World & More
A Review of Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy
Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy,
by Jerry L. Walls. Oxford University Press, 2002.
How can one write about heaven
never having been there? As a one-time reporter, my concern was to
recall and report what I saw and heard. To operate without such data
calls for some different tactics.
Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy
is an exercise in speculative philosophy. It does not draw heavily from
the Bible. Part of the trouble may be that while the Bible has repeated
references to heaven, these often mean the sky. Otherwise they tend
toward the visionary such as Isaiah 6 or apocalyptic as in Revelation
21, where it is unclear whether the reference is to future bliss or
One exception is
Psalm 33:13, where “The Lord looks down from heaven / he sees all
humankind.” Is this in back of the popular folk theology which has the
deceased up above looking down at those left behind? I’m amazed at how
often I hear this.
Encyclopedia (Mennonite Publishing House) has no article
on heaven, but the newer volume 5 (Herald Press, 1990) has a brief
article by Stanley C. Shenk. It observes that “Because of symbolic
language and interpretation problems, the biblical doctrine of heaven
is somewhat elusive.” However, “Many concepts and images appear in the
Bible in regards to the final destiny of God’s people.”
The entry concludes
with a quotation from Paul Erb in his book The Alpha and the Omega
(Herald Press, 1955): “The Christian has something beyond. He has
Someone there, Someone he knows. He has a Lord and Saviour in heaven,
who has given him life and hope” (153 in Erb, 368 in vol. 5).
To produce 200 pages on
heaven, Walls has gone well beyond the Bible. He begins by observing
that some persons have discarded the concept of heaven. Among these are
radical theologians Gordon Kaufman and Rosemary Radford Ruether. The
former considers symbols such as last judgment, heaven, and hell no
longer relevant; the latter “wonders whether the whole notion of life
after death is even a concern for women” (4).
observes that “there are abundant signs that Kaufman was dead wrong
when he pronounced that there is no future for heaven and hell” (12) he
does not appear to engage Kaufman and Ruether in dialogue. He concerns
himself with naturalistic philosophers more than with theologians.
that he will be “engaging a cluster of questions that range across
theology, metaphysics, epistemology, and moral philosophy. I will
operate primarily as a philosopher of religion in addressing these
issues, but at points I will be concerned with scriptural exegesis and
historical theology” (13).
appears to fit with his position as Professor of Philosophy of Religion
at Asbury Theological Seminary. He takes his stand on the traditional
doctrines of the church and indicates that his belief in heaven is
integral to “those doctrines that are most distinctly Christian, namely
the doctrines of the Trinity, incarnation, atonement, resurrection, and
the second coming of Christ.”
Among these he
finds the doctrine of resurrection foundational. “Because Jesus was
raised from the dead, we hope to be also, in a body like his
resurrected body. If the resurrection is undercut, the basis of this
hope is undercut” (32).
Having thus made
his stand early, we will have a general idea where Walls will go, but
an occasional proposal strikes me as novel. Not surprising is his
critique of David Hume in chapter 1. Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural
Religion did not deny the existence of God but did deny
God’s goodness in light of “the fact of evil in our world” (17). Walls
argues that “Hume should either have denied God’s existence or accepted
his goodness. His alternative proposal that the Creator of our universe
is amoral is deeply incoherent” (29).
Of major concern to
Walls are the questions of salvation and sanctification. If we are
saved by faith, how are we to be sanctified and worthy of heaven? After
a wide-ranging discussion of atonement and sanctification, he comes out
in favor of Purgatory, that there will be an opportunity after death to
deal with issues not faced in this life. “Purgatory means coming to
terms fully with reality” (60). Well.
Next is the
question of who will get to heaven, “the relationship between
Christianity and other religions” (63). He identifies three positions:
particularism, pluralism, and inclusivism. “Particularism poses an
insurmountable moral problem for the doctrine of heaven because it
depicts God as less than perfectly loving” (75). As for pluralism,
Walls discusses the position of Hick, who finds all of the world’s
religions similar in their basis of salvation, with none being superior
to the other. He finds this position “altogether unacceptable for
anyone who takes seriously anything like a traditional view of heaven”
favors inclusivism which, he says, “is prepared to acknowledge a
measure of common ground between Christianity and other religions”
(80). After jousting with Hick on the issue, he concludes that “there
is no reason why God could not give all persons an equal opportunity
for salvation” (85).
At the end of the
chapter is a brief discussion of the positive fate of children who have
not had an opportunity to articulate their faith and even a comment on
the status of the animals. “Since all things find their telos [purpose]
in God, it is not unreasonable to include animals in our hopes and to
believe they will be included to the degree they are capable, in the
fellowship of the redeemed” (91).
Next is a question
of personal identity, and he affirms that “we will know each other
truly and completely for the first time” (112). As for the problem of
evil, he concludes that “Heaven holds out the promise that persons who
have suffered in terrible ways and died premature deaths . . . have not
been consigned to oblivion” (130).
Chapter 6 is an
extensive discussion of near-death experiences (NDEs). The question, of
course, is whether these people have been in touch with a celestial
reality or whether these experiences can be explained from a
naturalistic standpoint. Wells concludes that “unless and until the
naturalistic account of NDEs is proven to be true, they deserve serious
consideration as positive evidence for the Christian doctrine of
The final chapter
is entitled “Heaven, Morality and the Meaning of Life” where Walls
holds that “naturalistic views of reality undermine both morality and
meaning. . . .“By contrast with naturalism, I shall show how orthodox
Christian faith, particularly in its doctrine of heaven, both
underwrites morality and charges our lives with depth of meaning”
(162). Among those reviewed critically with help from one George
Mavrodes is Bertrand Russell, for whom “The truly deep things in a
Russellian world are things such as matter, energy, natural law, even
change or chaos.” Walls responds, “It is hard to see how morality can
make overriding demands on us if it is superficial in this
Another view is
that of Kant, who sought to call for morality without belief in God.
Again with Mavrodes, Walls concludes that “we must postulate God and
immortality to insure this ultimate correspondence” (165).
Walls finds that in
some cases naturalistic philosophers have developed what he terms a
secular substitute for the meaning of life. Five different options are
described, the fifth of which is “the continuing influence and impact
of a life well lived.” As an example of this, he mentions Carl Sagan, a
famous scientist who died while denying the possibility of life after
death, but whose life nevertheless influenced many persons
that “The fact that naturalists offer secular alternatives to heaven .
. . shows that it is an irreplaceable resource in our efforts to give
our lives the meaning we crave” (185). So he describes how the
Christian doctrine of heaven answers questions the naturalists cannot
He observes that
“In Christian thought, resurrection and immortality are not
afterthoughts, nor are they postulates to salvage morality from
irrationality. They are integral to the grand claim that ultimate
reality is reciprocal love” (191). Further, “Perhaps at the end of the
day, the issues come down to whether we can believe in God, for the
Christian view of God is that he is a being whose very nature is to be
ecstatically happy” (197).
After this survey, I find
myself yet inclined toward the more cautious Mennonite perspective on
heaven. We do believe in God, although the idea of God as “ecstatically
happy” is a new thought to me. I am reminded also that in Matthew 28:17
it is reported that when the 11 disciples saw Jesus after his
resurrection, “some doubted.”
things celestial are not new. However, we do have martyrs in the
Mennonite tradition, and martyrs had a perspective on life after death.
The article “Martyrs” in Mennonite Encyclopedia (vol. 3, p. 524),
reports that “The martyrs had the unshakable certainty of being on the
right road, which God had unequivocally showed them in the Scriptures.
. . . During their persecution they had learned that this life cannot
be the final fulfillment. Hence they saw even in a martyr’s death the
transition to a fuller and richer life.”
The 1995 Confession of Faith in a
Mennonite Perspective indulges in little speculation,
generally sticking close to the Bible. “We look forward to the coming
of a new earth and a new Jerusalem” it states in Article 24, “The Reign
of God” and continues, “where the people of God will no longer hunger,
thirst or cry” (90).
Article 24 includes
the commentary that “The New Testament says much about the
resurrection. It speaks much less frequently about the state of persons
between the time of their death and the resurrection. Yet we who are in
Christ are assured that not even death can separate us from the love of
God (Rom. 8:38-39)” (91).
tend to agree with Walls that “the issue comes down to whether we can
believe in God,” but beyond this will hesitate to make emphatic
statements. Yet with the prevalence of the popular piety where the dead
are perceived as looking down, perhaps we should have a perspective on
death and resurrection. In The
Christian Century, July 14, 2009, Michael Jinkins
published “Legacy of Faith,” written as a letter to his daughter who
was struggling with the question “Is there a God?” Jinkins states, “You
have asked me on a couple of occasions if I believe in the
resurrection. I have answered you by placing myself in the hands of the
oldest creed in Christendom, the Nicene Creed: ‘ I look for the
It occurs to me
that “look for” suggests a proper attitude. The mystery is
acknowledged, the questions are not answered, but a position is taken.
In the meantime, we wait to see what will happen.
Pennsylvania, is an editor, writer, and chair of the elders, Scottdale