On Heaven (and Hell): Alan Gomes and Randy Alcorn

Ever since the day God got a hold of my life as a teenager, I have wanted to learn everything I could about heaven.  In fact, thinking about the brevity of life in comparison to the length of eternity was what got me on track and motivated me to really follow Christ as a teenager.  So I was delighted to read my Talbot colleague Alan Gomes’s brand new book 40 Questions About Heaven and HellA decade or so ago I read Randy Alcorn’s influential book: HeavenWhat follows is not a full-fledged review of either book, but a short list of comparisons and contrasts between these two books.

Comparisons:

  • Both authors seek to present a biblical case for what heaven is like. Unlike many popular books about heaven that are merely personal reflections from people who claim to have had near-death experiences in which they visited heaven, neither of our two authors place much weight on such testimonies.  Their primary concern is with what the Bible teaches about heaven.
  • Both authors agree that the picture of disembodied spirits floating around on white clouds and eating marshmallows is the incorrect view of the eternal state. (Actually, neither mentions marshmallows; that was my addition.)  Both authors correctly support the idea that “heaven” for resurrected believers will be a physical existence on a reconstituted earth—and that in our resurrected (physical) bodies we will, say, be able to eat good food.
  • Both agree that eternal life is only promised to those who put their faith in Christ in this life, that purgatory is not a thing, that God will assign rewards to believers, that we will know each other in the eternal state, that marriage won’t exist, and that we will be constantly learning and carrying out new God-given responsibilities.

Contrasts:

  • The most obvious observable difference between these two books is that Gomes writes about both heaven and hell. Alcorn’s book is only about heaven.
  • Gomes adheres closely to what the Bible teaches or suggests while tending toward silence when something isn’t explicitly taught or inferable from the Bible. Alcorn also mines the Scriptures, but is more willing to speculate about the eternal state than is Gomes.  For example, Alcorn speculates that we may be able to travel to vast sections of outer space, and maybe even back in time to view past historical events.  Gomes doesn’t even bother to address such ideas.
  • Alcorn’s book is not only informative; it is also inspiring, which may account for its popularity. Alcorn is, after all, a novelist in addition to being a Bible teacher.  He brings compositional verve to his book.  Gomes’s book is also well-written, but in a straightforward, this-is-what-the-Bible-teaches sort of way.
  • Gomes believes (correctly, in my opinion) that when we die as believers in Christ, we will temporarily exist without our bodies—but still in a place of rest—until our bodies are resurrected at the end of the age. Alcorn (strangely, in my opinion), thinks that God gives us some sort of intermediate body as we await the resurrection of our present bodies.
  • Alcorn’s book is a theology of heaven composed by a well-trained pastor/teacher/writer. Gomes’s book is a theological analysis of heaven and hell by a true-blue theologian who has spent his life studying and teaching both historical and systematic theology, but who also is adept at writing theology in such a way that non-theologians can understand it.
  • Alcorn’s book is almost 500 pages long; Gomes’s is around 370, despite including discussions of both heaven and hell.

Summary:  I truly appreciate Randy Alcorn’s ministry (and think his big book on money and possessions,[1] and his novel on persecution of Christians[2] are two of the best books I have ever read), but when it comes to recommending a book about heaven, I will be recommending Alan Gomes’s book from now on.  Besides, in Gomes’s book, you don’t just get heaven, you get hell thrown in as well!  (I’m not sure whether that last sentence made you happy or not…)

This doesn’t mean that I agree with everything Gomes has written.  In particular, I think that the way he set up and sought to answer one question—that is, how can we be happy in the eternal state if there are people suffering in hell, including some of our loved ones?—will be viewed as unsatisfactory by many readers.  Nevertheless, I think that 40 Questions About Heaven and Hell is a very good book—and a step up from Alcorn’s Heaven—and heartily agree with the endorsements of Wayne Grudem (“an outstanding analysis”), Michael Horton (“a superb resource”), and J.P. Moreland (“a treasure trove of information”).

[1] Money, Possessions, and Eternity.

[2] Safely Home.

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