I enjoyed reading Heaven by Paula Gooder. It was obviously very well researched, yet still entirely accessible to an amateur theologian like me. In the introduction she notes that most people, even non-believers, have an opinion about heaven but unfortunately it is rarely discussed in depth—hence this book. The book taught me new things and helped bring together, and process, the scattered ideas and opinions that I’d picked up over the years, from Sunday School, artwork, pop culture, and general Bible reading.
[Heaven] lifts our vision from the mundane realities of our everyday lives and reminds us that beyond the daily grind of our existence there is another, unseen reality. … A reality that is as real – if not more so – than our everyday lives. Heaven suggests an answer to the familiar human feeling that there must be more than this, and prompts us to wonder whether there is indeed more in heaven and earth than can be dreamt of in all our philosophies.
Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. x
The book lifted my spirits and made me appreciate how heaven is closer and more relevant to everyday life than I’d realised.
Believing in heaven should mean that we carry with us a vision of the world as God intended it to be and strive with everything that we have to bring about that kind of world in the place where we live and work.
As a result, rather than feeling esoteric and irrelevant, believing in heaven becomes a vital part of the way in which we live out our lives. It challenges us to see … heaven and earth exist side by side … God can and does intervene and … God’s justice and love finds its proper place in earth as in heaven.
Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 102-103
I love how Revelation 21 describes heaven and earth becoming one in the end—a process we anticipate and participate in now—”Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.
[The] biblical language of heaven challenges us into an act of poetic imagination which takes seriously the reality of God … ruled by love, compassion, mercy, justice and righteousness.
A good theology of heaven challenges us to re-imagine who we are and what the world might be.
Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 106
Reflecting on Revelation 4-5, Gooder points out that when we worship God, we are united with the hosts of angels, and all those who have gone before us, worshipping God!
Worship, at least occasionally, should be one of those times when heaven opens and we see that our words are not ours alone, but are joined together with heaven’s eternal worship before God’s throne.
Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 67
Those are just a few of the gems in the book. It also covers Hebrew cosmology, the descriptions of God’s throne and court, cherubim, seraphim, angels, archangels, fallen angels, visions, revelation, ascent into heaven, life, death, intermediate states (Sheol, Paradise, etc.), and resurrection! However, for the sake of space, I won’t cover those topics but just the three pages that discuss hell.
A brief excursus on hell
This book is about heaven and not about hell, but so many people are interested in hell (in the idea, not going there, that is!) that it is worth a brief note here. By and large there is little evidence in the Bible for the full-blown doctrine of hell that we find in later texts. However, as with so much we have explored in this book, there are hints and seeds of ideas that make it easy to see how the fuller idea grew up.
Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 94
She notes five strands:
Gooder explains that, in biblical times, Sheol was where everyone went when they died. Although it isn’t described as a place of punishment, she suggests that there is the idea of being “cut off from God’s presence”. I’d want to push back a bit with verses like:
If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
Psalm 139:8, ESV
2. Punishment by God for sins committed
Gooder rightly notes that throughout the Bible there are examples of people sinning and God responding with punishment. She goes as far as saying Daniel 12:1-3 introduces the concept of “eternal punishment”. I don’t think aionios (or olam) in Daniel 12:2 should be translated as “eternal” for the reasons I discussed in Is Aionios Eternal? Rather, I believe God’s correction of sinners—in the age to come—will only continue until they’re saved.
Gooder gives a good, albeit short, explanation of Gehenna (an actual, physical valley just outside Jerusalem) and it’s connection to shameful child sacrifices to Molech in the OT.
The question is whether or not the New Testament ever tips into understanding Gehenna as a place of eternal destruction. Wright argues clearly that Jesus’ warnings about what would happen in Gehenna were not, as a rule, about the next life but about this life [now] … Others would see Gehenna language as being very close to language about a future fate for the wicked. On balance I would take the second view, as texts like ‘do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell [gehenna]’ (Matt. 10.28) seem to have a ring of eternal punishment about them and to have transformed Gehenna from ‘just’ a physical place into the manifestation of a future potential fate after death.
Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 95
I like how Gooder often gives an alternative view, such as Wright’s, before her own. In this case, I suspect Jesus was both warning of the consequences of sin on earth (e.g. destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD) and the consequences in the age to come.
The context of Matthew 10:28 is Jesus commissioning His disciples and letting them know they will face persecution. However, God will be with them (v20), will help them (v19), knows them intimately (v30), cares for them even more than sparrows (v31), and will save them in the end (v22). Therefore, they don’t need to be afraid of people (v26, 28) and instead acknowledge Jesus before all (v32). Interpreting v28 as threatening the disciples suddenly with eternal punishment is surely at odds with His love for them expressed in the surrounding verses-? Keeping in mind that:
There is no fear in love [dread does not exist], but full-grown (complete, perfect) love turns fear out of doors and expels every trace of terror! For fear brings with it the thought of punishment, and [so] he who is afraid has not reached the full maturity of love [is not yet grown into love’s complete perfection].
1John 4:18, AMPC
4. Lake of fire
Gooder gives a brief overview of the lake of fire image mentioned in Revelation and how it is linked to the idea of the second death.
5. Accounts of tours of hell
A final element, found more often outside the Bible, is the growth of accounts of tours of hell which can be found in Jewish and Christian texts from the second century onwards. Both Himmelfarb and Bauckham see these as growing naturally out of the heavenly ascent texts that we explored in the previous chapter, since a number (including 1 Enoch 22) seem to include the place where the souls of the wicked are held prior to resurrection.
Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 95-96
I haven’t considered these much before so I’d want to read examples before commenting.
Gooder concludes the excursus with a helpful point to remember:
The New Testament seems to come from a time when ideas about a future punishment were shifting and changing rapidly; it certainly contains no fully formed, elaborate view of hell such as we find in later texts. But the Bible – and the New Testament in particular – does contain concepts which eventually grew into a more elaborate view.
Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 96
I’m glad I had the opportunity to read Heaven and I suspect I’ll refer to it when the topic arises. I recommend the book to anyone interested in the Judeo-Christian view of heaven.