Jesus told the man next to him on a cross that he would be with him in Paradise that day (Luke 23:43) and one of the more revealing statements from the apostle Paul is this one: “Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord” (2 Cor 5:6). Clearly both believed in an afterlife, and both believed the afterlife could mean to be in the presence of God, and Paul at least suggests heaven outstrips life on earth — he is the one who says “dying is gain.”
In the history of Christian thinking about heaven there have been two poles: the theocentric pole where heaven is all about worship and absorption in or with God, and the socio-centric pole where heaven is life on earth magnified into a perfect society of the redeemed. When I read books about heaven I ponder where the author fits on this spectrum from God-centeredness to society-centeredness. Some at either end minimize to the point of diminishment the other pole. By the way, a good book on this history is by C. McDannell and B. Lang, Heaven: A History.
The most recent book I’ve read on heaven is Steve Berger’s Between Heaven and Earth: Finding Hope, Courage, and Passion through a Fresh Vision of Heaven, where he says Paul was a man with his heart in heaven but his hand in the harvest of life on earth. Berger is a pastor and the father of a son who died in a car accident, so his story has gravity and his expositions have pastoral relevance. His book shows a desire for both the theo- vs. socio-centric though he leans mostly to the socio-centric. Berger’s book reflects a traditionalist evangelical approach to heaven, that is, it is like the books of John MacArthur and Randy Alcorn.
For Berger, heaven is our real home, and here he anchors his ideas in Ecclesiastes 3:11, where “eternity in our hearts” might not even mean what Berger has it mean — some think this is far more obscure, more on the order of darkness or mystery — but he has many in his favor, including with nuance Tremper Longman and Craig Bartholomew. Anyways (as an old acquaintance used to say in pauses), he’s right in the big picture when he contends heaven is our real hope.
He sees — as do I — a glimpse of heaven in the new heavens and new earth in Revelation 21–22. He asks what many ask who think of heaven in some socio-centric terms: What will do? He says we will create, hear music, worship, laugh, interact with animals (answering yet another typical question), work, reign with Christ, relate to God — and you can notice his order as he moves from the socio-centric to the theo-centric, but he focuses on the socio-centric elements. [I find it odd that he does not even cite N.T. Wright’s work on kingdom and heaven and resurrection.]
But big pictures have to be involved: so heaven is about healing, and all of this reshapes life on earth to become the hands of God in what God is doing in this world and here he slides into common evangelical orientations for the Christian life — commitment to the labor and the need for the Holy Spirit.
Finally, he addresses rewards: and he believes each of us will have rewards based on our faithfulness here. He sees four basic promises of heaven: a home, God himself, happiness and hope. I’m late to the dance on this Patheos-sponsored book club review.