Synopsis of Scot McKnight's 'The Heaven promise'

Scot McKnight,The Heaven promise: Engaging the Bible’s truth about life to come (London: Hodder Faith, 2015).

Of the book’s 25 chapters, the two in Part 1 are introductory, and the thirteen in Parts 2 and 3 are a review of what the Bible has to say about life after death, and are the exegetical heart of the book. The ten chapters in Part 4 answer a miscellany of questions that people ask about heaven.

MacKnight uses numerous anecdotes, many clearly biographical, to illustrate his vision, but they are of course impossible to summarise. For these, dear reader, you will have to go to the book itself.

Part 1The heaven question, is two introductory chapters. Chapter oneSurprising places, describes people’s longings for heaven and their imaginings of what it will be like. 

Ch 2Imaginations of the imaginative, points out that most of us, Christians included, have little idea about heaven, because the Bible tells us little about it. In the West our ideas are sometimes influenced by works of literature (The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, Pilgrim’s Progress) or by books about near-death experiences. McKnight suggests that there are two Christian ways of approaching heaven: theocentric (unending praise of God) and kingdom-centric (the new heavens and new earth where people will live according to the pattern God intended). But a lot of imagination goes into our ideas, and the proper place to test them is the Bible.

Part 2The heaven promise, expounds three thoughts: that God has promised Heaven; that Jesus’ resurrected body is the template for our resurrected bodies; and that the term heaven has two senses, which McK writes ‘heaven’ and ‘Heaven’ (i.e. lower- and upper-case initials).

Ch 3Heaven, it’s a promise, explores God’s seemingly ridiculous promise to the ageing Abram that he would father a great nation, and shows that because this promise has been fulfilled, we can trust God’s many other promises (more than 8000, according to Herbert Lockyer’s All the promises of the Bible) including the one about heaven. McK lists 15 places in the New Testament where heaven is promised,[1]  then points to the assertions that this place will be the ‘new heavens and new earth’.[2] 

McK prefaces Ch 4The heart of the promise, by talking about the awfulness of grief, which is a fog not to be belittled. But out of the fog emerges Jesus, whose resurrection is the sole basis of the Christian hope. McK summarises the evidence for the resurrection, and asks what heaven will be like if we take it seriously. He offers answers in Ch 5, The Christian belief; We will have bodies like the body of Jesus. The subtitle says it all. Jesus’ resurrection body was the first body made for heaven. We not only have an immortal soul: we will each have a body like Jesus’.

People have long been curious about the location of heaven, and Ch 6Heaven: in heaven or on earth? sketches a history of their ideas. One safe starting statement is that ‘Heaven is the place where God dwells, Since God is over and above all, any suggestion that God is up above or out there is just a way of speaking of God’s glorious rule over all. If God is everywhere, then maybe heaven is everywhere God is—which is pretty close to saying everywhere.’ But at this point, clarification of the term heaven becomes necessary, and McK cites Tom Wright’s[3]  and Randy Alcorn’s[4]  assertions that the term covers two referents. Our first destination is the (temporary) present ‘heaven’, which is present now, undisclosed to our mortal eyes, and will give way to the ‘Heaven’ of God’s final kingdom, ‘the new heavens and the new earth’. The location of Heaven is unknown: some think that it will be in the Middle East because Revelation speaks of the ‘new Jerusalem’, but McK finds this over-literal in light of the word _new._

In Ch 7, Facing death standing in the empty tomb, McK returns to the theme of Ch 4. He comments that many of us would like to script our own deaths, but the one thing we can do is to ‘stand in the empty tomb’, relying on the promise of the resurrection. He mentions people who have clearly done this, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose last recorded words were, ‘This is the end—for me the beginning of life’.

Part 3 is entitled God’s six promises about heaven, and McK lists these, among other things to discourage our imaginations from running too far ahead. Each gets a chapter’s discussion (chs 8-13), followed by two further, rather challenging, chapters (chs 14–15). 

  • 8. God will be God
  • 9. Jesus will be Jesus
  • 10. Heaven will be the Utopia of pleasures
  • 11. Heaven will be eternal life
  • 12. Heaven will be an eternal global fellowship
  • 13. Heaven will be an eternal beloved community

In Ch 8, McK says ‘God shapes Heaven for those who delight in him so much they want to dwell in his presence and gaze upon his ever-expanding beauty all eternity long.’ No mortal human being has ever seen the face of God, because in this life we cannot survive its glorious brilliance.[5]  St. John of the Cross (1542–1591) wrote of God’s presence as the “living flame of love.”[6]  David longed to see the face of God, but didn’t.[7]  Paul promises that we will: “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.”[8]  In Heaven God will be ‘all in all’.[9]  McK suggests this means that God is the Alpha and the Omega; he will be the source of all light;[10]  he will make all things new; and he will make good on the promise that “I will be their God and they will be my children”.[11]  Heaven, the new heavens and the new earth, ‘will magnify into glory what we see in the heavens and the earth now. Which is to say: creation itself will experience God’s full salvation to become the creation it was designed to become.’

McK begins Ch 9, ‘if you keep looking at the God of Heaven, you’ll notice that the images morph. On the throne in Heaven is God. On the throne in Heaven is the Lamb. On the throne in Heaven is the Lion of the tribe of Judah [Rev 5:5–6]. Heaven is designed for people who love Jesus and long to be with him forever and ever.’ Paul’s assertion that
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. . . ( Colossians 1:15–17)
—must have been utterly shocking to first-century Jews. McK ends the chapter, ‘Without taking away one speck of glitter of God’s glory, the Lamb becomes central to everything in Heaven. The God of Heaven is seen most clearly in the Lamb and the Lamb is a reflection of the God of Heaven. Heaven is all about God and the Lamb.’

Ch 10 begins ‘God wired us in such a way that . . . “deep joy,” motivates our every move.’ Even at our least selfish, we yearn to be happy. Saint Augustine wrote, “It is the decided opinion of all who use their brains that all men desire to be happy.”[12]  As C. S. Lewis said, “I [would] say that every pleasure (even the lowest) is a likeness to, even, in its restricted mode, a foretaste of the end for [which] we exist, the fruition [enjoyment] of God.”[13]  Again from C. S. Lewis, words that McK enjoins us to read twice: “God not only understands but shares … the desire for complete and ecstatic happiness.” Our desire comes from God’s deep joy, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”[14] 

Ch 11 concerns eternal life, but McK begins with a reminder that this is not just personal salvation. Genesis 3 tells us that we have failed to be his image-bearers on this earth, but this is what we shall be in Heaven, participating in the created order as God designed it to be, with beauty, justice and no more death.

Heaven will, unlike today’s big cities, be a place of fellowship, a place of relationships and banquets, Ch 12 says. 'There will be no more guilt at eating when others go hungry, because everyone will have a place at the table. Heaven can’t get going until evil is done away with, until sin is erased, and until all injustices are locked into history’s past,’ writes McK at the opening of Ch 13. Heaven will be a fully just society and ’we will all see that God designed Heaven to be a space where everyone will be flooded with love for God and love for one another.’ Both the theocentric and the kingdom-centric visions will be fully realised.
Whereas the chapters so far have perhaps been imaginatively challenging (they have for me!), the two chapters that end Part 3 are personally challenging. 

Ch 14 confronts the reader with the fact that, if Heaven is to be as McK has been describing it, it is a place where personal dislikes, enmities and prejudices must disappear in the fire of God’s love. It requires that we be fully reconciled with God and with our fellow human beings—and this requires our repentance. McK projects this as an event that will be completed in ‘The first hour in Heaven’ (the chapter’s title). He doesn’t know how this will happen, but insists that it will happen, or Heaven won’t be Heaven. This challenges us to review out lives now, undergoing the uncomfortable process of recognising sin, enmity and prejudice, rooting it out by repentance. In Heaven we will know and comprehend our lives completely, with all hurts healed.

Finally, Ch 15 asks, How should Heaven people live today? Some suggest that those who spend their lives thinking of a far-off Heaven will not engage with the world around them, but McK quotes C.S. Lewis: “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.”[15]  We need to live now in the light of Heaven, and should be zealous for bringing the qualities of Heaven into this world. We are called to trust the promises of God now, to imagine how the world could be if Heaven came to earth. In a meditation on Psalm 119, Bonhoeffer wrote:
The earth that feeds me has a right to my work and my strength. … I may not evade my destiny to be a guest and stranger [on earth] … by dreaming away my earthly life with thoughts about heaven.[16] 
Heaven people still plant and build. Heaven people begin to make things right, now, as God’s image-bearers, and they forgive. Heaven people participate in fellowship with one another. But the way of the Lamb is not just worshipping God: it is a costly life.

Part 4Ten questions about Heaven, seeks to answer questions people often ask.

Ch 16 asks What about near-death experiences? McK concludes that near-death experiences are generally not experiences of Heaven. They have been recorded all over the world and throughout history, and people report experiences that are related to their own cultural expectations, not to Heaven as McK understands it. He concedes that these experiences may be glimpses of afterlife (MR: I’m not sure what he means by this), and that there are perhaps specific cases where God has granted a faithful Christian an experience of Heaven.

In Ch 17 McK asks What about rewards in Heaven? and responds with the parable of the day labourers who were all given the same recompense at the end of the day, regardless of when they had started work (Matthew 20:1–16), i.e. grace prevails over reward. He discusses the various mentions of heavenly ‘crowns’[17]  and concludes that these are intended to motivate us to the life described in Ch 15: they do not trump grace. He concludes:
Here is the point: all saints will be full of joy and you can’t be fuller than full. God’s generosity will overwhelm any sense of correlation between what we have done on earth and any reward in Heaven. Perhaps the most important line in the Bible about reward is found in the book of Revelation where it says the saints will “lay their crowns before the throne.”fn4 If there are crowns, they will leave no trace on the heads of the ones who have handed them back to God.
It’s all grace.
The topic of Ch 18 is Who will be in Heaven? Most conventional answers
end up focusing on what we have to do to get into Heaven. Everyone seems to have a slightly different answer, and it can be extraordinarily confusing … until we get focused on Jesus!’
The New Testament answer is simple: Jesus. He is the one who ascended into heaven. And who else? He promised his followers that he would prepare a place for them (John 14:2–3).
McK briefly addresses the thought that Christians who say there is only one way to Heaven are bigots, and counters that if anyone is a bigot, it is Jesus, [18]  who said, ‘“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ (John 14:6) ‘Heaven’, says McK, ‘is for Jesus and his people.’

Ch 19 follows right on from here by asking Is God fair?, a question asked by those who know lovely people who are ostensibly not Christians. How could God allow suffering—and lots of it—then send the sufferers to hell? How could millions of people of other faiths be consigned to hell? McK thinks these are fair questions and gives a respectful answer (that some will find controversial). He reasserts the perfect and eternal goodness of God, the God of love, of mercy, of justice, of holiness, who loves all human beings equally. This God has chosen to redeem human beings ‘in and through a single Person, his Son Jesus,’ whom he raised from the dead and accepted into the throne room of Heaven. Crucially, McK writes, to fulfil these presuppositions, God ‘gives to each person a full and fair opportunity to know God and to respond to God’s love in Christ. I cannot see how God can be good and loving and not make it possible for each person to respond to his love.’ How God does this is a matter of speculation, and one that the Bible does not allow us to know with any confidence.

In Ch 20, McK discusses the question Will there be families [in Heaven]? at some length but does not reach an explicit conclusion. He thinks it is wrong to read Jesus’ questioning by the Sadducees (Mark 12:18–27) as answering this question: the Sadducees try to trick Jesus into making an offensive statement, and he avoids it by saying that no marriages will be contracted in Heaven. Rather, McK thinks that earthly relationships will continue in refined and renewed form.

Ch 21 is entitled What about children who die? McK’s response follows from his characterisation of God in Ch 19. He concludes, ‘So when someone asks me where an infant or a child is after a premature death, I answer with this: “In the hands of our good God.” I am confident in the God who promises Heaven.’

At the conclusion of Ch 22, ‘What About Cremation?, McK responds, ‘What matters is the resurrection of Jesus and our participation in his resurrection. As Billy Graham once said, “The body is annihilated just as completely in the grave as it is in cremation. … Cremation is therefore no hindrance to the resurrection.”[19] 

The question of Ch 23What about purgatory? is one that in the past has divided the church. McK asks whether ‘the first hour in heaven’ (Ch 14) will be a kind of purgatory. The alleged biblical basis for a doctrine of purgation is found in 1 Corinthians 3:11–15:
For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light.It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.
But Paul does not say that people are to work off their sins. To believe this is to diminish both God’s grace and what Jesus has accomplished on the cross.

In answer to the question of Ch 24Will there be pets in Heaven?, McK reminds us that Heaven is to be a renewed creation. As there are animals in this creation, we can expect them in the renewed creation.

Ch 25Why believe in Heaven? is not an answer to questions that people ask, like Chs 16 to 24, but rather a summing up of the book or, as the subtitle says, ‘A personal statement of belief’. So why believe in Heaven? McK’s foundational reasons are: because Jesus and the apostles did, because Jesus was raised from the dead, and because the Bible talks about Heaven.



Footnotes


  • [^1]   Luke 12:32; John 11:25; 14:1–3; Luke 23:43; 1 Thessalonians 4:16; 1 Corinthians 6:14; 15:54; 2 Corinthians 4:14; 5:1, 8; Ephesians 1:18; 1 Timothy 4:8; Hebrews 12:28; 1 Peter 1:3–4; Revelation 22:3–4.
  • [^2]   Isaiah 65:17, 22; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1.
  • [^3]   N. T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 96–97. MR: Also Surprised by hope. (London: SPCK, 2007).
  • [^4]   Heaven (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 2004), 42.
  • [^5]   See Genesis 32:30; Exodus 3:6; 33:11, 20, 23; 34:35; Isaiah 6; Ezekiel 1; Matthew 1:23; 17:1–9; John 1:14, 18; Revelation 1:12–18; 22:4.
  • [^6]   … Oh llama de amor viva, in Poems of St John of the Cross, trans. Roy Campbell (Glasgow: Collins, Fount Paperbacks, 1979), 29. McK's source: Kieran Kavanaugh, ed., John of the Cross: Selected Writings,The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 285.
  • [^7]   Psalm 27:4.
  • [^8]   "For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face."
  • [^9]   1 Cor 15:28.
  • [^10]   Revelation 21:23.
  • [^11]   Revelation 21:6–7.
  • [^12]   St. Augustine, City of God, Book X, Ch 1.
  • [^13]   The collected letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol. 2 (HarperCollins, 2004), 463. Also quoted in Stewart Goetz, The Purpose of Life: A Theistic Perspective (London/New York: Continuum, 2012), 11–12.
  • [^14]   C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity , Book III, Ch 10 (London: Fontana, 1955; first published 1952), 118. Also quoted in Stewart Goetz, The Purpose of Life: A Theistic Perspective (London/New York: Continuum, 2012), 12.
  • [^15]   C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity , Book III, Ch 10 (London: Fontana, 1955; first published 1952), 116.
  • [^16]   Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "Meditation on Psalm 119," Theological Education Underground: 1937-1940, ed. Dirk Schulz and Victoria J. Barnett, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 15 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012), 522.
  • [^17]   James 1:12 (see also Revelation 2:10; 3:11); 1 Thessalonians 2:19; 1 Corinthians 9:25–27; 2 Timothy 4:8; 1 Peter 5:2–4.
  • [^18]   McK is quoting Peter Kreeft, Everything you always wanted to know about Heaven, But never dreamed of asking! (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 243.
  • [^19]   Billy Graham, in a nationally syndicated newspaper column, 23 October 1976; quoted in Alister E. McGrath, A Brief History of Heaven, Blackwells Brief Histories of Religion (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), 37.
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