Further Thoughts on Heaven: The Limits of Imagination

Our church sends out a monthly newsletter, which usually includes articles from other pastors and theologians which our pastor has read recently and wants to share with the congregation.  This month’s issue came today, and included a review of Randy Alcorn’s Heaven, which I have been wanting to read for awhile.  As I scanned the review, I found that most of it was disapproving.

Some of Migotsky’s points I agreed with (as much as I could, having not read the book yet), but I felt a few of his arguments were harsh or jumped to conclusions about what Randy Alcorn actually believes versus things he is merely speculating about.  Naturally, I will have to read Heaven for myself before I can decide whether I agree with Migotsky on some of his critiques, but one of his main beefs with the book is that Alcorn speculated too much about heaven, applying his imagination liberally on matters where the Bible did not have anything to say.

“Extreme speculations”

Apparently, Alcorn remarks at one point that he could “easily envision us living on other planets” (page 263) in the New Heavens and New Earth.  Pastor Migotsky refers to this as an “extreme speculation”, a phrase which is followed up with another example quote from the book (page 264): “God has built into us the longing to see the wonders of his far-flung creation.  The popularity of science-fiction reflects that longing.”

I then wondered why on earth this little aside about planets and science-fiction was in a section entitled “Dangers of the Book”, sandwiched between two paragraphs about sinful desires!  Is it supposed to be an example of sinful wishful thinking?

Perhaps Pastor Migotsky has reservations about imagination and science-fiction/fantasy in general.  I don’t know.  But my point here is, I don’t believe this is dangerous.  Alcorn didn’t say, “I believe we will live on other planets in the New Heavens and New Earth” – he simply said he could “easily envision” it.  Honestly, I can’t “easily” envision this, and personally I find the idea slightly unnecessary (although I admit its coolness).  The thought might be a little silly, especially to the non-geeky among us, but in what way is it “dangerous”?  In the worst-case scenario, a Christian sincerely believes this to be true…and then gets to heaven and finds out, oops, it’s not!  And then they’ll go on to be blissfully happy with their Lord and fellow Christians for all eternity.  The end.

The one case where I can see this being dangerous is if Alcorn is (unintentionally) encouraging Christians to focus on what they want in heaven, what they think would be cool in the afterlife, etc., instead of looking forward to heaven as first and foremost a glorious eternity with God our Savior, focused primarily on Him.  Based on other quotes the review brought up regarding the book’s strengths, I don’t believe Alcorn intends this attitude in his readers.  But I can see where someone might be led astray that way by reading this book.  I suppose that is the “danger” the reviewer is talking about, although it was vaguely stated.

Now that I’ve been defensive about imagination…

Migotsky brought up some questions at the end of his article which I think are good for us speculatively-minded Christians to think about.  One of them was this:

What limits should there be on the use of the imagination in thinking about heaven and the eternal life in heaven?

We lovers of science-fiction and fantasy tend to be defensive about the gift of imagination and what we can do with it.  This may lead us to speculate too far, too fast, too hard, and let our imaginations run away with us.  We need to remember that there are times when imagination is uncalled for, and could be unwise.  Speculation about heaven and eternity does have its limits!

Here are a few I’ve thought of, off the top of my head.  When we speculate about heaven, we need to be mindful that…

  1. “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).  It’s all very well to wonder if there will be dinosaurs in heaven, or if you will see your beloved dog again, or whether we will travel to other planets.  But we don’t know anything.  We can’t even imagine!  When we get to heaven, most likely all our wildest dreams will crumble around our ears – and we’ll be perfectly happy about it, because what God has planned will be infinitely more amazing than anything our mortal human minds can think.  We can have fun speculating about what life will be like in paradise, but it is unwise and even silly to put too much stock in our own imaginings when it comes to what we believe about heaven.
  2. “To the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever” (Jude 1:25).  And, “The world is passing away along with its desires…” (1 John 2:17).  In the Christian-speculative-fiction world, most of us soundly reject the idea of paradise as a purely spiritual, ethereal place, but we also tend to do a lot of speculating about the *things* that might be there.  Will there be pets?  Will there be space travel?  Will I still write stories?  Will there be books, movies, plays?  Will we have personal possessions?  These things might or might not be the case (and some are more likely than others…), but rather than be overly concentrated on the stuff and experiences that might be in in heaven, our expectations ought to be dominated first and foremost by the joyful anticipation of spending eternity with our Redeemer King.  Heaven is not about us, our hopes, our dreams, our desires, or our hopes for adventures we can never have in this world.  It’s about Jesus Christ!
  3. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).  The only things we can be sure about heaven are things the Bible tells us.  I don’t believe this precludes speculation about stuff the Bible doesn’t mention (such as whether there’ll be books, writing, etc.), but it does caution us to search the Scriptures diligently.  I have heard Christians declare that they don’t know how, but our sexual desires will be satisfied in heaven, because God gave us those desires, they are not bad in and of themselves, and of course He’s not going to leave our needs unsatisfied!  Well…certainly, we will be perfectly satisfied in heaven, with no needs left unfilled.  But surely He can remove a need from us entirely?  Scripture is clear that sex outside of marriage is sinful, and it is also clear (Luke 20:35) that there will not be marriage after the resurrection.  To claim there will be some kind of sexual fulfillment in heaven is to blatantly ignore what the Bible teaches.  Just because we may desire something while living on this earth does not mean that God will fill that desire in paradise.  Our greatest desire is (or should be) God Himself, and He has given us eternity with Him.  Won’t He alone be enough to fill our deepest needs and longings?  God’s Word always trumps speculation.  Always.

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and marvelous for me.  But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.  O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore. – Psalm 131

In my mind’s eye…

Personally, I don’t speculate about heaven in much detail, mainly because I know it’s a fruitless endeavor.  I will see it when God takes me there, and until then it is a delightful, tantalizing mystery (and I’m glad, because I like surprises!).  But I think all of us have some kind of picture in our mind’s eye when we imagine entering paradise.  I’ll admit what I see…

I picture a pearly palace inspired by Roman architecture, with stately pillars surrounding an open courtyard within.  Anything around it is obscured by golden mist – and yes, I am pretty sure heaven won’t be floating in clouds, but I think most of us see something like that because it’s a deep-running cultural presumption.  Christ meets me at the entrance, but I really can’t imagine what that will be like because I don’t know what He looks like yet.  I heard someone say once that they were going to race into His arms like a small child into the arms of a father, but seriously, I think I’m more likely to collapse at His holy piercéd feet and choke on my own awe…  Anyways…  After He’s scraped me off the golden steps lifted me to my feet and greeted me, Jesus ushers me into the room beyond, where throngs of joyful believers are dining at long, wooden tables.  There is rich food, glittering light, beautiful white clothing, and the room rings with happy laughter.  My gaze catches on the closest table.  There, I see one of my dearest loved ones; I think I imagine her specifically because when I first pictured the scene, she was going through a very long rough time of her life.  A wreath of flowers is perched on her head, and she is laughing and shining with joy – gloriously happy, all traces of earthly sorrows washed away.  I then realize that there are other beloved friends and family members there, too, and they call for me to join them at the table…

That’s all.  It’s simple, but it sort of expresses the joy of my hopes and expectations.  It is more inspired by the phrase “wedding feast of the Lamb” than what I think all eternity will be like – because, again, I don’t think it’s possible to imagine that, fun as it might be to try.  (Random aside: I once had a dream where a bunch of friends and I had died and were waiting for heaven at a bus stop, where there were water slides and coloring books.  Hahaha.  And believe it or not, I wasn’t six years old.  This was relatively recent.  😀  I’m pretty sure the afterlife won’t be like that, either!)

Can you think of other limitations on imagination, either in regards to heaven/eternity or other things?  And how about you? – when you hear the word “heaven” or imagine the New Heavens and New Earth, what do you see in your mind’s eye?

Leave a comment

4 Comments

  1. Greytawnyowl

     /  May 17, 2012

    I’ve read the book a couple times; I enjoyed it and agree with much of what he has to say.

    Alcorn’s point of the book seems to be that most Christians really have not thought enough about heaven, possibly because they are afraid to speculate or they think “they couldn’t understand what it would be like,” and he wants to encourage them to.

    Alcorn does not encourage undue speculation; he tries to take an educated look about what aspects of life in heaven could be, grounded in Scripture. He encourages readers to judge his conclusions against Scripture.

    The particular bit about planets and science fiction–I’m thinking there’s fault on the reviewer’s end. The Bible states quite clearly the possibilities for us possessing a planet of our own. “The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end…I will give him the morning star.” (Revelation 2: 28, ESV) Well, the morning star is Venus. To be given a planet and not be able to explore it/reach it/etc., would pretty much be (to us science fiction lovers, especially!) the equivalent of giving a child an especially wonderful toy, but setting it up on a bookshelf so he couldn’t play with it. Hardly the representation of God! “The one who conquers” (in some versions, “the overcomer” or “the one who oversomes” seems, pretty clearly, to mean Christians.

    When we get to heaven, most likely all our wildest dreams will crumble around our ears – and we’ll be perfectly happy about it, because what God has planned will be infinitely more amazing than anything our mortal human minds can think.

    Exactly. I tend to overthink events before they happen, but once they do, it’s almost always better than I imagined it. I think that heaven should be thought about, but it’s possible to overthink–in which case, we’ll laugh at our speculations while enjoying something infinitely better. Without some imagination of a goal, it becomes a bit pointless.

    As for your third point, Alcorn, for one, argues that sexual desires would possibly be satisfied, but in a different way.
    “I do know that sex was designed by God, and I don’t expect him to discard it without replacing it with something better.” (Heaven, p. 352)
    “But what we WILL desire–and always enjoy–is the relational intimacy that was the best part of sex. We may discover, as we look back, that sex prefigured what it means to be lost in intimacy with Christ. Once we’re married to him, we’ll be at the destination that marital sex pointed to as a signpost.” (Heaven, p. 353)
    “We’ll participate in what sex was always pointing to–deep and engaging relational intimacy.” (Heaven, p. 353)

    Basically, Alcorn assumes that good, God-given desires have no reason to change. If things have stayed the same from the creation of humanity, why should they be different in heaven? It will be much more like Earth, but a new, reborn Earth that has been restored to God and freed of the Curse.

    What I’ve imagined most, I think, is the people–meeting people I’ve only known through history; meeting those who died before I ever got to meet them, like my grandmother; ordinary people who stories are no less amazing.

    Sounds like a Great Divorce (C.S. Lewis) influenced dream to me! 😀

    Reply
    • Yes, I think the reviewer took a lot of Alcorn’s speculations and thought Alcorn was actually suggesting such-and-such might be true, when in reality he was only saying, “Hey, this could be possible,” not arguing that it is true based on Scripture.

      I don’t believe that God will give us planets of our own. That sounds uncomfortably like Mormon doctrine to me (they believe that all good believers will become “little gods” and have worlds of their own after death). I think it possible we might be able to see and explore other planets easily and enjoyably in paradise, but I don’t think that God will give them to us like possessions, except in the sense that we are being given Creation alongside Christ, to have dominion over. Also, “The Morning Star” could be referring allegorically to Christ Himself. I don’t know, though, not being a Biblical scholar of the original languages and such. 🙂

      “We’ll participate in what sex was always pointing to – deep and engaging relational intimacy.” I agree! Sexual intimacy points in a mysterious way toward the union between Christ and His church. It’s supposed to be a physical example to help us understand something very non-physical and beyond our (current) understanding. I think the Christians who say sexual desire will be filled in heaven in a physical way are misunderstanding that it’s symbolic and will no longer be needed as the symbol it currently is. The need will certainly be satisfied and filled, but not in the same way it is now.

      Yes, meeting people from all history will be amazing! One of the things that delights me is realizing that we will have ALL ETERNITY to get to know people. We could be good friends with EVERYBODY in the entire WORLD, eventually, because we could spend as much time as we wanted with everyone! It blows my mind.

      Reply
      • Greytawnyowl

         /  May 23, 2012

        I understand what you mean, however, I think it makes more sense taken literally. It is one is a series of “You will be given…” and all the others seem quite real (eat freely from the Tree of Life, eat manna, white stone with a secret name, etc.) in the first few chapters of Revelation. Of course, it is addressing certain churches. However, in this instance, it seems to be speaking to all Christians as well.

        As to possess them…Well, there’s only one precedent for planets, really, and that’s the Earth. We were given the Earth, to steward and take care of. I don’t see a problem, really, in assuming that we will continue to steward the Earth in heaven, much like Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden. It doesn’t seem much of a stretch for us to be given other planets, either. Not in the sense that we’ll be “gods” of them, but in the sense that it is ours and we will steward it. It will be OURS, but we won’t OWN it, if that makes sense. It would be the same sense that the Earth is ours, but we did not create it and are not it’s ultimate God/owner. Sort of like a rental home.

        Basically, I don’t see a problem with us having planets as “ours” as we would really still be watching over God’s creation. In heaven, I think we would be even more aware of that as well.

        Right. I think I may have misunderstood, because in my mind when I’m talking about sexual desire being fulfilled in heaven, I mean that the need will be satisfied in a different way.

        Yes! And not just everybody in the world, but everyone who has ever LIVED! 😀

        I highly recommend the book, by the way. He explains things quite sell, and it makes for fairly easy reading despite the subject and the length. I don’t agree with every detail, but I love that Alcorn wrote the book, as some such thing was most likely sorely needed.

        Reply
  2. Bethany, you’ve done a very fine job in examining issues surrounding Alcorn’s book (no, I haven’t read it either), the positions of some detractors, and how we should approach the place of imagination as we await the glorious future: Heaven, the Millennium, the New Heavens and New Earth.

    What I do as far as imagining Heaven is to try to grasp what the Bible declares or portrays. Examples: the living creatures surrounding God’s throne (Revelation), the seraphim worshipping Him in the Temple (Isaiah), and the cherubim supporting God’s throne when He forsook the Temple for a time (Ezekiel). Our imaginations can read or hear and grasp these truths in part, but visualize them more poorly. However, often when I see an eagle in a photo or film, I remember that there is a creature worshipping the Lord in Heaven, who has the face of an eagle, and I seem to see something of this glorious thing. (Strangely, things that are partially hidden, which we could NOT ‘visualize’, are somehow easier to: for example, the seraphim who cover their faces and feet as they fly, repeating, “Holy! Holy! Holy!”)

    I very much appreciate Greytawnyowl’s comments also!

    The bottom line is to renew our minds according to His Word, enjoy the many things He HAS revealed as definite, and thank Him for all that will be. But you both understand that!

    Reply

I love to hear your thoughts!