Last fall I interviewed myself upon the release of The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver, and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails. The interview was such a success that I determined I had to have myself back. It took awhile, but I finally managed to secure an interview with myself upon the release of my new book on heaven, What on Earth do we Know about Heaven? (Yes, that’s me reading the book in wonderment in preparation for my interview.) So here it is, my interview with myself on heaven.
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Me: Randal, great to have you back, and on such an auspicious occasion as the release of your new book What on Earth do we Know about Heaven? How exciting!
Myself: Well thanks for having me.
Me: First off, why a book on heaven?
Myself: Ironically, I think I was led to write a book about heaven precisely because of the ambivalence I had toward the doctrine throughout much of my life.
Me: Ambivalence? That is ironic.
Myself: Yeah, when I was growing up I knew I was supposed to be excited about this doctrine. But to be honest, I found the image of heaven rather deflationary. And I’m hardly alone in that. Mark Twain has this great passage where he talks about how Christians tend to think of heaven as a never-ending church service. Given that they can hardly endure an hour of church a week, Twain muses that it is no surprise people can’t get excited about eternity.
Me (laughs): Aren’t you worried that it is impious to admit you’d get bored in a never-ending church service? That could get you hit by a lightning bolt!
Myself: Nah. I don’t think God is in the business of responding punitively to people who are honest about their questions, concerns and doubts. When John the Baptist ended up in prison he expressed doubts about the messiahship of Jesus. Jesus didn’t respond with a rebuke. He responded by pointing to the evidence for his messiahship. Rather than branding concerns about particular conceptions of heaven as impious, I think all we need to do is look at what the Christian doctrine of heaven really is.
Me: Okay, I’ll bite. What is it?
Myself: If you look at the Christian tradition you find two basic approaches to the doctrine of heaven. Since these two views are incompatible, you’ve got to choose one or the other. You might call these two views the other-world view of heaven and the this-world view. The other-world view takes the position that going to heaven means leaving the material world behind. At a popular level this is expressed with images of puffy clouds, halos, harps, and that never-ending church service. At a sophisticated theological level it is expressed with the concept of the Beatific Vision and the cessation of all time and change. Either way, the other-world view demands the sharpest of breaks between the world as we now experience it and heavenly eternity.
Me: I see, and I take it that’s the view you’re rejecting?
Myself: Right. In the book I lay out several reasons why that view should be rejected. The other-world view is driven by a mixture of pop culture, folklore, and sophisticated Greek philosophy. But through it all, it sharply diverges from the biblical, Hebraic view of the afterlife, a view which is unapologetically focused on the fulfillment of this world. The problems with the other-world view start with with its neglect of the doctrine of bodily resurrection. Those who adopt an other-world perspective have tended to emphasize the immortality of the soul in the afterlife instead of the hope of resurrection.
Me: What do you mean?
Myself: Think about a typical Christian funeral. The chances are you will hear the preacher talk about the soul being with God and the person not suffering anymore. But it is much less likely that you’ll hear about the resurrection of the body. And if you do, it certainly won’t be a major theme. The pastor might talk about the person being released from suffering, that they are now in heaven, and that we’ll see them again. But he won’t likely spend much time talking about God one day bringing the deceased person’s body back to life. And yet that was the very center of New Testament hope. Just look at a passage like 1 Corinthians 15. On Paul’s view, the hope of the afterlife is all about the physical body being reconstituted to newness of life like that first fruit of the resurrection, the body of Jesus himself.
Me: I dunno. Jesus’ resurrection body could pass through doors right? So his body sounds non-physical, like a ghost.
Myself: No offense Me, but I think that’s an important misreading. In fact, in Luke 24:39 Jesus appears to his disciples in a post-resurrection appearance, and he invites them to confirm that he really did rise in his physical body. “Touch me and see” he says, “a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” So while it is true that Jesus’ body seems to have some new properties after the resurrection, that didn’t make it non-physical. After all, he ate fish on the beach. That’s no ghost.
Me: Fair enough, the Bible says we get resurrection bodies. But how does that relate to that other-world view of heaven?
Myself: To put it simply, the same principle that has God raising our bodies to greater fullness will, on the this-world view, extend to the raising of creation to fullness. When we talk about heaven as an eternal destination, what we’re really talking about is God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. I communicate this idea in the book with a simple equation: “H=ep”.
Me: You lost me. What’s that supposed to mean?
Myself: It means heaven is earth multiplied by perfection. Just as our resurrection body is our present body brought to perfection, so heaven, properly understood, is earth brought to perfection. On the other-world view earth is a mere waiting room to eternity. But on the this-world view, earth, that is the material creation, is precisely that which God will perfect just like he will perfect our bodies.
When I came to realize that fact, my view of heaven was transformed. Growing up with the other-world view I had always thought of heaven as the negation of all the things I loved best about creation: No more beautiful sunsets or sea breezes; Just souls forever singing hymns in an ethereal other-world. When I realized that heaven really points to God saving the world he so loved, I started to get excited about it. And then I began to see that heaven is an idea relevant to everyone from Anglicans to atheists.
Me: Hold on buddy, how is heaven supposed to be relevant for atheists?
Myself: As I said, the other-world view constitutes a gigantic break with the current state of creation. On the standard other-world view, even time itself stops in eternity. (Of course, there is a contradiction between the activity of singing songs in a timeless reality. But then the other-world view has always been beset with contradictions.) Needless to say, the other-world view tends to make heaven irrelevant for one’s present experience.
But everything changes on the this-world view. For on this view, heaven becomes the hope that this creation will be perfected. And this challenges each of us — and even atheists — to begin to ask ourselves what a perfect world would look like. And that is a very practical question which leads into other practical questions, like how can each of us work to actualize the good society?
In the book I consider a whole range of questions — twenty to be exact — and many of which I’ve never heard asked before. Each of those questions seeks to analyze what is best about this world to the end of considering how this world might one day be redeemed. Even those who don’t accept the doctrine of heaven can benefit from the same exercise of envisioning a perfect world toward which we can all strive.
Me: What kind of topics do you address?
Myself: Let’s start with the resurrection body. We say the resurrection body will be perfect. But what is perfection? Will our bodies all be beautiful? That, of course, challenges us to ask just what beauty is. That’s a really interesting discussion
And here’s another interesting question: will deaf people be in heaven? More correctly, will anybody be deaf in heaven?
Me: Of course not!
Myself: Perhaps that’s right. But as I point out in one chapter, we have to distinguish between deafness (an auditory deficiency), and Deafness with a capital “D”. Deafness is a cultural identity, it’s a community. The auditory deficiency may be the origin of the community, but the community transcends the auditory deficiency. So can there be Deaf communities in heaven? Does healing people of an auditory deficiency threaten to wipe out the accompanying community and all the intrinsic good it possesses?
Me: Hmmm, that sounds quite philosophical. I’m guessing this isn’t just a very practical book.
Myself: I did set out to address questions that haven’t typically been addressed in discussion of heaven. This isn’t simply a devotional book. But I do think these questions are practical too. My own reflection on the relationship between deafness and Deafness within the context of redeemed human community really got me thinking about a theology of disability and the wholeness of persons. And that’s very practical.
Me: What else do you talk about?
Myself: All sorts of things. Will there be dogs in heaven? What about insects? I have a lot of fun discussing that question. I even ask whether there will be video rental stores in heaven.
Me: Are you kiddin’ me?
Myself: I know, it sounds crazy. But it does raise the question of how culture and technology might be redeemed. The appropriate image for heaven two millennia ago may have been chariots rolling on golden streets. But today the equivalent might be a Ferrari. So will the new creation have pristine Ferraris? Why not?
Me: This doesn’t sound very churchy.
Myself: Keep in mind that the central image of heaven in the New Testament is the New Jerusalem. A city is the ultimate emblem of human cultural achievement. A place of commercial production and communal life. And the redemption of the city is the central image of heaven in John’s Revelation. I don’t think we’ve begun to explore the earth-shaking implications of that image.