A Review of Exploring Heaven, #2
A Review of Exploring Heaven, #2
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A REVIEW OF EXPLORING
Twondered how anyone, even Arthur Roberts, could write such a
wo years ago when I read an early draft of Exploring Heaven,1 I
large book on a subject about which we can know so little. Eventually
I remembered my own 350-page dissertation on a small aspect of a
minor problem in one of the New Testament’s shortest books, and I
set that concern aside. At least, I set it aside temporarily until I was
asked to review the book.
Steve Moroney has done a fine job of providing an overview of the
content of each chapter in Exploring Heaven. Thus, my analysis and
comment will take a different tack. I want to comment on Arthur’s
methods, criteria, and conclusions, and to weave references to and
examples from Prayers at Twilight into the text and footnotes.
In Prayers at Twilight Roberts says,
My dear wife tells me not to speculate about heaven.
It indicates lack of faith, she says,
and besides our minds can’t comprehend
what it will be like. So don’t get morbid.
Focus on enjoying this life.
Don’t peek; let heaven be a surprise.
Lord, is it wrong to be curious
about what we will look like,
what we will do there,
and how we will relate to everyone?2
Well, Arthur peeked. He has written a comprehensive exploration
of the concept of heaven that people will be using for generations to
come. Arthur wants to know everything he can about heaven, and
some things that he can’t. He shakes and rattles and squeezes every
present under the tree, and has a pretty good idea what he is going
to be getting on that “great gettin’ up morning.” He also believes
that there will still be plenty of surprises.
Arthur’s world is an inclusive world. He doesn’t like separating
things: heaven and earth (not separate, interconnected, flowing over
32 • TOM JOHNSON
into one another, interpenetrating); physical and spiritual, soul and
body (always co-existing, not destined for an ultimate, Platonic
parting of the ways), religion and science, working together,
cooperatively seeking the one unified truth; objective and subjective, compatible
ways of knowing, both respected.
The strict divisions we often make among various disciplines,
methods, and orders of reality strike Roberts as artificial. “This is a
nice idea; it has some good in it, but it doesn’t work very well.” For
example, on the unity of knowledge he says, “To an ordered mind a
certain mutuality of inquiry and effort is required to achieve
coherence in the pursuit of truth. Separate ‘watertight compartments’
don’t correlate well with rationality.”3
Science must use all its best tools to help us understand the
physical and material world, but there are ultimate questions concerning
the meaning of human existence that science is not equipped to
answer. It is these ultimate questions that push us to ask about
heaven, about life after death, and to hope for it, Roberts says. There is
something in us that does not want death, “the final enemy,” to be
the last word.4
In his book How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind,
Richard T. Hughes asks how we can teach from a Christian
perspective. He says, “My first objective… is to help students develop an
appreciation for human finitude, for limits, for the ambiguity of the
human situation – even for the inevitability of death.”5 To that end he
seeks to ask and to have the students ask “ultimate questions.” There
are only three, he says, and they arise out of being human:
1. “How can I cope with the inevitability of death?”
2. “Am I an acceptable human being?”
3. “Is there any meaning in life, and if so, what is it?”6
These are the kind of questions Arthur Roberts assumes people ask,
and Exploring Heaven was written to help readers wrestle with them.
In chapter two Roberts continues his quest for a unified approach
to understanding heaven. Where is it? What does “the logic of human
life, scientific knowledge, and religious teaching” tell us?7 Notice the
threefold set of sources for seeking and measuring truth. Roberts’
method is eclectic. It is neither strictly philosophical nor exegetical.
He respects both philosophy and exegesis, as the annotated
bibliography shows, but neither one on its own is determinative.
A REVIEW OF EXPLORING HEAVEN, #2 • 33
Truth-seeking (Roberts’ life passion, according to his students)
involves listening to life, all of it, and truth-seeking demands that we
be multidisciplinary. There is no rigidly prioritized ranking of the
sources of truth, to be assessed in some deductive and linear fashion.
While Roberts affirms the authority of scriptural revelation, he is
primarily trying to listen to Christ as the Master Teacher, and he thinks
Jesus has a very diverse curriculum.8 You can apparently learn as much
from gazing at the sky or carefully looking at a small, sunlit patch of
flowers (Annie Dillard style), as you can from studying the Sermon on
the Mount! And of course the latter tells you to consider the lilies and
So also, in Prayers at Twilight we read:
The sunset on the prairie flamed beautifully today.
Streaks of red and gold splayed across an azure sky
before light slowly ebbed and darkness fell
closing down a beautiful day, Lord,
and promising a greater one,
an eternal sunrise.9
Reason, evidence, what other thoughtful Christians have held
before us on these matters, personal and corporate spiritual
experience, and, more foundational, the testimony of Jesus and the apostles
in the Scriptures, all these are frequently appealed to as criteria or
warrants to believe in heaven and related articles of faith. Arthur’s is a
faith seeking understanding in these many ways, but he also does not
hesitate to speculate: “So, with appropriate reverence, let’s speculate
…,”10 but always within the bounds, of course, of biblical authority,
consistency, and coherence.11
And it turns out, the boundaries are quite far flung. In chapter
seven on “Activity in Heaven,” Roberts’ embodied12 concept of
heavenly existence (based on Jesus’ resurrection13) furnishes him with
quite an agenda of things to do. We might need Day-Timers
(remember, there’s no night there) to keep track of it all.14 (But if there is no
time in eternity, why have a calendar?) This is my question, not
Arthur’s. He does, however, foresee resting,15 healing,16 singing and
worshiping,17 probably not eating,18 working and producing,19 but not
reproducing (probably no sex in heaven),20 playing,21 family life,22
possibly commercial activities,23 the arts,24 governing,25 socializing,26
traveling and exploring the cosmos27 – in short, an extravert’s paradise. I,
for one, had other hopes.
34 • TOM JOHNSON
Every chapter in the book demonstrates Arthur’s fairness, his
ability to empathize with views other than his own, to see their
advantages and to argue for them cogently. He identifies weaknesses or
aspects of reality a given position inadequately addressed. And he tells
us where he himself comes out after all the reasonable options have
For example, after considering and sympathetically critiquing six
proposals concerning the location of heaven,28 from “heaven as an
illusion” to “heaven as the context of reality,” Roberts states, “This is
where I stand. I hold this view along with other persons of faith over
the centuries.”29 Or, after discussing naturalistic, cultural, and
religious points of view on eternal life in chapter three, he summarizes
his own communal and resurrection-based position.30 Or, after
reviewing five theories of the atonement (in a section on how people
gain eternal life), Roberts acknowledges good in all of them, sees
them all as metaphorical, and affirms that the atoning death of Jesus
opens the way to eternal life for all.31
On the whole, the stands Roberts takes are well within classical
Christian orthodoxy, generously tinted with Quaker distinctives. For
example, he clearly affirms both the resurrection of Jesus as an actual
event and God’s Light within every person as sound bases for the
hope of heaven and for life beyond death.32 Knowing Arthur Roberts’
previous work, this theological standpoint is not surprising. What is
unusual and refreshing is the breadth of views he considers and the
broad cultural and religious knowledge he interweaves into the
discussion. He converses vigorously with philosophers of science (such
as Polkinghorne, Jastrow, Gingerich, Barbour, and Murphy), with
literature about near-death experiences, with the writings of early
church teachers (such as Justin, Tertullian, Origen, and Augustine),
and more recent theologians (such as Barth, Cullmann, Moltmann,
and C. S. Lewis), as well as with several classic spiritual writers.33
When it comes to the “inhabitants of heaven” (chapter five),
Roberts says angels will be there,34 animals will probably be,35 on the
grounds of Isaiah’s vision of the “peaceable kingdom,” and
extraterrestrials may be (if they exist), since God is sovereign over the
cosmos.36 But on the issue of which humans will be in heaven, Roberts
consistently leaves that to God. “God is the final judge and arbiter of
human actions and intentions.”37 “God judges all of us by the true
intent of our heart.”38
A REVIEW OF EXPLORING HEAVEN, #2 • 35
Yet he has some hopes in this regard. “Heaven is a gift to all…
who cry out… ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’”39 And the
“beneficiaries of God’s grace aren’t limited to persons who’ve heard the
‘good news’ preached.”40 Roberts believes that billions of people will
be in heaven from the millennia past, “from every tribe, tongue,
people, and nation as far back in time as the beginning of human
history. Responding by faith to the Light within, they’re enjoying eternal
life in heaven.”41 In Prayers at Twilight he even asks if there will be
Neanderthals in heaven.42 Amazing grace: no one gets left out!43
Yet Roberts does not deny the existence of hell. “Hell is a
merciful God letting folks have their own way when they refuse his.”44
“Hell accommodates those who willfully defy God’s rule, spurn
proffered grace, refuse God’s judgment, and persist in going their own
sinful way.”45 But even so, God continues to love them and offer them
forgiveness, mercy, and life. Will God’s love wear away their resistance
and empty hell? Will God annihilate the impenitent rather than allow
them to suffer forever?46 Is hell purgatorial, an interim state of
purification fitting us for the joys of heaven?47 Roberts considers these
questions but doesn’t know; however, he does know that God won’t
Finally, one day, there will be a new heaven and a new earth, a
future, perfect cosmos, true and beautiful and good, beyond the
wildest speculations of human minds. God will bring in the new
creation, hoped for by prophets and sages of the past and of the present
(chapter nine). It will be mysterious and glorious. “Gone will be the
coarse brutality of primitive eons. Gone the grinding poverty of
failing subsistence systems.”48 Present will be prairies and cities, peace
and justice, the presence of God and the Light of the Lamb. This is,
in Exploring Heaven, Arthur Roberts’ well-founded hope.
One winter day in the mid-1990s I drove out to the farm of a friend,
a believer named Kay Lackey. She was about 90 and pretty much
confined to her farm house now with painful arthritis. She had hired help
to do the few remaining farm chores and some of the cooking and
cleaning. Her husband Harold had died a few months before. And
she wanted to talk about heaven. “You’re a minister,” she had said on
the phone. “Come out here when you can and tell me about heaven.
I have some questions about Harold.”
36 • TOM JOHNSON
I would have done better with that assignment if I had had
Arthur’s book to consult, take with me, and give as a gift. Kay was a
reader. That was about all that was left for her, since she did not find
television worth watching. My answers did not amount to much
more than: “Kay, we don’t know much about heaven. The Lord has
not given us a lot of information about it. He wants us to trust him,
I guess. But it’s a real place, and you are going there. It’ll be quite an
adventure. Our sufferings will be over, yours and Harold’s. The Bible
tells us it’s a place of joy and peace, and we will be in the presence of
the Lord who loves us.”
“What about the streets of gold?” she said, “and mansions.”
“What about angels, and singing all the time, and harps? I never cared
much for harps.” “Me either,” I said. We both liked guitars, which are
sort of harp-like, strings and wood, the non-amplified kind. Acoustic
guitars in heaven. She could see the possibility of singing there with
the Gaithers. Her kind of angels.
We left it at that, heaven only barely glimpsed, just a few steps
inside. It was not long before she heard the heavenly voice calling her,
like Aslan to the children in Narnia, “Kay, come farther up and
farther in.” And now she too is exploring heaven.
A REVIEW OF EXPLORING HEAVEN, #2 • 37
11. Ibid., 113.
12. Roberts hopes for a strong, new body in heaven, about twenty-five years of age
(Twilight, 65, 69), and not old, feeble, and out of date (16, 57).
13. Heaven, 102-105; Twilight, 4.
14. Roberts wonders how time works in heaven and how we will arrange when and where
to meet people, in “When and Where,” Twilight, 55.
16. Healing in heaven (physical, emotional, social) is a major theme in Twilight, 40, 45,
5253, 57, 105.
15. Heaven, 113-114, 116.
17. Heaven, 114, 127-128.
18. Ibid., 116-117.
20. Heaven, 126.
22. Heaven, 126, 135-138.
23. Ibid., 138-141.
24. Ibid., 142-144.
26. Ibid., 123-124.
29. Heaven, 34.
30. Ibid., 40.
31. Ibid., 43-48.
32. Ibid., 71-79 and 49-51.
19. Ibid., 118-120, 122-123. In Twilight Roberts hopes there will be lots of activity in
heaven (70, 74, 81-82).
21. Heaven, 120-122, 126 (Scrabble?) and in Twilight, 72 (swings?), 75 (fun), 77 (golf?),
and 79 (mountain climbing?).
25. Ibid., 145-149. Roberts was for many years the mayor of Yachats, Oregon. Roberts also
reminds us in Twilight that the afterlife calls for justice (17, 59, 87).
27. Ibid., 124-125. Three of the prayer-poems in Twilight touch on space travel (97),
especially to Mars (81, 94).
28. Heaven, 12-34. “What kind of place?” is the title of one of Roberts’ poems in Twilight,
33. See Roberts’ “Annotated Bibliography,” in Heaven, 187-211.
34. Ibid., 87-92.
35. Ibid., 95-97. Roberts hopes that his horse, Eagle, as well as dogs, crows, gulls, squirrels,
caribou, but not mosquitoes will be in heaven. See Twilight, 23, 48-49.
36. Heaven, 97-99.
37. Ibid., 49.
38. Ibid., 51.
39. Ibid., 51.
40. Ibid., 50.
42. Twilight, 46.
41. Ibid., 94. The question of “billions” in heaven is mentioned in Twilight, 41.
38 • TOM JOHNSON
44. Heaven, 52.
46. Heaven, 53-54.
48. Heaven, 163.
1. Arthur O. Roberts , Exploring Heaven: What Great Thinkers Tell Us about Our Afterlife with God (New York: HarperCollins, 2003 ). Hereafter, Heaven.
2. Arthur O. Roberts , Prayers at Twilight (Newberg, Oregon: Barclay Press, 2003 ), 3 . Hereafter, Twilight. While this book of prayer-poems is primarily about heaven (he had hoped they would be published as a companion volume to Exploring Heaven), it is remarkably this-worldly, engaging subjects such as September 11, 2001 ( 9), unemployment (12), alcoholism and drug abuse (26), Alzheimer's (57), and war ( 29 , 78). Typical of this balance is “With more to do” (102) that warns against being obsessed with heaven and urges the reader to “brighten the corner where you are .”
3. Heaven, 5 .
4. Ibid ., 8. Roberts also discusses death as enemy in two poems: Twilight , 33 - 34 .
5. Richard T. Hughes, How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001 ), 107 .
6. Ibid ., 110 - 114 . He credits Paul Tillich for these .
7. Heaven, 9 .
8. Ibid ., 71 .
9. Twilight , 99 .
10. Heaven , 135 .
43. And that includes in Twilight redeemed sinners (42), stupid kids who take drugs (26), dead babies (58-59), and maybe not only Christians (76).
45. Ibid ., 53 . The same point is raised in Twilight, 93 .
47. Ibid ., 60 . In Twilight Roberts accepts the possibility of purgatory (38) and hopes it includes forcing the people who write inane television commercials to watch their own ads for a year or two before letting them into heaven ( 66 - 67 ).