Randy Alcorn. Heaven. Tyndale, 2004. See here to purchase the book.
In Heaven, Randy Alcorn fields questions about what heaven will be like. “Heaven” here refers to the hope and destination of Christians: where they will go after they die. Immediately after death, their souls go to heaven, where God is. After the eschatological resurrection, God will bring heaven to earth, and the saints will be there in glorified physical bodies. Alcorn extensively consults and engages the Bible as he addresses the topic of heaven.
Here are some thoughts:
A. I grew up in an offshoot of Herbert W. Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God (WCG), and, in this item, I will use Armstrongite teachings on the hope of Christians as a point of comparison with those of Alcorn. There are similarities and differences. Armstrongites mocked common Christian conceptions of heaven, as if most Christians taught that people would be stringing a harp for all eternity while sitting on a cloud. What kind of hope is that? Armstrongites taught that, instead, Christians would be divine beings with responsibilities. They would be creating and ruling planets and working on projects. Alcorn, too, rejects the idea that Christians will be sitting on a cloud stringing a harp. Alcorn also believes that resurrected Christians will be ruling, since there are a plethora of biblical passages that indicate that (i.e. Luke 19:17; II Timothy 2:12; Revelation 2:26); maybe they will rule each other, Alcorn proposes, or God will create other beings for them to rule. Alcorn does not think that the saints will be divine beings, however, but will have physical bodies. This brings me to the next item.
B. Alcorn seems to maintain that the resurrected saints will depend on food for nourishment and sustenance. Revelation 22 depicts people in the new heavens and the new earth partaking of the tree of life, echoing the tree of life in Genesis 3. Just as Adam and Eve partook of the tree of life in the Garden of Eden to live, Alcorn contends, so will humans eat from the tree of life to live in the new heavens and the new earth. Revelation 7:16-17 states that people in the new heavens and new earth will not hunger and thirst, but Alcorn does not interpret that to mean that people will not get hungry or thirsty, but rather than, when their bodies do hunger, they will have an abundance of food to eat. Alcorn does not appear to think that the resurrected bodies of the saints will possess inherent immortality. He even expresses doubt that the resurrected bodies of the saints will be exactly like the risen body of Jesus, which was able to walk through walls and disappear (Luke 24:31; John 20:26). A number of scholars (i.e., Richard Hays), however, interpret I Corinthians 15 to be saying that the resurrected bodies will not be animated by the soul but rather by God’s Holy Spirit: that arguably implies that the resurrection bodies will differ from natural bodies and will possess immortality because they are animated by a different principle. In addition, in light of Alcorn’s highly physical conception of resurrection life, how would Alcorn interpret Jesus’s statement that the resurrected will be unable to die because they will be like the angels (Matthew 22:30; Luke 20:36)? Alcorn does well to highlight that the Bible contains physical presentations of eschatological paradise, especially in the prophets; the New Testament, as Alcorn argues, echoes that and maintains that God will not give up on the earth but instead will renew it (Acts 3:21). The Bible does depict physical, flesh-and-blood people in eschatological paradise, but one can make the case that it also presents people with inherent immortality, who shine as the sun (Daniel 12:3; Matthew 13:43). Alcorn chooses to focus on the former, but some hold these two concepts together in other ways. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, think that there will be saints who will have immortal spiritual bodies, but that there will be others who will have physical bodies in paradise.
C. Alcorn takes the Bible’s depictions of heaven and eschatological paradise literally, and he attempts to harmonize them when they seem to contradict each other. For example, will people eat meat in the new heavens and the new earth? On the one hand, Isaiah 25:6 depicts an eschatological feast on the best of meats, and Ezekiel 47:9-10 holds that fishing will exist in the time of eschatological paradise. On the other hand, Revelation 21:4 affirms that there shall be no more death, and Alcorn interprets that to mean no more animal death, not just no more human death. Isaiah 65:25 states that animals shall not hurt and destroy, and Alcorn states: “We’re told animals’ eating habits will change—-why not ours?” (page 296). Alcorn proposes that people might eat meat “that doesn’t require death—-something that tastes better but isn’t animal flesh” (page 296). Alcorn deserves credit for offering a solution, but many might understandably see his resolution as a stretch. A rabbinics professor told me a while back that the rabbis wrestled with the apparent contradictions among the biblical depictions of eschatological paradise, and some concluded that they are not to be interpreted literally.
D. Will people learn in heaven? Alcorn thinks so. This will be the case in the intermediate heaven, for saints in heaven in Revelation 6:10 ask God a question, indicating that they do not know everything. But does not I Corinthians 13:12 affirm that saints know in part now but will know in full in the eschaton? Alcorn states that saints will see God clearly but not comprehensively, and he argues that the Greek word in I Corinthians 13:12 that is often translated as knowing fully, epiginosko, does not refer to comprehensive knowledge. Indeed, I would like to think that God can never be known fully, for there are biblical passages about God’s thoughts being deep (Psalm 139:17; Romans 11:33-34). But Alcorn’s case would have been stronger had he addressed I Corinthians 13:8, which appears to state that love will last forever, whereas knowledge will pass away. Is Paul saying this because people will not be teaching each other in the eschaton, since they will know everything? Is there an alternative way to interpret this passage?
E. Many Christians have argued that Christians will be given a mind-wipe in the eschaton, since Isaiah 65:17 states that people will not remember the former things. Some find comfort in this if they have unsaved friends or loved ones: will they enjoy heaven while their unsaved friends and loved ones are burning in hell? No, some Christians, respond, since they will forget their friends and loved ones! Alcorn disagrees with this interpretation. He points to Revelation 12:12-14, which refers to memorials to the twelve tribes and apostles in the new earth; memorials imply memory of what took place on the old earth. Not remembering the former things refers to comfort, and comfort implies memories of the bad things: “If we had no memory of the bad things, why would we need comfort? How would we feel it?” (page 331). Alcorn’s interpretation makes sense to me, for I have long wondered why people are on earth building character for heaven, when they will forget everything in heaven, anyway. It makes more sense that the afterlife will build on this life. Will the saved know about their friends and loved ones in hell, then? Alcorn believes so, but he says that the saints will have an appreciation for why their friends and loved ones are in hell, and that what made the friends and loved ones good (on some level) on earth will be erased in hell. This statement on hell, along with others by Alcorn, was disturbing, but this is a struggle that I have long had with Christianity, period.
F. Alcorn argues that heaven will be a place of work and social interaction. What about people who do not want to do these things? At times, Alcorn is like a drill sergeant: get used to it! That’s what it will be like! Most of the time, though, he empathetically engages why people might feel that way and reassures them that their inadequacies and fallenness on earth will not continue into heaven.
G. Alcorn’s book is informative about the history of interpretation regarding heaven. Medieval Christians viewed heaven in spiritual and intellectual terms while dismissing the possibility of physical pleasures there. John Calvin did not believe that humans in heaven would interact with each other, for they would be enamored and preoccupied with their vision of God.
I checked this book out from the library. My review is honest.