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Heaven: An inkling of what's to come. Book Review

There’s a particularly worrying phone call which most of us will one day receive: “Hello, this is your doctor. There’s nothing to worry about, but could you come and see me first thing tomorrow morning?”

I have had four such phone calls in the past decade, the last one, strangely, on the day after I began reading Myk Habet’s book. Each of these conversations has driven me to revisit what I think will happen on that day when I finally step out of three dimensional reality. I believe that whatever lies over the horizon for me will be characterised by the most complete picture of reality we are ever going to get, namely the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Like a child emerging from the womb into the real world, I will, sooner rather than later, emerge from this current reality into one that is infinitely bigger than I can imagine but I generally try to set aside guesswork about what that might be like. 
Catching me when he did, however, Myk Habets encouraged me, happily, in that guesswork.

This is a brief book, 111 pages excluding indices and the concluding study guide. It is written for a wide audience, and several times the author mentions the context of parents answering the tricky questions of their offspring. The chapters are subdivided into sections: “Let’s Listen”, “Let’s Talk” and “Let’s Play” in which the author lays out in turn the Biblical basis of the issues addressed, some discussion of those scriptures and then encouragement to toss the ideas around and see where they lead. Each chapter concludes with a bullet point list of the main ideas. His style is chatty, personal and personable. This is an easy read, and I got through the book in a couple of sessions, but the layout and the study guide which concludes the book suggest that Myk Habets intends his book to promote discussion, in families, between friends and in study groups.

The book restricts itself to a specifically Biblical view of the afterlife, outlining the major passages in both Testaments in which some hint is given about what is to follow this life. Habets follows N. T. Wright in positing a two stage afterlife, with Paradise , or Heaven, being a kind of staging post for the great transformation which lies ahead, the New Heaven and the New Earth so extensively referenced in the Book of Revelation. The subtitle of the book, An Inkling of What’s To Come contains a sly reference to Habet’s other great source, namely C.S. Lewis. The Narnia Chronicles, the Space Trilogy and The Great Divorce are repeatedly referenced and quoted. The author borrows imagery and ideas from Lewis, but also some methodology, in that he is keen that we engage imaginatively with what the scripture tells us of the New Heaven and the New Earth.

For Habets, the life that lies ahead of us is incarnational. That is, we are not to become disembodied spirits floating around in some ethereal eternity, but rather renewed and redeemed versions of our present selves, enjoying all that the best in this life gives a hint of. We will have bodies, and a context in a universe with a kind of physicality. We will have work to do, challenges to face and changes to make. This particularly Christian vision of what is to come is well attested in scripture, and I find it enormously attractive, but it is not without some intriguing philosophical and theological issues, the dealing with which is the book’s biggest shortcoming. 

C. S. Lewis was inspirational because his work was continuously informed by his Platonism. There was, in other words, a fully worked out philosophical structure on which those lovely stories were built. Habets on the other hand does not often demonstrate such a grounding. For example, while he stresses the physicality of the life to come, he doesn’t address what it means to be physical. Given what biologists tell us of the construction of our bodies, and what physicists tell us of the construction of matter (in brief, that we are processes rather than things) what does a phrase like  "the resurrection of the body" mean? How can the New Heaven and Earth involve growth and challenge without also involving loss and therefore pain? What does it mean to have a soul – that is, to be sentient and conscious? Habets is a bit light on these questions, but unfortunately, this is exactly the sort of question that his intended audience struggles with. My four-year-old grandson, for example, recently asked me, “is heaven before or after space?” And I’ve got to admit the question rocked me, with my two post graduate degrees in Theology, back on my heels. I think potential readers of this book may have even more searching questions. More disappointingly, Habets sometimes lapses into philosophical incoherence, as when he says on page 88, “Biblical freedom is the freedom to obey, not the freedom to choose to disobey.” Say, what?! But that isn’t my biggest problem with the book. 

In Chapter 5, The Great Cloud of Witnesses he addresses the question of who will be in heaven? And comes up with the answer: Christians, only Christians. OK, that's predictable. But I have on my fridge, at the moment, a page torn from the Christchurch Press containing a photograph and brief biography of each of the 50 Muslims killed recently in Christchurch. All of these lovely people are, according to Habets, doomed. The five year old boy amongst them, who looks out at me with his great innocent brown eyes, is, according to this book, going to the same final destination as the man who murdered him. So where is the justice in that? And what sort of God constructs a universe in which the overwhelming majority of sentient beings is condemned to an eternity of suffering? And given that God holds all things in existence, how can Hell exist if God is permanently absent from it? To these and other issues, Myk Habets responds with a bit of hand waving. We’ll all understand in the sweet by and by, apparently, which is an answer that is not only inadequate, it's infuriating.

And, for me there is a pastoral problem. Chapter 5 would, sadly, prevent me sharing this otherwise useful book with anyone who is grieving a non-Christian loved one – that is, pretty much everybody I know. 

I wish the author had paid more attention to his mentor, C.S. Lewis. In The Last Battle, there is the character of Emeth, the Calormene, who is a worshipper of the evil God Tash. At the end of all things, Emeth meets Aslan, and instantly recognises him as the one he has actually been following his whole life long. Aslan says to him,
..."no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash, and  keep his oath for the oath's sake it is by me he has sworn..."

And the very premise of the daily bus which leaves Hell for  Heaven in The Great Divorce (which Myk Habets is very fond of quoting) speaks of the inexhaustible limitlessness of grace, and provides a kinder interpretation than Myk Habets of John 14:6.

This is a book which is at times exciting and informative. It succeeds in presenting a particularly Christian view of the world to come. It is eminently readable, yet it is constrained by a limited understanding of Grace and by a very specific set of theological  premises. C S Lewis has a famous metaphor about having a limited imagination. He talks of a schoolboy, who, upon being told that sexual union is the greatest human pleasure asks, "do you eat chocolates while you are doing it?" Ironically, several times Myk Habets quotes this metaphor  yet seems fixated by a range of his own doctrinal and philosophical confections. The book would be greatly strengthened if he’d left them in their bag.


Alden Smith said…
The exclusive claims of Christianity regarding the membership of heaven raises an interesting question. Is God happy? and will God continue to be happy? within eternity knowing that billions of people have been cast into an eternity of suffering simply based on incorrect theology.

Despite being born into a Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim et al culture and living exemplary lives of love and compassion etc; fundamentalist Christianity excludes these billions from a place in heaven.

All of this conjures up a scene in heaven uncountable trillions of years from now with God doing what God does and the 'saved' doing what 'saved' people do in eternity. In their eternal thoughts I wonder if they ever think about the damned still suffering after uncountable trillions of years. Would the knowledge of this make God happy? Would it make Christians in heaven happy to know that the vast majority of humanity has suffered hell for billions of years and would continue to do so for ever?

Of course a Loving God, a so called 'Loving Father' such as this would be a contradiction in terms and morally inferior to any reasonable and sane human being.

A God such as this simply doesn't exist.
BrianR said…
I suspect your grandson had a simpler conception of heaven than you might be suggesting. "Before space" is likely not about the metaphysics of extension but means " ten miles above the earth" - a bit like Olympus. I think the other questions about embodied immortal existence you mention are discussed in one place or another by Thomas Aquinas. The short answer is: if Jesus has an immortal bodily existence, so will his redeemer people. This is actually pretty far from Platonic idealism, as Lewis understood as well. Lewis would also agree that "finitum non capax infiniti", so many of our questions will fall away as our understanding grows. The Christian faith understands there is a difference between mystery and contradiction, otherwise we should abandon Christianity for rationalistic, deistic unitarianism- something like Islam, perhaps. Maybe that is what is happening to the post-Christian west. As for who gains eternal life, who can say? A Christian insists that salvation is only through Christ, not otherwise. If Muslims are saved, or the millions of Jews murdered in the Holocaust or the millions of victims of communism or whoever, it will be through the grace of Christ. But we are not given to say where or when that may be operating. The Church's task is to proclaim the message of the Gospel and call an unbelieving world to faith. If universalism was true, I would not waste the effort of sharing my faith.
Alden, your comment is very close to a caricature.
Alden Smith said…
Brian, thank you for your comment, I found it very thought provoking.
I disagree that my “comment is very close to a caricature”, it IS a caricature and it has its equivalence in the Old Testament and in the polemic of religious Fundamentalists. My point is that these caricatures are both risible and unbelievable. Take for example the book of Joshua (which should be more appropriately named ‘Genocide’ or ‘Extermination’ ……… where God commands: “Utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant…..”

How do we reconcile this homicidal maniac of a God who according to Christian orthodoxy is also Jesus of Nazareth and the Holy Spirit? Any sane thinking person simply can not.

(Briefly) The first way I deal with these absurdities is by seeing them for what I believe they are: Caricatures; which are: “a ludicrous or grotesque version of someone or something”. In the case of the book of Joshua I think that the supposed voice of God is no more than the projected wishes, desires and self justification of the invading Israelites, a people that was beginning the long road in the evolution of Judaism. History is full of pogroms and genocidal obscenities justified by what was thought as the ‘voice’ or ‘word’ of God.

The second way is to see theology as an evolutionary process. We see this personally in our own lives ( “May God rid you of God” - Peter Rollins) and ably written about in ‘Stages of Faith” by James W. Fowler. It is also apparent through history. ‘A History of God’ by Karen Armstrong is a good starting point with many including the theologian John Hicks proposing that Christianity rethinks its exclusive claims in light of the implications of this evolving history and theology.
The development of an interfaith inclusive Christian theology is in my opinion the great challenge of the theological “axial age” in which we live.

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