As you would expect, I’ve thought much of Heaven since my wife’s death last August. Giving me guidance are books that provide scriptural, philosophical, and testimonial perspectives—solid sources for Christian belief. Randy Alcorn’s Heaven (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., c. 2004) certainly provides what Rick Warren considers “the best book on Heaven I’ve ever read.” (I thank my friend Ron Bynum for recommending this book shortly after my wife died). Alcorn prefaces his biblical discussion with a brief reference to history and anthropology, where ample “evidence suggests that every culture has a God-given, innate sense of the eternal—that this world is not all there is” (p. xvii). He cites St. Cyprian, who said that death “‘sets us free from the snares of the world, and restores us to paradise and the kingdom. Anyone who has been in foreign lands longs to return to his own native land . . . . We regard Paradise as our native land’” (p. xviii). Alcorn then dedicates his book to all who are “burdened discouraged, depressed, or even traumatized” (p. xx). Only Heaven can salve our deepest sorrows.
“‘It becomes us,’ wrote the great American theologian, Jonathan Edwards, ‘to spend this life only as a journey toward heaven . . . to which we should subordinate all other concerns of life. Why should we labor for or set our hearts on anything else, but that which is our proper end and true happiness?’” (p. 5). Scripture devotes much attention to this ultimate end, though today’s teachers and preachers say little about it. “What God made us to desire, and therefore what we do desire if we admit it, is exactly what he promises to those who follow Jesus Christ: a resurrected life in a resurrected body, with the resurrected Christ on a resurrected Earth. Our desires correspond precisely to God’s plans” (p. 7).
Our lack of interest in Heaven betrays an atrophied imagination. In his fictional works C.S. Lewis activates this essential human faculty. Using the imagination, Alistair McGrath says, affirms “‘the critical role of the God-given human capacity to construct and enter into mental pictures of divine reality, which are mediated through Scripture and the subsequent tradition of reflection and development’” (p. 15). Still more, Lewis said: “‘While reason is the natural organ of truth, imagination is the organ of meaning’” (p. 22). Alcorn then develops “a theology of heaven,” differentiating between the “present” and “eternal” heavens. At death the redeemed go immediately to a “present” or “intermediate” Heaven. At the end of time and the resurrection of the body and the final judgment, they will enter the “eternal” Heaven—or the New Earth that will be established for them. Though not yet enjoying their resurrected bodies, residents of the present Heaven occupy a unique space and enjoy a mysteriously embodied existence—as was evident when Moses and Elijah appeared on the Mount of Transfiguration.
Adam was first made a physical being, then given a spirit. So, Alcorn reasons, “God may grant us some physical form that will allow us to function as human beings while in that unnatural state ‘between bodies,’ awaiting our resurrection” (p. 57). Since the Resurrected Jesus has a body, “If Christ’s body in the present Heaven has physical proportion, it stands to reason that others in Heaven might have physical forms as well, even if only temporary ones” (p. 59). “It might be better, then, if we think of the location of the present Heaven as not in another universe but simply as a part of ours that we are unable to see, due to our spiritual blindness. If that’s true, when we die we don’t go to a different universe but to a place within our universe that we’re currently unable to see” (p. 184). To envision this possibility, note how contemporary physicists who routinely talk about a dozen or so invisible “dimensions” to the universe!
Sifting through the Scriptures, Alcorn finds no less than 21 details concerning the saints in the present Heaven. They are the same persons, conscious of their new place, remember their earthly life, know what’s happening on earth, pray for us, wear robes, have a sense of time, and feel bound to believers on earth. “There is not a wall of separation within the bride of Christ. We are one family with those who’ve gone to Heaven ahead of us” (p. 67). While he’s firmly Protestant, this position squares precisely with the Catholic tradition regarding the “communion of saints,” defined clearly by The Catechism of the Catholic Church: “So it is that the union of the wayfarers with the brethren who sleep in the place of Christ is in no way interrupted, but on the contrary, according to the constant faith of the Church, this union is reinforced by an exchange of spiritual goods” (#955).
At the end of time, Alcorn insists we will be restored to the Earth God initially envisioned. The New Earth will be the original Eden Adam lost. Though scarred by sin, this earth is at least a shadow of the New Earth. So to think about the eternal heaven it helps to look about us and rejoice in the mountains and streams, the music and sunsets, that daily ennoble our lives. “It is no coincidence that the first two chapters of the Bible (Genesis 1-2) begin with the creation of the heavens and the earth and the last two chapters (Revelation 21-22) begin with the recreation of the heavens and the earth” (p. 132).
After setting forth his “theology” of heaven, Alcorn turns to answering common questions regarding it. We will live (sin excepted) much like we live now. We will eat and drink, read and study and discuss new truths, work creatively, enjoy fellowship with friends and family. Married ties will be strengthened and the joys of the man-wife relationship intensified. Animals will be there, occupying their niche in God’s design. For all these positions Alcorn has texts. And frequently he cites respected authorities, ranging from Augustine to Wesley to C.S. Lewis, to support his views. The book is helpful and persuasive—simply the place to begin thinking biblically about the hereafter.
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Equally valuable to me is a philosophical treatise by Boston College’s Professor Peter Kreeft, titled Heaven: The Heart’s Deepest Longing (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, c. 1980). “This book,” he says, “is the thought-experiment of looking with the eye of the heart and exploring what we see of the deep desire hidden there, the desire for heaven” (p. 39). He begins by noting that the “question of hope is at least as ultimate as the other two great questions [what can I know? what ought I do?]. For it means “‘what is the point and purpose of life? Why was I born? Why am I living?’” (p. 12). All of us wonder, at times at least, “Is that all there is?” (p. 46). Historically, as is evident in everything from Indian burial mounds to Egyptian pyramids, man has above all hoped for heaven, however variously envisioned.
What all men long for, Aristotle persuasively argued, is happiness. And this happiness, added Pascal, “is neither outside nor inside us: it is in God, both outside and inside us” (p. 32). Pascal further said that the heart has its reasons that reason never knows, and when we honestly look within (listening to our hearts), Kreeft says, there is “a heavenly hole, a womblike emptiness crying out to be filled, impregnated by your divine lover. Heaven is God’s body; earth is ours” (p. 35). Though our minds may open up mathematical means to decipher the universe, our hearts give us different but equally valid and valuable truths regarding ourselves.
Love also has its ways of knowing, a clairvoyant “X-ray vision” (p. 37), seeing the essence of things. “Only one who loves you really knows you, and the deeper the love, the deeper the knowledge. The non-lover may know everything about you, but only the lover knows you” (p. 37). So thinking about heaven is an exercise of the heart and of love. Inasmuch as we love God we come to know Him. Inasmuch as we lovingly long for happiness and heaven we come to know them. As Malcolm Muggeridge said, in Jesus Rediscovered: “‘I had a sense, of something enormously vivid, that I was a stranger in a strange land; a visitor, not a native . . . a displaced person.” Consequently, he concluded: “The only ultimate disaster that can befall us, I have come to realize, is to feel ourselves to be at home here on earth. As long as we are aliens, we cannot forget our true homeland’” (p. 63).
Such musings are prodded by the genuinely strange dimensions of earthly realities such as time. At times it seems we never have enough time. At other times we wonder if the clock will ever change. We think much about the future and the past, wondering how things will be and how things were. In a moment we can encompass the centuries in our minds. To Kreeft, our “nostalgia for Eden is not just for another time but for another kind of time” (p. 70). Underlying all our musings on time, we truly “long for the infinitely old and the infinitely new because we long for eternity” (p. 80). “Time and death make life precious, but they do not make it eternal. But that is what we long for (‘thou hast put eternity into Man’s heart’), even if we do not know what it is” (p. 73). Facing death we long to live on, forever and ever.
Clues to eternal, heavenly bliss may be found, Kreeft suggests, in our authentically personal relationships. Consider, for example, how much a person reveals through his face. There is a “numinous, most magical” quality to the face, for here mind controls matter. “A human face is more than a part of the body, an object; it is a part of the soul, a subject, an I. It is the place where soul still transfigures body as its Creator designed it to” (p. 99). Furthermore, romantic love, like a face, reveals a deep inner reality. “It is like a sacrament in that way: a special sign of a general truth, a local reminder of a universal reality” (pp.101). That’s because: “As the face is the epiphany of the person, the person is the epiphany of the universe, the universe’s face as seen by the ‘haunt detector’ called romantic love” (p. 101-102). Readers of Dante’s Divine Comedy remember that “God appeared to Dante as a Beatrice-shaped glory. Yet Beatrice was not obliterated by the divine light. Dante did not merely pass through Beatrice to God; he found God in Beatrice. He did not love Beatrice less because he loved God more” (p. 102). “Romantic love is a powerful image of the love of God because, unlike lust, it does not desire a possessable and consumable thing (like a body). It wants not to possess but to be possessed, not by the beloved but by love itself, the reality in which both lovers stand” (p. 107).
Our world, Kreeft says, is not really distant from heaven. Rather, “heaven includes earth as the soul includes the body. My soul includes my body because it is my me, my personhood, and part of this is what I call ‘my’ body” (p. 115). Earth’s an accurate image, a shadow of Heaven, which is “more real, more substantial than earth,” has “more dimensions than earth, not fewer,” and is “clearer, more detailed and specific than earth, not vaguer” (pp. 116-117). The Eternal Word indwells both Heaven and Earth. He is “Christ the Haunter, the incarnate divine Mind, the Logos. . . . . The divine Idea perfectly and completely expressed before the world was created, the divine Word that was the instrument creating the universe, the divine design reflected in all created order, finally focuses at this single point: a human individual who says ‘I am’, claming to be the divine I AM ‘before Abraham was’. All signs lead to him because all signs come from him” (p. 118). Rightly seeing His world we see his Face! The God Whose Face was visible in Christ is the great “I AM who says, ‘I am with you always’, and that I AM is the absolute, the unchangeable, the utterly reliable. Our I is flighty, relative, and unreliable. But our I can plug into the I Am and then it and its joy become as eternally solid as the joy of I AM. Faith is that plug. (p. 160)
What we hope for in Heaven is a continuous state of joy, an extension of those moments of joy we experience while on Earth. Such joy is a truly ecstatic—rooted outside of us, not inside us—reality. “Just as love is not in us but we are ‘in love’ (‘it’s bigger than both of us’), joy is not in us but we are in it: ‘Enter into the joy of thy Lord’” (p. 145). “Heaven is ek-stasis; hell is in-stasis. Heaven in coinherence; hell is incoherence. Heaven is aspiration; hell is greed. Heaven is love; hell is lust” (p. 150). Joy comes to those who fully, and finally, submit their wills to God’s will. “In His will,” said Dante, “is our peace,” and “’Thy will be done,’” echoes Kreeft, “is the infallible road to total joy” (p. 158).
Submission to God’s will here-and-now gives us a foretaste of Heaven, for “Earth is not outside heaven; it is heaven’s workshop, heaven’s womb” (p. 172). Seen from this perspective, we are not “pie-in-the-sky” daydreamers fantasizing a better world. Indeed, “Heaven is not escapist because we are already there, just as the fetus in the womb is already in the world because the womb is in the world and subject to its laws, such as the laws of gravity and genetics” (p. 174). Still more: “Heaven is not a thing or even a place; it is a Person; that’s why it (he) is present. Heaven is where God is—God defines heaven, not heaven, God—and God is present in every place” (p. 175). All who will may enter, for we are justified by faith—and our “faith is in God’s present (gift) of his Present (now) presence (here)” (p. 181). For “This is the Gospel, the scandalously good news: that we are guaranteed heaven by sheer gift” (p. 183).
In a profound appendix, Kreeft cogently develops a philosophical case for C.S. Lewis’s “argument from desire,” which he finds to be one of the most persuasive arguments for the existence for God ever advanced. Without question “it is far more moving, arresting, and apologetically effective than any other argument for God or for heaven” (p. 201). He sums it up thusly: 1) “The major premise of the argument is that every natural or innate desire in us bespeaks a corresponding real object that can satisfy the desire.” 2) “The minor premise is that there exists in us a desire which nothing in time, nothing on earth, no creature, can satisfy.” And 3) “The conclusion is that there exists something outside of time, earth, and creatures which can satisfy this desire” (p. 202).
To his knowledge, Kreeft says, agreeing with Lewis, “No case has ever been found of an innate desire for a nonexistent object” (p. 203). By nature we desire more than nature affords. We desire a supernatural reality called heaven. Even better, C.S. Lewis asserted (in The Problem of Pain): “Your soul has a curious shape because it is . . . a key to unlock one of the doors in the house with many mansions. . . . Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you and you alone, because you were made for it—made for it stitch by stitch as a glove is made for a hand” (p. 67).
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Two “testimonial” books, testifying to the reality of “life-after-death,” deserve perusing. Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven: A True Story of Death & Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, c. 2004) tells the story of a Baptist pastor who had a terrible automobile accident in 1989, was declared dead at the scene, lay immobile for 90 minutes, and then revived to spend many months recovering from his injuries. During those 90 minutes he entered heaven, where he met many people he knew who had preceded him. While there, he says, “My heart filled with the deepest joy I’ve ever experienced” (p. 31). Marvelous music, praising Christ the King, thrilled him and still resounds in his memory. Colors were more vivid, people were more wonderful—all was in fact perfect. “I was home; I was where I belonged,” he says. “I wanted to be there more than I had ever wanted to be anywhere on earth” (p. 33).
A more fascinating story, for me, was written three decades ago by George G. Ritchie, M.D., entitled Return from Tomorrow (Waco, TX: Chosen Books, c. 1978). His medical training, as well as his philosophical bent, make the book both a fascinating narrative and a meaningful reflection. In 1943, aged 20, Ritchie was in Texas, preparing for service in WWII. While there he was stricken by the flu, which turned into double pneumonia. Despite the doctors’ efforts, he apparently died; they pronounced him dead and covered his face with a sheet. From his perspective, however, he simply became immaterial. He walked down the hospital corridors, but no one saw him. Then he flew overland, heading toward his home in Richmond, Virginia. He saw the countryside passing underneath. Then he alighted in a strange town (Vicksburg, MS) and wandered about a bit, noticing specific details of it. As in the hospital, he saw things as if he were physically present, but no one could see him—and he could easily move through solid things.
At that point he decided he needed to get back to Texas and recover his embodied state. He returned to the hospital and “began one of the strangest searches that can ever have taken place: the search for myself. From one ward to another of that enormous complex I rushed, pausing in each small room, stooping over the occupant of the bed, hurrying on” (p. 42). In time he found the room where his body lay—though the face was covered he knew it because of a distinctive ring on his left hand. He realized that others thought he was “dead” but he really wasn’t! While trying to get back into his body, the room suddenly turned bright—“it was like a million welders’ lamps all blazing at once” (p. 48). The light was not an “it” but a “He,” a Man who was clearly “the Son of God” (p. 49). This was not the Jesus he’d heard about (with considerable disinterest) in Sunday school! He was powerful. And He “loved me” (p. 49). In that moment he envisioned all the details of his 20 years on earth. And the question from the Light was: “What did you do with your life?” (p. 52). He realized that he’d lived, almost exclusively, for himself. Though he had professed a faith in Jesus as a child, he hadn’t really sought to serve Him. He realized that a life rightly lived was a life consumed by love.
Thereafter Ritchie was taken on a journey that exposed him to various places inhabited by those who had died. He saw self-absorbed people, self-promoting and verbally vicious and vindictive people who had made their own hell—much like the folks in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. “With a feeling of sick familiarity I recognized here my own thinking” (p. 65). With Jesus beside him, he realized that Jesus had not “abandoned them, but they who had fled from the Light that showed up their darkness” (p. 66). Above all they had failed to see Him. Then he was taken to another kind of place where people peacefully studiously in an extensive library, engaged in a great project of some sort. They were “supremely self-forgetful” and thus utterly at peace. They were not yet in heaven, but “They grew and they have kept on growing” (p. 71). Finally, though at quite a distance, he was granted a glimpse of heaven itself. “At this time I had not yet read the book of Revelation. I could only gape in awe at this faraway spectacle, wondering how bright each building, each inhabitant, must be to be seen over so many light-years of distance. Could these radiant being, I wondered, amazed, be those who had indeed kept Jesus the focus of their lives?” (p. 72).
After this incredible journey, Ritchie returned to his body in the hospital, reviving nine minutes after being declared dead. Alive again, he began to live fully. He suddenly began to notice and care for others. There were “no casual events for me since that night in Texas, . . . no ‘unimportant’ encounters with people. Every minute of every day since that time, I’d been aware of the presence of a larger world” (p. 85). Equally important, though he naturally feared the physical pain of dying, “as for death itself, I not only felt no fear of it, I found myself wishing it would happen” (p. 105).
In time he went to medical school and, after practicing medicine for 13 years, further studied to become a psychiatrist. Through it all, a lesson he learned while treating a Christ-like soldier in Europe remained paramount: “in losing myself, I had discovered Christ. It was strange, I thought: I’d had to die in Texas, too, to see Him. I wondered if we always had to die, some stubborn part of us, before we could see more of Him” (p. 112). In retrospect, he reflects upon his “return from tomorrow,” saying: “Whatever I saw was only—from the doorway, so to speak. But it was enough to convince me totally of two things from that moment on. One, that our consciousness does not cease with physical death—that it becomes in fact keener and more aware than ever. And secondly, that how we spend our time on earth, the kind of relationships we build, is vastly, infinitely more important than we can know” (pp. 15-16).