“The Alpha who created us for happiness,” states Jerry Walls, “is the Omega who is the fountain of happiness. This is the foundational truth that holds out the delicious prospect that the human story is destined for a glorious end that will surpass our wildest imaginations” (Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, p. 27). Contrary to Macbeth’s sober declaration that life is but a series of meaningless events, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” the gospel proclaims the wondrous fulfillment of humanity in the risen Christ. Whether we call it the beatific vision, the general resurrection, or “life after life after death” (N. T. Wright), we are speaking of the consummation of the cosmic drama in “unsurpassable beauty and goodness” (p. 39). Our thirst will be quenched, our hunger sated, our deepest longings realized in the ecstasy of love that is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—not extinguishing desire but dynamically and progressively fulfilling it in nuptial joy.
Reflecting on the final three chapters of the Book of Revelation, Walls expounds upon seven truths of heaven—or perhaps we might speak of one truth elaborated under seven aspects: heaven as happiness; heaven as fulfillment; heaven as resurrection; heaven as liberation from death; heaven as reunion of truth, beauty, and goodness; heaven as celebration of human culture; heaven as homecoming. Whereas heaven is sometimes imagined as an escape to an ethereal, timeless realm, filled with souls but not bodies, it should be properly and biblically envisioned as the transfiguration of the world around the resurrected Jesus Christ. Scripture speaks of the arrival of the kingdom, the descent of the New Jerusalem, the wedding feast of the Lamb, a new heaven and a new earth. Nothing that is good and true and beautiful will be lost. “God’s final end,” writes Walls, “is accomplished not by undoing or destroying his originally good creation but by redeeming and renewing it” (p. 40).
Of course, the question we are all dying to know is … what about sex‽ Walls doesn’t shy away from the question, acknowledging that “sex certainly represents one of the deepest and most exciting pleasures of this life” (p. 28). Following upon Jesus’ lead in Matt. 22:23-32, Walls suspects that there will be no sex in heaven, but don’t worry—we won’t miss it. Erotic pleasure, he assures us, is but “a foretaste of even greater delights in the world to come” (pp. 28-29).
The chapter on heaven is the longest chapter in the book, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the hardest for Walls to write. How do we expound on that unknown of which we only have hints in this life? But I do wish to mention one omission from his reflections—the existential significance of freedom from the power of death. Walls discusses death at various points in his book but principally as a cause of grief and sadness. This cause will be absent in heaven. As the Seer declares: “there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain” (Rev 21:4). But what of the deep connection between death and sin? Death comes from sin, the Bible tells us, but is it not also the case that the fear of death drives us to sin? The Letter to the Hebrews certainly appears to link the two:
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage. (Heb 2:14-15)
On this passage St John Chrysostom comments: “he who fears death is a slave, and submits to all things rather than die” (Hom. Heb. 4.6). In his book The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker explores the many destructive ways human beings seek to protect themselves from the one inescapable reality of human existence—their mortality. More recently Richard Beck has deliberated upon this theme from a Christian perspective in his book The Slavery of Death. He refers to the “tragic feedback loop of the human condition—in which sin produces death and death makes us vulnerable to sin.” The Orthodox practice of asceticism might well be described as liberation from the fear of death. Hence I missed a discussion by Walls on how freedom from death enables the love and holiness that is heaven.
As an Orthodox reader of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, I must note the absence of one element that must be included in a truly catholic vision of the Last Things—namely, the saints. Where is the Theotokos, St John the Baptist, and the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, whose icons, for example, are featured so prominently during the Divine Liturgy? Here the limitations of the author’s Protestant commitments become most apparent. How different the chapter might have been if it had been informed by the experience of heaven made available in the Divine Liturgy. But it would be unfair to press this point as a criticism. I only note it in passing.
I found Walls’s discussion of theodicy particularly helpful. Can there be heaven for those who have suffered unspeakable horror? Is it truly possible for God to wipe away every tear? Walls turns to Dostoevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan tells of the heart-wrenching abuse and torture of a five-year-old girl and protests the creation of a world in which innocent children suffer such terrible violence. These crimes are beyond forgiveness, Ivan insists. “Too high a price is asked for harmony” he tells his brother; “it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible.”
Yet as compelling and admirable as Ivan’s protest may be, Christians nonetheless dare to hope that the omnipotent love of God can and will redeem the irredeemable. “The beauty and goodness of God,” declares Walls, “is of such incomparable value that it will ‘overwhelmingly’ outweigh any evils we can experience” (p. 148). Horrors may so shatter and break us that we despair we can ever be made whole again; “but where imagination and resources fail, God’s infinite creative capacities do not” (p. 148). The Lord can bring meaning to the meaningless, restore the injured, make beautiful the mutilated and deformed. Ivan believes that he enjoys the high moral ground, but in truth he does not. “It is far better,” concludes Walls, “to hope that heaven is real and has the resources to overwhelm altogether whatever evils have been suffered in this life” (p. 149).