The Hope for Heaven

Alister McGrath
Wednesday, August 31st 2016
Sep/Oct 2016

What do a city, a garden, romanticism, and a family reunion have in common? (This could be a cateogry on Jeopardy!).

If you answered “heaven,” you’re right (if you didn’t, don’t worry; neither did we—hence this interview). While Scripture isn’t lacking in analogies and descriptions of heaven, it doesn’t portray it the way our literal, detail-oriented twenty-first-century minds would like it to. The result has been an amazing array of interpretations and illustrations of what heaven will be like, from Jan Brueghel’s The Garden of Eden and Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, to C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce and The Last Battle. To learn a bit more about the influence that artistic interpretations of the scriptural portrayals of heaven have made on philosophy, theology, and Western culture, Modern Reformation spoke with Alister McGrath, the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford and author of A Brief History of Heaven (Wiley-Blackwell, 2003).

MR: In chapters 1 and 2 of A Brief History of Heaven, you discuss the ways in which heaven is portrayed in painting, literature, and even science. It seems that earlier (medieval and Renaissance) articulations of heaven were strongly associated with earthly themes—the idea of a beautiful city or a lush, verdant garden. Do you see similar tendencies in popular articulations of heaven today, or is there a more theological/spiritual focus?

McGrath: Many theologians emphasize the need for an imaginative framework within which we can think meaningfully of heaven. Many of the traditional images of heaven use evocative imagery—such as that of a walled city or an enclosed garden—to stimulate our imaginations and create space for us to think about heaven. There is a real danger of reducing our thinking about heaven to rational or logical categories, which radically impoverishes it! Reading Dante’s Divine Comedy helps us realize the importance of images in helping us to think about heaven, without reducing heaven to what our minds can cope with.

In chapter 3 of your book, you talk about the shift in focus from heaven itself to Christ as the one who guarantees our access to heaven. Instead of the “Suffering Servant” portrayed by Isaiah, we see the victorious Christ—the “harrower of hell” who literally undoes Satan’s dominion—and the concept of the church as the gatekeeper of heaven. How does an emphasis on a victorious Christ develop the believer’s appreciation of and desire for heaven?

The themes of the reality of earthly suffering and the ultimate triumph of Christ over suffering play a leading role in Christian thinking about heaven. The hope of heaven is set in the context of the world of pain and suffering within which we live. However, Christ’s victory over suffering and pain—which is achieved through his own suffering—points to a transfigured and transformed future, in which we are able to leave behind the pain, sorrow, and trials of this world, and enter into a world the risen Christ rules and loves. Seeing Christ as both “Suffering Servant” and “victor over suffering” allows us to understand him as the gateway from our own world to another, and sustains the hope that we can one day leave pain and suffering behind us.

In chapter 4, you discuss how the Romanticism of William Blake and William Wordsworth articulated the connection between the beauty and profundity of nature and the human longing for “the transcendent,” which could be identified with heaven. Romans 1:20 says, “His invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” This isn’t precisely the longing for the “transcendent” that Blake and Wordsworth articulated in their work, but are there other verses in Scripture that may speak to their point?

Blake, Wordsworth, and others point to a deep intuition within us that there is a greater reality beyond our own. It’s a theme we find in a number of biblical verses. The one most often cited is Ecclesiastes 3:11, which speaks of God having “set eternity in the human heart.” The point seems to be that human beings have some kind of homing instinct for God, often manifested in a fascination with the transcendent. We might also think of Psalm 19:1, which affirms that “the heavens declare the glory of the Lord.” The idea here is not that the beauty of the starry heavens prove there is a God, but that looking at the night sky enriches and deepens our grasp of God, thus helping us to connect with the notion of the transcendent.

You say that C. S. Lewis’s most suggestive reflections on the nature of heaven appear in his science fiction trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet. What are some other examples of how he views heaven?

Lewis talks about heaven a lot. For me, one of his finest discussions is found in the chapter on hope in Mere Christianity. For Lewis, we are studded with clues that this is not our real home, that there is a still better world beyond its frontiers, and that one may dare to hope to enter and inhabit this better place. Lewis affirms the delight, joy, and purposefulness of this present life. Yet he asks us to realize that when this finally comes to an end, something even better awaits us. Lewis believed that the secular world offers people only a hopeless end, and he wanted them to see and grasp the endless hope of the Christian faith and live in its light.

We could also think of Narnia, in which the theme of heaven—which Lewis links with the “new Narnia”—is prominent. Some lines from The Last Battle, the concluding novel of The Chronicles of Narnia series, capture this point particularly well. On seeing the “new Narnia,” the Unicorn declares, “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.” For Lewis, the Christian hope is about returning home to where we really belong.

You speak of the attractiveness of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s 1863 book The Gates Ajar, in which she describes heaven as being an “extended nineteenth-century family” and emphasizes the “continuity of individuals, relationships, and environments between this life and the next.” Would you say that it was “dead orthodoxy” that made her book (and others like it) so attractive? Is historic, confessional Protestantism simply unable to capture the imagination in the way that made the Romantics and their heirs so popular?

The problem here is that Protestantism too easily becomes a rational belief system, having lost the capacity to use the imagination to grasp and glimpse deep spiritual truths. Max Weber argued that Protestantism tends to reduce things to rational categories—a process he called “disenchantment.” Romanticism was one major reaction against this trend. Poets such as Wordsworth and Keats appealed to the imagination and emotion as a way of expanding our vision of reality, rather than limiting it to what reason could cope with.

In chapter 6, you write briefly about how the Greek Orthodox liturgy “celebrates the notion of being caught up in the worship of heaven, and the awesome sense of mystery that is evoked by the sense of peering beyond the bounds of human vision.” What are some ways in which the Protestant church might learn from the Greek Orthodox in this aspect? Does our historical iconoclasm possibly hinder us from enjoying worship as fully as our Orthodox brothers and sisters?

Orthodoxy stresses that our worship on earth connects us with the worship of heaven. This is a thoroughly biblical insight, and I can’t see any good reason why Protestants shouldn’t make more of this. It helps us realize that our future destiny lies in heaven, and helps us to see worship as a way of anticipating our future presence in heaven through sharing in its worship.

You also speak about the hope of seeing God face to face as being one of the most important theological foundations for the Christian hope of heaven. How can Christians help communicate the ultimate union with Christ in heaven as truly surpassing all other human joys?

Perhaps we need to help people realize that heaven is like the best that this world can offer—only better. The hope of heaven is about the consummation of joy and delight, hinted at by the greatest joys this world can offer. That’s the form that Lewis’s argument for heaven (which is not really an “argument” at all) takes, especially in Mere Christianitity. And that involves using our imaginations, not just our reason! You can’t argue people into believing that there is a heaven. But you can point out how our deepest intuitions and instincts tell us that there is some place where our deepest longings and desires will be met—and then show how this fits in within a Christian “big picture.”

Wednesday, August 31st 2016

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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