Surprised by Hope: Traditional Beliefs About Heaven

[I’m beginning a summer series of classes on N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope. The material in this and the following posts is a blend of his writings and my own thoughts. Hence, Wright’s book quotes many Anglican hymns and practices quite foreign to my church, and so I’ve tried to express similar thoughts in terms that speak better to the Churches of Christ.]

This book addresses two questions which have often been dealt with entirely separately but which, I passionately believe, belong tightly together. First, what is the ultimate Christian hope? Second, what hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, new possibilities within the world in the present? And the main answer can be put like this. As long as we see ‘Christian hope’ in terms of ‘going to heaven,’ of a ‘salvation’ which is essentially away from this world, the two questions are bound to appear unrelated. … But if the ‘Christian hope’ is for God’s new creation, for ‘new heavens and new earth’ — and of that hope has already come to life in Jesus of Nazareth — then there is every reason to join the two questions together. And if that is so, we find that answering the one is also answering the other.

What others believe about the afterlife

The followers of Islam believe in a physical resurrection

Paradise (firdaws), also called “The Garden” (Janna), is a place of physical and spiritual pleasure, with lofty mansions (39:20, 29:58-59), delicious food and drink (52:22, 52:19, 38:51), and virgin companions called houris (56:17-19, 52:24-25, 76:19, 56:35-38, 37:48-49, 38:52-54, 44:51-56, 52:20-21). There are seven heavens (17:46, 23:88, 41:11, 65:12).

According to Judaism

In Judaism, the eternal destination for the righteous is Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden). It is generally described as a place of great joy and peace. Talmudic imagery includes: sitting at golden banquet tables (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Taanit 25a) or at stools of gold (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Ketubot 77b), enjoying lavish banquets (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Baba Batra 75a), or celebrating the Sabbath, enjoying sunshine and sexual intercourse (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Berachot 57b).

On the other hand, other sages have offered a more spiritual view of Gad Eden. Rav suggested that there will be neither eating nor drinking; no procreation of children or business transactions, no envy or hatred or rivalry; but sitting enthroned, their crowns on their heads, enjoying the Shechinah [Babylonian Talmud, tractate Berachot 17a (3rd century CE)] . Maimonides agreed, explaining:

“In the world to come, there is nothing corporeal, and no material substance; there are only souls of the righteous without bodies — like the ministering angels… The righteous attain to a knowledge and realization of truth concerning God to which they had not attained while they were in the murky and lowly body. (Mishneh Torah, Repentance 8)”

The Jehovah’s Witnesses see two kinds of heaven —

Witnesses also have a slightly different view of heaven than mainstream Christianity. Based on their reading of prophetic books like Daniel and Revelation, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that only 144,000 people will go to heaven to rule with God and Jesus. The remainder of the righteous will enjoy paradise on earth – a restored Garden of Eden in which there is no sickness, old age, death or unhappiness.

The Hindus believe that if karma unresolved, soul is born into a new body; if karma resolved, attain moksa (liberation) — we simply disappear like a drop in the ocean.

Buddhists have a similar belief, with those who achieve enlightenment going to Nirvana.

Nirvana is the state of final liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth. It is also therefore the end of suffering. The literal meaning of the word is “to extinguish,” in the way that a fire goes out when it runs out of fuel. In the Surangama, the Buddha describes Nirvana as the place in which

“it is recognized that there is nothing but what is seen of the mind itself; where, recognizing the nature of the self-mind, one no longer cherishes the dualisms of discrimination; where there is no more thirst nor grasping; where there is no more attachment to external things.”

But all these descriptions only tell us what is not Nirvana. What is it like? Is it like heaven, or is it non-existence? The answer is not clear, due in large part to the Buddha’s aversion to metaphysics and speculation. When he was asked such questions, he merely replied that it was “incomprehensible, indescribable, inconceivable, unutterable.”

What we believe

I thought I’d go through Songs of Praise, the hymnal we used before going to overhead projectors and PowerPoint, and see what our singing says about the afterlife.

Hallelujah, We Shall Rise

In the resurrection morning,
We shall meet him in the air,
And be carried up to glory,
To our home so bright and fair.

In the Morning of Joy

When the King shall appear,
In his beauty on high,
And shall summon His children
To the courts of the sky,
Shall the cause of the Lord
Have been all your employ,
That your soul may be spotless
In the morning of Joy

When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder

On that bright and cloudless morning when the dead in Christ shall rise,
The the glory of His resurrection share;
When his chosen ones shall gather to their home beyond the skies,
And the roll is called up yonder I’ll be there.

Abide With Me

Hold Thou thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine though the gloom, and point me to the skies:
Heav’n’s morning break, and earth’s vain shadows flee:
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me!

Nearer, My God, to Thee

Or, if on joyful wing,
Cleaving the sky,
Sun, moon, and stars forgot,
Upwards I fly;
Still all my song shall be,
Nearer my God to Thee

Heaven Holds All to Me

Out on the hills of that wonderful country,
Happy, contented, and free,
Loved ones are waiting and watching my coming:
Heaven holds all to me.

According to our poets, when we die, we go to heaven. Heaven is somewhere above the sky. And if we are alive when Jesus returns, we’ll fly away to meet him in heaven. None of this is right.

Moreover, this world is characterized as “gloom.” I’ve only quoted one verse of these songs, but the same theme runs strongly through the hymns — this world is a place of disease, sorrow, suffering, and tears. The cure is heaven.

Or consider the poetry we study in school —

Thanatopsis (William Cullen Bryant)

Yet not to thine eternal resting-place
Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish
Couch more magnificent. Thou shalt lie down
With patriarchs of the infant world–with kings,
The powerful of the earth–the wise, the good,
Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,
All in one mighty sepulchre. The hills
Rock-ribb’d and ancient as the sun,–the vales
Stretching in pensive quietness between;
The venerable woods; rivers that move
In majesty, and the complaining brooks
That make the meadows green; and, pour’d round all,
Old Ocean’s grey and melancholy waste,–
Are but the solemn decorations all
Of the great tomb of man. ..
So shalt thou rest: and what if thou withdraw
In silence from the living, and no friend
Take note of thy departure? All that breathe
Will share thy destiny. The gay will laugh
When thou art gone, the solemn brood of care
Plod on, and each one as before will chase
His favourite phantom; yet all these shall leave
Their mirth and their employments, and shall come
And make their bed with thee.

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night (Dylan Thomas)

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Death Be Not Proud (John Donne)

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

Bryant takes comfort in the fact that everyone dies and we are buried in the earth with the great men of times past. Dylan Thomas see death as something to be fought against. It is the enemy. John Donne sees death as the enemy — but an enemy defeated. Death itself shall die.

One more hymn

This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
His hand the wonders wrought.

This is my Father’s world, the birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world: He shines in all that’s fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.

This is my Father’s world. O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world: the battle is not done:
Jesus Who died shall be satisfied,
And earth and Heav’n be one.

This is my Father’s world, dreaming, I see His face.
I ope my eyes, and in glad surprise cry, “The Lord is in this place.”
This is my Father’s world, from the shining courts above,
The Beloved One, His Only Son,
Came—a pledge of deathless love.

This is my Father’s world, should my heart be ever sad?
The lord is King—let the heavens ring. God reigns—let the earth be glad.
This is my Father’s world. Now closer to Heaven bound,
For dear to God is the earth Christ trod.
No place but is holy ground.

This is my Father’s world. I walk a desert lone.
In a bush ablaze to my wondering gaze God makes His glory known.
This is my Father’s world, a wanderer I may roam
Whate’er my lot, it matters not,
My heart is still at home.

Contrast this view of existence with the view in the earlier hymns. Why is this hymn so optimistic about the earth whereas most other hymns disdain the earth, looking to heaven for solace?


Wright is concerned about the trends in modern funeral practices. Cremation, while not heretical, especially when followed by a scattering of ashes into the ocean or a garden, is more reminiscent of Hinduism than Christianity.

And holding funerals in a funeral home, rather than a church, separates us from a place associated with worship, with prayer, with the Eucharist, with baptisms, and with weddings. We live in our churches but die in a commercial store front. The idea seems to be to separate death from the church, as though death is too unpleasant to be associated with the place where we worship God.

You see, our funeral practices tell a story, and our stories affect who we are and how we act.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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0 Responses to Surprised by Hope: Traditional Beliefs About Heaven

  1. Nick Gill says:

    "Heaven" is actually pretty old. Wright likes it very much, except for the title. 🙂

    I'm also reading "Surprised by Hope" right now. I'm looking forward to participating in your discussion of it, because I STRONGLY agree with Wright's assertion that Incarnation, Bodily Resurrection, Ascension, and Parousia are ESSENTIAL doctrines, without which the foundation of our hope becomes much like a Jenga game.

    Many of our struggles with expressing the Christian purpose for existence come from poor understanding of Christian eschatology.

  2. Doug Key says:

    FYI-Randy Alcorn has a new book on Heaven. He wrote a book “Grace and Truth” which I thought was very good and I used in our classes on grace. Saw it the other day at the Lifeway store. Thumbed through it and will pick it up when my reading list gets a little smaller.

  3. Nick Gill says:

    NOT essential in the COC-style meaning (“believe it or find somewhere else to worship”), but rather essential in the definition: absolutely necessary; indispensable:

    “Discipline is essential in an army” is their “would you please use it in a sentence?” example. Ironic, considering our SF discussion.

  4. Nick Gill says:

    The optimism about the destiny of the earth is probably why we sing “Mansion over the Hilltop” about 1000x more than “This is My Father’s World”.

    Karmic resonance is why Buddhist extremists attack Christian missionary hospitals in Buddhist areas. In karmic terms, Christian service to the poor prevents them from working out their karmic imbalance, which forces them to return again. To them, our service is really a spiritual attack.

    “Because we live between ascension and appearing, joined to Jesus Christ by the Spirit but still awaiting his final coming and presence, we can be BOTH properly humble AND properly confident. ‘We proclaim not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants through Jesus.’ (2 Cor 4:5)”

    “The task of the church between ascension and parousia is therefore set free both from the self-driven energy that imagines it has to build God’s kingdom all by itself and from the despair that supposes it can’t do anything until Jesus comes again. We do not ‘build the kingdom’ all by ourselves, but we do build for the kingdom. All that we do in faith, hope, and love in the present, in obedience to our ascended Lord and in the power of his Spirit, will be enhanced and transformed at his appearing (1 Cor 3:10-17).”

  5. Alan says:

    I'd like to hear a more in-depth discussion of cremation one day. It's a subject that is not discussed a lot (maybe there isn't a lot to be said?). But more and more people are choosing that option. I'm not moved one way or the other by the similarity to pagan religions (since the more traditional funeral also has similarities to certain pagan groups). Anyway, a topic for another day, perhaps.

  6. Jay Guin says:

    I think Wright says more on the subject later, so I’m sure I’ll be back to it.

    The Jews buried their dead in caves and, when the bodies had decayed, moved their bones into ossuaries, reusing the caves.

    This practice hardly preserves the non-bone parts of the body, and yet we see no condemnation of it in scripture.

    Cremation oxidizes the flesh, leaving much of the carbon and other minerals behind. It likely preserves as much as the Jewish burial practices.

    Personally, I have no desire to use up real estate while awaiting Jesus. Besides, I’m claustrophobic. If they put me in a casket, I’d better be very, very dead.

  7. Nick Gill says:

    He does deal with cremation in greater detail as he progresses through his argument. I won't give away his points, but I think I can say this much.

    Cremation PER SE is not unChristian.

    Being cremated, and having your ashes scattered somewhere because you liked that place and you want your loved ones to be able to go there and remember you, or because you just want to fertilize your family's garden is not unChristian.

    Being cremated and having your ashes scattered somewhere because you believe that some part of you lives on in the lake or the tree or the fish or the ballpark… that understanding is blatantly contrary to the Biblical understanding of life.

    I understand your claustrophobia, Jay, but see, while I'm not PYROPHOBIC, I severely dislike pain and am utterly convinced that the 2nd worst possible death is being burnt alive. So if there's any doubt of my being dead, I'd rather be in a box than in the fiery furnace. There's no Nebuchadnezzar to humble with my survival, so Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego hold no hope for me! 🙂

    Of course, if there's REALLY any doubt about my deadness, I'd rather see a doctor, if that's all the same with you good folks.

  8. Nick Gill says:

    PS – Oh yeah… there’s also the little biological idea that every cell in our bodies is replaced about every 7 years. We’re sloughing off cells all the time, not just after we die.

  9. Donald says:

    I loved Wright's book. I'd also recommend George Barna's Pagan Christianity? Both books shook my traditional thinking to the core.

  10. Alan Smith says:


    This question may be answered in another of your posts, but I'm unable to find it, so if you need to direct me elsewhere, please do so.

    After a recent extensive search in the Old Testament, I was quite surprised to find that there is (to my knowledge) no mention of heaven as a future dwelling place for God's people. Never does God tell the Jews they will go to heaven. Never do the the Jews say they are looking forward to going to heaven. The closest I could find was a handful of verses where people such as Job and David were looking forward to being with God forever after death (even though though God never seems to have promised that).

    The question I am struggling with is this: If our purpose for living on this earth is to prepare us for one day living with God in heaven (in whatever form heaven is), then why would He not even so much as mention that to anybody who lived from Adam to Malachi?

    Your thoughts would be greatly appreciated!

  11. Jay Guin says:

    Alan S,

    Actually, the OT says quite a lot about the afterlife. It just doesn't speak of going to heaven when we die. Rather, it speaks of living in the new heavens and new earth — just like Revelation 21-22 and other NT passages.

    Read the return-from-exile passages as John did — as being ultimately fulfilled at the end of time.

    An excellent book, written for a popular audience, is N. T. Wright's "Surprised by Hope."

    If you are willing to work through a much more scholarly work, then Wright's "The Resurrection of the Son of God" is much more in depth — 800 pages! — but goes far afield from what you'd likely want to cover in a class.

  12. James Garcia says:

    the religion of my grandfather is Hinduism and he says that it is a great religion.;~,

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