If I were to go down a shelf of books in a bookstore or library, reading a few pages of each to find one worth taking home, Randy Alcorn's Heaven would have gone back on the shelf. It would have been a good decision.
To his credit, Alcorn's theology is correct and Biblical, except perhaps for his more wildly speculative chapters, where he admits that the Bible simply doesn't say. More on that later.
Alcorn has so thoroughly immersed himself in the whole teaching of the Bible -- I wish more people would! -- that his weak exegetical skills do not introduce significant theological error, but he often finds "teaching" which is not supported in that particular Greek text, but only from the English translation of it. That is an unfortunate hermeneutic which plagues many a Bible teacher. If every Bible teacher were as familiar with the whole of Scripture as Alcorn, it would be far less of a problem today than it is. However, Alcorn does set a bad example, and I could hope for better.
One particularly bad example occurs on p.217, when he says "crowns are the primary symbol of ruling, every mention of crowns as rewards is a reference to our ruling with Christ." This is just plain ignorant of the Greek language and culture. Two very different Greek words unfortunately get translated by the same English word "crown" with consequent confusion. Diadem (DIADHMA) is the kind of crown kings wear, although Alcorn should know that the primary symbol of ruling in the Bible is the scepter, not the crown [Gen.49:10, Psa.2:9, Isa.14:5, Heb.1:8, Rev.2:27, and others]. Perhaps he is also aware that there is only one in each kingdom, and it is not shared with subordinates. Most of the crowns in the New Testament -- especially all the reward crowns -- are the Stephen (STEFANOS) variety, a laurel wreath awarded to victors in the Games and more accurately translated into English as "medal". These, not diadems, are what the 24 Elders lay at the feet of Jesus. All of the crowns quoted from Scripture on p.217 are wreath/medals, symbols of victory, not symbols of ruling. All this does not negate the thrones, which are symbols of ruling, but the bad exegesis does not help his case.
Counting chapter titles, introduction and appendices, Heaven is 500 pages long. He could have said the same thing much more readably in 120 pages. It's very repetitious. In his introduction he insists that the the first half of the book builds on itself and should be read sequentially. Maybe so, but from my perspective it reads more like a year-long sermon series: there is some flow for the church regulars, but the other half of any congregation wasn't there last week, so he repeats all the main points he covered so far.
If you must read this book, I would recommend you start with Chapter 17. That's the best chapter, and theologically most important. Alcorn as much as admits it in the first paragraph of the chapter, but excuses its placement because this one chapter is about God, while the rest of the book is more about the post-resurrection New Earth. If you read nothing else, Chapter 17 is worth the time to read it. Then maybe go back and skim the rest of Part I, reading maybe every third page (you won't miss anything). Apart from a few tangential (aka speculative) chapters, Parts II and III are mostly a rehash of Part I.
The chapter titles read like a FAQ ("Frequently Asked Questions") you might find on the internet. Everything is a question. Since I was not asking those questions, I found it rather grating.
The title of the book is misleading. Alcorn spends essentially the whole book repeatedly proving or claiming that his subject matter is not Heaven at all, but the same physical earth we now live in (only renewed). Almost every page makes this point in one way or another, ad nauseam. He even invented a new word, "Christoplatonism" to label those people who disagree with him. Alcorn is theologically correct, but it does get tiresome for readers who already know the Bible well enough to understand that our eternal reward follows a resurrection of the body, not some mystical spiritual "oneness" in Nirvana. Perhaps very few Christians are so well informed. Other than the many books and theologians Alcorn quotes, he seems not to have met any. I doubt it's Alcorn's fault. More's the pity.
Alcorn obviously did not intend his book for the likes of me. If people really understood the point he makes in Chapter 17, then the whole subject of Heaven (or the New Earth) would be as irrelevant as Scripture actually makes it. Our life is not about some future place of enjoyment, our whole point of existence is to serve God in whatever way God chooses we should serve him. That does not depend on what the future reward might or might not be like, it depends only on who God is and the fact that we are His creation; our own opinions don't matter. Alcorn acknowledges this from time to time, but far more often insists that an accurate view of our eternal destiny can and should help us persevere along the path to it. That's utter nonsense. Knowing how wonderful the reward is may or may not help people serve God for the promised benefits, but that's not the message of the Gospel taught by Jesus and the Apostles. Rather, you should serve God because He is God and you are not God. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the bottom line, and I'm disappointed that Alcorn did not make that point. But I guess he could not have sold his book if he had. Oh well. He did complain at length about other theologians who did make that (or some similar) point, and therefore did not spend any more time on the subject of Heaven than the Bible does.
I was disappointed in the number of times where Alcorn's logic simply isn't logical. He draws conclusions from premises that don't imply them (non-sequitur), or argues circularly (begging the question), or sometimes just explains away the plain sense of the Bible text. Fortunately, none of these logical lapses lead him to horribly wrong conclusions. It did bother me a lot that he takes so literally the book of Revelation, which is explicitly a psychedelic dream. Maybe that is valid, maybe not, but I would be reluctant thus to violate the literary genre.
As I read through Part I of this book, I made a list of comments tied to particular pages. I don't think any purpose is served by enumerating them here. By the time I got to Part II, it proved so repetitious that I fast-forwarded to some chapters with interesting titles.
Chapter 26, "Will There Be Space and Time?" answers the question correctly in the affirmative, but badly. Alcorn himself spent three chapters in Part I distinguishing what he calls "present heaven" (a place of waiting, before the final resurrection) from the New Earth, which is the "Heaven" of our future eternal abode. Yet here he tries to argue that there will be such a thing as time in the eternal version, based on Scriptures which clearly refer to the temporary place and not eternity. It's like he completely forgot about "present heaven" when he wrote that section, and is just stuck on the English word "Heaven". I personally am particularly interested in the notion of time, because it's so different from the spatial dimensions. Physicists have a problem with time because of that fundamental difference. If you just think of time as a way of ordering events, all the problems go away. And because Alcorn has already made a sound case for there being events in our future abode, obviously there will be time: the events are not all simultaneous.
Chapter 35, "Will There Be Marriage, Families, and Friendships" is somewhat murkier. Jesus' clear teaching on marriage [Matt.22:30] kind of rubs Alcorn the wrong way, but he cannot (and does not) deny it. As for families and friends, Scripture is pretty silent, and Alcorn is likewise singularly bereft of Scripture references. Nevertheless he infers by analogy from our present situation that they will be there. I prefer to speak where Scripture speaks, and remain silent where Scripture is silent. Every pastor must be able to comfort the bereaved, and they all do it by promising a reunion in Heaven, nevermind that Scripture gives no basis for it. Alcorn is a better pastor than exegete.
Heaven brings together a lot of Scripture about our future abode, plus a bunch more Scripture that is not about it, but only in Alcorn's mind seems to be. It would be a good reference work on a pastor's bookshelf, but I would not recommend it for new Christians struggling to learn what discipleship is all about. Discipleship is about doing God's work here and now, not about contemplating future benefits for ourselves in the sweet bye and bye. Nevertheless, God does seem from time to time to put up with our self-centered and half-hearted service, and Heaven supports that.
2007 May 10