God Questions - a dialogue

Belief in an afterlife is an indispensable element in traditional Christian theism. The exact nature of this afterlife, however, has been variously interpreted, and Peter begins the discussion with a statement defining his beliefs about Heaven. Carl has many questions (and some challenges) which he puts to Peter. Peter draws upon the Bible, many theologians, and his own interpretations to answer these questions and challenges. Carl also questions Peter about Hell, which Peter regards as the necessary flip-side of Heaven.

[Peter S. Williams] A 1995 survey of religious belief in Britain found that two-thirds of those questioned believed in life after death. Yet belief in Heaven, like a ship collecting barnacles on a long voyage, is beset with so much misunderstanding and skepticism that it is sinking into a sea of obscurity, even for many Christians. Like sailors putting in to harbor to scrape the bottom of their ship free of barnacles, Christians need to make their belief in Heaven more ship-shape if society at large is even to understand, let alone believe, what Christianity teaches about the afterlife.[1]

Part of our problem is a loss of the medieval ability to appreciate pictures as symbols for truths. In this television age, we are conditioned to take things at face value, but the Biblical pictures of Heaven (like those in the book of Revelation) are almost all solid symbol and metaphor, and so the modern mind gets hung up on the gold and trumpets, laughing at Heaven whilst displaying a laughable inability to seriously consider what these non-literal word-pictures mean. For example, the imagery of precious stones, impressive walls and eternally open gates found in Revelation are all meant to convey the message that the eternal life of Heaven is precious, glorious, and above all, secure. A city shuts its gates to keep out enemies; but Heaven never shuts its gates, because it has no enemies. The New Jerusalem is described as being “laid out like a square, as long as it was wide”, the geometry of the holy of holies within the Jewish temple. In other words, everywhere in Heaven is as holy as can be, and unlike the earthly temple, where only the high priest could enter the innermost sanctuary, in “the New Jerusalem” everyone enters the holy place and has direct access to God: “I did not see a temple in the city”, says John, “because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.” (Revelation 21: 22) “God himself will be with them and be their God.” (Revelation 21:3)

“We are very shy nowadays of even mentioning heaven”, wrote C.S.Lewis, “We are afraid of the jeer about 'pie in the sky', and of being told that we are trying to 'escape' from the duty of making a happy world here and now into dreams of a happy world elsewhere. But either there is 'pie in the sky' or there is not. If there is not, then Christianity is false, for this doctrine is woven into its whole fabric. If there is, then this truth, like any other, must be faced.”[2] As for the charge of escapism, who gives better care to a road, those who think it is going nowhere in particular, or those who believe it leads to a great City?

If Christian belief in Heaven is true, then, as Jonathan Edwards wrote: “it becomes us to spend this life only as a journey towards heaven, as it becomes us to make the seeking of our highest end and proper good the whole work of our lives; to which we should subordinate all other concerns of life.”[3] Heaven, then, is not just something in the future, something that will take care of itself when the time comes. Heaven is something that should be a central concern of our life now; Heaven is what gives our present life meaning and purpose.

The main reason for believing in Heaven is trust in Jesus, and a derived trust in the New Testament as an authoritative divine revelation: “If there is no resurrection of the dead”, wrote Paul to the Christians in Corinth in AD 56, “then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith... If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15:13-20)

What is Heaven?

Heaven is first a relationship with God, beginning here on earth, that Jesus calls 'eternal life'. This means that every Christian is already in Heaven. Second, Heaven is an afterlife, a continuing relationship with God until the Last Judgment in a personal, but disembodied existence. And finally, Heaven will be the establishment of ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ God’s resurrection of the cosmos and His re-embodiment of believers with a glorious spiritual physicality like that of the resurrected Jesus.

Heaven, then, is a freely chosen relationship with God (eternal life) that leads to a disembodied afterlife with God that will culminate in a resurrected cosmos including resurrected human bodies. Moreover, Heaven is a communal reality: “If you can imagine a world where all of the inhabitants are truly humble, selfless, meek, righteous, merciful, compassionate, pure in heart, and at peace with God and each other, then you have a glimpse of what heaven will be like.”[4]in its final stage, then, following the return of Jesus with power, Heaven is the inexhaustible and objectively good goal that is the resurrected, eternal and communal existence of morally perfected people in freely chosen relationship with God.

[Carl Stecher] I can’t imagine such a world, inhabited by such people. Some of their qualities would be totally wasted in heaven. Of what possible use would compassion and mercy be? The denizens of heaven will be truly humble and meek and totally self-effacing. If this would describe all my companions in heaven, I would certainly not want to be there for all eternity. Unless the only alternative were hell. As Mark Twain said, “Heaven for climate, hell for company.”

[PW] Mercy and compassion may or may not be unnecessary in heaven, but a community of humble, selfless, meek, righteous, pure-hearted people “at peace with God and each other”, as Geisler and Bucchino put it, sounds wonderful to me! Mark Twain’s witty but confused choice of “Heaven for climate, hell for company” simply evinces a failure to understand virtue.[5] The heart of Christian virtue is being God-centered rather than self-centered. Paradoxically, this is the only path that leads to true self-fulfillment:

“The self has a built-in, God-imaging design of self-fulfillment by self-forgetfulness, pleasure through unselfishness, ecstasy by ekstasis, ‘standing-outside-the-self’. This is not the self-conscious self-sacrifice of the do-gooder but the spontaneous, unconscious generosity of the lover. This principle, that the greatest pleasure is self giving, is graphically illustrated by sexual intercourse and by the very structure of the sexual organs, which must give themselves to each other in order to be fulfilled. In Heaven, when egotistic perversions are totally eliminated, all pleasure is increased, including sexual pleasure. Whether this includes physical sexual pleasure or not, remains to be seen.”[6]

The two senses of Heaven are inextricably linked. Entering into the eternal life of knowing God during our earthly life is like getting engaged. Entering the afterlife with God is like getting married. And the resurrection existence of the 'new heaven and earth' will be like going on honeymoon and setting up home together! John writes: “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” (Revelation 21:2) The New Jerusalem symbolizes a new "chosen people", and this "chosen people" is like "a bride" beautifully dressed for her wedding. This “chosen people”, this “bride”, is the Church (the “body of Christ”, to use another Biblical metaphor). The Church is the universal community of believers, past and present. “Come”, said one of the seven angels to John, “I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” (Revelation 21:9)

One of the best known passages in Revelations 21 is verses 3-4: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

[CS] You criticize some Christians for having too literal understanding of the symbols used by John to describe heaven, but you do little yourself to invest these symbols with any clear meaning. “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, , for the old order of things has passed away.” This tells what there will not be in heaven, but my question is what there will be. “The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.” [Isaiah 65:17] Apparently Heaven’s inhabitants will all be amnesiacs. But won’t this result in a discontinuity between their earthy selves and their heavenly selves? If you go to heaven, Peter, it seems that you will not know who you are, or where you came from. So how will you have any identity at all? How will you be able to relate to family members who died before you? Yet “… they will be the same people transformed by the grace and power of God to be truly themselves for the first time.” Now you have lost me entirely.

[PW] I understand the prophecy that “The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind”, to illuminate the way in which everything characteristic of the sinfulness and fallenness of the present creation will be expunged, and that present pain will not cast a pall over the joy of Heaven.

[CS] Peter, I still find your idea of Heaven to be rather nebulous. You use an extended simile that heaven is like marriage, based upon the ravings of John in Revelation. (If this characterization seems harsh, I invite anyone to read Revelation, preferably straight through.) I love my wife very much and have been happily married almost 39 years, but I don’t find this simile very instructive.

[PW] The Bible looks in hope to something radical, mysterious, and unexpected: the resurrection of a spiritual body and the creation of a new, spiritual cosmos: “The body that is sown is perishable,” wrote Paul, but “it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.” (1 Corinthians 15:42-44)

[CS] Peter, thank you for attempting to clarify for me your conception of Heaven. I agree that traditional Christian theism is unsupportable without this doctrine. But since I do not accept the divinity of Christ nor the authority of the Bible, you have given me no reason to believe in Heaven. For me, Heaven is the capstone on what is a totally fabulous arch created not by God but by the human imagination.

[PW] I agree with you that the arguments for Heaven presuppose the acceptance of a whole structure of argument that you do not accept. I hope we may agree that for anyone (like myself) who does accept the existence of God and the divine authority of Jesus, belief in Heaven is both rationally obligatory and coherent. Furthermore, you have argued that the fact of evil is incompatible with the theist’s God. I will show how the doctrine of heaven explains (at least in large part) how it is that evil does not disconfirm the existence of God

What Difference Does Heaven Make?

Heaven gives a foundation for hope. We all want to know what will happen next, but if atheism is true, the time comes when we will never know. For the atheist, life ‘has no future’, and hope is on the scaffold. As Bertrand Russell wrote just before his death: “There is darkness without, and when I die there will be darkness within... There is no splendor, no vastness anywhere: only triviality for a moment, and then nothing.”[7] But if God exists, then there is hope despite death.

Heaven gives our existence an adequate purpose. Aristotle thought the highest goal was happiness, for “we always choose it for its own sake and never as a means to something else.”[8] This happiness is an objective state of blessedness, not a subjective feeling of well being. Aquinas argued that Aristotle’s happiness was the eternal life of Heaven because Heaven is a goal that you can never get too much of, which goes on forever, and which is objectively good: “Heaven is the place where ultimate meaning is found through worshipping forever the One who is worthy of adoration.”[9] An adequate purpose for life must be worth pursuing for its own sake. If there is no objective goal, then there is no adequate purpose for life. On the Christian view, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism of the Faith explains: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” Thus heaven is an objective goal that gives an adequate purpose for life.

Heaven is God’s ultimate answer to the problem of evil and suffering. Belief in Heaven seems to be required by belief in God, for as Norman L. Geisler and Paul D. Feinberg argue: “(1) Since God is all good, he has the will to defeat evil. (2) Since God is all-powerful, he has the power to defeat evil. (3) Evil is not yet defeated. (4) Therefore, evil will one day be defeated.”[10]

[CS] But belief in God is not required. A much more sensible argument is: "(1) If God is the all good and all powerful Creator, evil cannot exist in His creation. (2) But evil does exist in His creation. (3) Therefore God is not the all good and all powerful Creator.” All God’s apologists have struggled mightily to deny this simple truth; none has succeeded.

[PW] The heart of Heaven (the heart of Christianity) is a relationship with God: “Heaven intensifies and fulfills a certain type of life that can be chosen, in undeveloped form, in this life.”[11] Since the ultimate sin is to reject God, perfect beings could not do this so God could not create Heaven without first creating a world that contains sin. To enter into relationship with God is to exercise “the free choice to reach the state where we can no longer sin.”[12] This sinless state of existence is our true end, and it allows God to create the new heaven and earth unconstrained by the need to cater for the existence of sin:

“For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it [i.e. God], in hope that the creation itself would be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present.” (Romans 8:20-22)

Outside of Revelation 21, the finest evocation of Heaven I know comes from the last book of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, The Last Battle, where Aslan the Lion, who represents Jesus, has the last word:

“'Your father and mother and all of you are – as you used to call it in the Shadowlands – dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.’
"And as he spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

[CS] You have written of Heaven from an exclusively Christian perspective. I do not see any references to other faith traditions. This seems to make heaven an exclusive club. If the Christian God is anything but a tribal God, why would He leave hundreds of millions of humans in darkness? How can God be good if so many humans have not only never heard of Jesus, but have lived in cultures where the theistic God has never even introduced Himself? How can such people have "a freely chosen relationship with God" if even the idea of such a God is entirely unknown to them?

[PW] While many cannot have a specifically Christian faith during their earthly existence, this need not exclude them from knowledge of Jesus in the afterlife. And while knowledge of Jesus unquestionably facilitates knowledge of God in this earthly life, God loves us all and has made salvation possible for all. “For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth." (1 Timothy 2:3-4) See also 2 Peter 3:9 and John 3:16-17. Some, however, resist this will of God and thus bring condemnation upon themselves (Matthew 23:37; Luke 7:30; Act 7:51).

[CS] I applaud your efforts to show that those who don’t believe in Jesus might be saved; this shows your generous spirit. But the passages you cite do little or nothing to support your point. According to John 3:16-17, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” But according to the next verse “he that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” This gives no reason to think that someone who has not even heard of Jesus can be saved. The passage from Matthew says nothing about those who know not Jesus; it is addressed to Jerusalem (the Jews) and concludes in verse 39 “For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.” I challenge you to find a single passage in the New Testament that clearly says that some will be saved and come to know Jesus after they have died.

[PW] Christian faith is an explicit attitude of commitment and trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior. Therefore, unless someone believes and trusts in Jesus Christ, she is not a Christian. However, it is perfectly possible to have a relationship with God that is not a Christian relationship: the Bible is full of people (Abraham, Moses, etc) who know God but know nothing about Jesus. Because every Christian has a relationship with God and is thus in Heaven does not mean that no one else has a relationship with God or is in Heaven.

This said, I believe that a truly Christian relationship with God is the fullest earthly relationship and thus the most heavenly. I also believe that those who are saved are saved in Christ, whether or not they know this now. We are saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus, but our salvation does not depend upon our knowledge of this fact.

[CS] You write that Christians, because they are in a relationship with Jesus and God, are already in Heaven. What about Christians who are also notorious sinners? Massachusetts has recently had scandalous revelations that many of its Catholic priests – perhaps as many as 10% – are pedophiles that the Church has long protected. Are they included in the "every Christian" category?

[PW] The answer, naturally, is that all Christians are sinners; it’s just that some are more sinful than others: Saints does not mean the opposite of sinners; saints means saved sinners... All men are sinners. Some know it, repent, and are saved.”[13] The more sinful the Christian, the more the quality of their relationship with God will suffer, and it is possible for Christians to fall away from relationship with God through willfully sinning against Him to such a degree that they reject the grace they once willingly received; but when we discuss pedophile priests we are nevertheless talking about a difference in degree rather than in kind, for “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Peter Kreeft laments: “I have repeatedly taken polls and surveys in college classrooms and adult education classes, and the percentage of people who believe the world’s most pervasive superstition, that good guys go to heaven and bad guys go to Hell, is always over 50 percent, often over 90 percent.”[14] Salvation is not about being good enough to earn a reward (if it were, none of us would make the grade, because the pass mark is perfection). Instead, salvation is about being humble enough to receive an unmerited gift of grace.[15]

[CS] Salvation is not dependent upon good behavior? This is a 'superstition'? Strangely, Jesus had a different view:

"Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you… For I was ahungered, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink…. Verily I say unto you inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was ahungered, and ye gave me not meat…[etc]" (Matthew 25:34-42)

"So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing teeth." (Matthew 13:49-50)

Kreeft’s words reveal the kind of doctrinal arrogance that has historically been the bane of Christianity, dividing it into bitterly contesting sects and denominations. What gives Kreeft the right to characterize the beliefs of up to 90% of college-level Christians as ‘superstition’? What gives him, as a Christian, the right to ignore or explain away Jesus’ clear teaching? And why should I accept Kreeft having access to the truth when so many of his educated fellow Christians believe otherwise?

My next question applies to what you call the intermediate stage of heaven, that stage between death and resurrection, the period during which you claim the soul or spirit survives in a disembodied state. What, exactly, is meant by these words soul and spirit? And what are the ‘spiritual bodies’ of the last stage of Heaven?

[PW] Our soul or spirit is our ultimate capacity for thought, feeling, consciousness and will. Christians believe this capacity is not dependent upon our physical bodies, but can and does survive our death. Keith Ward summarizes the fact that “The Christian hope is not that we will then exist in the very same material bodies that we now have. It is that persons will exist, like Jesus, in spiritual bodies, and in quite a different form of being. The New Testament speaks of the creation of a ‘new heaven and earth’, a new form of existence altogether, where there is no evil or destruction, and therefore where the laws of nature themselves are entirely different.”[16] By a ‘spiritual body’ the Bible means an objective form of embodiment, like the embodiment possessed by the resurrected Jesus, perfectly suited to expressing the (sinless) character of the individual. The Biblical contrast between 'the flesh' and 'spiritual' (as opposed to ‘spirit’) is not that between material and immaterial, but between a fallen, sinful reality and a restored, sinless reality:

“Thus in the new creation our bodies will be glorified and also the cosmos as a whole... There will clearly be an identity [at least of form] between our body now and the resurrected body so that we can truly say that it is our own. Yet there will also be a great difference. The body will no longer be subject to sin, suffering and death: what is raised is ‘imperishable, glorious, powerful’ (1 Corinthians 15:42-43). Exactly what degree of continuity and discontinuity there will be cannot be determined... St Augustine taught that the properties of the future world would be just as suited to the immortal existence of the transfigured human body as were the properties of the corruptible existence to the mortal body.”[17]

[CS] So theists believe that thinking, feeling, consciousness – the soul – can exist independent of any physical being. There is no confirmable evidence that this is true, and much to indicate that it isn’t. All of these activities are dependent upon a well-developed and functioning brain. Chet Raymo, a professor of physics and columnist for the Boston Globe, writes:

“Biology and neuroscience have found not the slightest evidence that a human self can exist independently of the body – not even a glimmer of Cartesian body-soul dualism. Whatever the human self is, it is inextricably wrapped in flesh…. We like to imagine that our selfhood can float free of our physical bodies…. But everything we have learned experimentally about the human self – from genetics, immunology, neurobiology and reproductive science – confirms that our precious selfhood is only the most elaborate of evolution’s many levels of cellular organization." (Tuesday, June 4, 2002, C2)

By your definition, infants do not have souls, since they are incapable of thinking, feeling, decision-making and they have no self-awareness. At best, they have these capabilities to a much more limited degree than do adult chimpanzees or dogs, and I doubt that you think these animals have souls. Infants, of course, do develop these capabilities gradually through a process dependent upon expanding brain function.

[PW] There are several theories about God’s arrangements for humans who die without having developed the competency to exercise free will.[18] Many Christians believe that infants are automatically included within the company of heaven. It is important to note that on this view: “infants are not saved against their will but simply apart from their will... there is a significant difference in God saving persons who will not believe and saving those who cannot believe – because they are not yet old enough to believe.”[19]

On the other hand, perhaps the exercise of free will, and the love it makes possible, is of such value that “infants will mature or grow up after death, at which time they will be given an opportunity to believe.”[20] While this second theory cannot guarantee that dead children enter into heaven, it does accord to them the divinely bestowed dignity of self-determination accorded to the rest of us.

Of course, while both the above theories retain libertarian free will as a necessary condition for heaven, you do not accept the possibility of such freedom, so I cannot expect my discussion here to do more than rebut the charge of inconsistency leveled against the concept of heaven.

[CS] At the other end of life, I witnessed my father’s decline over many years due to Alzheimer’s disease. Well before his body died, everything that you would identify as his soul died. There is an unalterable link between brain function and those abilities you identify as the soul. Theists contend that these abilities have no physical base, that they are independent of the brain, that those saved by God who are now floating about without bodies are brainless. The theistic concept of the afterlife hangs upon this idea, which is utterly contrary to the evidence and to common sense.

[PW] Mind and brain certainly go hand in hand, but this does not prove that they are the same thing; nor does it prove that mind is unable to exist apart from matter: “Things that go together are not necessarily the same, any more than ideas expressed by these words are the same as the words themselves.”[21] Altering a statement might change the meaning of the statement, but it doesn’t change the author’s intended meaning. Indeed, that original meaning can be restored (resurrected in other words); other words can express the identical idea. Meaning and words go together but meaning isn’t just the existence of certain physical shapes or sounds; meaning can exist in the absence of these. Similarly, if I have an accident and can no longer move my body, my intentions to move may remain. Damage to my body damages the expression of my character, but my character remains intact. Concluding that my character is ‘nothing but’ the characteristic movements of my body, or that my character can’t exist in the absence of my body, is unwarranted. My character is what informs my characteristic movements, and as such my character is something over and above those movements. As with meaning and character, so with mind.

[CS] This is mere assertion without a shred of supporting evidence.

[PW] Richard Swinburne likens the brain to a light socket and the mind to a light bulb. The bulb needs a socket to work, but it can exist apart from the socket and works when plugged into another socket or when attached to a power supply in other ways. I think there are good grounds for believing that I am not identical to my body and that my physical body is not essential to me.[22] An omnipotent God could surely sustain my soul outside of my body.

[CS] Are these brainless souls who are now ‘in Heaven’ in any place in particular? Do they inhabit the earth like ghosts? How do they spend their time?

[PW] The dead who are now in Heaven are not ghosts, and are not in any place in particular, or any place at all if by place you mean a spatially locatable existence. Even now, the human mind, soul or spirit has no material properties and so no spatially locatable position. Death severs the interaction between body and soul, but God, in His omnipotence, is well able to sustain the continued functioning of the soul beyond the death of the body.[23] H.H. Price suggested that the disembodied dead of the present heaven live in a world of mental images in which they are aware of each other’s presence, and are able to communicate telepathically. This world will probably have different laws of nature than our earthly world, “…but it will seem to its denizens just as real and even as 'solid' a world as our world does to us.”[24] In other words, the intermediate state could be a world such as the idealist philosopher George Berkley thought our world to be, its reality consisting solely of the mind and the mind’s projections. Although idealism is empirically unfalsifiable, few people have taken it seriously as a description of the world around us. I think God has designed us to believe in a material cosmos because this is the truth of the matter. However, rejecting idealism as the truth about this world doesn’t require us to reject it as the truth about the next (pre-resurrection) world.

As for what we do in the afterlife: “We do the same essential things in Heaven as we’re supposed to do on earth, only we do them perfectly... there are only three essential things we’re all here to do: to know and love ourselves, each other, and God.”[25]

[CS] And in the last stage of heaven, the heaven of a new heaven and a new, material earth, and of souls reunited with their bodies – how will these souls spend their time? – they’ll have a lot to spend!

[PW] The company of Heaven will have eternity in which “to know and love ourselves, each other, and God.”[26] I would also add knowing and loving the ‘new heavens and earth’.

[CS] I wonder, how does one do all this loving? Here on earth, love can be expressed in various ways. We can take care of each other, (but in heaven no one would need taking care of); we can sacrifice something for the beloved (but in heaven everyone will have everything); we could forgive each other (but in heaven there will be nothing to forgive). I suppose that there, as here, we could give flowers. And one saint will surely be able to tell another how wonderful and glorious he or she is, but what would be the point, as the same could be said about any other saint. I think hearing such praise would become tiresome long before eternity ended, even though Christianity seems to think that God positively requires believers to tell Him endlessly and most fulsomely how wonderful He is. “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” I assume that to glorify God means to praise or worship him. So is heaven to be like an endless church service?

[PW] As for how we love each other in Heaven, your criticism appears to be based on the questionable assumption that love cannot be expressed except though suffering, (giving things up and so on). I reject this assumption. After all, “God is love”, and God did not suffer prior to creating us.

To glorify God means to give him his worth (to worth-ship Him). So is Heaven to be like an endless church service? Not much (it depends upon the service doesn’t it?)! You seem to make very light of the prospect of enjoying a perfectly loving relationship with the greatest possible being in a community of sinless love! You also ignore the knowing side of heavenly activity.

In terms, strictly speaking, of activities in heaven, Dallas Willard suggests that “we should think of our destiny as being absorbed in a tremendously creative team effort, with unimaginably splendid leadership, on an inconceivably vast plane of activity, with ever more comprehensive cycles of productivity and enjoyment.”[27]

[CS] Scaling back all the adjectives and adverbs, what does this mean? “Under excellent leadership, we’ll enjoy our work on a huge team project.”

[PW] The description of our leadership as “unimaginably splendid” is important because our leader will be God Himself! That our plane of activity will be “inconceivably vast” is important because it will be provided by the inexhaustible creativity and power of God. That this infinitely creative, co-operative adventure will “involve ever more comprehensive cycles of productivity and enjoyment” indicates that the life of Heaven, far from being static and boring, will leap from glory to greater glory: “Will heaven be perfect? Absolutely. Will it be boring? Absolutely not! We will learn without error – but make no mistake about it, we will learn, we will grow, and we will develop... Far from being dead and dull, heaven will be an exhilarating, exciting experience that will never come to an end.”[28] Dallas Willard expands on this theme:

“We will not sit around looking at one another or at God for eternity but will join the eternal Logos, ‘reign with him’, in the endlessly ongoing creative work of God. It is for this that we were each individually intended, as both kings and priests (Exodus 19:6; Revelation 5: 10).
"This explains the meaning of the words of the prophet Daniel, used by Jesus to conclude one of his great parables of the kingdom: 'Then shall the good shine brilliantly, like the sun, in the kingdom of their Father.' We should understand that brightness always represents power, energy, and that in the kingdom of our Father we will be active, unimaginably creative.”

Perhaps the most important point to make here is that Heaven will not be boring: “Because we are with God, and God is love. Even on earth, the only people who are never bored are lovers.”[30]

[CS] All this is speculation based upon the assumed authority of scattered Biblical passages stitched together. I find this all an interesting ‘revelation’ of how the theistic mind – or imagination – works, but as a non-theist who does not accept the authority of the Bible I am provided with no reason to believe. And I remain confused as to what will be left to do in Heaven, which, in its final development, is presumably perfect from the instant of its creation. Any group project on a place and existence already perfect seems suspiciously like make-work.

[PW] While I have given several arguments for belief in heaven, I freely admit that these arguments (besides the arguments from desire and from the meaninglessness of life unless Heaven is a reality) depend upon theistic, or Christian theistic, premises. However, it is Christian theism that you have attacked as being incompatible with evil, and I have advanced the Christian doctrine of Heaven as part of a Christian theodicy. I believe that the doctrine of Heaven explains (at least in large part) how it is that evil neither contradicts nor disconfirms the existence of God. In turn, you question the coherence of ‘Heaven’; but I find little in your comments that doesn’t boil down to the patently weak argument that since you find it difficult to imagine heaven, it can’t be real! Can you imagine a thousand-sided geometrical figure? Do you doubt that such a figure could exist?

[CS] There’s rather more to my position than that I can’t imagine heaven. As I have been explaining since the beginning of this dialogue, I find all the arguments for God’s existence unconvincing and the arguments against his existence unanswerable. Since I don’t believe in God, as defined by theism and Christian theism in particular, it is impossible for me to believe in heaven. In fact, by your assessment, it is impossible for me to get to heaven (assuming its existence) because heaven depends upon establishing a relationship with a God that I am unable to believe in. If God does in fact exist, and he wants all his ‘children’ to have a loving relationship with Himself and so attain heaven, why doesn’t he make belief assessable or even possible for many of us?

[PW] This question amounts to asking God not to create beings who can exercise free will, but a creation without the exercise of free will on anyone’s part would be a creation without the supreme value of love. God had a free choice whether or not to create us, love us, suffer for us, forgive us our sins and offer us salvation. Since we can’t choose whether or not we exist, in order to relate to God in genuine love, we must choose whether or not to respond to God’s creating, loving and forgiving us by accepting his offer of salvation. So, even though there is nothing wrong with God making someone enter into a sinless relationship with Him, such a relationship would not be one of love in its fullest sense. The freedom to choose or reject relationship with God is such a good thing that God is right to allow the exercise of such freedom, even its sinful exercise. The creation of our fallen world is a necessary precondition for freely chosen relationships with God and the creation of God’s new Heaven and earth. This moral freedom is invaluable and indispensable both in itself and as a precondition for Heaven.

[CS] I have already shown how, if God existed, neither sin nor a fallen material world are a "necessary precondition" for heaven. If God existed, He could have given human beings the choice of the pleasures of a good world and companionship with naturally good people, or the supposed ‘greatest good’ of an intimate relationship with God at some sacrifice of earthly goods. The "necessary precondition" argument is completely bogus.

Moving on, I question what is meant by a "new heaven and a new earth." This is all, apparently, part of a "new, spiritual cosmos", a "glorious spiritual physicality". Do these words indicate that the new earth will be a planet, with a location in our universe? Will it be a place? A thing occupying space?

[PW] “The phrase ‘the heaven and the earth’ means the same as our word ‘universe’.”[31] John’s phrase “a new heaven and a new earth” doesn’t mean that there will be a new planet earth in Heaven. The New Testament speaks of the creation of a "new heaven and earth", a new form of existence altogether, where there is no evil or destruction, and therefore where the laws of nature themselves are entirely different. Heaven certainly includes the existence of an objective space-time reality analogous to the physical reality of the present universe, but this is as much as we can know.

[CS] Your discussion of Heaven brings us back to a question that we have previously debated. Heaven, as far as I can understand your response, will be a material existence, or at least something ‘analogous’ to a material existence, but one unlike our present existence in that we will be purified spirits living within glorified but physical bodies. There will not be pain and suffering, so these are not inevitable in a material existence. You have argued, however, that the evil in the world we now live in is justified as a necessary precondition for heaven because this world allows for humans to have libertarian free will. (I have shown this argument to be false.) Without this, you claim, humans would not come to God of their own choice and thus their love of God would be without significance; they would only be doing what they had to do. But if heaven, a future physical world, can be created without pain and suffering, our present world quite clearly could also have been created this way

Consider first your argument in defense of the necessity (or allowability) of natural evil. You wrote in Chapter Two that “Modern science reveals an incredibly close fit between the structure of the physical world and the possibility of human life. It is highly unlikely that the physical world could be different than it actually is and still provide a home for beings such as ourselves” You seem to be saying that malaria, catastrophic floods, etc, are necessary for the existence of human beings. Earlier in this Chapter, you state that in heaven people will be “truly themselves” so we will still clearly be “beings such as ourselves”. Nevertheless, heaven will be established in the future as a physical existence without natural evil. You describe this new heaven as a place “where there is no evil or destruction, and therefore where the laws of nature themselves are entirely different.” If this is true, natural evil is not a necessary precondition of a physical world which will support human life.

[PW] You misunderstand my claim that: “It is highly unlikely that the physical world could be different than it actually is and still provide a home for beings such as ourselves.“ By “beings such as ourselves”, I mean beings such as we are now, beings with sin. In Heaven we will be purged of sin, and therefore nature will no longer be contaminated, as it were, by the requirements of our sinfulness. As I understand it, Heaven will indeed be a ‘material’ existence, but one unlike our present material existence in that we will be purified spirits living within glorified bodies. You correctly note: “Quite clearly, there will not be pain and suffering, so these are not inevitable in a material existence.” You incorrectly object: “if Heaven ... can be created without pain and suffering, our present world quite clearly could also have been created this way without any violation of libertarian free will.”

The assertion that pain and suffering “are not inevitable in a material existence” is ambiguous. Pain and suffering are not an inevitable part of every possible material existence, and Heaven is a possible material existence without pain and suffering. However, pain and suffering is an inevitable part of the material existence in which we currently exist. The existence of a material existence like ours, that includes pain and suffering, is a necessary precondition of creating a material existence without pain and suffering. I understand that this claim will not convince anyone, like yourself, who denies the existence of libertarian free will. I understand that my argument for free will from the reality of objective moral obligations will not convince anyone, like yourself, who denies the reality of objective moral value. I do not understand how anyone who denies the reality of objective moral values can then accuse God of failing to act morally in creating our world.

[CS] This takes the blame-the-victim strategy to new depths. Our sin has contaminated the natural world? Natural evil, by definition, is the evil for which human beings have no responsibility. Everyone agrees that this evil exists – there are catastrophic floods and droughts, children are born severely deformed or die painful, protracted deaths from cancer. Even if the opportunity for humans to sin and to reject God were a necessary precondition for the existence of heaven, this does not at all account for malaria, catastrophic earthquakes, and other acts of God. As you have indicated, no such natural evils will exist in heaven, even though it will be material. So it is contradictory to argue that the natural evils of this earth are a necessary precondition for heaven. In a natural world without natural evil, we could still freely choose between the delights of a good world and the supposedly higher good of an intimate relationship with God.

Which brings us to the question of Hell. As I understand the traditional view, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant alike, Hell is a place of eternal torment, a punishment for all those who have not attained the grace of God in this life. In the words attributed to Jesus in Matthew, “Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:41) Do you accept this traditional view?

[PW] As heaven intensifies and fulfills an earthly life spent loving God, so Hell intensifies and fulfills an earthly life in which a loving God is rejected. Hell is not a punishment for sin, as a fine is a punishment for breaking the speed limit. Rather, hell is the result of sin full grown, as a hangover is the result of a night’s heavy drinking: “Hell is sin itself in its consummation.”[32] Peter Kreeft observes: “The popular image of demons gleefully poking pitchforks into unrepentant posteriors misses the point of the biblical image of fire. Fire destroys. Gehenna, the word Jesus used for hell, was the valley outside Jerusalem that the Jews used for the perpetual burning of garbage because it had been desecrated by heathen tribes who used it for human sacrifice. In hell you make an eternal ash of yourself.”[33] Far from being incompatible with the love or goodness of God, it is the unreality of Hell that would be incompatible with the love and goodness of God. As Geisler and Bocchino write: “God’s love demands that hell be a reality. God respects the choice people make to reject His love, and since forced love is a contradiction in terms, God cannot force His love on unwilling people. God’s love is always persuasive and never coercive. To coerce someone into a relationship would itself be an unfair, unloving, and evil act of which God is incapable.”[34] Jesus expressed this truth when he mourned over Jerusalem: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who killed the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37)

Austin Farrer wrote that: “Heaven shows the meaning of everything.”[35] If Heaven has no reality, then reality has no meaning. Hell is the inevitable flipside to Heaven. That which can be freely received can be freely rejected. Hence Hell too shows the meaning of everything; and if Hell has no reality, reality has no meaning.

Paradoxical as it may seem at first, “the Christian doctrine of hell has a central place in helping us think about the purpose of the earthly life, the value of human autonomy, and the depth of divine love.”[36] God loves us enough to allow us to reject Him!

[CS] Your response to my specific question about hell as a place of eternal torment is both vague and contradictory. You quote Peter Kreeft, who seems to suggest that hell is a place where human beings are burned like garbage, but that in burning to death (presumably after they are already dead from other causes) humans will only undergo temporary torment on their way to extinction. Kreeft feels good enough about this to joke: “In hell you make an eternal ash of yourself.” On the other hand, you quote theologians who seem to be writing that hell is a reality (which would surely make it something other than just a particularly painful second death): “God’s love demands that hell be a reality… God cannot force His love on unwilling people. God’s love is always persuasive and never coercive.” This is an astonishing statement. God is saying “love me or suffer eternally in hell.” This is not coercive?

[PW] God is love, and he loves even the worst of us. Only our refusal to accept his freely offered forgiveness and grace can keep us from his arms. However, I think that such refusal is possible (if it were not then neither would free acceptance of heaven be possible), and that Hell is therefore a reality. Humans can freely take the wide-road of rejecting relationship with God, a road that leads to the reality of eternal destruction. Hell is not God saying: “love me or suffer eternally in hell.” Hell is God saying: “You are free to receive my love or to reject me.” If God didn’t allow an alternative to Heaven, then He would be coercive, forcing people into Heaven against their will. As Hank Hanegraaff explains:

Without hell, there is no choice. And without choice, heaven would not be heaven; heaven would be hell. The righteous would inherit a counterfeit heaven, and the unrighteous would be incarcerated in heaven against their wills, which would be a torture worse than hell. Imagine spending a life-time voluntarily distanced from God only to find yourself involuntarily dragged into his presence for all eternity... God is neither a cosmic rapist who forces his love on people, nor is he a cosmic puppeteer who forces people to love him. Instead, God, the personification of love, grants us the freedom of choice.[37]

[CS] Peter, I am still unclear about what you mean in characterizing hell as "eternal destruction". Just last Saturday night I heard Hank Hannegraff, whom you quote above, preaching on Christian radio that hell is indeed a place of eternal and fiery torture, and quoting, with obvious satisfaction, many paragraphs from Edwards’ notorious sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.

[PW] Christians are widely agreed about the existence of Hell, and its general definition as "a state of separation from the presence of God". However, Christians do disagree about the specific nature of Hell. Some, like Hannegraff, think hell is a state of eternal existence (some even take the imagery of fire literally, although Hell is also described as "the outer darkness"). Others, like myself, think that it is (at least ultimately) eternal annihilation. The hermeneutical issues involved in this debate are too broad for me to go into here.[38] Either way, Hell means missing out on Heaven because one has rejected the heaven of relationship with God, even though Jesus died to save everyone.

[CS] Seems to me that if an alternative to Heaven is necessary, God could just let non-believers die in peace. But Jesus didn’t seem to have any doubts about the reality of hell as a place of eternal torment. Matthew attributes the following statements to Jesus: “Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.” “But whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” “The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 5:41; 5:22; 13:41-2)

[PW] Peter Kreeft recalls:

“one of the most fruitful theological discussions I have ever had – in fact, the one that made me fall in love with theology for life – began with the question, posed in a college dormitory: Did Adam burp before the Fall? It proceeded to the question: Will we ever burp in Heaven? And we soon realized that these half-serious questions were indeed half serious, and that they could not be answered without facing great questions about the historicity of Adam and Heaven, the relation between the resurrection body and the immortal soul, the relation between physical objects and aesthetic pleasure, the objectivity or subjectivity of beauty, and the nature of human perfection. It was four in the morning before we gave up.”[39]

Like Kreeft and his dorm-mates, you have asked some very good, specific questions Carl! I have done my best to answer them in a philosophically and theologically responsible manner, but it is important to heed a note of caution sounded by Norman L. Geisler and Paul D. Feinberg: That there is an afterlife and that it bears some resemblance to this life is abundantly clear from Scripture. The exact nature of that existence is not totally spelled out for us.”[40] It’s not unusual for me to think about these things until four in the morning; but after that I too might give up! Many of my answers to your questions are necessarily educated guesswork; but this doesn’t count against the future reality of Heaven anymore than educated guesswork about life in pre-historic times counts against the reality of that life.

My heart longs for Heaven. Heaven is the consummation of a love of which every earthly experience awakens a yet deeper longing for fulfillment. The smell of fresh-baked bread may be the best smell on the high street, but it awakens a desire that can only be satiated by eating the bread. Likewise, my experience of God is the defining experience of my life. It has awakened a desire within me that can only be satiated by the removal of my sinfulness, and the companionship of similarly purified people, in a universe dedicated to the free, creative expression of the relationship between God and his children. This desire combines with my experience of God’s goodness to convince me that this is exactly what God will one day bring to pass. I believe that Heaven, though understandably mysterious, is a coherent concept; and I think that my belief in Heaven is not only warranted, but justified by the arguments for God and the authority of Jesus: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55)

Go to Closing Reflections


[1] For some brief answers to fourteen questions about heaven, see Peter Kreeft, ‘Fourteen Questions About Heaven’ @ http://catholiceducation.org/articles/religion/re0462.html
[2] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (Fount), pp.132-133.
[3] Ola Elizabeth Winslow, Jonathan Edwards: Basic Writings, (New American Library, 1966).
[4] Norman L. Geisler and Peter Bocchino, Unshakeable Foundations, (Bethany House, 2001), p.353.
[5] Cf. Peter Kreeft, Back to Virtue, (San Francisco, Ignatius, 1986).
[6] Peter Kreeft, Everything, (San Francisco, Ignatius), p.128.
[7] Quoted by David Winter, op. cit.
[8] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics.
[9] Norman L. Geisler and Peter Bocchino, op. cit., p.368.
[10] Norman L. Geisler and Paul D. Feinberg, Introduction to Philosophy – A Christian Perspective, (Baker).
[11] Gary R. Habermas and J.P. Moreland, Beyond Death, (Crossway, 1998), p.295.
[12] Ibid, p.277.
[13] Ibid, p.145.
[14] Peter Kreeft, op. cit., (Ignatius, 1990), p.248.
[15] Cf. Peter Kreeft, ‘Justification by Faith’ @ http://catholiceducation.org/articles/apologetics/ap0027.html
[16] Keith Ward, Christianity: A Short Introduction, (OneWorld, 2000), p.176. John Polkinghorne writes that: “The ‘matter’ of that world-to-come must be such that it will not enforce recapitulation of the deadly raggedness and malfunctions of the present universe.” Science & Christian Belief, (SPCK, 1994), p.166.
[17] Paul Haffner, Mystery of Creation, (Gracewing, 1995), pp.213-214.
[18] Cf. Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, (Baker, 1999); Richard Swinburne, Responsibility and Atonement, (Oxford, 1998).
[19] Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, (Baker, 1999), p.364.
[20] Ibid, p.365.
[21] Norman L. Geisler, ‘Materialism’ in Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, (Baker, 1999), p.445.
[22] Cf. footnote 23.
[23] Cf. Peter S. Williams, ‘Why Naturalists Should Mind About Physicalism, and Vice Versa’ @ http://www.arn.org/docs/williams/pw_whynaturalistsshouldmind.htm; Gary R. Habermas and J.P. Moreland, Beyond Death, (Crossway Books, 1998); William Hasker, The Emergent Self, (Cornell, 1999); J.P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae, Body & Soul, (IVP, 2000); Richard Swinburne, The Evolution of the Soul, (Oxford, 1997).
[24] Stephen T. Davies, ‘Survival of Death’, A Companion to the Philosophy of Religion, (Blackwell, 1999), p.559, cf. H.H. Price, ‘Personal Survival and the Idea of Another World’ in John Hick (ed.), Classical and Contemporary Readings in the Philosophy of Religion, (Prentice-Hall, 1970); Keith Ward, Holding Fast to God, (SPCK, 1982).
[25] Peter Kreeft, Yes or No?, (Ignatius, 1991), p.123.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Dallas Willard, op. cit., p.431.
[28] Hank Hanegraaff, Resurrection, (Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 2000), p.117.
[29] Dallas Willard, op. cit., pp.412-413.
[30] Peter Kreeft, Everything, p.50.
[31] David Winter, Where Do We Go From Here?, (Hodder & Stoughton, 1996). As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “The Scriptural expression ‘heaven and earth’ means all that exists, creation in its entirety.”, p.76.
[32] Peter Kreeft, Fundamentals of the Faith, p.231.
[33] Ibid, p.163. Cf. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (Fount).
[34] Norman L. Geisler and Peter Bocchino, op. cit., p.364.
[35] Austin Farrer, Saving Belief, (Mowbray, 1994), p.131.
[36] Michael J. Murray, ‘Heaven and Hell’, Reason for the Hope Within, (Eerdmans, 1999), p.317.
[37] Hank Hanegraaff, op. cit., p.79.
[38] For a debate on this topic, cf. Edward Fudge and Robert A. Peterson, Two Views of Hell: A Biblical & Theological Dialogue, (Downers Grove, IVP, 2000).
[39] Peter Kreeft, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven But Never Dreamed of Asking, p.253.
[40] Norman L. Geisler and Paul D. Feinberg, op. cit., p.221.

Go to Closing Reflections

© 2010 Carl Stecher & Peter S. Williams
This dialogue, edited by the authors in 2002, is now being published for the first time on bethinking.org, by the kind permission of both authors.