The Heaven Promise: Engaging the Bible's Truth About Life to Come
Author Scot McKnight answers the ten burning questions that people have about what heaven is like, who gets to go there, and how the experience of eternity compares with life on earth. 1. What about near-death experiences? 2. What about...
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Author Scot McKnight answers the ten burning questions that people have about what heaven is like, who gets to go there, and how the experience of eternity compares with life on earth.
1. What about near-death experiences?
2. What about receiving rewards in heaven?
3. Who will be allowed into heaven, and who will be barred from heaven?
4. Is God fair when it comes to a person's eternal existence?
5. Will family units maintain a family identity in heaven?
6. What about children who die before they have a clear awareness of right and wrong?
7. What about cremation?
8. What about the Catholic teaching of Purgatory?
9. Will beloved pets end up in heaven?
10. Why is it important to believe in heaven (with commentary as well on hell)?
:For far too long, we've talked about heaven as if it were a dream or someplace that only exists in fairytales. We want to believe it's real, but with such an expanse of contradictory information, it's difficult to know what to believe.
To add even more confusion, we are left to sift through the tales of individuals who have crossed over and returned. With so many competing narratives and accounts based on what many think are beyond-death experiences, wouldn't it be nice to have a straight forward examination of what the Bible has to say about heaven?
Best-selling author and New Testament scholar Scot McKnight thought so too, which is why he wrote The Heaven Promise.
McKnight, who has penned more than 50 books, including The Jesus Creed, has had a fascination with heaven since he was a child. As a professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary, McKnight is no stranger to academic engagement and scholarly discourse. However; as an ordained deacon, McKnight is well accustomed with the concerns of the everyday thinker. The Heaven Promise represents the perfect blend of thoughtful research coupled with an easily digestible presentation.
"My hope," McKnight shares, "is that people will be hopeful about heaven."
The Heaven Promise offers an infusion of hope alongside a healthy anticipation of eternity.
After all, heaven isn't just a dream; it's a promise.
Heaven. Eternity. The Afterlife. You mention any of these concepts, and people of all ages and from all walks of life are certain to have opinions. Maybe that's why there are so many books and movies that feature heaven-and-back experiences. But how can we know if those accounts are accurate?
How can we know for sure what heaven will be like?
Well, according to New Testament scholar and popular author Scot McKnight, all we need to do is to turn to Scripture to answer our questions.
Separating fact from fiction, McKnight helps the reader examine the witness of God's Word in order to discover what awaits us on the other side of the grave.
Using the Bible, McKnight answers the most-frequently-asked questions regarding heaven, including:
1. What about Near-Death Experiences?
2. What about Rewards in Heaven?
3. Who Will Be Allowed in Heaven?
4. Is God Fair?
5. Will There Be Families in Heaven?
6. What about Children Who Die?
7. What about Cremation?
8. What about Purgatory?
9. Will There be Pets in Heaven?
10. Why Believe in Heaven?
Heaven isn't the construction of a fairytale or some mythical narrative. It's very real; it's very good; and it's very much the fulfillment of God's promise to us.
Scot McKnight (Ph.D., University of Nottingham) is the Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University. Prior to joining the NPU faculty in 1994, he was a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has written widely on the historical Jesus, Christian spirituality, and the Emerging Church. One of McKnight's more popular books, The Jesus Creed, won the Christianity Today's book award for 2004 in the area of Christian living. McKnight's blog, JesusCreed.org, has been a popular site for Emerging Church discussion.
His other publications include: The Real Mary: Why Evangelical Christians Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus; Praying with the Church: Following Jesus Daily, Hourly, Today; Jesus and His Death: Historiography, the Historical Jesus, and Atonement Theory; Embracing Grace: A Gospel for All of Us; Turning to Jesus: The Sociology of Conversion in the Gospels; The Story of the Christ, with Philip Law; and 1 Peter and Galatians in NIV Application Commentary.
His most recent publications include The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible and James (New International Commentary on the New Testament).
:Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. — The Book of Common Prayer
The Heaven Question
Visit a local bookshop or Google “heaven,” and you will quickly discover that heaven is an intense human-intereststory. In fact, a shelf or two of books about heaven are published each year. Add to these the stories of near-death experiences, and we have the makings of Hollywood movies about heaven.
Many are asking what I call The Heaven Question: Is there a heaven after we die or not? That question, of course, leads to others, such as: Who will be there? Will I be there? What will heaven be like?
But others are asking an entirely different question: Shouldn’t we be focusing on life now and living for the kingdom now and making the kingdom more of a reality now?
That question must be answered with a firm yes, but before we move on, we have to get a stronger grip on what the Bible means by the word heaven. Once we do, not only can we be firm in our yes, but we can also learn how Heaven people ought to live today.
Talk about heaven excites the imagination of many people, some of whom just might surprise you.
Some Children, an Atheist, Authors, a Movie Star, and Questions
Guesses, of course, only guesses. If they are not true, something better will be.— C.S. Lewis
Even in a world where religious faith is in decline, when someone asks, “Is there a heaven?” most people have an answer or at least a guess. Some are astonishingly bold about what they think heaven will be like and who will be there. We often hearresponses that surprise us. Children, for instance, often think about heaven.
When I was a child, I asked my mother if something I liked at that time wouldbe in heaven. Her response was simple and memorable: “If it will make you happy, it will be in heaven.” Little did I know she had something up her sleeve with the word “happy.”
One Sunday, sitting in the front row at church (and for some reason my mother was next to me and not in the choir loft), the pastor, who had taken up golf, said, “I have learned to enjoy golf, but I wonder if there will be room in heaven for golf. ”Afterward I said to Mother, “I know there will be golf in heaven.” She asked, “How do you know that?” I responded, “Because it will make me happy.”
She gave me the kind of look that indicated that the pastor was probably right and that I should retool my sense of what I needed to make me happy.
When that great theologian and Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his twin sister Sabine were children, they nightly put themselves to sleep pondering the word eternity. World War I was in motion; Bonhoeffer’s oldest brother, Walter, died in that war; and his mother was staggered by Walter’s death. Death filled their not particularly religious home. Bonhoeffer later admitted that he could be obsessed with dying a good death. To cope with his fears — and amid the phosphorescent crosses that gleamed in their room — the twins would utter aloud “eternity” to make it their only thought. When Dietrich got his own room at age twelve, lying in his bed he would tap on the wall that separated the twins and the tap meant “think of God.” 1
Not all who talk about heaven are as serious as the young Bonhoeffer twins. When an atheist takes on heaven we might do well to listen. Julian Barnes, in his book A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, lampoons those who think they know about heaven.2 Barnes imagines his own kind of heaven. In this imagined place, he gets to have multiple breakfasts in bed and long, long baths. He does everything on his bucket list: cruises, exploring a jungle, some painting. He falls in love a numberof times with many different women, and he meets every important footballer. But in his guesses, Barnes has noted, after a time there is a strange absence: there is no God in heaven.
So Barnes has a conversation with Margaret, his imagined guide.
“I don’t want to sound ungrateful,” I said cautiously, “but where’s God?”
“God. Do you want God? Is that what you want?”. . . .
“I didn’t think it depended on me in any way.”“
Of course it does.”
Then Barnes provides an alarming, but brutally honest, description of so much speculation about heaven these days.
“Heaven is democratic these days,” she said. Then added, “Or at least, it is if you want it to be.”
“What do you mean, democratic?”
“We don’t impose Heaven on people anymore,” she said. “We listen to their needs. If they want it, they can have it; if not, not. And then of course they get the sort of Heaven they want.”
“And what sort do they want on the whole?”
“Well, they want a continuation of life, that’s what we find. But . . . better. . . .”
“Sex, golf, shopping, dinner, meeting famous people and not feeling bad?” I asked a bit defensively.3
We need this Mark Twain–like lampooning of what we would like heaven to be because it forces us to take a deeper look at what we believe. Is heaven nothing but projections of what we enjoy here and now? The British philosopher, David Hume, once told James Boswell that “he did not wish to be immortal.” Surprised, Boswell pushed for more. Why would he not want immortality? Hume said it was because “he was very well in this state of being, and that the chances were very much against his being so well in another state.” 4
I suspect more people are like Barnes than Hume. People dream of heaven being the fulfillment of our longings and wishes, the healing of our hurts, and the answer to all our questions. We think of heaven as far more than delicious food and outstanding sex, more possessions, reunions with friends and family, more money and pleasure, and more glory.
My friend and author Karen Spears Zacharias has a view of heaven too, and it’s close to mine. So, of course, I think (and hope) she’s right:
It’s hard to visualize Heaven. To be honest, streets of gold and gated communitiesdon’t interest me much. And I only want a mansion if there is a stafflike on Downton Abbey to take care of it.
My idea of heaven would be a home at the end of a dirt road on Mobile Bay. A place surrounded by white roses, a porch for pondering, and birds —redbirds, bluebirds, mockingbirds, and even a visit from [her own] Mama bird, every now and then.5
Lots of people think of heaven as a church service, or at least as Eternal Sundays. My wife, Kris, is an introvert. By Sunday at about noon she has had enough and needs a rest from all those people talking and singing and hugging and asking questions and telling stories and sometimes standing a bit too close. So Karen’s heaven is Kris’s kind of heaven too, though both would gladly toss in some kids and grandkids. Bring on the children and grandchildren, but at the end of a long road, quiet and peaceful. That’s heavenly.
Here’s how Ernest Hemingway described his idea of heaven in a 1925 letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald:
To me heaven would be a big bull ring with me holding two barrera seats and a trout stream outside that no one else was allowed to fish in and two lovely houses in the town; one where I would have my wife and children and be monogamous and love them truly and well and the other where I would havemy nine beautiful mistresses on 9 different floors. . . . Then there would be a fine church like in Pamplona where I could go and be confessed on the way from one house to the other and I would get on my horse and ride out with my son to my bull ranch . . . and toss coins to all my illegitimate children that lived [along] the road.6
At least he’s colorful in his ribald manliness and imagination.
A Movie Star
Not only do we all have theories about what heaven is like, we are not afraid to announce who will be there and who won’t be let in. Most vote against Hitler, and all but the grumps vote in Mother Teresa. The movie star Jane Fonda, who has never hesitated to share her opinions publically, announced her decision on the eternal fate of her ex-husband, mega-millionaire Ted Turner. From CNN:
Fonda said she believes Turner’s childhood traumas left him so protective of himself that he had trouble opening up emotionally. But, she said, he does want to get into heaven. And, she said, he’s a shoo-in.
Finally, with our 23 minutes with Turner ticking down, we’ve gotten his full attention. We let [Ted] in on what Fonda has told CNN about his heavenly prospects:
“Given his childhood,” Fonda said, “he should’ve become a dictator. He should’ve become a not nice person. The miracle is that he became what he is. A man who will go to heaven, and there’ll be a lot of animals up there welcoming him, animals that have been brought back from the edge of extinction because of Ted. He’s turned out to be a good guy. And he says he’s not religious. But he, the whole time I was with him, every speech — and he likes to give speeches — he always ends his speech with ‘God bless.’ And he’ll get into heaven. He’s a miracle.”
Turner listened intently. There was a long pause. Was he tearing up?
Finally, he spoke. “She said that?”
Another long pause. “Well, I sure don’t want to go to hell.” . . .
[Ted] has said he “can’t see myself sitting on a cloud and playing the harp day in and day out.” So what is Ted Turner’s notion of heaven?
“Montana in the summer.” 7
Everyone seems to have a vivid imagination when it comes to heaven.
Questions About The Heaven Question
We ask in this surprising welter of guesses and opinions and hopes: How can we know what heaven will be like? (Read on.) Is heaven an illusion? (No, but sometimes it is.) Is it merely in our brains? (Sometimes.) Is it a grand projection of what we most want for our world? (For some, it is.) Is it a spiritual realm unlike what we experience on earth? (In part.) Can we know who goes there (or who doesn’t)? (Yes.) Is there a way to know about heaven in more detail? (Read on.)8 What about all the near-death experiences people are writing about and some are tempted to fabricate? (Keep reading.)
In what follows I want to sketch the most important ideas about heaven that come from the Bible. Then in the last section we will turn to the top ten questions about heaven. We can’t answer most of the questions until we first get a solid grip on the big ideas about heaven. It is to those ideas that we now turn.