What do you think about Randy Alcorn's book Heaven? Is he right that heaven will be down here on earth?
When I read Alcorn's 2004 bestseller Heaven, I expected to learn. I already knew that we agreed on some key points—for example, that Christian tradition needs to be reevaluated, that there is an intermediate place of the dead, and that the resurrection is physical. And yet the book fell short of expectations.
Alcorn makes several good points, and in interesting and sometimes compelling ways. Yet his methodology is half-baked. He seems to be saying, in effect, "Why not take all the descriptions of heaven and the new earth literally?" Yet if we are going to do so, we must be consistent. We can't ignore the scriptures that militate against our view. Here are some of the difficulties in Alcorn’s book.
Misinterpretation of apocalyptic
- Revelation 5:6—“When Jesus is described as a lamb with seven eyes, it contradicts known facts to take that literally. But would it contradict known facts to believe that on the New Earth there will be a great city with streets of gold and gates made of pearls (Revelation 21:21), and with trees and a river (22:1-2)?” [i] But this approach fails to correctly read the genre of apocalyptic, and encourages speculation. The streets are gold, and the Lamb does have seven eyes—just not literally. Besides, our common sense is not enough to instruct us in interpretation of apocalyptic. Each person has a different feeling about the text, and we get nowhere.
- Revelation 21:2—Alcorn affirms the present heaven is "up there," while the new heaven will be "down here." He admits the new heaven will come down out of the present heaven. Then how can it be heaven if it came from heaven?
- Revelation 21:24—Alcorn states repeatedly that there will be "nations" in heaven. And yet this is highly problematic. Which nations does he have in mind? Nations are constantly evolving, dividing, recombining, etc., much like the biological world itself. What is the definition of a nation? At which time period? The whole idea that there are nations (Gentiles, pagans) at all outside the holy city after the judgment day is an amazing leap.
- Revelation 6:9-11is an image of the martyrs crying out in heaven. (Please refer to discussion in chapter 5.) To extract from this picture the doctrine that dead humans are already in heaven not only contradicts the scriptures (John 3:13; Acts 2:34), but violates the rules of interpretation of metaphorical—and especially apocalyptic—language. That rule is: Understand it figuratively unless forced to do otherwise. If Revelation is meant to tell us about heaven, then there is no satisfying explanation for the presence of Gentile nations or “dogs” (21:24, 22:15). If these need not be interpreted literally, then why should the souls under the altar, either?
- Revelation 2:7—"The tree of life's presence in the New Jerusalem establishes that elements of Eden, as physical as the original, will again be part of the human experience... that Heaven too has physical properties and is capable of containing physical objects" (57). Our author has gone far beyond the clear meaning of the text. Moreover, while there is a sort of physicality to our resurrection bodies and to heaven itself, given the nature of biblical resurrection, this hardly follows from the metaphors of Revelation.
- Isaiah 60:7—In connection with the nations, in his commentary on Isaiah 60 Alcorn admits there is a problem with verse 7. (Animal sacrifices in heaven?) But he dodges the problem passage entirely, offering no explanation.
- Revelation 21:16—Hisliteralistic Heavenly City is a cube 1400 miles in each direction! The vision shows us that, like the "cube" of the Holy of Holies in the temple of the old covenant, once again God will dwell with man, and in a breath-taking and phenomenal way.
- Isaiah 25:6-7—Since Alcorn believes this refers to the new earth, where we will be vegetarians since animals no longer die (13), he writes: "So how could there be meat without animal death? Many people—I'm not one of them—eat meat substitutes and prefer the taste to real meat. How hard would it be for God to create meat substitutes that do qualify as meat in every sense of taste and texture, without coming from dead animals?" (307). What distorted exegetical gymnastics, all to uphold a literalist approach to scripture. Similarly, with regard to Ezekiel 47:9-10, since Alcorn takes the prophecies about animals in the millennium or in the New Earth literally, he finds it difficult to believe that anyone would be permitted to eat fish. "Either this is catch-and-release, purely for sport, or it suggests fish will still be eaten" (307).
- Revelation 20:12—Alcorn insists that these "books" are literal books (324)—as though God could not keep it all in his head?
- Our author suggests that the Second Law of Thermodynamics (the tendency of systems to increase in entropy) came as a result of the Fall of Man (128)! And yet entropy is integral to the existence of the very systems that make life possible in the first place. This is a common creationist argument, recycled even though it has long been discredited. Realizing he's in trouble, he throws us a footnote: "Some people argue that walking, breathing, digestion, and solar heating of the earth all involve the law of entropy. When I speak of that law, however, I mean specifically the parts related to death, decay, and the deterioration of things, especially living beings, as a departure from their ideal created state" (129). But this is a false distinction. In short, in the biological world, death is part of life.
- "Some current earthly phenomena may not occur on the New Earth, including earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and volcanoes” (259). Does he not know that all of these phenomena are necessary for the existence of life on planet earth? He continues, "These may be aberrations due to the Curse. God's Kingdom is described as one 'that cannot be shaken' (Hebrews 12:28)." This passage teaches us there will be no earthquakes in the kingdom of God? But the passage in Hebrews is not talking about earthquakes at all!
- Referring to the original oceans, which Alcorn thinks must have been potable, he writes: "God's originally created seas surely wouldn't have poisoned people if they drank from them. It seems that the Curse resulted in the contamination of the oceans..." (274). This interpretation is wrong not only scientifically, but also biblically. Even before the Curse there was at least one thing in the Garden that could hurt man: the Tree of Knowledge. To assume that God would not create anything that could hurt us is unwarranted.
- Alcorn follows the NIV translation of Luke 16:23, mistakenly rendering Hades (the intermediate place of the dead) as hell.
- The term "intermediate heaven" is misleading, since the Bible nowhere says that anyone is yet in heaven (John 3:13; Acts 2:34 etc).
- Romans 5:12is interpreted to refer to physical death. And yet it seems wiser to understand this as spiritual death. That is, when we sin we die (Ephesians 2:1ff). And in Christ we come to life. Otherwise, consistency would demand that Christians be immortal in this life—be exempt from death!
- "Scripture teaches that we're conceived lost and remain lost until we become saved" (354). In which passage? The poetic Psalm 51:5? The doctrine of original sin was invented in the late fourth century.
- "Since God determined the exact time and places you would live... (357). Alcorn has misread Acts 17:26, relying on the NIV mistranslation (original, though now corrected), which is hyperCalvinist in leaning. Had he consulted other versions, or if he read Greek, he would know that this is not what the text says at all.
- "Christians should be involved in the political process" (223). But if this is so, why did Jesus avoid politics? (See, e.g., John 6:15.) The early church avoided politics altogether. Why is that? Were they disobeying God's word?
- The fourth kingdom of Daniel 2 is taken to refer to the end of the world, not to the kingdom of God established during the days of the Roman Empire, as the text has it.
- The Antichrist is to arise from the Roman kingdom, says our author (229). And yet where in the O.T. is this (explicitly) stated?
- 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 is interpreted to mean that anything our hands have ever made will be redeemed, whereas Paul is clearly speaking about church planting and building. Psalm 90:17 (AV note) suggests that whatever our hands have made—assuming it is good, of course—will be recovered in heaven. Nothing good will ever be truly lost, whether our children's kindergarten fingerpaintings or the works of the great masters. Everything worthwhile will reappear! While the idea has great sentimental appeal, it has nothing in scripture to support it.
- Luke 3:6—Our author also thinks that the term "all flesh" includes animals (398). However, the phrase pasa sarx in the N.T. refers to humans, and is usually a technical term meaning both Jews and Gentiles (Matthew 24:22; Mark 13:20; Romans 3:20; 1 Corinthians 1:29; Galatians 2:16; 1 Peter 1:24). Maybe he is right and we will see ours pets in heaven, but he has hardly proven the idea!
- In speaking of unfulfilled promises (149), Alcorn seems not to know that God has already fulfilled his promises to Abraham in Genesis 12:2-3. The land promise was fulfilled (Joshua 21:43), as was the nation promise (Exodus 19:6; Isaiah 1:4). The spiritual promise has also been fulfilled, through Christ and the true seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:8-9).
- "The Biblical ideal is for every man to own property—a place where he can have dominion and rule under God" (210). This is tied in to his idea that heaven includes real estate on earth. But if this is so, why did Adam and Eve originally serve only as stewards in the Garden? And what about Leviticus 25:23? Perhaps the Lord will give us land or even worlds to govern, as Alcorn claims, but why can't we admit the scriptures simply aren't definitive on the matter?
- Inconsistent literalization. Referring to Revelation 5:6, Alcorn writes (as we have noted previously) “When Jesus is described as a lamb with seven eyes, it contradicts known facts to take that literally. But would it contradict known facts to believe that on the New Earth there will be a great city with streets of gold and gates made of pearls (Revelation 21:21), and with trees and a river (22:1-2)?”[ii] But this approach fails to correctly read the genre of apocalyptic, and encourages speculation. The streets are gold, and the Lamb does have seven eyes—just not literally. Common sense is simply not enough if we are going to correctly interpret apocalyptic. Interpreting it as feels reasonable is one reason why we have so much confusion about the afterlife. Alcorn se seems to be saying, "Why not take all the descriptions of heaven and the new earth literally?" My reply: If we are going to do so, we must be consistent. We can't just ignore the scriptures that militate against our view.
- He takes the image of the souls of martyrs under the altar (6:9) literally, concluding there are already people in heaven. But what about the earthquake of 6:12-13, so forceful that it causes the stars to fall to to earth? The imagery only works with the ancient cosmology—and it works very effectively—but no earthquake could ever knock a star out of its place.
- Isaiah’s new earth has a new temple (Isaiah 44:28, 56:5, 60:7, 64:11, 66:6,20), Revelation’s does not (21:22). These details don’t match, yet the author sweeps the problem aside.[iii]
- He claims there will be “nations” in heaven (21:24). What about 22:15—the dogs? Like the nations, they are outside the holy city. It is clear from context that John the Revelator is referring to people. If one is to take Revelation at face value, then there are unsaved persons outside the Holy City on the New Earth. This poses a serious threat to Alcorn's position, and shows the impossibility of sustaining his literalistic approach.
- The books of Revelation 20:12 are literal books.[iv] What about 20:10 and 20:14? Was the false prophet (idolatrous emperor worship) literally thrown into the lake of fire? (How does that work?) How about death and Hades? What does it mean they were cast into hell, especially considering that Hades held the souls of the righteous (20:13)? Was Hades being punished?
- In a book over 500 pages in length, one would hope for careful scholarship. And yet again and again I found a disregard for context, a lack of literary sensitivity, and inconsistent interpretation of the apocalyptic language of Revelation and other biblical texts. Yet the feature of Heaven that was most noticeable, and disturbing, is its unfettered speculation.
- We have already mentioned his musings on the use of meat substitutes or catch-and-release fishing in the New Earth. He suggests our eyes might function as telescopes and microscopes. He posits that on the New Earth Jesus Christ may appear in multiple bodies simultaneously, in order to have simultaneous fellowship with many people in different parts of heaven. Extinct animals will probably return to life. Jurassic Park, move over! Certainly we will see our pets in heaven, and don’t be surprised if there are talking animals, too (307, 283, 189, 399-400, 400-402, 403-405).
Disregard for Context. Alcorn ignores the religious (Jewish) and historical context context of Isaiah, whose promises were fulfilled in the return from exile. For example, Isaiah 60:7 has animal sacrifices in heaven. Alcorn admits the problem, but doesn’t deal with it. The entire book of Revelation applies most directly to the persecuted church during the time of the Roman Empire. We may extrapolate some of its principles, but we cannot lift passages from their context and then reinterpret them according to our enlightened common sense.
Sentimentality. 1 Corinthians 3:12-15is interpreted to mean that anything our hands have ever made will be redeemed, whereas Paul is clearly speaking about church building. Then Psalm 90:17 (AV note) suggests that whatever our hands have made—assuming it is good, of course—will be recovered in heaven. This passage has nothing to do with Alcorn’s point. Nothing good will ever be truly lost, whether our children's kindergarten fingerpaintings or the works of the great masters. Everything worthwhile will reappear! While the idea has great sentimental appeal—and there are plenty of things I wish I could receive back (documents, toys, pets)—it has nothing in scripture to support it.
Speaking of animals, "Outside are the dogs," says the Apocalypse (22:15). If one is to take Revelation at face value, then there are unsaved persons outside the Holy City on the New Earth. This shows the impossibility of sustaining Alcorn’s literalistic approach to scripture. Although he is right to emphasize that at the resurrection we will have transformed bodies (as 1 Corinthians 15 clearly states), most of what has written about heaven in this book—its location, activities, and its nature—is unpersuasive. The handling of biblical texts is inconsistent, and major problems are glossed over. Interpretive gymnastics and pseudoscience are the result.
I'm sure Heaven has encouraged many people all over the world, and not only the many Christian celebrities who have endorsed it. Yet all told, the errors in this book may well outweigh the truth. As Paul wrote, "Examine everything carefully" (1 Thessalonians 5:21 NAS). When we do so, we are led to reject much of Alcorn's smash bestseller.