If you pick up Randal Rauser’s book “What on Earth Do We Know about Heaven?” expecting a scintillating first-hand account of Rauser’s near-death experience and his subsequent journey into the afterlife you’ll be greatly disappointed. Instead of serving up an epic tale of post-mortem exploits, Rauser, a prolific blogger and self-described “progressive evangelical,” offers thoughtful theological and philosophical responses to twenty questions about life after death — or more accurately about (to quote N.T. Wright) life after life after death.
Rauser draws a clear distinction between three uses of the word heaven: as the physical sky, as the present spiritual realm and as the future eternal state of all creation — the new heaven and earth. It is on this third aspect of heaven that Rauser focuses, summing it up with the equation: H=ep. That is, Heaven equals earth multiplied by perfection. Heaven incarnate is nothing less than the transformation of all creation into its final, perfected state.
Through this lens Rauser tackles such typical questions as:
- Will we have free will in heaven?
- Will we age in heaven?
- What will our relationships with others be like?
- Will those in heaven be aware of the suffering of others in hell?
As well as more atypical questions like:
- Will anyone be deaf in heaven?
- Will the Titanic sail again?
- Will God resurrect entire cultural neighborhoods?
- Will there be aliens in heaven?
To these questions and more, Rauser provides accessible and thought-provoking responses, helpfully utilizing lessons from literature, the Bible, history, science and his own modern-day parables. He relates complex philosophical issues in a straight-forward manner and draws upon a deep understanding of Christian theology to provide answers that are rooted in both reason and faith. Rauser acknowledges when his conclusions reach beyond mere logical analysis and stray into the realm of pure speculation — but even then such diversions still provide intriguing food for thought.
I do however have two notes of criticism, neither of which mare the book to any significant degree, but nevertheless both still trouble me.
First, Rauser’s answers at times glide a little too smoothly over issues and concerns that are perhaps more significant than one might think. For example, his discussion of 2 Peter 3.10 ignores the significant textual issues in that verse, instead deferring to Wolters’ metallurgical interpretation of that passage. This reading of the text has merit, but it is far from a foregone conclusion. I realize that a mass market book can’t delve into the nuances of every issue, but it does a disservice to the reader — and especially the novice reader — to provide seemingly easy answers to issues where even the best scholarship remains divided.
Second, given that Rauser’s discussion is centered on the future state of affairs on a perfected earth (where “earth” is representative of all creation), it would have been nice to see a more direct discussion of how our understanding of heaven impacts our life and faith now. Perhaps there will be deaf people in heaven. Perhaps they will be a crucial part of the new earth. But how then might that understanding color our relationship with the deaf community today? It’s well and good to speculate on the final state of creation and not every theological conclusion needs to have direct practical implications — but given that Christian doctrine drives Christian practice (often in unfortunate ways), a more explicit discussion of practical considerations would have been welcome.
But neither of these issues should stop you from reading this book. In this slim volume Rauser tackles important and intriguing issues in a robust and engaging way, providing a reasoned alternative to so much of the heaven hype that’s currently saturating the Christian marketplace.