else went to Hades after their death. For MacArthur, souls after death either go to heaven or to hell. For MacArthur, the thief on the cross in Luke 23:43 went to be with Jesus in paradise (heaven) that very day, implying that Jesus, too, went to heaven right after his death, even before he rose from the dead. What about Jesus’s claim after his resurrection that he had not yet ascended unto heaven (John 20:17)? MacArthur does not engage this, but my guess is that MacArthur would apply that statement to Jesus’s body, not his soul. MacArthur engages some texts-to-the-contrary and not others. He says that Lazarus was in heaven eating beside Abraham, not in a region of Hades. He does not, however, address I Peter 3:19’s statement that Jesus after his death preached to the spirits in prison, or Ephesians 4:8-9’s statement that Jesus descended into the earth before his ascension and led captivity captive. (Of course, MacArthur has a commentary and has probably addressed those passages there.) MacArthur’s arguments were all right, but the question asked by believers in soul sleep (i.e., Armstrongites, Adventists) recurred in my mind. If people’s souls go to heaven or hell immediately after their death, why have a last judgment at the resurrection, in which it is decided whether people go to heaven or hell? Is not the last judgment superfluous, in this scenario?
E. Is MacArthur’s picture of heaven compelling? Overall, it is rather nebulous, perhaps because he feels that the Bible is not overly specific about the matter. For MacArthur, heaven is a place that people will enjoy, even if we do not entirely understand how people will enjoy it. MacArthur does depict heaven as a place where God is worshiped and exalted and where sin no longer weighs people down, and that is compelling. His response to the question of how Christians will be happy in heaven when their unsaved loved ones are suffering in hell was a little lacking, in my opinion. MacArthur said that believers in heaven will feel an immense sense of belonging, but that seems rather selfish: my loved ones are suffering in hell, but at least I feel a sense of belonging! Some people, such as Armstrongites but even mainstream Christians (i.e., Erwin Lutzer), hold that heaven will be a place of creativity and innovation. MacArthur did not present such an idea, as far as I can recall. He seemed to depict heaven as a place of perfection, so why would there need to be creativity or innovation?
F. I appreciated the personal touches to this book. MacArthur talked about how he loved his wife, in addressing the question of whether people will still be married in heaven. He seemed to acknowledge his flaws. The Puritan sermons in the book’s appendix were that way, too: acknowledging how sin and negativity weighs us down in this life.
This book is a faithful attempt to look to the Bible for details about heaven and angels.