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heaven promiseThere's no shortage of books about heaven right now. Which is odd, considering the steady secularization of American society.

Books about heaven show that the “spiritual itch” in our culture hasn’t gone away. Like grass that peeks above the cracks in the pavement and shoots up toward the sun, readers gobbling up books on heaven may be a sign that the secular pavement is cracking, and the dandelions of spirituality are finding their way upward. Simply put, we want to believe that this world is not the end, that something awaits us on the other side, and that heaven is as real as earth.

Unfortunately, not all heaven books are created equal. Many of the titles focus more on experience and speculation, and too little on the biblical text.

Not so with Scot McKnight's most recent book. The Heaven Promise builds on historic Christian teaching about heaven in a way that synthesizes competing visions of the afterlife. Heaven is ultimately about God’s people living on God’s new earth under the loving rule of the crucified and risen Savior.

Heaven in the Culture, Heaven in the Bible

Scot doesn't start with the Bible, but with the culture. In other words, he starts with common longings for heaven and common ideas about what heaven may be like. He finds points of connection, takes us to the biblical text, and then shows how heaven is even better than these cultural perspectives.

There isn't much innovation in this book on heaven, and nor should there be. It's more accessible than N. T. Wright's book on the new earth - Surprised by Hope, and it's less encyclopedic than Randy Alcorn's bestselling work. Following Alcorn's lead, Scot uses the same term "heaven" or "Heaven" to refer to the temporary heaven after death (when we are disembodied) or the permanent new heavens and new earth we will one day inherit (after the final resurrection).

Strengths of McKnight’s Heaven

I most appreciated the way Scot synthesized different aspects of Christian reflection on heaven. We do not have to choose between the "theocentric" vision of heaven (largely focused on worship and gazing upon God) and the "kingdom-centric" view of heaven (the world being transformed so we can live on a new earth as God always intended). Scot doesn't pit these visions against each other but calls for a biblical balance.

"The Bible shapes our imaginations with bundles of images and metaphors and visions about heaven. God made us to love God and to love others. Heaven will be our living both of these callings perfectly."

Also helpful is Scot's connection of heaven to Jesus' resurrection. He starts with Jesus and consistently traces the outline of what resurrection must mean by returning to Christ.

Along the way Scot deals with issues related to grief, how heaven gives us hope, and how Christian belief in the resurrection differs from other religious views of the afterlife. Even though we are now in a second decade of renewed evangelical emphasis on the importance of the resurrection, many evangelical churchgoers still think of heaven only in its temporary sense and do not see any need for, or even the desire to see heaven linked to our resurrected bodies. (For this reason, I disagree with Scot's neutrality regarding cremation, which he sees as signifying our 'returning to ash.' The rise of cremation among Christians is more likely due to the fact we've lost the resurrection-centered hope signified by burial.)

The section where Scot lays out six promises of heaven is the strongest part of the book. You can't read this part without getting excited about what God has promised. It is beautiful, biblical, and soul stirring to see what God has in store for us.

What's more, Scot helps us see heaven as a community, not simply a place where the individual soul basks in the glory of God. We will be embodied again, in perfect fellowship with God and the community of people who love Him.

Speculation From Scot

The end of the book tackles common questions about heaven, and some of Scot's speculative insights are more helpful than others. On near-death experiences, he exercises wisdom and caution. On rewards, he tries to harmonize Bible passages that promise "crowns" with other passages that speak of heaven as being totally satisfying for all. He firmly rejects purgatory, sees no problem with the idea of pets being in heaven (since the whole world will be made new), and assures parents who lose young children of their heavenly hope.

On determining who will be in heaven, Scot's answer is Jesus-focused: "The answer is Jesus and those who are in him." Instead of focusing primarily on "who's in" and "who's out," Scot works to the answer from the other angle, painting a vision of heaven that is so Jesus-centered that it wouldn't even be fitting to consider anyone outside of Christ as belonging to this new world.

There is one chapter where Scot's answers lead to more questions. In discussing the fate of the unevangelized, Scot points to the character of God and then concludes,

"This good God of love, to be good and to be loving of all people equally, gives to each person a full and fair opportunity to know God and to respond to God's love in Christ."

Here, I sense Western notions of fairness as "equal opportunity" being thrust onto the biblical narrative. To say everyone gets a full and fair opportunity to respond to the gospel doesn't resolve the notion of fairness. What about the person who hears the gospel three times instead of just once? Or the person who grows up in a Christian family vs. someone in an unreached people group? To speculate that in some mysterious way, God will give everyone "a full and fair opportunity" leads to more questions, not fewer, and opens the door for a postmortem evangelistic speculation. These questions, which seem foreign to the biblical narrative, signal to me that Scot's definition of fairness, not the Bible's, is the basis for speculation.

The most provocative chapter deals with the question of families existing in heaven. I confess I hadn't given much thought to the question of our existence in familial roles in the new heavens and new earth, even if there are no new marriages. Here, Scot warns against reading more into Jesus' comment about "being like angels" than Jesus Himself meant. I'm still chewing on this section of Scot's work.


Overall, The Heaven Promise made me long to see Jesus. Scot draws on the culture for connections into our Western views of heaven; he draws on Scripture to correct and refocus our cultural perspectives; he draws on people throughout church history to reframe and recalibrate our Christian hope. Read The Heaven Promise and you'll long for heaven, too.

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9 thoughts on “Heaven Isn’t Heaven Unless It’s Focused on Jesus”

  1. David Taylor says:

    Thanks for the review, seems to be a worthy book to pick up; I have Alcorn’s book but have not taken the time to wade through the tome (or maybe tomb!). As a pastor, it seems to me that the decision to cremate oneself has more to do with being cost effective than having anything to do with a loss of our resurrection hope! Often with cremation, one is still buried, even if it is not a formal burial at a cemetery. It would be an interesting discussion!

  2. Doug says:

    Trevin, I agree with your comment, “The rise of cremation among Christians is more likely due to the fact we’ve lost the resurrection-centered hope signified by burial.”

    A while back I attended a Christian friend’s funeral whose body was cremated. While his funeral was explicitly “Christian,” and had many speakers, I was shocked to hear not one person even mention resurrection. There was much talk about heaven. They said that following the funeral, his ashes would be taken to the coast and “tossed to the wind.”

    1. Walt says:

      I don’t get too worked up over the cremation/burial issue. I’m pretty sure that the God who created the universe out of nothing will be able to fashion imperishable bodies for his children when the time comes.

  3. Doug says:

    Walt, no doubt. What’s concerning is the underlying belief—or lack of it—displayed by how we deal with our dead bodies. I live in Virginia with an abundance of old cemeteries. A drastic change in belief over time is evidenced just by reading the messages on tombstones. The older ones state explicitly an anticipation in resurrection hope. This message of hope is missing from newer ones.

    1. Walt says:

      Fair point, Doug.

      In any event, this book seems worth reading.

    2. Just want to back Doug up a bit (while not getting too worked up over the cremation/burial thing).

      When I was in seminary we had a mandatory tour of a funeral home. The director, a faithful Christian, had been in the business for decades. He said that his observation was that cremation was rising sharply in popularity as our culture (central Canada) was getting less churched and more secular. That was just his anecdotal observations but it ought to give us pause.

  4. George S says:

    Sounds like a interesting book I’ll have to pick up. Some of the thoughts were interesting like having pets in heaven (the new earth). I’ve always thought the same thing, why not? God can recreate your favorite pet. But, I also understand that we know in part and see in part now, but then we’ll know fully. And we may find that we don’t have any desire to recreate our pets then, since God will be more than sufficient, and we’ll also have plenty of loving family of God members around.

    Regarding cremation, that unfortunately is a pagan custom that has infiltrated into our culture. Yes, God can “recreate” the cremated body. However, it’s not really about that. It’s about honoring and respecting God creation, created in His image, and waiting for the hope of resurrection. There is no good mention of cremation in the bible. All righteous people like Abraham, Sarah, David, and Jesus were buried either in the ground or in a tomb. On the contrary, people like Acahn and his family were stoned for sinning and their bodies burned. Fire is usually associated with judgement in the Bible. So, if at all possible, a mature Christian should not allow themselves to be cremated and urge and teach their fellow Christians to not be cremated. Understandably, there may be exceptions, or it may be out of your control. But IMHO, its not generally a desirable thing for Christians.

    1. George S says:

      Regarding “fairness” in terms of salvation, we all know that the Bible says that everyone is without excuse. “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Romans 1:20) and “the requirements of the law are written on their hearts” (Romans 2:15).

      Everyone has a conscience, and God given desire to know Him. And those who diligently seek Him find him. Whether they are in Mongolia, or deepest Africa.

      Not to be too Calvinistic on this, but God does know who will be saved, and who has a heart that desires to know Him. It’s not too much to think that God will send someone to them to preach the Gospel. Even if God has to teleport someone in like Phillip to do it. We haven’t heard it done since NT times, but who’s to say it hasn’t happened since? I think we will be surprised to see people who we think never heard the Gospel be in Heaven, because they did seek God, and God in His mercy sent someone to preach the Gospel. And for people who lived prior to the Gospel, well if God revealed Himself to Abraham and others, why could not God reveal Himself to others who also sought Him? The Bible doesn’t contain ALL history and all the acts of God on the earth. Just the ones He felt were important for us to know about.

  5. Susanna says:

    For me, cremation has nothing to do with believing in the resurrection or not, and everything to do with cost-effectiveness and environmental friendliness. If our soul is gone, and we all agree God will be able to resurrect our bodies no matter what happens to them, what possible difference could it make?

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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