Heaven. By Randy Alcorn. Wheaton , IL : Tyndale House Publishers, 2004. 516 pp. Cloth, $22.99.
The book’s 476 pages are distributed over 46 chapters and two appendices. The depth of Alcorn’s study is attested in 363 footnotes, a thirteen page subject index, and a helpful six page scripture index. A lengthy bibliography with 140 references shows the breadth of his research, but numerous helpful works have been omitted. The material is arranged into three parts; the first is devoted to a theology of heaven; the second is arranged as a series of questions and answers (“What will the resurrected earth be like?” “What will our lives be like?” etc.); and the third is a short homily of sorts about “Living in Light of Heaven.” Two appendices, “Christoplatonism’s False Assumptions” and “Literal and Figurative Interpretation” complete the work.
The book’s tone is reminiscent of a chat between friends or of a Sunday school lesson. It is replete with illustrations, stories and anecdotes which by themselves make the book worth the cover price!
The title sets the stage for the intentional equivocation of important biblical terms. The reader soon discovers that the book is not about heaven, it is about the kingdom of God on earth. “The truth is, in our seminaries, churches, and families, we have given amazingly little attention to the place where we will live forever with Christ and his people—the New Earth, in the new universe. This eternal Heaven is the central subject of this book” (p. xv). These two sentences suggest that heaven and the New Earth are identical, and that both refer to our eschatological destiny. This equivocation of terms is carried throughout the book, and therein lays the problem.
He understands that the kingdom of God , not the heavenly realm, is our ultimate destiny. He displays his understanding of this distinction when he writes: “The answer to the question, Will we live in Heaven forever? depends on what we mean by Heaven. Will we be with the Lord forever? Absolutely. Will we always be with him in exactly the same place that Heaven is now? No. In the intermediate Heaven, we’ll be in Christ’s presence, and we’ll be joyful, but we’ll be looking forward to our bodily resurrection and permanent relocation to the New Earth” (p. 42).
The author is aware of the difficulty posed by his equivocation and attempts to deal with the issue by arbitrarily restricting the term heaven to one of its several fields of meaning: “Some would argue that the New Earth shouldn’t be called Heaven. But it seems clear to me that if God’s special dwelling place is by definition Heaven, and we’re told that the ‘dwelling of God’ will be with mankind on Earth, then Heaven and the New Earth will essentially be the same place” (p. 45).
Throughout the book one finds provocative arguments in favor of a New Earth that is in many ways similar to this Earth. “If we can’t imagine our present Earth without rivers, mountains, trees, and flowers, then why would we try to imagine the New Earth without these features? We wouldn’t expect a non-Earth to have mountains and rivers. But God doesn’t promise us a non-Earth. He promises us a New Earth. If the word Earth in this phrase means anything, it means that we can expect to find earthly things there—including atmosphere, mountains, water, trees, people, houses—even cities, buildings and streets. (These familiar features are specifically mentioned in Revelation 21-22)” (p. 79).
Free Grace adherents will be happy to note that the author recognizes that our rule in the kingdom of God will be a reward for meritorious service in this life. “All of us will have some responsibility in which we serve God. Scripture teaches that our service for him now on Earth will be evaluated to help determine how we’ll serve him on the New Earth. The humble servant will be put in charge of much, whereas the one who lords it over others in the present world will have power taken away… If we serve faithfully on the present Earth, God will give us permanent management positions on the New Earth” (p. 212).
A major flaw with this book is its bewildering presentation of the gospel. Free Grace adherents will be troubled by Alcorn’s explanation of what is required for eschatological salvation. Proverbs 28:13 “He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy,” is cited as proof that “if we want to be forgiven, we must recognize and repent of our sins” (p. 34). Later he writes, “Do not merely assume that you are a Christian and are going to Heaven. Make the conscious decision to accept Christ’s sacrificial death on your behalf. When you choose to accept Christ and surrender control of your life to him, you can be certain that your name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life” (p. 36).
He is right to admonish the readers that they not simply assume their eternal destiny, but he confuses them by indicating that only those who “surrender control of [their lives]” can be sure that their names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.
He finishes his presentation of the gospel with a question to the reader: “Have you confessed your sins? asked Christ to forgive you? placed your faith in Christ’s death and resurrection on your behalf? asked Jesus to be your Lord and empower you to follow him?” (p. 36). It is an inescapable conclusion that Alcorn has conflated discipleship with eschatological salvation and has obscured the Gospel in the process.
In summary it seems fair to say that Alcorn’s presentation of the gospel is laced with misquoted texts, peppered with unbiblical qualifications, and fails to convey the simple message of “salvation by faith alone in Jesus alone.” Free Grace adherents who recommend this book will need to issue a strong caveat.
In spite of the equivocation of important terms and the flawed gospel, there is much to commend this book for pastoral purposes, if it is read carefully and critically. It helps us visualize life in the kingdom of God as a space-mass-time universe in which the conditions established during the Creation are restored. Our eternal destiny is not disconnected from our present experience, but is an eternal enjoyment of a future world that is imperfectly reflected in this present one.
The detailed Scripture and Subject indices make the volume useful for sermon preparation, enabling one to quickly locate wonderful illustrations for preaching and teaching purposes. Part II is a compendium of questions often encountered in pulpit and counseling ministry; the answers may prove valuable if used with discernment.
In conclusion, the book’s confused gospel, equivocation of important biblical terms, and numerous instances of inaccurate exegesis—none of which have been touched on in this review—make this book unsuitable for a general audience. Although there is value in the book, it must be read with great care. It will prove a useful addition to your personal library but you should exercise great caution when recommending it for the general Christian audience. It does not belong in the hands of the undiscerning.
L. E. Brown
Pastor of Assimilation and Adult Discipleship
The Heights Church
Prescott , Arizona