Monday, July 30, 2012

Forget Hell, Do You Believe in Heaven?

Ephemera: Central Park Skyline with Sail Boats
Photo Credit: Mark Grace

And introducing Anti-Morbid Mondays  
(There’s Gotta Be A Better Name)

Catchy title for today's post, isn't it?  Actually the question above is a real one, based on a sincere motive . . . I mean, other than the sincere motive to attract as many readers as possible.

I have just finished reading Randy Alcorn’s 500 page magnum opus entitled HEAVEN.  I am a little behind the times, since the book was published in 2004, but hey, I have a long reading list and very little time to read thick books about sitting around on a cloud strumming a lyre.  Wearing wings and a white toga. For eternity.  [yawn . . .]

Now that I’ve finally discovered a writer who has a few ideas about heaven,  it turns out heaven is not going to be like that at all. 


I am pretty relieved about the whole thing.  I have harbored this life-long secret fear of heaven.  No kidding.  I never quite understood what the attraction to heaven was. It turns out that there may be a reason as to why I, and a good many other people have those feelings. 

As Alcorn states,
"Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote an in-depth two-volume set titled The Nature and Destiny of Man. Remarkably, he had nothing to say about Heaven. William Shedd’s three-volume Dogmatic Theology contains eighty- seven pages on eternal punishment, but only two on Heaven. In his nine-hundred-page theology, Great Doctrines of the Bible, Martyn Lloyd-Jones devotes less than two pages to the eternal state and the New Earth. Louis Berkhof’s classic Systematic Theology devotes thirty-eight pages to creation, forty pages to baptism and communion, and fifteen pages to what theologians call “the intermediate state” (where people abide between death and resurrection). Yet it contains only two pages on Hell and one page on the eternal state. When all that is said about the eternal Heaven is limited to page 737 of a 737-page systematic theology like Berkhof’s, it raises a question . . ."
While theologians have been saying next to nothing about heaven, it appears that novelists, playwrights, song writers, and screen writers, - not to mention enough half-informed, misinformed and rhetorically overstimulated preachers to fill the continent of Antarctica- have been offering us images that have very little to do with the real heaven.

Now, look, I'm smart enough to know that heaven is not actually sitting on a cloud playing a harp for eternity.  But the traditional evangelical preacherly build-up to heaven never really did all that much for me, either— I don’t really care about streets of gold, or sittin' in church singing hymns all day.  Even if it turns out we get to do praise services in the Hillsong style. I just don’t see myself liking it all that much. 

Oh, well, I guess Jesus will just have to see to it that I DO like it.  I mean, after all, there is always that other place . . .

O.K. here is the bottom line on HEAVEN.  The book, I mean:  Alcorn goes to great lengths to show us that if we just paid attention to what the Bible has to say about the subject, we would find all kinds of encouragement to know that heaven will be an incredibly richer, more profound and complex experience than the life we know here on earth.  That we will have real bodies and that heaven will be a real place.  That our traditional views disembodied spirits and of heaven being in the clouds owe much more to Plato than they do to Jesus.  

That we tend to hear only about two extremes. The first is the incredibly unhelpful insistence on interpreting everything we read in the Bible as a literal fact.  The second is the opposite extreme of automatically believing every biblical statement about heaven is just a figure of speech.  Alcorn includes an insightful appendix on the uses and interpretation of literal and figurative language.   It ought to be a must-read for every wanna-be preacher on the planet.

Alcorn shows us how to read scripture by asking intriguing questions that tease out the logical implications of biblical statements about heaven.  Sometimes the logical implications seem obvious- usually AFTER the question has been asked.  Many times his questions help us to look beyond the cliched images we have to think more deeply about the implications of what we are reading

Background Credit:

Alcorn's critics point to three weaknesses.  The first is the length of the book They believe that he could have made the same point using fewer words.  The second criticism is that Alcorn goes beyond biblical evidence to speculate about heaven. The last major criticism is that Alcorn tends to get caught up in too many irrelevant details- will we drink coffee in heaven?  Will we take our fat selves with us to heaven or do we get a trade-in on new and better looking models of ourselves?

While I understand the criticisms, they did not deter me from devouring HEAVEN.  I felt like someone who had existed on a diet of potato soup and who suddenly discovered a banquet.  I didn’t object to the tiny hors d'oeuvres.  The fact that the lemon meringue pie had too much meringue on it did not put me off at all.  And I was immediately nostalgic after I swallowed the last morsel.

Which is not to say that I agree with everything in Alcorn's book.  But I will be forever indebted to him for opening up a world of prayerful contemplation on a subject I have avoided for most of my life.

Why in the world should we want to learn more about heaven?  Listen to Alcorn:
"Imagine you’re part of a NASA team preparing for a five-year mission to Mars. After a period of extensive training, the launch date finally arrives. As the rocket lifts off, one of your fellow astronauts says to you, 'What do you know about Mars?' Imagine shrugging your shoulders and saying, 'Nothing. We never talked about it. I guess we’ll find out when we get there.' It is unthinkable, isn't it? It is inconceivable that your training would not have included extensive study of and preparation for your ultimate destination."
Thanks for stopping by.  I think of you often and when I do I pray for you.  Not just that you will come here- that part I am learning to leave in God’s hands.  

I cannot, however, keep from feeling grateful that your day brought you to this place.  I pray that these few moments have sparked something in you that is true, noble,  right, pure,  lovely,  admirable,  excellent or praiseworthy- in short, something worthy of the heaven God longs for each of us to inhabit.

P.S.  I am instituting a regular feature on this blog, a sort of book-end to Friday's Blessing for the Weekend.  I will be calling it Anti-Morbid Mondays, until one of you gives me a better title for the feature!  My idea is to begin each work week with a post that is encouraging, humorous, or inspiring- something that I hope will significantly improve the start of your work week. 

 Help me find a better name than Anti-Morbid Mondays and I will see that you are richly rewarded with a selection of Bearded Brothers organic, locally sourced, vegan friendly and absolutely delicious energy bars!  Just leave a comment below with your suggestion, and leave some way for me to get hold of you should you win the contest.

Photo Credit: Cross

No comments:

Post a Comment

Join the conversation! Leave a comment.