Rick Shrader‘s Review:
I finally got around to reading this 2004 book on heaven by Randy Alcorn. I have an invested interest in heaven (and more so as the years go by) and I am interested in good material that gives me good information. I find Alcorn’s work both good and frustrating. It is good in the basic view of a literal heaven (and hell) and in its answers to many common questions about what heaven will be like. It is frustrating in many of its interpretations of eschatological passages. The book is 492 pages of text including 2 appendixes, footnoting, bibliography, Scriptural references, and subject indexes.
Many good things. Alcorn’s main view of heaven is that heaven is future, literal, everlasting, and only approachable through salvation in Christ. He believes in taking the Bible literally and works hard at distinguishing obvious figures of speech from the truth they represent (e.g., Christ is the door). He sees all human beings as sinners whose “default destination” is a literal and eternal hell without personal salvation in Jesus Christ. He addresses issues that people often question such as, will we know each other in heaven, will heaven be boring, will there be animals in heaven, will space and time exist in heaven, will we eat and drink in heaven, and other incidental subjects about heaven.
Alcorn’s (questionable) major proposition. Alcorn’s major thrust in the book is that the “new heaven and earth” will be the old heaven and earth resurrected and updated without sin or decay. If this is true, then everything we know and enjoy now will exist in its current literal form and will be like Eden only better. He says, “As we have seen in a number of passages that use the words such as renewal and regeneration, the same Earth destined for destruction is also destined for restoration” (p. 152). Also, “Because ‘new heaven’ (singular) is used here, [Rev. 21:1-2] some think it’s God’s dwelling place that passes away and is renewed. But the present Heaven is described as unshakable in ways the physical universe isn’t (Hebrews 12:26-28). The ‘new heaven’ in Revelation 21:1 apparently refers to exactly the same atmospheric and celestial heavens as ‘heavens’ does in Genesis 1:1. It also corresponds to the ‘new heaven(s)’ of Isaiah 65:17, Isaiah 66:22, and 2 Peter 3:13. In Revelation 21:2, we see God’s dwelling place isn’t replaced but relocated when the New Jerusalem is brought down to the New Earth” (p. 261). Alcorn argues from the word “new.” “The Greek word kainos, translated ‘new,’ indicates that the earth God creates won’t merely be new as opposed to old, but new in quality and superior in character” (p. 155).
This view isn’t unusual because many futurist interpreters have differed over the meaning of the expressions “new heaven” and “new earth” which appear only in Isaiah 65:17, 66:22, 2 Peter 3:13, and Revelation 21:1. Alcorn, however, insists that any other view is “Christoplatonism” (his own term for non-literal interpretation, a term he also applies to the liberal view of believing that nothing after this life can contain anything literal or bodily). Actually, many good premillennialists believe that the new heaven and new earth will be completely re-created either from the current material or totally out of nothing as was the first creation (e.g., Pentecost, McClain, Vine, Kelly, McCune), making the new heaven and earth different or perhaps totally different from the current one.
One’s conclusion must deal with the biblical terms that describe what happens to the current heaven and earth: “And the former shall not be remembered or come to mind” (Isa. 65:17); “In which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. Therefore since all these things will be dissolved . . . because of which the heavens will be dissolved being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat?” (2 Peter 3:10-12); “And they will perish, but You remain; and they will all grow old like a garment; like a cloak You will fold them up, and they will be changed” (Heb 1:11); “Yet once more I shake not only the earth, but also heaven. Now this ‘yet once more,’ indicates the removal of those things that are being shaken” (Heb 12:26-27); “Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. And there was found no place for them” (Rev 20:11); “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (Rev 21:1).
Alcorn refers to Grudem who (on pages 1160-1161 of his Systematic Theology) shows that Lutheran and Reformed writers differ at this point although he, Grudem, takes the Reformed position which is similar to Alcorn’s. Alcorn also quotes many Reformed writers, especially Anthony Hoekema, many times throughout the book. Hoekema’s amillennialism adopts Hendriksen’s “progressvie parallelism” view of the book of Revelation (see The Meaning of the Millennium: four views, p. 156, 176). This view allows Revelation 20 (the millennium) and 21-22 (heaven) to be the same time.
Other supporting arguments. Once Alcorn feels he has established his position of the “new earth” being an updated version of the current earth, he proceeds throughout the book to use a few other types of arguments. He sees the new earth as a new Eden. “Eden was the forerunner of the New Earth” (p. 340). “The New Earth is the New Eden” (p. 392). This transitions into another argument he calls “continuity.” “Animals were important in Eden; therefore, unless there’s revelation to the contrary, the principle of continuity suggests that they’ll be important on the New Earth” (p. 388). “Because there will be continuity from the old Earth to the new, it’s possible we’ll continue some of the work we started on the old Earth” (p. 412). Too many times Alcorn uses expressions such as, “just imagine,” or “why not.” On a single page (399), in discussing whether animals and pets will exist on the New Earth (which he definitely believes they will—perhaps even your pets) he uses the expressions, “I see every reason to think,” “no persuasive argument against it,” “I think we should fully expect,” “it seems likely that,” “why shouldn’t all people have the opportunity to enjoy these great wonders.” Though Alcorn has a whole appendix on literal interpretation, which is very good in principle, these statements read too much into the text.
The most important disagreement. If the above arguments were all the problems I had with this book, I would count them as a few minor disagreements. But the most serious problem I have with Alcorn’s application of Scripture is his use of millennial passages to describe the eternal Earth. In this way he can quote passages that speak about universal peace, the lion lying down with the lamb, the earth bringing forth its abundance, etc., and apply these directly to his view of a renewed and updated New Earth. Although Alcorn speaks of the millennium several times (on about 10 pages by my count), he does not commit to a specific millennial view. On pages 144-146 he reviews the three major views of the millennium clearly associating premillennialism with dispensationalism. Toward the end of the section he says, “I personally believe there will be a literal thousand-year reign of Christ on the present Earth (though I’m not dogmatic on this point), but I also understand and respect the strong interpretive arguments that have been made in support of amillennialism” (p. 146). A page later he writes, “Throughout church history, some Bible students have believed that the thousand-year kingdom spoken of in Revelation 20 is literal. Others believe it is figurative. I cannot resolve that debate” (p. 147). It is my opinion (as a reviewer) that Alcorn’s view of the future is much closer to amillennialism than to premillennialism. On page 438 he gives a chart (one of only a few in the book) of three times in the life of the believer: life on earth, intermediate heaven, life on new earth. It also shows death after life on earth and then shows resurrection immediately into life on the new earth (heaven). The chart shows no millennium and neither does the explanation on pages 438 to 441.
The bulk of my disagreement with Alcorn’s view of the New Earth is that he often refers to passages about the kingdom of God (which I take to be almost always millennial) and applies them directly to the New Heaven and the New Earth. But this is basic amillennial eschatology. Picture in your mind an amillennial timeline. If life goes on until Jesus returns, what happens next? Not a thousand-year kingdom on earth. The only thing after resurrection, according to amillennialism, is eternity. So, if Alcorn sees passages that refer to the kingdom of God as future (as a premillennialist would) but interprets these kingdom of God passages as referring to eternity, that ends up being amillennialism. He has a couple caveats such as, “It may be that these passages will have a partial and initial fulfillment in a literal millennium, explaining why the passages contain a few allusions to death, which is incompatible with the New Earth. But in context, these prophesies go far beyond a temporary kingdom on an Earth that is still infected by sin, curse, and death, and that ends with judgment and destruction” (p. 148).
I marked the page numbers for dozens upon dozens of millennial passages that are interpreted as heaven. Some of the more notable in the Old Testament are: Isa. Chapters 11, 35, 52-53; Ezek. 34:26-27; 36:35; 47:12; Zech. 14:9; Dan. 12:3, 13; Jer. 31:4-5. In the New Testament: the sermon on the mount in Matt and Lk; Mt 13:24-30, 43; 25:34; Lk 1:22; 8:11; 19:17; Acts 1:6-8; 3:21; Eph 1:10; 1 Cor 15:22-25; Rom 8:21-23. These references (and many more) with page numbers are listed in the Scripture Index. The most striking, however, was the explanation of Daniel 7 and the fifth kingdom of Daniel’s prophecy being heaven, not the millennial kingdom. This was done in at least three sections, pages 215, 228, and 230. He writes, “Some theologians reduce Daniel 7 to a promise that God’s saints will reign with Christ during the Millennium. But the text couldn’t be clearer—it says ‘for ever and ever,’ not a thousand years. Many other passages also affirm an earthly reign that will last forever (e.g., Joshua 14:9; 2 Samuel 7:16; Isaiah 34:17; 60:21; Jeremiah 17:25; Micah 4:7; Revelation 22:5). The angel Gabriel told Mary that Christ ‘will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end’ (Luke 1:33). Regardless of whether one believes in a literal millennium, passages such as the ones cited here shouldn’t be understood as millennial references” (p. 229-230). Alcorn finishes this section with another reference to Daniel’s fifth kingdom, “Daniel 7:18 explicitly reveals that ‘the saints of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it forever.’ What is ‘the kingdom’? Earth. . . It’s on the New Earth, the capital planet of the universe, that he will establish an eternal kingdom” (p. 230).
This misunderstanding of how the kingdom of God can be both a thousand years in its initial stage, and also last forever in its eternal stage, though attempted, is never resolved in this book. This becomes especially clear when the author deals with Isa. 65 and 66 where Isaiah explains the millennial kingdom in many graphic details but also refers to the new heavens and new earth, 65:17 and 66:22 (Again, Alcorn takes Hoekema’s and Hendriksen’s view of progressive parallelism). In answer to this I could quote Pentecost’s Things to Come, p. 561, W.E. Vine’s commentary on Isaiah, p. 215, or William Kelly’s commentary on page 387. But let me quote Alva J. McClain in his Greatness of the Kingdom, “The prophets sometimes saw future events not only together but in expanding their description of these events, they seem occasionally to reverse the time sequence in their record of the vision. An example of this may be seen in Isaiah 65:17-25, which opens with a divine announcement: ‘For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth.’ Then follows a remarkable picture of millennial bliss which clearly is on earth. Children are born, men plant and build, long life is restored, and the race is in large measure delivered from the ordinary hazards of human life. Yet both sin and death are still possibilities, even in this glorious age. Now over in the New Testament, the Apostle John is found using the very words of Isaiah’s prophecy: ‘And I saw,’ he writes, ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ (Rev. 21:1). The description which follows, however, is unmistakably a record of things in the eternal state where all sin and death have been abolished (21:3-8). It is apparent, therefore, that Isaiah saw together on the screen of prophecy both the Millennial Kingdom and the Eternal Kingdom; but he expands in detail the former because it is the ‘nearest-coming’ event and leaves the latter for fuller description in a later New Testament revelation” (p. 138). In the end, the only passage that mentions the new heavens and new earth with much detail is Revelation 21 and 22. Isaiah and Peter only speak of the destruction of the current heavens and earth.
I would conclude this long review with these words. I love studies about heaven. There is much in Randy Alcorn’s book that is a blessing and a good reminder of the wonderful eternity that is ahead for the believer. I have said that his view of the present heaven and earth being updated into the same heaven and earth is a view taken by some but not by any means all. However, Alcorn’s interpretation of millennial passages as heaven is an unacceptable hermeneutic. Though he claims it as literal, it violates the context greatly. If you read the book, look closely at this point of view.