In your Heaven book, I came across what appeared to be a misunderstanding of the 1 Corinthians 2:9-10 passage. What is your response?

HeavenQuestion from a reader:

In leading a study through your Heaven book, I came across what appeared to be a misunderstanding of the 1 Corinthians 2:9-10 passage. What is your response?
     I studied verse 10 and clearly, whatever is being spoken of in verse 9 is also being spoken of as being revealed to us by the Spirit in verse 10.
     I also went to the beginning of the passage and read on through to verse 16 and found something I believe you may have missed altogether. While on page 19 of Heaven you claim verse 10 “means that God has explained to us what Heaven is like.” This particular passage is not about heaven and does not at all refer to God revealing things about it to us. Rather, it is saying that the Spirit has revealed the wonder, the wisdom and the mystery of God’s redemptive provision for us through Christ’s atoning death on the cross.
     Let’s have a closer look.
     In verse 1-5, Paul talks about how he did not come to the Corinthians with superiority of speech or wisdom, nor with persuasive words, but “determined to know nothing among [them] except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified,” and that his preaching was “in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that [their] faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.” Paul’s not a fan of human wisdom.
     However, in verse 6, he takes another tack on wisdom, saying, “Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature. A wisdom, however, not of this age...”
     And in verses 7 and 8 he goes on about this wisdom, “but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom, which God predestined before the ages to our glory, the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood...” What didn’t the rulers understand? God’s wisdom in His plan of redemption.
     How do we know that that’s what they didn’t understand? Verse 8: “for if they had understood it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory...” The “rulers of this age” are powers and principalities, Satan and his minions—the religious stooges he put up to crucifying Jesus. Those powers—Satan, et al—would never have crucified Jesus if they had known that in doing so they would enable Him through His atoning death to set His elect free from sin’s bondage!
     Then Paul says, “...but just as it is written.” This statement obviously introduces more evidence to support his prior statement. And this additional evidence is that, “Things which eye has not seen and hear has not heard, and which have not entered the heart of man...” What things? This incredible plan of God, this unsearchable wisdom, this unfathomable love that was so far beyond the hearing or sight or comprehension (heart)—”all THAT God has prepared for those who love Him.”    
     If we go back to Isaiah 64:4, the verse Paul is quoting, and it’s context of sinful man not comprehending God, it is clearly not about heaven, but about God being like no other: “For from of old they have not heard nor perceived by ear, neither has the eye seen a God besides Thee.” Our God is awesome, beyond the sinner’s comprehension. And His wisdom in redemption is way beyond natural man’s ability to comprehend it (1 Corinthians 2:14). In fact, “the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:18)
     However, despite natural man’s inability to hear, see or comprehend the depths of God’s wisdom, plan and love, we learn in 1 Corinthians 2:10, “to us God has revealed them through the Spirit...even the depths of God.” Paul then goes on in verse 12-13 to share further how “we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by God, which things we speak...” Did Paul speak much of heaven to the Corinthians? Not that we know of. But he certainly did spend a great deal of time speaking of the love of God made manifest in “Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (verse 2).
     So, I’m persuaded that this passage is not speaking about heaven being beyond imagination in verses 8-9, nor is it in verse 10 speaking of the Spirit revealing things about heaven, as you suppose. Rather, the passage is devoid of any reference to (or intent to speak of) heaven, but is entirely focused on the wisdom of God in redemption—a wisdom the world missed and which never entered their ears, eyes or hearts, but which God has revealed to us who believe through the Spirit.
     Certainly God wants us to use our imagination, and it is indeed helpful to us in visualizing the goal and staying the course. But it is also true that God is way beyond us, that His thoughts are far above us, that His wisdom is unfathomable and His knowledge unsearchable, and—by these very facts—His heaven will be beyond the bounds of our imagination. I certainly hope my vision of heaven (which is awesome!) will be put to a rotten shame by what my God has prepared for me. I’ll be sorely disappointed if my infinite God can’t do far better than finite me.

Answer from Randy Alcorn:

This is very good input.

I actually used to use 1 Corinthians 2:9-10 as an example of Scripture taken out of context, pointing out that Paul isn’t talking about heaven in 1 Corinthians 2. Finally, however, after seeing it repeatedly used in reference to Heaven I decided that even though Heaven is obviously not what he’s talking about in any central sense, the passage might be applied to Heaven in a secondary sense.

We do that all the time. For example, where two or three are gathered, there is Christ in their midst (Matthew 18). The context is specifically church discipline, not prayer. Yet, can it be applied to prayer in a secondary sense, in terms of God’s presence in a special way when his people gather for that or any purpose? Yes. In fact, New Testament writers often quote Old Testament passages in ways that are secondary (though still legit, of course) rather than primary to the OT author’s original intent.

So as long as we distinguish primary meaning (interpretation) from secondary application I think it’s workable. While primary meaning is about God’s greatness and wisdom in his redemptive work, does that greatness in redemptive work extend in any sense to Heaven? Likely the answer could be yes, but certainly not primarily, only secondarily.

Years ago, having given up trying to convince people the passage doesn’t talk about heaven (which was hard to get people to agree with), I started adding “but IF it does, then it says God has revealed it to us, so it means the opposite of what you’re saying.” But after reading 150 books on heaven, nearly all of which related the passage to heaven and why we can’t know anything about it, I guess I succumbed, and just skipped over my qualification that the passage isn’t talking about Heaven and went straight to the “God has revealed it”!

This was a mistake, and I’m grateful you have pointed it out. I will change it when we come out with the revised edition.

Likely I will say that the passage is clearly not primarily about Heaven, and the furthest we could go is to look at it in a secondary sense, with God’s greatness and awesomeness in redemption being extended to the subject of Heaven as a part of that redemptive plan. But then I will likely say even if someone insists on the traditional interpretation that the passage really IS primarily about Heaven, they cannot use it to prove that we can’t know anything about Heaven, since the passage says “But God has revealed it to us through his Spirit.”

Anyway, you may or may not agree with that bottom line, but at least it is much closer to what you’re saying than the book as it now is.

Thanks so much for giving this thought and sending it to me. It’s exactly the kind of input I was seeking.

For more information on the subject of Heaven, see Randy Alcorns book Heaven.

Randy Alcorn, founder of EPM

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over fifty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries

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