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May 18, 2003

A Theology of Heaven: Syllabus

The following is material from a class Randy Alcorn taught during May 2003 at Western Seminary (5511 SE Hawthorne, Portland, Oregon 97215, 503-517-1800).  The May 2005 class information can be found here.)

“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:12).

“People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one.” (Hebrews 11:13-16)


1) In Light of Eternity, Randy Alcorn (WaterBrook Publishers, 1999), 166 pages.

2) The Last Things, Paul Helm (The Banner of Truth Trust, 1989), 145 pages.

3) A Brief History of Heaven, Alister E. McGrath (Blackwell Publishers, 2003), 176 pages.

Non-required, but highly recommended (thoughtfully studies twenty key biblical passages on heaven and hell): The Bible Speaks Today Series: The Message of Heaven & Hell, Bruce Milne (Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 2002).


Deadline, Dominionand Deceptionare novels with murder mystery plots on earth, integrated with secondary storylines in heaven. The books contain dialogue and activity in heaven the author believes is biblically warranted, though imaginatively expressed.

Safely Home, set in the context of Christian persecution in modern China, also depicts conversations and events in heaven. Longing for heaven and the fulfillment of desire in heaven are central themes.

Edge of Eternity is a semi-allegorical journey depicting a man’s emptiness, longing, and search for fulfillment. It portrays his choices in an otherworldly setting with a group of travelers, showing the conflicting voices and paths both calling him to his true home in heaven, and luring him from it.

Money, Possessions and Eternity (Tyndale House). Addresses the short-term desires fostered by materialism’s focus on present earthly treasures, in contrast to setting our desires on treasures in heaven that will count for eternity. This is a full-sized practical theology of money.

The Treasure Principle: Discovering the Secret of Joyful Giving (Multnomah Publishers, 2001). Seeing the big picture and transferring our desires for earthly treasures that won’t last, to heavenly treasures that will. This is essentially a highly distilled version of a central theme in Money, Possessions and Eternity.


“A Theology of Heaven” will explore biblical indications of what happens at death; the intermediate state, as distinguished from the final state; the resurrection and final judgment; the nature of the new earth-centered heaven; the judgment seat of Christ; eternal rewards; and reigning with Christ.

We will address the pervasive myths and misconceptions, as well as the most frequent questions about heaven, including these:

Is the intermediate state a dwelling place of disembodied spirits, or is there a transitional body between death and the resurrection? Will the ultimate heaven be like Eden? Will there be animals? Will we learn and grow in our understanding? Will time still exist? What will our relationship with Christ be like? How will our worship change? How will we relate to each other? Do those in heaven see what’s happening on earth? Do they remember their lives here? Will we recognize each other? Will we still be ourselves, or will we be completely different? Will we eat and drink? What is meant by “resting” and “serving” in heaven? Will there be national or ethnic identities and carry-overs of culture from the present earth? Will there be libraries, art, travel, recreation, entertainment, sports or technology?

Central questions will include: 1) Is there a continuity or discontinuity between our present life on earth and our future life in heaven?; 2) Will heaven ultimately be the dwelling place of God and angels, which men must adjust to, or the dwelling place of men to which God and angels will accommodate?; 3) What are some of the central areas in which Satan seeks to deceive us about heaven?; 4) What difference does it make whether we set our minds on heaven while we still live on earth?

Special emphasis will be given to the new earth as capital planet of the new heaven, and the far-reaching redemptive implications of Christ’s work culminating in a resurrected universe delivered from the curse.

We will also deal briefly with hell, annihilationism and universalism, as well as purgatory, soul sleep, near death experiences, and the nature and significance of the millennium as it relates to the doctrine of heaven.

The central focus of the class will be the Scriptures dealing with heaven, particularly those chosen by the instructor in the pre-assigned “Inductive Biblical Overview of Heaven.” Special attention will be given to the book of Revelation’s depictions of both the present heaven and the new earth, as well as the interpretive tensions in dealing with apocalyptic and metaphorical language about heaven. (What should we interpret literally, and how can we tell?)


A large portion of the class will involve a direct study and discussion of numerous biblical texts, to get an accurate sampling and larger perspective on what Scripture says about this crucial but neglected subject. This will produce more of a biblical than a systematic theology of heaven, but as we piece together these passages it should produce some overall systematic perspectives.

The instructor will present central ideas and supplementary insights. He will call on students to draw their own conclusions, with guidance from the instructor and input from other students. Class discussions, coming out of thoughtful biblical study and contemplation of the assigned reading, will be of major importance.

Handouts on heaven will supplement class discussions, including writings from Augustine, Aquinas, John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, Richard Baxter, Charles Spurgeon, J. C. Ryle, C. S. Lewis and Peter Kreeft.


Upon completion of this course you will . . .

1. More confident in your ability to identify and deal with biblical texts on heaven.
2. More mature in your walk with God, as you cultivate your thoughts and anticipation of heaven.
3. Better prepared to face trials, grasping the reality that has always brought hope, sanity and joy to God’s people in adversity...that soon we will be where all tears will be wiped away, all hurts will be healed, all justice will be done, and we will at last be free from sin, temptation, death and suffering.

1. The central biblical texts on heaven.
2. The distinctions between the past, present and future heavens.
3. How the truths about heaven should radically affect our deepest longings and daily decisions.

1. Summarize what Scripture says about heaven.
2. Answer dozens of specific questions that people frequently ask about heaven.
3. Convey to others—in your family, small group, class or congregation—a revolutionary understanding of heaven, one that is true to Scripture, Christ-centered, and motivating to the life of joyful obedience.


Eternal Perspective Ministries, 503-668-5200. My assistant, Kathy Norquist, will be able to help you.
Email: kathy@epm.org (Website: www.epm.org)
Address for mailing papers: EPM, 39085 Pioneer Blvd., Suite 206, Sandy, OR 97055. Papers can also be emailed.


A. Attendance

Seminar sessions: May 5-9, 2003, 10:00 a.m. to 4:50 p.m. (We will have short breaks and a longer lunch break.) Clear your schedule so you can attend all sessions, and arrange your commute to be on time.

The class will be conducted in lecture/discussion style, lectures being interactive, two way, with questions and answers. The goal of the discussions will be to cultivate your own theology of heaven, and develop an awareness of the central issues and debates regarding death, resurrection, judgment, heaven, and hell. We will go to Scripture, the three texts and a variety of handouts bringing different perspectives on the subjects. Some portions of the instructor’s novels that portray heaven will also be discussed.

B. Quality of Work

This is a graduate level seminar. You’ll be expected to perform at that level. This means you must discipline yourself to do quality work and do it on time. You will be expected to have interacted carefully with all assigned readings. From this you’ll participate in class discussions to form a learning community.

All written material will reflect quality in logic, good methodology, clarity, succinctness, spelling, punctuation and grammar. For your paper, “succinct” is the key word, worth looking up in Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: “Succinct: Marked by compact precise expression without wasted words.”

It’s assumed you’re able to assess the quality of your writing and do necessary revisions. Pretend you are submitting your writing to a major magazine for publication. (Who knows, maybe you will.) Much of the value of the course flows out of the contributions you and I make to each other from our experiences in life and ministry, and from the effort we put into the work of the course itself. Plan to give your best.

C. Pre-Class Preparation (35 hours: Required for credit students; Recommended but not essential for auditors)

1. Complete the inductive biblical overview of heaven, attached to the syllabus or available at www.epm.org/heavenclass/inductivestudy.html. These passages are the backbone of the course. Use the spaces provided to write down brief observations, questions and/or conclusions concerning each passage.

Credit students will turn in your notes from the study on the first day of class. They will be handed back at the beginning of the second day. You should always have them with you in class. They will be graded on the basis of completion and indications from your written or typed notes that each passage has at least been read, and some have been given more thought. (17 hours: 6 minutes average per 175 total passages, Genesis to Revelation; or 10 minutes average per the 99 asterisked passage. It’s recommended you go through the asterisked passages first. If you haven’t yet spent the full seventeen hours, then go back and give the remaining time to the other passages.) Those auditing will profit from as much time in Scripture as possible, of course, but you will still benefit from the class if you have not done preparatory work.

If credit students can’t complete this prior to the first class, talk to the instructor to make special arrangements. However, you will benefit greatly if you’ve studied biblical texts in advance.

2. Please read these three texts at the Mastery level (averaging about 30 pages per hour). This assumes careful interaction with the ideas, note-taking in book margins and/or in a notebook, and accountability for grasping material in class discussion.

a) In Light of Eternity, Randy Alcorn (all 166 pages 5.5 hours).

b) The Last Things, Paul Helm (all 145 pages, 5 hours).

c) A Brief History of Heaven, Alister E. McGrath, (pages 1-74, 3.5 hours).

The following should be read at the familiarity level (averaging 45 pages per hour; it assumes highlighting and general acquaintance with the ideas in the text, but not specific details.)

McGrath, History of Heaven, 75–184 (3 hours)

Reading summary:

Mastery level 14 hours
Familiarity level 3 hours
Total reading 17 hours

Note for auditors or those needing to prioritize reading: if you don’t have time to read all three books, read them in the above order. If you can’t finish one of the books (this isn’t an option for those taking the class for credit), make it McGrath’s. However, chapters one and two of McGrath, pages 1-74, are very important reading. If you cannot do all reading, skip or skim the final 100 pages of McGrath (valuable, but not as essential to the class as the other material).

Please bring the textbooks, each of which is small and portable, to class with you. We will look together at some specific paragraphs in the books. Having your own marked copy of the book will be important.

D. Post-Class Project (22 hours, Credit students only)

Write a PAPER on one of the following:

1. Your understanding of the biblical doctrine of heaven. Use a synthetic or summary approach, not overly detailed, to keep it succinct. Drawing from your biblical overview study, reading and class discussions, you could make this a mini-systematic theology of heaven.

2. Develop in more detail a biblical theology of heaven from a certain book or section of Scripture. For instance, “Heaven in the Old Testament,” “Heaven in the Gospel of Luke,” “Heaven in the Pauline Epistles,” “Heaven in Revelation,” or “The New Heavens and Earth in Revelation 20-22.” Quote passages and give insightful commentary. Cite quality source material.

3. Heaven in the works of a particular writer:

a. Heaven in the writings of Augustine
b. Heaven in the writings of Aquinas
c. Heaven in the writings of Jonathan Edwards
d. Heaven in the sermons of Charles Spurgeon
e. Heaven in the writings of C. S. Lewis
f. If you can find sufficient development of the theme, you may choose any writer you want (Richard Baxter, J. C. Ryle, Peter Kreeft, etc.). You should include exact quotations and cite sources, and may then comment on, interpret, critique and/or apply their statements.

4. “Heaven as portrayed in the novels Deadline and Dominion,” by the instructor. You can present and evaluate the various portrayals of heaven, citing Scripture to support or refute the author’s depictions.

5. “The Pilgrimage to Heaven in the novel Edge of Eternity,” by the instructor. This will involve reading the novel (325 pages, about 8 hours), making notations, summarizing the story, and citing and commenting on portions that speak to aspects if the spiritual pilgrimage, as well as heaven and hell. This needs to be more than a book report, but a thoughtful interaction with the story. If you wish (not required), you could write a study guide to the book, with questions to prompt group discussion. As part of this project, you could get a group together to read and discuss the book.

6. One specific aspect of the doctrine of the doctrine of heaven. Ideas for this may emerge in your reading of the texts. Possible titles: “What will we do in heaven?” “Will we be disembodied spirits or have temporary bodies prior to the resurrection?”; What will the new earth be like?”; “Is there Time in Heaven?” “Can those in heaven see what is happening on earth?” “Will we remember in detail our lives on earth?” “Will there be animals on the new earth, and why is this an important question?”

7. “Resources on Heaven.” A detailed annotated bibliography of books, portions of books, articles, theses, internet sites, etc., dealing with this subject. If you do this, it will need to include selected quotations (indicating you’ve actually handled some of these resources), as well as a summary and brief critique of listed resources. This will need to include a large number of resources in order to justify its equivalence to the above papers. Do this only if you love research, and want something you can use as a future resource—don’t do it to slide by with a smaller workload. (If you take shortcuts, it will show.)

These papers should reflect an awareness of the biblical materials and assigned readings. It should show critical interaction with theological issues as well as an awareness of ministerial and personal implications. The paper should be roughly eight to sixteen pages long (space and a half or double space), no less than 3,000 words and no more than 6,000. Mail to the instructor by August 15, 2003.

OR Develop LESSONS for a Presentation

As an alternative to a paper, you may prepare a set of lessons or sermon(s) presenting one of the heaven-related subjects above. As a part of the lesson, please prepare at least three handouts. One will summarize your approach to the subject. The second will summarize what you regard as major issues, questions or paradoxes surrounding the doctrine, including an annotated bibliography of at least six books dealing with the subject of heaven, or aspects thereof. The third will be a scriptural worksheet, tailor-made by you for the group you want to present the material to.

Mail your notes, all your lesson handouts and a tape of at least one session to the instructor by August 15, 2003. If your sessions won’t occur until after this date, talk to me and we’ll make an alternative plan.


The final grade will be determined on the basis of your completion of the assigned reading, the quality of your class interaction, the scriptural studies and the final paper. All assignments must be completed with a passing grade to receive a passing grade for the course. Unless you qualify for an incomplete under provisions listed in the catalog, all assignments must be mailed by August 15, 2003.


For credit students THS 564I: A Theology of Heaven Randy Alcorn, Instructor May, 2003

______ I completed the assigned readings in Alcorn, Helm, and McGrath, at the Mastery level, before the class started.

______ I completed the assigned reading in McGrath (75-184) at the Familiarity level before the class started.

______ I didn’t read the following portions before class, but completed them before August 15, 2003:

______ I didn’t read the following portions at all:

Name ____________________________________

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