When I wrote a book on heaven I expected that my atheist readers would be skeptical. Given that atheists believe there is no god and typically believe there is no life after death, it is no surprise that they will be dubious about truth claims pertaining to an afterlife. But Christians are a different story. So when David Marshall responded to my heavenly interview with myself with skepticism, I took notice. In the comment thread he wrote:
“Bold of you, Randal and twin, but I think I’ll just die and find out what it is really like. I have this sneaking suspicion that everyone is totally wrong about everything . . . something like what that fellow Paul said, “Eye has not seen, nor has ear heard, nor has entered into the mind of man.”
I take it that David is engaging in some hyperbole here. After all, many Christians affirm logical contradictories about heaven (i.e. p vs. not-p). For example, some folks affirm that the afterlife will be temporal while others deny that it will be temporal. Since these two assertions exhaust the logical options, only one of these persons can be wrong about the afterlife. (Even worse, if David is right in stating that nobody has anything right about the afterlife then he must be wrong about this.)
In my reply to David I wrote:
“My seminary students also quote “My ways are higher than your ways” as a proof-text against theological reflection. But the fact is that scripture says quite a lot both about the doctrine of God and the final state of a redeemed creation, so each is a legitimate field of enquiry. Of course we ought to qualify our opinions and recognize the provisional nature of enquiry, but that is quite different from the kind of strong agnosticism you seem to be advocating.”
Let me expand on my response a bit by returning to the point I made about logical contradictories. As I noted, some folks believe the afterlife will be temporal while others think it will be atemporal (“When the roll is called up yonder and time shall be no more…”). David’s skeptical position suggests that Christians have no rational basis to take a principled stance on this question. But that strikes me as quite wrong. All the images of the afterlife in scripture — and there are many — depict scenes of temporal duration. Consequently, the default position surely ought to be that heaven will be temporal. And that means that unless an atemporalist can provide a very powerful argument to the contrary, we ought to believe that heaven includes temporal duration.
Next, consider a point I noted at the end of my interview. The final image of heaven in scripture is the image of a city. The city is the ultimate emblem of human cultural achievement, for it is the place where we live and work and build community. In other words, it is the ultimate image of human culture. Consequently, scripture supports the idea that human culture is redeemed. Once we agree on that point we can consider the many aspects of culture that might be redeemed.
Third, scripture provides a very important glimpse into the nature of heaven with that which Paul refers to as the first fruits of resurrection, the raised body of Jesus Christ. So we can look at scriptural depictions of the resurrection body of Christ to gain some understanding for the nature of our resurrection bodies.
Finally, the doctrine of resurrection provides an important lynchpin for thinking more generally about heaven. The doctrine of resurrection proposes that the very same body that dies will be raised again. I argue that we ought to understand the phrase “new heaven and new earth” similarly as a means to refer to the resurrection of the heavens and earth that God created in the beginning. Once we appreciate the strength of the claim that God will redeem his creation, we can see that we have an enormous amount of information on the final state. From here we can reflect on various aspects of a redeemed and perfected creation.
At the end of his life, Thomas Aquinas had a mystical experience after which he wrote: “Everything that I have written seems like straw to me compared to those things that I have seen and have been revealed to me.” Fair enough. There’s nothing like a direct knowledge of acquaintance to put propositional argument into perspective.
But that doesn’t mean that Aquinas’ theology is without merit and that we can’t learn anything about God from reading it. Rather, it simply means we need to keep the limitations of theological discourse in perspective. Of course the same goes for heaven. I agree with David Marshall that all the books that have ever been written on heaven will be like straw compared to that reality yet to be revealed. However, the fact that we currently lack that immediate knowledge of acquaintance doesn’t mean there is nothing to be learned from careful theological reflection on heaven. A travel guide may not exhaust one’s knowledge of a foreign country, but it can sure help when you’re preparing for the big move.