Book Review: Heaven by Randy Alcorn
Enter your typical Christian bookstore, and you’ll find multiple books recounting someone’s five minutes or three seconds in heaven. Regrettably, if you enter the house of some of your church members, you might also find these kinds of books nestled away on a shelf. I’m not surprised by this. Heaven is important. If you’ve trusted in Christ, heaven is where you’re heading. It’s our eternal home, though we haven’t yet seen it. No wonder people are fascinated by supposed eyewitness testimony.
The problem with these popular books is that they’re often based on the fleeting memories of young children and coma patients rather than the solid testimony of God’s Word. Randy Alcorn’s Heaven, however, responds to these fanciful, Scripture-less depictions of heaven with a faithful, biblical exploration of the subject. He writes with an awareness of how common and appealing the topic of heaven is, even to those who don’t know the Lord. For that reason, Alcorn not only describes heaven, he also presents the terrible reality of hell, and summons his readers to believe the gospel (chapter 3). He even exhorts them to quickly find a local church that preaches the gospel to prepare for heaven.
Heaven is aimed at ordinary Christians. It’s clear and accessible while also inviting readers to weigh everything against Scripture. How many confusing beliefs about heaven would be resolved if people simply read Alcorn’s preface and took that invitation to heart?
ADDRESSING HEAVEN’S BAD REP
Heaven offers a one-stop shop for your questions about heaven and all things related to the afterlife. The central endeavor of the book is to dismantle the misconception that the spiritual and material realms are at odds and that the physical has no place in eternity. Alcorn labels this sort of Gnostic thinking as “Christo-platonism.”
Alcorn provides anecdote after anecdote that sadly demonstrates just how pervasive this false teaching is in the minds of unschooled and mature Christians alike. In response, Heaven focuses on the reality of a bodily resurrection and eternal life in the new heavens and new earth. Once you understand that as the driving point, the rest of this 500-plus page book unfolds neatly.
Alcorn confronts Christo-platonism by showing the continuity between what humanity was called to do on this earth, and what we’ll be able to in the new creation. Everything good in your earthly life will be even better in heaven. Alcorn carefully, kindly, and clearly disassembles any idea that heaven will not be fun, that we will lose something of our own identities, or that we’ll simply strum harps on clouds forever and ever and ever. Instead, he presents the glorious possibilities of worshiping God through an eternity of exercising dominion over a renewed creation.
IMAGINE THE POSSIBILITIES
Some readers will be bothered by Alcorn’s regular forays into speculation that can feel more like sci-fi. Space exploration? Tidal waves that can’t hurt us? Narnian-like animals capable of speech? These ideas are indeed imaginative, but Alcorn always carefully delineates between what God has said and what could be.
In one paragraph I picked at random, every sentence began with something like “possibly” or “it may be.” Throughout, Alcorn speculates more than I’m personally comfortable with, but he always clearly marks his speculations as such. His main goal in all this imagining is to demonstrate a definite biblical truth: heaven will never be boring.
TAKING ON THE TOUGH ASSIGNMENT
Alcorn doesn’t avoid any tough questions about heaven. How should we think about the fact that some of our loved ones won’t be there but in hell? How can an innumerable gathering of people all have personal, regular access to Jesus’ physical presence? What does it look like to be in heaven now, before our bodies are resurrected? Will those who died as children still be children in the resurrection? What will we rule over? If heaven is so great, why not commit suicide? Will we have free will in heaven?
Alcorn takes a swing at all these and more. Some answers are more compelling than others, but Alcorn doesn’t shy away even from questions that require more conjecture to answer.
INTERPRETIVE DECISIONS AND MISSING THE CHURCH
Alcorn’s concern to swat down Christo-platonism means he often comments on matters that aren’t necessarily the main point of a passage he’s examining.
For example, when explaining John’s vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21, Alcorn discusses the dimensions of the city in order to help us visualize its size and relieve concerns about overcrowding. The theological significance of its dimensions in relation to the Holy of Holies in the Old Testament temple is relegated to a comment in Appendix B. He mentions the twelve foundations in order to describe the stability and strength of the city, but what about the names inscribed on those foundations?
Alcorn’s polemic against Christo-platonism occasionally forces him into an unhelpful interpretive dichotomy where the literal meaning is physical and the symbolic meaning is allegorical or ungrounded fancy (see Appendix B especially). The importance of the heavenly city’s foundations bearing the names of the twelve apostles teaches us far more significant truths than simply the security and stability of the city provided by such massive walls. Given that heaven is a world with no evil or enemies, the true point of these pillars is surely symbolic, no matter how literal they may be. The significance of the heavenly city emerges from its use of Old Testament symbols and types. Putting aside questions of how literally we ought to understand the content of apocalyptic visions as what we will see with our eyes in the new creation, there are more important questions to answer about heaven than what it will look like. In this instance, the names on the foundations convey that the heavenly city is grounded upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as taught by his apostles. Whatever we understand about the physical characteristics of the heavenly city must come second. We must keep the emphasis in the same places Scripture puts it.
Because Alcorn focuses on the physicality of life in the New Jerusalem, he unfortunately misses one of the Lord’s main tools for teaching us about heaven, namely, the local church.
The church is made up of the heavenly people: the ones who have the heavenly city as our mother (Gal. 4:26; Rev. 12:1, 13–17). The heavenly city is the bride of Christ (Rev. 21:9, 10), which we know is also a title for the church (Eph. 5:32). Christians are already a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), seated with Christ in the heavens (Eph. 2:6). God’s people have already come to the mountain that cannot be touched, the city of the living God (Heb. 12:18–24). These realities about Christians—particularly Christians gathered together into a local assembly—may not be physically observable truths, but they are literally true, right now.
Christians united in local churches represent heaven. We speak for heaven by our judgments (Matt. 16:19, 18:18). We portray heavenly values. We are what will be adorned and celebrated alongside Jesus Christ at the great marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:6–8). We are the citizens of that heavenly city.
Alcorn argues, “The present Earth is as much a valid reference point for envisioning the New Earth as our present bodies are a valid reference point for envisioning our new bodies.” Yes, but is it the best reference point, the reference point that tells us the most important information about heaven? Despite the blurring and distorting effects of our indwelling sin, the community of the saints is the best reference point for heaven. The goodness of creation shows us some things, but the new creation that is already here in Christ’s new covenant community reveals even more about heaven. In the minds of the biblical authors, the care and correction, the humility and holiness, and the fellowship and forgiveness within the life of a church paint a more glorious picture of eternal life than even the physical wonders of the heavens themselves. The church foreshadows our future lives in heaven: the fellowship of redeemed sinners with the Father and the Son and one another. The church conveys what kind of people will inherit the kingdom, and how they will be treated by God and each other (cf. 1 Cor. 6; Gal. 5:19–25; Eph. 4:20–5:5).
Do you want to know what heaven will be like? Look at the church! You may not find concrete images of the terrain or architecture of the New Jerusalem, but you will meet the people who belong there.
LONGING FOR HEAVEN
Ultimately, Alcorn’s book answers many of the questions people believe are the most pressing questions about heaven (how do you get there?, will I be bored?, will my pet be there?). But I’m not sure it properly weighs the questions Scripture teaches us to ask about heaven. Scripture seems far more concerned about the character of heaven’s King and citizens, the glory of seeing God face-to-face, and the removal of tears and sorrow than whether or not we’ll have enough to do there to keep us from boredom.
Do you have people confused about whether they’ll recognize loved ones in heaven? Do you know church members who think that gathering around the throne, singing praises to the Lamb who is worthy of all glory and praise will get boring? Do you have family members who think of the material world as somehow inherently dirty? This book will clearly and gently address those confusions. Alcorn capably shows that God’s eternal rewards for his people are not boring. Whatever critiques I have about Alcorn’s method and conclusions along the way, Heaven helped me long even more for the real thing.