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.