In the next chapter of Night Comes, Dale Allison defends the idea of heaven, by which he means a conscious existence and blissful realm that the dead enter when they die. Over against this, many recent theologians—those who entertain belief in life after death at all—have downplayed this in favor of a future post-resurrection transformation of this world.
N. T. Wright is an example of this. He prefers the idea of “life after life after death” to current discussions about “life after life”. In other words, whatever the state of the soul immediately after death, the biblical hope is for a new heaven and new earth, when the prayer, “Thy kingdom come on earth. . .” will be answered.
Allison knows the gospels, the rest of the Bible, and Jewish and Christian tradition. He draws on all of these to show that most believers have held to belief in an unearthly, heavenly realm entered into after death.
He surprisingly criticizes Wright’s view as being “geocentric”. He says that this world may end in nuclear war, or a solar event in which the sun devours the planet. The future is open. So to put our hope in the kingdom coming to this earth is futile. I will come back to why this surprises me.
Allison takes up three themes that are both biblical and imaginatively compelling to give us a way to think about heaven.
The first is that at death we become angels. Jesus said we would be like angels in that we would no longer marry. But many take this further. There was Jewish tradition about the dead becoming angels. So Jesus may have meant drawn on that. Certainly, the idea that the dead are angels has influenced many Christians.
For Allison this goes along with the idea of the beatific vision—the idea that in death we fully see and worship God. That is what angels usually do in the Bible. They are “theocentric beings”. Their importance is not in themselves, but in their eternal worship and contemplation of God.
There is also the idea that angels are messengers of God and guardian spirits. These ideas are also suggestive for Allison.
Second, there is the idea of reunion. Many believers take great comfort in the idea of being reunited with loved ones in the next life. Allison recognizes that this can take a sentimental and egocentric turn. However, in the Bible there are metaphors like being gathered to the bosom of our father, Abraham, and sharing in a great family meal, which imply community and even family will mean something.
Third, there is the idea of beautiful, natural surroundings. This idea of trees , rivers and gardens derives from the Garden of Eden. There is the biblical theme that Eden will be restored. At this point, Allison goes into several reports of Near Death Experiences where beautiful nature imagery plays a part.
His treatment of this leaves me a little cold. I had the same feeling when I watched the old Robin Williams movie, What Dreams May Come. There was beautiful scenery. But I was always aware that it was a dream. It was like being in the Matrix or, to reference a more recent movie, sucked into the Jumanji game.
This brings me back to my surprise that Allison would see the idea of a renewed post-resurrection world as geocentric. Maybe it is because I have read science fiction since I was very young or because I grew up under the brilliant and imposing Montana sky dominated by the Milky Way, but I have always seen creation as anything but geocentric.
And creation is the issue for me. If death puts us in a spiritual realm that is disconnected from earth and the rest of the physical universe, then what was God’s purpose in creation? What of the biblical theme of a restored world?
I remember Billy Graham once speculating that in the world to come each of the redeemed would get to oversee his or her own planet. Since we are using our imaginations. . . .
I appreciate Dale Allison’s open mindedness about mystical experiences. I have never had one myself. But I have heard lots of stories from other people—some more credible than others. My mother, whose 97th birthday comes up in a couple of weeks, says that when she was in ICU a few years ago an angel spoke to her. She wanted to go be with dad. But the angel told her she had to come back. She was still needed here.
Some didn’t take this experience seriously. When she told me about it, I said, “You know mom, the same thing happened to Jimmy Stewart.” She had seen It’s a Wonderful Life several times. It gave us a context to talk about her experience. Allison also talks about that movie when he considers the idea of becoming an angel in the next life.