Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Heaven - Randy Alcorn

I would never normally have picked this book up, and that would have been my loss. It's by a chap called Randy, and has a smiling cheesy photo of him on the back. The top paragraph of the blurb is “We all have questions about what Heaven will be like, and after twenty-five years of extensive research, Dr. Randy Alcorn provides the answers.” How cheesy and yet subtly threatening! What sort of research has he done – tracking down nice people and killing then reviving them?

But actually, despite appearances, and despite one or two minor quibbles (of which more later) this is just about the best book I have ever read on the topic. The “extensive research” turns out to be detailed study of all the relevant Bible passages and reading and engaging with just about every book ever published on the topic of heaven.

What I particularly liked about it was the valuable stress on the physicality of heaven and the importance of the Old Earth at its best as at least a vague picture of the New Earth. Alcorn's picture of the afterlife is God-centred, but it has a lot of enjoying God by enjoying his (new) creation, which is something I rarely see in books which try to give a Biblical perspective.

Another thing I liked was the sheer depth of his background reading.

I shall rise from the dead... I shall see the Son of God, the Sun of Glory, and shine myself as that sun shines. I shall be united to the Ancient of Days, to God Himself, who had no morning, never began... No man ever saw God and lived. And yet, I shall not live till I see God; and when I have seen him, I shall never die.
John Donne

I've got a few small quibbles though. Alcorn talks about the Millennium far too much for something that only gets one Bible verse on it (and that contested and in a highly symbolic passage). Maybe that's because he knows loads of people who think it is really important. I don't, but then I don't do loads of stuff with Christians in America. I don't dramatically disagree with him, I just don't see the point of him mentioning it so much, but maybe that's because he's in a different context from me.

About 40% of the book (>200/550) is a section entitled “Question and Answers About Heaven”, which is sometimes weak and gets a bit repetitive. For example:

In heaven, will we be able to do time travel and go back and watch exciting events from the past?
Yeah, that would be pretty cool. I don't see any good reason why not. Hey – if you did that we could go back and watch the Sermon on the Mount or the parting of the Red Sea. That would be great!
And will we able to live in fairytale castles with knights and dragons like in medieval times?
Ooh wow – some people would really like that. I don't know – let's say “yes”, but I'm not going to say where all the peasants would come from.

(not a real quote, but you get the idea.)

Alcorn also sometimes errs a little on the side of literalism for my taste, but at least he admits it. For example, he suggests that the streets in the New Jerusalem will literally be made of gold (p.478). But those are only minor quibbles and actually it is a really good book. The Q&A section does work if it's being used as a reference book, and some of the questions (e.g. on animals in heaven) are handled really well.

He reports one conversation between a young bibliophile and an older wiser Christian. The young man asks “Will we have books in heaven?”, and the older Christian replies “Yes, but only the ones you've lent out or given away.” This is a really good book, and I suspect I will indeed be lending it out! One final quote:

What if the resurrection of the dead is an actual, bodily resurrection? What if the New Earth will be real? What if Heaven will be a tangible, earthly place inhabited by people with bodies, intellect, creativity, and culture-building relational skills? What if a physical Heaven is God's plan and has been all along? What terminology would God have to use to convince us of this? How would it be different to what he has actually used in Scripture? (p.479)