5 Challenging Books on Heaven

The following list of books with accompanying reviews represents some of the more challenging books on Heaven that I read in preparation for the sermons I have been preaching on the Afterlife.  By challenging I mean that they challenge the status quo, the traditional views of Heaven.  Some of them were written by non-Christians, and each of them contains conclusions (and speculations) that push the reader to reassess his/her preconceived notions about Heaven.

Heaven:  Our Enduring Fascination With The Afterlife by Lisa Miller [Harper Collins, 2010]

Lisa Miller is an award winning journalist in the field of religion.  She regularly has columns in Newsweek, and was formerly on staff at the Wall Street Journal  and The New Yorker.  Miller, who is Jewish, felt her fascination with the afterlife grow after the events of 9/11 and the subsequent work that she did in the new religious culture that emerged after that great tragedy.  Heaven is the culmination of hundreds of hours of interviews with religious leaders from all sorts of faith backgrounds, and an exhaustive review of the relevant literature and studies on the subject.  If you are looking for one book that would give you a well-rounded view on how the three monotheistic religions view Heaven, this is it.  Miller interviewed Muslim scholars and lay leaders, Jewish rabbis and scholars, and Christian theologians, authors and pastors---asking them tough questions about their theology and some of the more controversial beliefs each religion holds regarding Heaven.  Miller admits that she is a skeptic---but one that longs for certainty.  "I am a progressive in my heart," she writes, "but I yearn at times for the discipline and faith of the orthodox."  Heaven is a great book for pastors, preachers, seminarians or lay people who are interested in going deeper into theology without fear of having their ideas and beliefs challenged.

The Case For Heaven: Messages of Hope From People Who Touched Eternity by Mally Cox-Chapman [Berkley Books, 1995]

Don't let the strange cover fool you, this book is deep.  Cox-Chapman is a Yale graduate with credits at Time-Life Books, The Philadelphia Inquirer  and The Hartford Courant.  Her fascination with life after death, and the stories of those who have had near-death experiences began with her own near-death experience and visions of Heaven.  The Case for Heaven explores some of the big questions that people typically have about the afterlife:  What is it like?  Do we recognize loved ones who have passed on before us?  Is God there?  Do you get to go there even if you don't really believe in God?  Cox-Chapman uses a multitude of stories of people she calls "experiencers."  Some of them were Christians when they had their near-death experience, but most of them were not.  However, all of them emerged from their experience changed forever.  Cox-Chapman identifies some commonalities that exist in most of the experiencer's stories.  Most experiencers witness spirit guides or angels, who escort them.  Most also experience some sort of music or singing, and the presence of a wondrous light.  Most describe colors the likes of which they have never seen, and they all describe a sense of peace that is difficult to understand.  Many of them also describe a "life review" where their entire life seems to be under scrutiny, but without judgement.  Cox-Chapman is up front about her belief in the afterlife, in God and in Heaven.  What might be challenging for many Christians is the fact that she highlights the inclusivity of the experiences people have had in Heaven.  Everybody seems to get into Heaven, according to Cox-Chapman, regardless of whether they confess faith in Jesus or not.  Despite my struggles against the lack of orthodoxy (to her credit, she never claims to be anything but a spiritually minded person), I found The Case For Heaven to be nothing short of fascinating and inspiring.  It filled me with hope.  I highly recommend it.

Undiscovered Country:  Imagining the World to Come by Peter S. Hawkins [Seabury, 2009]

Peter S. Hawkins is, among other things, an expert on Dante's Divine Comedy, which in this day and age is saying something.  I have to say that this book is easily one of the best theological books I have read in a very long time, and without a doubt the most beautifully written book on Heaven.  Drawing on his knowledge not only of Dante, but also of the ancient Church Fathers and Mothers, Shakespeare, and even a smattering of poets of our own age, Hawkins offers an astounding vision of Heaven that is grounded in imagination and creativity.  He writes that Heaven "can be mapped not by sight or with certainty but by theological imagination."  He goes on to say that "it is glimpsed with what Scripture refers to as the 'eyes of the heart.'" This is a book for poets, prophets and preachers.  It is the sort of book that once picked up cannot be put down easily.  Hawkins vision of Heaven is one that cannot be described, but must be.  There is no way to use mere language to offer up descriptions of the afterlife, according to Hawkins, but in attempting it we experience grace, hope and peace.  In Paradiso, Dante writes, "How incomplete is speech, howe weak, when set/against my thought!  And this, to what I saw/is such---to call it little is too much."  This sums up Hawkins beautiful attempt to offer a glimpse of Heaven's geography.  As paltry as our speech may be, it is all we have.  I highly recommend this book to anyone with the courage to be challenged by the language of metaphor, and who can hold it in tension with what they hope to be certain.

Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church by N.T. Wright [HarperOne, 2008]

Although Heaven is not the only topic of discussion in what I believe to be one of Wright's finest works, it does garner much of his attention.  I can't begin to say enough about how influential Surprised by Hope has been in shaping my own theology regarding the Resurrection and what it means for us.  I can also say without hesitation that Wright's thoughts on Heaven are absolutely grounded in Scripture.  He is, after all, an unapologetically Christian theologian.  Still, there is much to be challenged by in Surprised by Hope regarding Heaven.  For Wright, the concern for the Christian should not be "where we go when we die," but rather concern over what God is up to for all of Creation.  Additionally, Wright is loathe to describe the furnishings in Heaven, but does offer a vision of what it could be---ideas with one foot in Scripture and another in theories of physics.   Either of these approaches might prove to be a bit sticky for some more literally-minded Christians.  But if you are in the mood to have your mind blown by some freakishly smart Biblical interpretation, and aren't afraid to hear that there is much for Christians to do in this life instead of pining for the next...  then I highly recommend Surprised by Hope.  

Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell & The Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell [HarperOne, 2011]

I would be remiss if I didn't include Rob Bell's controversial book on this list.  Just about every evangelical Christian I have ever met has an opinion about this book, and few of them have ever read it.  If the Southern Baptist Convention could   get away with prescribing book burnings, Love Wins would definitely make the short list.  And here is where I borrow from my own review of Love Wins from last year:

Love Wins begins with questions about the nature of who is "in" and who is "out" when it comes to God and God's love.  Bell comes out of a faith tradition, not unlike the one in which I was raised where "salvation" and by extension God's love was fairly conditional.   In these Christian traditions salvation depends upon individual actions, like what you say, do, who you are, who your friends are, upon the actions of others, what prayers you pray and how you act.  There doesn't seem to be a lot of God's desire, will and action involved in the salvation story in these faith traditions--it is almost entirely humanistic.  And this is Bell's point as he moves into questions about heaven. What exactly do we mean when we say that we are "saved" and "going to heaven?"  
It is here that Bell owes a great deal to N.T. Wright's work on heaven, hell and resurrection.  Like Wright, Bell asserts that heaven isn't exactly a place that is somewhere else.  Heaven is closer to us than we think.  It's not God's desire to destroy the Creation that he called "good."  In fact, it is his desire that it be made new, that heaven and earth will be one.  This prompts Bell to write,
"How we think about heaven, then, directly affects how we understand what we do with our days and energies now, in this age.  Jesus teaches how to live now in such a way that we create, who we give our efforts to, and how we spend our time will all endure in the new world."

So basically, Rob affirms what N.T. Wright asserts---only he does it in a cool way that is easier for most of us to read.  I have read Love Wins about five times.  I bought the study guide and I even purchased the enhanced iBook version so I could watch the videos.  Heck, I even wrote a paper using it as a conversation partner for my Doctor of Ministry Theology class.  So yeah... I recommend reading it, and being challenged by it.

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