For some time, I had wanted to read a book by Scot McKnight. When the opportunity to review The Heaven Promise presented itself, I jumped at it. Scot McKnight is a respected Bible scholar and professor at Northern Seminary. By way of disclosure, I must admit that I am more familiar with what others have said about McKnight’s theology than I am with his own writings. One reason that I wanted to read one of his books was to gain my own understanding of his view. Further, I disagree with many of his stated views. He is egalitarian: I am complementarian. I agree with the need to recognize the theme of “Christ the Victor” in His work on the cross and His resurrection, but I believe emphasizing it to the point that the penal substitutionary aspect of the atonement is downplayed is a mistake. Still, I find McKnight to be an excellent writer and enjoyed this book greatly. At parts, my eyes watered and I was moved to prayer and to praise. Yet, by the end of the book, I had a few points of concern and disagreement.
The book has four parts. Part I is “The Heaven Question.” It is brief and concerns different views and imaginative ideas that people from many different walks in life have about heaven. McKnight emphasizes that before we can apply our imagination to Heaven, we must understand what the Bible definitively says about it.
Part II is “The Heaven Promise.” McKnight distinguishes between heaven, what some would call the present intermediate state of souls awaiting the resurrection, and Heaven, which is the final consummation, resurrection, and the restoration of a New Heaven and New Earth. In this section, McKnight presents his understanding of what the Bible teaches regarding Heaven.
Part III is “God’s Six Promises About Heaven.” McKnight continues to examine what the Bible clearly teaches about Heaven. The six promises are:
- God will be God.
- Jesus will be Jesus.
- Heaven will be the utopia of pleasures.
- Heaven will be eternal life.
- Heaven will be an eternal global fellowship.
- Heaven will be an eternal beloved community.
In the final two chapters of Part III, he describes what he thinks the first hour in Heaven will be like in light of these six promises. He then answers the question, “How should Heaven people live today?”
Part IV is “Ten Questions About Heaven.” These questions are considered more controversial. McKnight suggests that the Bible is not clear on some of the answers. Even though imagination may be required to come to answers, McKnight insists that the Bible guide the answers. The ten questions are:
- What about Near-Death Experiences?
- What about rewards in Heaven?
- Who will be in Heaven?
- Is God fair?
- Will there be families?
- What about children who die?
- What about cremation?
- What about purgatory?
- Will there be pets in Heaven?
- Why believe in Heaven?
Part II and Part III are the strongest sections of the book. I found these two parts to be moving and worshipful. McKnight masterfully illustrates his points using the writings and observations of others, which he weaves seamlessly into his own ideas. He biblically defends each of the six promises of Heaven that he discusses. For McKnight, the resurrection is key for understanding, accepting, and living the promise of Heaven.
Unsurprisingly, McKnight portrays Christ victorious in heaven. In my opinion, this portrayal is entirely appropriate and biblical. If we can’t see Christ as the victorious King in heaven, when we will ever see Him victorious? Once again, my problem is not with a Christ the Victor view of the atonement, but rather with the elevation of the view above all others and the creation of a false dichotomy between it and the penal substitutionary atonement.
Please, do not construe the length of this section compared to the strength section as an overall negative statement about the book. A final evaluation of the value of this book is to follow. However, I did consider Part IV where McKnight addressed the ten questions above to be the weakest part of the book.
First of all, the chapters are very short which limits the presentation of McKnight’s arguments while also not giving him room to adequately address the contrary views of others. This weakness may not have been McKnight’s choice. It is entirely possible that the publisher may have said, “Please, Professor, one hundred ninety-four pages and no more.”
Second, in my opinion, on those occasions when McKnight did deal with the contrary view, he did not always do so fairly. For example in the section where McKnight answers the question on families in heaven he writes regarding Randy Alcorn:
“Randy Alcorn expresses the no-families-in-Heaven viewpoint when he wrote, ‘Heaven won’t be without families but will be one big family, in which all family members are friends and friends are family members.’ Alcorn’s view, which excludes marital unions in Heaven, is quite common among Christians.”
A survey of the entirety of Alcorn’s work, non-fiction and fiction, shows that he presents earthly relationships as continuing to have importance in heaven. Spouses still know each other. Parents and children know each other. They even know the ancestors and descendants that they did not know in their lifetimes. However, those relationships are profoundly changed in light of the glory of Heaven and the capacity for family relationships expands from blood-ties to all who are Heaven people. What Alcorn presents in the quote above is a beautiful picture of the beloved community that McKnight describes as a promise in the thirteenth chapter. The concept of believers as a beloved community acting as a family is found in much of the New Testament, and some would consider it to be the most prominent view of the church in the New Testament. (See When the Church Was a Family by Joseph H. Hellerman.) I believe that in answering this question, McKnight creates a false dichotomy. Either one accepts his answer or one believes earthly families are not important at all in Heaven.
Third, I found McKnight’s answer to the question of who will be in heaven confusing. He wrote:
“The simple way of answering the question starts with Jesus. It also chases away the confusion and creates breathing space for us. All this talk about who goes to Heaven and the tendency to create lists of dos and don’ts and what we have to believe to get into Heaven fail to focus enough on Jesus. Every time we shift the focus away from Jesus, we concentrate on what we have to do to get into Heaven….
The question we need to ask is, Are you in Christ? This means that the answer to the question, What do we have to do to get into Heaven? is a big loud…nothing! Nothing! Jesus paved the way, and we simply look to him, turn to him, believe in him, and let his life, death, and resurrection be our life, death, and resurrection.”
Now, that sounds articulate and it is beautifully written, but in the end it is self-contradictory. On one hand the question is not what must I do, yet I must turn to Jesus, believe in Him, and let His life be my life. So, do I have to do anything or do I not? Obviously, McKnight believes that I must do something to be in Jesus, and thus, get into Heaven.
Finally, I wonder where is repentance in McKnight’s view. Perhaps that is what he means by “turn to Jesus.” However, I am not certain. This question is not a small matter. Jesus preached, “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near!” (Matthew 4:17) Also, see Luke 13:3-5 to note the importance of repentance.
Despite the above misgivings, McKnight’s book is good resource for those seeking to find comfort in the promise of Heaven. Parts II and III are excellent. For someone seeking to study the subject of Heaven fully and what it means for our lives now, I would not recommend that this book stand alone in study. Heaven by Randy Alcorn remains the book that I most highly recommend. On a different nuisance of the theme, I also recommend Future Grace by John Piper. Taken together, these three books give a in-depth understanding of the subject of Heaven, but they should all be read with an open Bible beside them as the final authority for faith.
(Full disclosure: I receive a free copy of this book through Blogging for Books for review purposes. I was under no obligation to write a positive review.)