Heaven by Randy Alcorn
A Critique by Ted Loy
Back in 1952 J. B. Phillips published a book called Your God Is Too Small. After reading Randy Alcorn's book about heaven, I have come to the conclusion that his concept of both God and heaven is too small. In essence, the emphasis of his entire book is the reduction of heaven to a glorified earth - much like the present one - but without sin, sorrow, death, pain, suffering, sickness, etc. "Earth will be Heaven - and it will truly be Heaven on Earth.", p. 178. (Because he believes heaven and earth are eternally identified, Alcorn capitalizes them both.) Furthermore, heaven is reduced to a 1400-mile cube resting on the earth in which God is forever encapsulated along with all the saints of all the ages. In contrast, Solomon had it right when he prayed dedicating the Temple: "But will God really dwell on earth: the heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain You. How much less this temple I have built.", 1 Kings 8:27. In addition, according to Alcorn, time and space will still exist in heaven, so both God, heaven and all the saints will be eternally restricted to the limitations of both time and space - the restrictions of which we are only too familiar - and which would make eternal existence most confining - to say the least! Indeed, Alcorn's concepts of God and heaven are far too small when we think of the entirety of Scriptural revelation!
It must be said, first of all, that Alcorn and I are on the same team. We are both convinced Evangelicals who subscribe to the authority of Scripture and the plan of salvation contained therein. Where we disagree has to do with his interpretation of the Scripture he cites - mostly Isaiah 60-66 and Revelation 21-22. Many of his rather fanciful ideas of heaven are taken from these passages. He also rather cavalierly circumvents biblical teaching which does not fit his thesis. Alcorn would be better served if he interpreted most of the Scripture he cites as referring to the millennium - rather than to heaven. Indeed, during the millennial reign of Christ his saints do reign with Him and exercise authority over a transformed earth, but there is still sin, sickness and death. That is why most of the passages he cites cannot refer to heaven. (Please see Alcorn's interpretive method.)
Alcorn's characterizations of those who do not hold his view of heaven:
Unfortunately, Alcorn is quite uncharitable regarding those who disagree with him. The main pejorative he is fond of using is one coined by him - Christoplatonist - i.e. one who is half-Christian and half pagan. Not necessarily the most tactful way of describing fellow Christian scholars! He also falls into the unfortunate position of deciding his detractors are heretical - and even diabolical, pp. 10, 153, 261. Alcorn repeatedly asserts his position is biblical -- whereas differing positions of numerous believing biblical scholars living and dead are unscriptural. It is commendable that Alcorn is so enthused about his book, but he makes the rather common error authors may fall into by thinking more highly of his writing than he ought to think. Alcorn would do well to contemplate his eternal existence in heaven with the fellow believing scholars he is berating! He might be a bit more charitable.
A tactic Alcorn uses to ridicule those who disagree with his conclusions is not worthy of a Bible professor in my opinion. He creates a series of strawmen which he then seems to take great pleasure in destroying. For example, he states those who take views of heaven other than his own are convinced heaven is like a boring, never-ending church service - a collection of harp-playing angels sitting on clouds - and an ethereal environment through which disembodied spirits seem to drift along like ghosts. After presenting these caricatures he then triumphantly states no one would want to spend eternity in a place like that! Under which rocks he finds fellow believing scholars who teach this I would like to know! Within Evangelical circles I have always been taught the biblical view which understands we will have real, glorified bodies. Never have I received any teaching about heaven that includes angels floating around on clouds strumming their harps. I have attended theological institutions in various locations and have sat under numerous Bible-teaching pastors. I have been at the bedside of dying believers and have sat with many contemplating death. Not once has anyone ever spoken of heaven as some boring place! (If anyone does speak in such a way, there is lack of understanding as to what an unimaginable experience it will be to actually live in the presence of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords!) On the contrary, in each case, heaven has been highly anticipated as a wonderful place in which we will see the Lord face to face! Alcorn should not be proud of his shameless characterization of fellow believing Bible scholars and teachers who have not come to his conclusions about heaven.
Fallacies in Alcorn's interpretative method:
How does Alcorn arrive at his ideas of heaven? He takes a rather wooden and strictly literal view of Isaiah 60-66 and Revelation 21-22 which he believes in every detail present a description of heaven. If he really wants to interpret these texts in this way, he ends up with a heaven neither he nor I would wish to contemplate! First let's take a look at Isaiah 66:24. Keep in mind, according to Alcorn, this is a description of heaven: "And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind." No amount of semantics can change what this text asserts. According to Alcorn's strict literal interpretation, this verse clearly states there are dead bodies which the inhabitants of heaven will be able to go out and view - the bodies of those who have rebelled against God. This is surely not the biblical heaven we know about in which there is no death or dying.
Alcorn really wants Isaiah 60-66 to describe heaven? He will then have a heaven contaminated with sinful acts. Note Isaiah 60:14: "The sons of your oppressors will come bowing before you; all who despise you will bow down at your feet…." Doesn't Alcorn believe in a sinless heaven? Why then does he include the sins of oppression and despising? His interpretive position regarding Isaiah 60-66 is completely untenable
if he wants it to be literally applicable to heaven.
Let's apply Alcorn's literal interpretation to Revelation 22:14-15. Again, keep in mind he insists this verse is a description of the New Jerusalem/heaven: "Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood." Imagine the city with its gates, and just outside the walls are those who practice all kinds of evil. Textually we have not been transported to someplace other than heaven, but this is the "heaven" which Alcorn wants us to accept which contains evil and evildoers of all kinds.
Take for example his treatment of the "water of life" in Revelation 22:1 and the "tree of life" mentioned in Revelation 22:2 - the leaves of which are for the "healing of the nations." If Alcorn wants to literally believe that we will need the life-giving benefits of this water of life and tree of life in heaven, then he seems to have forgotten how we arrive at heaven in the first place. We have already received eternal life in Christ: this is every believer's passport to heaven. Arriving there will we need any more of His life? This would be absurd! The nations will need the healing leaves of the tree of life? If they haven't been healed by Christ already they won't be in heaven! And if Alcorn wants to insist the healing is physical, then is there sickness in heaven that needs to be healed? That's not the heaven we know about. Either way, his interpretive view when applied to heaven makes no sense at all. (Please see pages 248-250)
Alcorn creates insurmountable problems by insisting on a completely wooden interpretation of both Isaiah 60-66 and Revelation 21-22 if he wants these passages to literally describe heaven in every detail. Does he truly want to have a heaven in which death and evil and sin exist? Does he truly want us to believe the eternal life we have in Christ is not enough, but we will need to drink the water of life and feed on the tree of life when we're in heaven. This is unthinkable!
Conflicts between his view of an eternal earth and Bible teaching:
Other monumental problems are raised with Alcorn's creation of a resurrected eternal earth - much like the one we now experience. He goes out of his way to circumvent clear biblical teaching that this earth will be completely destroyed, and something completely new and different will be created. Alcorn thinks this would completely frustrate the plan of God, p. 137. "Our welfare is inseparable from Earth's welfare. Our destiny is inseparable from Earth's destiny." , p. 104. If earth is not resurrected, then according to Alcorn it is an insult to Christ's redemption and resurrection, p. 466.
Jesus taught, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.", Matthew 24:35; cf. Revelation 21:1. Although the Lord says heaven and earth will pass away, Alcorn doesn't think so. It doesn't fit his thesis. Neither does 2 Peter 3:10-12 conform to Alcorn's ideas -- although "the elements will be destroyed by fire," "everything will be destroyed in this way," "That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat." Since Alcorn has to preserve the earth in some way in order to have his resurrected Earth/Heaven, he finds ways to negate the obvious. However, everything in the universe will be destroyed according to Scripture. In no way is this a defeat of God's purposes. Does He not have a right to destroy what He has made? Is there something so sacrosanct about his old earth that God cannot melt the elements with incredible heat? Only two things are eternal according to the Bible - the Word of God and people. That's why Jesus contrasts his eternal words with a temporary earth.
Or perhaps Alcorn does not remember Psalm 102:25-28: "In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded. But you remain the same, and your years will never end. The children of your servants will live in your presence; their descendants will be established before you." This passage clearly states the universe will perish, but God and his believing servants will remain. In fact, the contrast is plainly made. The idea that somehow there will be a kind of eternal refurbished earth is not to be found.
In Revelation 21:5 Jesus states: "I am making everything new." I would ask Professor Alcorn, is not God able to make everything new? Why does He have to use anything from the old earth to make the new heaven and the new earth? Why can't heaven be something completely new? Alcorn is continually asking the same question throughout his book: why can't God do this or that? I would like to ask the same question.
In his book Alcorn attempts to employ Greek to prove his theory of a refurbished earth which is actually heaven. He thinks the New Testament use of kainos ("new") instead of neos ("new") is the clincher. Actually every time a New Testament writer wanted to express what "new" is, in any sense, the word kainos was used. Neos is not found in the New Testament at all! Actually, kainos is the opposite of palaios, ("old, antiquated or outworn"). When Jesus makes all things new, He will make something qualitatively new and different. Jesus will not be limited to rehash the old earth as Alcorn would have Him do.
Colossians 3:1-4: "Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory." When you take a good look at Alcorn's description of heaven -- which is very much like the earth of today -- it appears he would like us to set our minds on those earthly things because they are the things of his heaven. "The Earth (understand Heaven) spoken of in Scripture is the Earth we know - with dirt, water, rocks, trees, flowers, animals, people, and a variety of natural wonders.", p. 158. He goes on to reiterate throughout his book all of the ways heaven is like this earth - sports, libraries, universities, the arts, all types of occupations, business, traffic, space exploration, all kinds of transportation, neighborhood barbeques, families with growing children, sun, moon and 24-hour days, homes with all the conveniences with which we are familiar - in short, everything we enjoy here on earth (and some things that might not be too enjoyable - like traffic). If I understand Colossians 3:1-4 correctly, setting our minds on things above is not the scenario we find in Alcorn's Heaven - which includes everything we are experiencing already - but more enhanced. Inexplicably it appears that Alcorn does want us to set our minds on earthly things!
"So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.", 2 Corinthians 4:18. This passage is quite similar to Colossians 3:1-4. It makes quite clear what we see around us is temporary - related to time. What we do not see is eternal - related to eternity. The problem with Alcorn's scenario is simply his insistence on the eternal existence of what is seen - everything around us on this old earth which he believes will make up our heavenly environment. This is not, however, the emphasis of 2 Corinthians 4:18. What we see has an end just like time: it is temporal. What we don't see - our heavenly existence - is eternal. This is not everlasting time -- which is really an oxymoron. This is something totally different - eternity! (I will expand on this in the next section.)
Really, Alcorn has painted himself into a corner. What he has created becomes almost ludicrous. Because heaven is so much like the earth we already know - except without sin, sorrow, crying, death, sickness or dying - we end up with eternal Monday Night Football, eternal sewage systems (since we all will have normal bodily functions as we do now), eternal traffic jams in the New Jerusalem, eternal language, race and economic divisions, eternal stock car races, eternal toll booths, eternal calendars of days, months and years (since there are still 24-hour days with sun and moon), eternal jobs and businesses, eternal material inequities because some have more physical rewards than others- and the list goes on. Frankly, I'm not too anxious for a heaven like that!
The end of time and space - contrary to Alcorn:
In one of his rather strong statements, Alcorn states there is "overwhelming biblical revelation" (given his interpretive views) there is time in heaven. There would have to be if we are to accept the assertion that his heaven is much like the earth we know, but there is too much biblical teaching which will not allow time and space to be eternal. There is too much biblical teaching that differentiates between time and eternity. We have already touched regarding the end of this physical universe (space/matter): now we come to the matter of time which will also have an end.
When you think about it, if there is no more universe, then there is also no more time. This is because time only has a reference when the universe is taken into consideration. Days, months and years all relate to the movements of earth either rotating on its axis or revolving around the sun. With no solar system and no universe, time has also ceased to exist - just as it had no existence before creation.
We saw that 2 Corinthians 4:18 contrasts time and eternity. What we see is temporary -- related to time. What we do not see is eternal - related to eternity. Why Alcorn thinks there is "overwhelming biblical revelation" that time will go on eternally in heaven doesn't seem to take 2 Corinthians 4:18 and similar passages into consideration. In fact, this idea doesn't even make sense when one considers the complete difference between time and eternity. His "overwhelming" does not then seem to be so "overwhelming."
Actually, the Bible makes the case for a total difference between time and eternity. For example, Ephesians 1:4 states: "For He chose us in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight." Before time - before anything - God in eternity chose us in Him! If you want to stretch your mind, this thought will do it! Eternity always is, always was and always will be. Time is only for a moment. If we can imagine, time is like a grain of sand surrounded by an endless ocean of eternity. For Alcorn to eternally confine God and his saints in heaven to the limitations of time is not what God had in mind at all! In fact, such a thing is not even possible since there is nothing temporal in heaven. He created us for eternity! The limits of time are for earth. The limitless freedom of eternity is for heaven.
Scripture is replete with passages such as 2 Peter 1:11: "… and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." His kingdom is eternal - not limited by time in any way. It is not possible that time can exist in the eternal heavenly kingdom of our Lord.
Shades of the apocryphal:
New Testament apocryphal writers felt they were left with lots of lacunae regarding the life of Jesus. What was his boyhood like? How did he look? As a result they wrote apocryphal books to fill in the blanks in order to satisfy their curiosity - and the curiosity of others. Alcorn has done something similar regarding heaven. We know Jesus taught there is no marriage (although Alcorn has created a heaven with individual families living in their individual houses). We know Revelation states there will be no sun or moon (although Alcorn indicates we will have 24-hour days with the existence of a sun and moon, night and day). In other words, we know some things about heaven, but there is a lot we would like to know. Randy Alcorn has gladly filled in the blanks for us.
Contrary to Alcorn, the Apostle Paul taught there is still much we don't know about heaven: "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.", 1 Corinthians 13:12. Although Paul by the Holy Spirit has taught us our knowledge of heaven is partial at best, Alcorn wants us to know every last detail and has filled his book with those very details. Frankly, I'll stick with the Apostle Paul who teaches us to wait until our eternal existence with God when we will know fully - just as we are fully known.
I believe what we will know then will be more wonderful than anything we can imagine.
If Alcorn believes this is being "super-spiritual," then he will have to live with that.
I suppose what has concerned me the most about Randy Alcorn's book, Heaven, is his unkind treatment of those who do not agree with him - and the caricatures he uses to describe them. He needs to keep in mind he is speaking about fellow believers who have the same love for the Lord Jesus, who have experienced the same salvation through the Cross, and who have the same hope of eternal life in Christ. Paul instructed Timothy regarding the attitude of the Lord's servant toward those outside the faith as recorded in 2 Timothy 2:25: "Those who oppose him he must gently instruct…." If that is the attitude of the Lord's servant to those outside the faith, how much more should that be the attitude of the Lord's servant to those within the household of faith! Frankly, I did not sense that kind of gentle instruction on the part of Alcorn in his book. He is inexcusably harsh with his fellow Bible-believing scholars and teachers who have not come to share his views on heaven. This is harmful to the Body of Christ.
His book can do no lasting harm for those who have their faith firmly fixed on the substitutionary atonement of our Lord Jesus and are certain of their eternal life with Him.
Many are buying the book and reading it, and sales have been excellent. Unfortunately, many have accepted everything uncritically in the book without searching the Scriptures to see if what he teaches is really true to the text.
Most troubling to me is even the mention that his fellow believers (not convinced by his book) believe heaven will be some kind of boring place. Frankly, I am offended by that.
Alcorn reads the same Bible I do. To insinuate boredom with heaven when we will eternally be in the presence of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords is not acceptable to me. Nothing could be more exciting than eternal life with the God described by Paul: "In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which God will bring about in his own time - God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen.", 1 Timothy 6:13-16.
Yes, Alcorn's concept of both God and heaven are far too small in his "limiting edition" called Heaven. As we have seen, biblical truth is much bigger! King Solomon had it right: "But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!, (1 Kings 8:27).