Heaven: Christian Book Distributors Interview with Randy Alcorn
Randy Alcorn is the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries, a nonprofit ministry devoted to promoting an eternal viewpoint and drawing attention to people in special need of advocacy and help. He is author of many nonfiction books including Prolife Answers to ProChoice Arguments; Money Possessions, and Eternity; and six novels—Deadline; Dominion; Edge of Eternity, Lord Foulgrin’s Letters, Safely Home and The Ishbane Conspiracy (written with his daughters Angela and Karina). His nonfiction book In Light of Eternity talks of the realities of eternity and what we can expect in heaven. Christianbook.com spoke with Randy about heaven and about his writing.
“Tell us a little bit about yourself.”
I’m founder of Eternal Perspective Ministries. I was a pastor for 14 years before we started this ministry back in 1990. I’m doing a lot of writing and speak often on themes related to the books, because I have 8 non-fiction books that deal with different themes. One is called Money, Possessions, and Eternity. I do a lot of speaking on money, giving and eternal investments. I speak at Generous Giving Conferences and with Jesus Film Project donors and to various missions groups, to draw attention to the need for investing in eternity and making a difference. One of my books, recently updated with 150 new pages, is ProLife Answers to ProChoice Arguments, a book that’s been widely used to train students and adults to articulate the prolife position in a secular culture. I speak on a lot of prolife related themes.
I live in Gresham, Oregon with my wife and our Dalmatian Moses. Our two daughters are just about to get married. We’re empty nesters, but enjoying each other’s company. Our daughters and their about-to-be husbands love the Lord with all their hearts. So does my wife. God has really been gracious to us.
“You’ve written a lot of non-fiction books. Do you like the creativity and freedom you have when you write fiction as opposed to non-fiction?”
I do. I really like the transition into writing fiction. I have intentions of writing both fiction and non-fiction in the future. I’ve just finished a couple of fiction projects that I’m really excited about. (Even though I was sick of looking at them when finishing final revisions!) Of course, In Light of Eternity is non-fiction and actually that provides a great illustration of the strengths and weaknesses of both fiction and non-fiction because in all six of my novels, in different ways, I develop themes related to heaven. I actually have in Deadline and Dominion and my new novel Safely Home characters in heaven where part of the plot line takes place. There are also very brief segments in each of those books on hell. In Edge of Eternity I develop themes related both to heaven and hell. In Lord Foulgrin’s Letters and The Ishbane Conspiracy I briefly portray heaven near the ends of the books. But, as a result of that—and this is great—I’ve gotten literally thousands of letters from people saying, “We see how you’re portraying heaven here. We really like it, but we assume you must have some biblical basis for portraying it this way.” I do of course, but I can’t put a footnote in fiction that says “Look at this passage—this is what I’m basing it on.”
So In Light of Eternity was written given the strengths of non-fiction and the fact that you can pretty much directly say whatever you want to. You can tell, you don’t have to just show. As a result, I take segments from my fiction books, but then I go directly to the Scriptures to develop why I see heaven as this engaging, exciting place. I can go to Ephesians 2 and say that it says in ages to come God is going to reveal to us the riches of his grace, meaning that this is an on-going revelation and that we will learn more and more throughout eternity. Again, I can’t say that in the novels, but I’ll portray the reality that I think is embedded in that scriptural concept in the novels.
Fiction does allow the imagination to soar and also allows you to bring a “Trojan horse” effect—which is people opening up the gates of their minds and you come into the city, but they don’t know everything that is coming in. You’ve brought to them a book, and if it’s an engaging story line, you’ve earned the right to have this presence in their lives and in their minds. There are many non-believers and there are many nominal Christians who will read fiction who would not read the equivalent subject matter in a non-fiction form. Once you are in there, you’re presenting characters and a story-line—hopefully in a believable way—in a manner that can deeply effect their minds and their emotions. In some ways, they’ve even let their guard down, their defenses down. I’m not suggesting that we’re manipulating or pulling strings, but I am saying that people become open to certain truths and realities in a fiction form when they are not open to them in a frontal, direct, non-fiction form.
I appreciate hearing that. It’s been interesting in recent years with the whole internet/e-mail thing. Having an e-mail address in the back of my books I get numbers of letters each day relating to the books. People are sharing stories. One story was that someone had taken a single copy of Deadline, loaned it to a number of non-Christian friends. As a result of this single copy of Deadline, they knew of 8 people who had come to faith in Christ. I was just stunned by that. Some of these same people would not have read a book called How to Become a Christian, but they are reading a murder mystery in which you have built into the story line the truths of the gospel. Of course you have to be careful that you don’t use fiction as a thinly veiled sermon or something like that. It’s not effective if you do that. People aren’t going to follow it.
Part of one of the sub-plots in Deadline relates to abortion and post-abortion syndrome and recovery types of issues. It’s not the central thing in the book, but it is a sub-plot. Well, there’s a woman who’s a very outspoken pro-choice advocate who lives in our area, and someone told me that they had given her a copy of Deadline. I knew her because our kids were involved in sports together. I thought, “she’s going to hate it,” because there is this prolife theme that is part of it. I saw this woman at a game and she comes up to me—she’s marching up to me and I’m thinking, oh boy, here it comes. I was bracing myself, getting ready for the thunderstorm when she says, “I read your book and I just wanted to tell you I loved it. I just thought it was so good!” I stood there stunned. Had the themes in that book been in a non-fiction form she would have taken offense at it, but because it was part of a story line it was able to engage her and I think influence her in a different way.
In my book In Light of Eternity I tell several stories related to my mom’s death 19 years ago, the death of my closest friend about 10 years ago, my father’s death three years ago. There were many people who meant a great deal to me and to whom I was very close, as well as many people in my congregation while I was in pastoral ministry, who faced terminal cancer situations or whatever it might be. I found myself doing a lot of memorial services and spending a lot of time with people who were dying, and my heart and mind just sort of moved over to this arena of what really does happen on the other side of death. And when I think of my loved ones who have died and what they are currently experiencing, what should I think about heaven?
I knew before systematically studying the Scriptures on heaven that a lot of the prevalent ideas about heaven—even in the Christian community—are misconceptions. I think most of us will acknowledge that a lot of people’s view of heaven is of drifting around in the clouds, playing harps for billions of years. And you think that after the first several hundred years of playing a harp and floating on a cloud, you’ll probably get tired of it. But Scripture portrays it very differently and that’s why I wrote In Light of Eternity and why I built those heaven themes into the novels.
It’s really true that Scripture portrays heaven as a place where we will serve him. It says, “His servants will serve him.” When we think of what service is, it means we have responsibilities, we have duties, we have things to do with our time. It talks about us reigning with Christ—there are responsibilities of leadership that are entailed in reigning—we don’t know all the details of what we are going to do, but we certainly know we are going to be occupying our time in a productive way. We’re serving; we’re accomplishing things. Scripture portrays the new heavens and the new earth and the New Jerusalem (which is the capital city of the New Heavens and New Earth) and it talks about the gates and people coming in and out of the city and people bringing things in and out of the city. Well, what’s that talking about? It’s talking about travel. It’s talking about moving from one place to another, so you’re not just staying in one place. You’re not doing nothing—you’re doing something and that something is very significant and multi-faceted. Not only are we serving him, but also we’re worshiping him. Certainly the artistic gifts that he has given to people will be used. God is a creator. It is a strange thing that we would even conceive of the possibility that God would give us certain musical giftings here, or certain literary giftings, or certain creative giftings of various kinds here and that somehow when we get to heaven he will take those away from us. I think we should think exactly the opposite. Not only will he not take them away from us, I think he will expand them and endow us with new gifts.
“So will there be art in heaven?”
Absolutely! I mean you see the descriptions of heaven and the beauty there. And what about the gifts he gives us? Will he take those away? No. Why would he? We’ll be able to exercise those gifts at a whole new level. The art and music we create will be better than any art or music we could make on earth. God is a creator. Is he going to cease being a creator once we are with him in heaven? Of course he’s not. His artwork will continue, and since we’ll be reigning with him he’ll likely delegate to us various creative artistic duties. You can bet He has spectacular things planned for the New Heavens and New Earth, things that will overshadow any art we’ve ever imagined!
“Will there be animals in heaven?”
For sure. Horses pulled into heaven the chariot with Elijah in it, didn’t they? We’re told that at the return of Christ horses come out of heaven with riders on them—well, obviously this means there are horses in heaven now, right? And in the millennial kingdom we’ll see the lion and the lamb and all the other animals lying down together.
Romans 8 says that the whole creation was subject to suffering and futility because of human sin. The creation groans in longing for the liberation that will come to humans, and thereby to all creation. Creation’s under man’s dominion and will share the rewards of his redemption just as it shared the punishment for his sin. Animals are a central part of that creation, next to man himself the most significant part. After all, besides his wife, Adam was called upon to give names only to one other part of the creation—the animals.
If the New Earth is all the best of the old earth and more, then we should expect it to contain animals. If animals weren’t part of the New Earth, this would seem an obvious oversight. Eden was ruined through sin and will be restored through Christ’s reign of righteousness. All that was part of Eden, and then made wrong through the sin of the first Adam, we would expect to be part of the New Earth, made right through the virtue of the Second Adam. Would God take away from us in heaven the animals he gave, for delight and companionship and help, to Adam and Eve in Eden? Would he revoke his earlier decision to put animals with man, and under man’s care? If he remakes the New Earth with new men (who look very much like the old men, only perfect), wouldn’t we expect him also to make new animals (who will presumably look like the old animals, only perfect)?
“Is it true that some people are so heavenly minded they’re of no earthly good?”
I’ve met some air-brained people, but that’s not the same as heavenly-minded. In fact, those who are most heavenly minded are of the most earthly and heavenly good. Scripture says in Colossians 3 that we are to set our minds on heaven where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. In other words, we’re commanded to be heavenly minded.
“Why do you think people are not better informed about heaven, or that ministers don’t teach more about it?”
A lot of our misconceptions about heaven are really lies from the evil one who wants to draw our attention away from heaven. Revelation 13:6 says of the antichrist, “The beast opened his mouth to blaspheme God and to slander his name and his dwelling place.” So Satan tries to slander heaven, to make us believe untruths about the home God is preparing for us.
In evangelism one big motive in sharing the gospel with someone is that they might spend eternity in heaven with Christ. The way that a lot of Christians think about heaven in some ways is probably closer to hell—you know, eternal boredom. That’s really what a lot of people think. One of the first quotes I have in the book is from a pastor friend who told me that he wished that when we died we would be annihilated, that we just would no longer exist. I was kind of stunned and I asked him why he would say that. He said it was because this eternal boredom and tedium was just too much for him, it was overwhelming. I thought, boy, Satan has really implanted this lie, because why would you be motivated to share your faith with someone when what you are really saying is that if they place their faith in Christ, they can spend eternity with us in a place that frankly I think is going to be boring and tedious, a place I’m not excited about going to.
All of us are made for a person and a place. Jesus is the person. Heaven is the place. It’s a predominant theme of Scripture that this place is not our home and that the Carpenter from Nazareth has gone to prepare a place for us. I think the reason that we get derailed from it and don’t pay attention to it is partly because of this demonic influence that tries to convince us that this world is really our home. But part of it, too, is that we fall into the myth that our bodies are a temporary thing that we live in on earth and then when we die our spirit is separated from our bodies until the resurrection. However, every portrayal of heaven that is made in Scripture—even the current heaven, not just the future heaven—is physical in its nature. For instance, the martyrs when they die in Revelation 6 go to heaven and they are wearing white robes. Well, disembodied spirits don’t wear robes. You’ve got pictures of feasts and eating in heaven. Disembodied spirits don’t eat, but we will be eating in heaven. In Luke there is the story about the rich man and Lazarus. They both die and the rich man is in hell and Lazarus is in heaven with Abraham. And what does the rich man say? He say, “Abraham, send Lazarus over here that he might dip his finger in water and cool my tongue.” Well, what does that tell you? Immediately after death we are in some kind of physical form.
I think that’s critical because when we think of disembodied spirits, what do they do? We don’t know, we can’t even conceive what that means, just floating around. But all of what Scripture portrays about heaven is tangible. It’s activity, eating, talking, communicating, singing, and all of these things require a physical body. I think we live under a Platonic myth that the body is evil and the spirit is good and then the spirit is separated from that evil body and somehow liberated from it. Well, of course, Scripture talks about the redemption of the body and ultimately, yes, we will have a resurrection body. That time is still to come—but God appears to give us some kind of temporary body, a loaner or however you want to think about it (laughs), in heaven until the resurrection. I think that is one of the things that throws us off because we end up thinking that Scripture talks about heaven in tangible, physical ways but that must not really be the way it is. So as a result, we don’t really believe what Scripture says about heaven, and we rob it of the excitement.
“What do you think happens to a person’s faith if they have a distorted image of heaven?”
I think it’s very demotivating. For instance, Scripture tells us that we are pilgrims and aliens and strangers. We’re ambassadors for Christ. Paul says in Philippians that our citizenship is in heaven. Now think of that in a very tangible, real way, that my home is in heaven, another place, a literal place. A place of wonder and beauty and magnificence and eternally significant activity, and art, and leisure, and all of the things that we value in deep personal relationship. If I’m thinking that way, it’s going to tremendously motivate me. Even when I face a hard situation where I say something or do something that is unpopular by the world’s standards, then I can say, “But hey, the world is not my home.” So that’s motivating when I think of home as a real place and a wonderful place that I’m headed to and now I can put up with short-term, temporary hardship in light of that. If on the other hand, I do not have a worthy, high view of heaven and heaven as my home, I’m going to tend to cling on to that which I know, which is this world. That’s why I think we lay up for ourselves treasures on earth when Jesus said not to. When we view heaven in a tangible way, as a real place where we can lay up for ourselves treasures, it gives us a great motivation for Christian living.
“If you had only one prayer for your readers, what would it be?”
That each of us would really see God as he is and realize that the deepest longings of our soul are for him. Just as we have a deep longing for him—and he’s the only person that can fill that void and that emptiness—likewise there’s only one place that can fill that emptiness and that void for a place to belong. Look at the world around us. Not only are we searching for the perfect relationship, likewise people are looking for that perfect place—a house at the beach or in the mountains or out in the country—we were only made for one place and that place is heaven. That place is being prepared for us by the Carpenter from Nazareth, who’s a builder by trade. It’s going to be a magnificent place!
I think if we live with that in mind, realizing only one person can fulfill us, and only one place can fulfill us, then we can live each day expectantly, living our lives in such a way that we’re obeying Jesus by storing up for ourselves treasures in heaven. Every day we live we’re moving towards death and away from our earthly treasures. That doesn’t feel good if our real treasures are on earth. But if we’ve stored up our treasures in heaven, then every day instead of moving away from our treasures we’ll be moving toward them. So I guess my prayer is—and this is what I try to weave into my books—that the things which will be most important to us one minute after we die will become most important to us now.
This article was written in the Summer of 2001.
For more information on the subject of Heaven, see Randy Alcorn’s book Heaven.