Morgan, Christopher and Robert Peterson. Heaven (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2014) 287 pgs. $18.99
Heaven is part of an ongoing series of theological monographs called Theology in Community. Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson dually edit the series. Morgan is professor of theology and dean of the School of Christian Ministries at California Baptist University. He received his PhD from Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. He has authored and edited several works primarily concerning the doctrine of Hell. Peterson is professor of systematic theology at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. He received his PhD from Drew University and is the author and editor of several works most notably Explorations in Biblical Theology. Together Morgan and Peterson have also edited Suffering and the Goodness of God, The Glory of God, The Deity of Christ, The Kingdom of God, and Fallen all titles in the Theology in Community series.
When reviewing books of this nature two things must be taken into account. First, the book is part of a larger project that has its own purpose and format. Second, the work is eclectic, being made up of various essays written by different contributors. The purpose of the series is to communicate clear teaching regarding “contemporary theological issues.” (13) Furthermore, the series, although made up of books with various contributors, seeks to communicate “a unified message.” (13) The theological issue which concerns this book is what the Bible teaches about Heaven. The format of the work is simple. First there is a biblical survey of what the Scriptures teach about Heaven. Then based on this biblical survey the remainder of the book addresses major theological and philosophical issues concerning Heaven. Prior to the biblical survey there is an introductory essay into the study of heaven, which includes some frequently asked questions.
Ray Ortlund Jr. begins the biblical survey by analyzing the nature of heaven as taught in the Old Testament. According to Ortlund the Old Testament teaching on heaven can be seen in three ways: episodic references, developed narratives, and symbolic suggestions. (43) Episodic references refer to assuming mentions of the heavens through the Old Testament. However, the Old Testament also develops narratives concerning heaven. Examples include Genesis 28, Exodus 24, 1 Kings 22, Job 1-2, Isaiah 6, and Daniel 7. Lastly, Ortlund suggest that the Old Testament offers symbols that cannot be understood without the New Testament. Symbols such as garden, bride, city, and temple are rightly understood in the New Testament in light of the gospel. Concerning all three of these ways Ortlund states that the Old Testament understands there to be a separation of heaven above and earth below. (61)
Jonathan Pennington addresses the teaching of heaven in the synoptic Gospels and Acts. After providing a count of 161 uses of ouranos he suggests that the word heaven has two primary meanings. First, heaven refers to the “visible, created realm above the earth.” (64) Heaven also refers to the “invisible dwelling place of God and his angels.” (64) By extension the later use can also refer to God himself. As to the terms “Kingdom of God” and “Kingdom of heaven” Pennington finds no distinction in meaning. Although, he does highlight that Matthew’s use of “Kingdom of heaven” is emphasized because there is a contrast with the Divine kingdom with the earthly kingdoms (i.e. Roman empire). The phrase “heaven and earth” is then discussed which for Pennington is vital because “heaven” can hold either the divine sense or the created realm sense. An important theological application of this study is that heaven does not refer to a “generic, ethereal, postmortem existence; rather it is used specifically to refer to God himself and the place from which he comes and reveals himself on earth.” (75) Furthermore, Pennington wants the biblical understanding of heaven to be clearly articulated in our worldview in which we “depict the world in such a way that we learn to orient ourselves to what God is doing in the world.” (82)
While addressing heaven in Paul’s letters Stephen Wellum offers a brief summary of biblical theology with special emphasis on heaven in the four-fold narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. Allowing this to serve as the foundation Wellum articulates an inaugurated eschatology by stressing the already-not yet tension that he argues is vital to understanding Pauline theology. Thus, the Kingdom of God is not a particular location, but the reign of God that has been inaugurated in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The ultimate hope of the “not –yet” for Wellum is not the intermediated state, but the resurrection of the dead in the return of Christ when God will restore all things in the New Heavens and New Earth. However, Wellum suggests that the intermediate state may still be referred to as heaven because that is were Jesus is and when believers die they go to be with Him. (96)
John Laansma continues the survey by discussing what the General Epistles teach about heaven. He allows the unique contribution of each author to speak to what heaven is. Hebrews uses ouranos as both the cosmos and the divine realm of God. James although only using ouranos twice does so to represent both cosmos and the divine realm. In 1 Peter ouranos primarily refers to the divine realm of God as where in 2 Peter it primarily refers the heavenly skies. Although the epistles of John do not use the word ouranos Laansma suggests that heaven is predominantly communicated in the language of eternal life. As for Jude Laansma argues that the book offers a contrast by discussing the angels that fell from heaven. While all unique in their contribution Laansma is sure to emphasize that they are unified in teaching inaugurated eschatology as well as three points: 1.) Heaven is the perfection of hope in Israel’s Scriptures 2.) Their hope is Christological 3.) Their hope is resurrectional and new creational. (135-136)
Wrapping up the biblical studies portion of the book Andreas Köstenberger addresses John’s gospel and Revelation. As for John’s gospel the survey is straightforward. John understands heaven in three ways: the present abode of God, eternal life which is experienced by believers now, and the future eternal abode that is described as Jesus’ “Father’s house.” (139-140) For the fifty uses of ouranos found in Revelation Köstenberger states that in one sense the term refers to the dwelling place of God and in another the present sky/heavens. (145) However, the term is never used to refer to the intermediate state. This leads to a discussion of the New Heavens and New Earth as described in Revelation 21-22. This restorative hope leads to a variety of applications such as warning, comfort, and invitation.
Once the biblical theology section is finished Robert Peterson discusses the images of heaven in Scripture. Peterson develops heaven and earth, Sabbath rest, the kingdom of God, the presence of God, and the glory of God. For each of these images he traces them throughout the four-fold narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. This is followed by a history of heaven with two major divisions: heaven before Christ and heaven after Christ. The author Gerald Bray places special emphasis on the reformers who according to him restored the biblical view of heaven as the realization of the Kingdom of God. (200)
Stephen Noll addresses the difficult topic of angels. Noll suggests that angels are spiritual beings who have a physical body. They serve as messengers of the Lord and are “limited in both knowledge and location.” (204) Furthermore, Noll notes that angels can be good or fallen angels such as demons. As he traces the biblical theology of angels he discusses texts that concern the “angel of the Lord” and discusses how angels relate to the trinity.
Concluding the theological and philosophical section of the book are two essays. The first by Ajith Fernando talks of heaven and persecuted Christians. The final Essay by David Calhoun addresses the nature of Christian hope as it relates to heaven. Fernando begins with the difficult question of persecution and heavenly reward. He makes a clear distinction between persecution, martyrdom, and suicide bombers. He then speaks of how persecution and martyrdom strengthens Christian missions by reviewing a number of texts. All of these relate to four main truths for Fernando: Evangelism, persecution, the presence of Christ, and the heavenly vision, which aids believers during persecution. (235) Calhoun first discusses how hope is used in popular vernacular. He claims that hope is much more than expecting things to become better. Rather, Christian hope is rooted in the character of God and his promise of a New Heavens and New Earth. For the Christian hope can be made up of both the intermediate state and the restored heavens and earth, but primarily it is to be seen in the later.
When all things are considered there are only a few aspects of this work that need negative mention. These will be addressed first before moving on to the specific positives this work has to offer. First, although Robert Peterson opens the work with a wonderful introductory essay, his frequently asked questions are poorly placed. Rather than beginning the book it would have made a wonderful appendix to consider after reading the exegesis. As it remains at the beginning the reader can’t help but feel robbed of the journey of reading a theological monograph. Also, the last essay by Calhoun leaves the reader something to be desired. After feasting on the biblical exegesis and theological truths concerning heaven the last essay distracts readers by overloading them with an assortment of quotations from poets and fiction writers concerning the nature of hope. Although these critiques are minor they are unfortunate nonetheless.
Regardless of these picky critiques Heaven is an impressive work of scholarship that will not doubt bless many readers. First, the biblical theological surveys are simply fantastic. Each essay proves to be thoroughly researched and offers serious theological application. All agree that predominantly heaven refers to the abode of God or the skies/heavens. Furthermore, they all emphasize that the ultimate Christian hope is to be found in the New Heavens and New Earth. In refreshing uniformity the authors correct the popular notion of seeing Christian hope as primarily being the intermediate state.
These essays are not simply to be commended on the nature of their exegesis, but also their theological implications. It is encouraging to see Jonathan Pennington speak of how a biblical understanding of heaven should impact a believer’s world-view. (79) Also, Stephen Wellum and Andreas Köstenberger are to be commended for not shying away from speaking of the intermediate state as “heaven.” Wellum writes, “ Even though this intermediate state is never called “heaven” in Scripture, in theology we speak of it as such because we go to be with Christ, who is now there.” (96) This is refreshing in light of the sometimes-pessimistic view of what people in the pew think of when they speak of “heaven”. Correction is needed no doubt, but it is not as bad we one might think.
Any reader will see the exegetical strengths of the book, but the theological discussions will also be helpful. The way in which Robert Peterson incorporates major images of heaven and traces them throughout the grand-narrative of Scripture will aid many readers on how to think about biblical theology. Noll will end up sparing readers much unfortunate conclusions stemming from speculation as he drives readers to think about what the text says concerning angels. Lastly, the book is to be commended for the implications drawn out for the Christian life. Fernando when speaking of persecution says this, “We seem to be letting marketing approaches used in the society silence the voice of Scripture calling people to radical commitment with the promise of heavenly reward.” (232)
As already stated, the goal in reviewing a book of this nature is to see if this particular monograph accomplishes what the series wishes to accomplish. With the series goals in view one must agree that Heaven more than accomplishes its task. The theological issue is clearly recognized and the editors provide a community of experts ranging from all theological convictions and ministry roles. Each contributor offers a scholarly assessment, yet communicates in a way that makes the work available to all readers. Therefore, this work written in theological community will no doubt teach theology that changes the communities that invest in it. Tolle Lege!