#1 Post of 2015 – Is Heaven an Immaterial Realm?

Not the eternal Heaven (New Earth) that all believers will occupy when they are resurrected. The eternal Heaven (New Earth) will be a physical world with material objects, not some ghostly place where we float on spiritual “clouds.” Randy Alcorn sets us straight about the eternal Heaven in his book called Heaven. Alcorn laments:

Many books on Heaven say nothing about the New Earth. Sometimes a few paragraphs, vaguely worded, are tacked on at the end. Other books address the New Earth but undercut its true nature: “Is this new earth like our present earth? Probably not.” But if it isn’t, why does God call it a New Earth? One author says, “The eternal phase of Heaven will be so unlike what we are familiar with that our present language can’t even describe it.” Certainly our present language can’t fully describe it, but it does in fact describe it (e.g., Revelation 21– 22).

Does anybody want to live forever in a disembodied state? I don’t. Does anybody want to live forever on this sin-filled mess we call planet earth? I don’t. So what is it we crave? What do we desire?

We are homesick for Eden. We’re nostalgic for what is implanted in our hearts. It’s built into us, perhaps even at a genetic level. We long for what the first man and woman once enjoyed— a perfect and beautiful Earth with free and untainted relationships with God, each other, animals, and our environment. Every attempt at human progress has been an attempt to overcome what was lost in the Fall.

Alcorn continues:

Our ancestors came from Eden. We are headed toward a New Earth. Meanwhile, we live out our lives on a sin-corrupted Earth, between Eden and the New Earth, but we must never forget that this is not our natural state. Sin and death and suffering and war and poverty are not natural— they are the devastating results of our rebellion against God.

We long for a return to Paradise—a perfect world, without the corruption of sin, where God walks with us and talks with us in the cool of the day. Because we’re human beings , we desire something tangible and physical, something that will not fade away. And that is exactly what God promises us— a home that will not be destroyed, a kingdom that will not fade, a city with unshakable foundations, an incorruptible inheritance.

This present earth is not our true home. A disembodied state of existence is not our ultimate destiny. Instead, we are looking forward to a newly constituted Earth that is our true home. Alcorn concludes:

Adam was formed from the dust of the earth, forever establishing our connection to the earth (Genesis 2:7). Just as we are made from the earth, so too we are made for the earth. But, you may object, Jesus said he was going to prepare a place for us and would take us there to live with him forever (John 14:2-3). Yes. But what is that place? Revelation 21 makes it clear— it’s the New Earth. That’s where the New Jerusalem will reside when it comes down out of Heaven. Only then will we be truly home.

  • drew

    I agree with you that Heaven is not an immaterial realm beyond nature, as the whole concept of immateriality is not in the Bible. Would you agree that this concept of an immaterial realm originated with Greek philosophers? Philosophers in the vein of Plato and Aristotle could be said to be an improvement over prior atomists like Democritus, because they actually believed the cosmos was governed by a higher power. The problem is that they weren’t prophets of God, so they had to rely on their own speculations to figure out His mysteries. Not exactly God’s method of establishing truth! The question is, were these Greek ideas of an immaterial God and Heaven ever supposed to be merged with Christianity? It’s no question of the reality of the Hellenistic influence on the post apostolic Christian theologians, the question really boils down to whether or not it left Christian doctrine vulnerable to corruption.

  • Certainly the influence of Plato caused some of the church fathers to shy away from the material New Heaven and new Earth spoken of in the Scriptures.

    However, just because Plato was wrong about one thing doesn’t mean you can ignore everything else he said. Likewise with any other person.

    Greek philosophy had many things to offer the church fathers that were helpful, but you have to be careful to divide the good from the bad. In this case, the denial of a physical heaven after the second coming of Jesus is just wrong.

  • drew

    I agree with you that the trick is dividing the good from the bad — but I just don’t see it as something any human can come close to doing correctly unless they’re a prophet — which has always been God’s method for dispelling error and establishing/preserving truth. As a Mormon I believe that no Greek or any other philosophies of man were ever meant to be incorporated into Christianity. Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, etc. were certainly deep thinkers, but their theories on God could only be based on speculation because they were not prophets with access to revelation.

    You could call it bad timing that when the foundation of prophets and apostles (Eph 2) crumbled due to persecution, it was a time of heavy Hellenistic influence, which really exacerbated the corruption of doctrine that Paul said was only kept at bay by church organization (Eph 4:11-14). We know many post apostolic Fathers didn’t have the humble attitude of trying to keep doctrine as the Apostles had left it — instead they had the philosopher’s attitude of using rational argument and speculation to delve deeper into every mystery of God. Not only that but they also outright adopted many of the philosophers’ actual theories, which made for a dangerous combination.

    Consider Paul’s tireless work to keep out all false doctrine, including the philosophies and wisdom of man (Col 2:8; 1 Cor 1:19-24; 1 Cor 2:5,13). Notice that Paul specifically singled out the Greeks, knowing the dangers their philosophies posed. Contrast this with Justin Martyr’s First Apology, where instead of fighting to keep out Greek philosophy, he embraces it by postulating that Christ is the incarnation of the Greek “Logos”. Not only was this pure speculation, but it helped open the door for the further merging of philosophy with Christianity, including Origen’s classification of divinity as an immaterial, formless, ousia, etc. (which many Christians at the time opposed as unscriptural, for example see the Creed of Constantinople (359)).

    Christians malign the Mormon concept of God to no end, which really used to eat at me. But when I studied Greek philosophy, early Christian history, and the patristic writings, the more it became clear that Joseph Smith had simply restored the original Judeo-Christian concept of a glorious, immortal, corporeal God, wiping the slate clean of all the Greek metaphysical influence, as well as other innovations, that had been added post-apostolically. Not to say he had human knowledge of it — but he didn’t need to because it was through revelation. He also restored knowledge of our potential as literal spirit offspring of God (Acts 17:29, Heb 12:9), which had also been lost once humans were classified as a separate substance from God. The restored gospel teaches that God’s glory isn’t a metaphysical substance, rather it is His intelligence, which clarifies that the path to becoming like Him is simply a path of learning. This then brought into context a much earlier revelation to Smith stating that the Fall was a blessing, in that mortality allows us to learn and grow by “tasting the bitter, that we may learn to prize the good”.

    Sorry I’ll stop there, but my point is that it’s not a coincidence that the guy who uncovered these lost principles is the guy who claimed to be called as a prophet to restore Christianity. I know that due to their history, Protestants have an inbuilt suspicion for “central authority figures”, yet this is only justified when it’s not a real prophet. If it is, then it should be recognized as the method God has used to establish truth since the beginning. Instead of rejecting Smith from the get go, he should at least be given an unbiased chance–which means removing your Mainstream goggles so you can see clearly, just like the Jewish sects had to set aside their deeply entrenched beliefs and traditions in order to accept Christ.

  • Drew,
    I’m afraid this story of the church fathers importing Greek philosophy, only to have Joseph Smith recover the “pure” revelation of God, is far too simplistic.

    Joseph Smith himself was heavily influenced by writers and cultural movements of the early 19th century. Many scholars have noted the obvious influence of the prevalent philosophies of the day on Smith when he wrote the Book of Mormon and his other works.

    So it is a little too convenient to say that the Greek culture of the post-apostolic era was fraught with error that the church was too ignorant to discern, while Smith was fortunate to live in a culture of the early 1800’s America that carried no worldview baggage that would affect Smith.

    The only way you can exempt Smith from the influence of his era is by proving that he was indeed a true prophet of God which enabled him to see beyond the idiosyncrasies of his day.

    Unfortunately you will have an extreme uphill battle to convince me that he was a prophet. He simply got everything wrong about the past history of the Americas, and yet claimed that these histories, captured in the Book of Mormon, were revealed by God. No prophet of God would make such colossal errors and then say the errors came from God. Therefore he cannot be a true prophet.

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  • Drew

    I understand why you as a Protestant would be suspicious of Smith, but I think the fact that the Christian Fathers didn’t even claim to be prophets is significant. They didn’t even try to hide the fact that they were incorporating human philosophies, which they peppered all throughout their writings. Such a thing was to be expected from theologians (scholars), who were clearly not prophets authorized or commanded by God to develop doctrine. This is why, in my own search for truth, it was a no-brainer for me to take them out of the running entirely.

    After studying post-apostolic Christianity, above all else I was left with an overwhelming sense that a prophet was needed–someone called by God to clear up this man-made mess. And considering God’s age-old Biblical pattern of calling prophets for that very purpose, I don’t think this is unreasonable. What I do find unreasonable is the mainline Christian attempt to essentially rob God of His right to call prophets in our day. This too is a Biblical pattern–the pattern of humans rejecting and persecuting contemporary prophets.

    So I was intrigued by the fact that Smith claimed to be just such a prophet, called by God to enact a wholesale restoration of the gospel. All that was left to do was to verify if he was a true prophet or not. This is where I think many people take the wrong approach, by going into it hoping to prove Smith wrong. The truth is, they don’t WANT him to be a prophet, because that would imply a need to change. Well this approach is guaranteed to fail since you can’t have faith in something you hope isn’t true. It doesn’t help that much of the arguments used to prove Smith wrong rely on the very mainstream principles that he was called to correct. The fact is that the only way to really know if Smith was a prophet is to regard his teachings without a hint of bias–which is the same thing the Jews had to do to accept Christ. You have to get over that human aversion to change, which is the main reason why so many of the Jews never accepted Christ.

    The astounding thing is that when I did this the right way, the conclusion really was undeniable. All of the revelations of Smith just fell into place, stripping away the metaphysical and other speculations and restoring truths that fit together with a wonderful coherence that finally explained our true identity and purpose as children of God. I was left with the strong conviction that he was just as much a prophet as Moses or Isaiah or any other–exactly what the world needed.

    To reject Smith based on your B of M claims just doesn’t make sense. We don’t even know where the B of M civilizations were located, since this isn’t something God has revealed–we can only speculate that maybe it was in Mesoamerica, or perhaps in the Great Lakes area, etc.. What matters about the B of M is not where it took place, but what it teaches, which if you gave it a chance you’d realize how wonderfully it bolsters and aligns with the Bible. More than anything, what I got from it was a desire and motivation to grow and improve, which when you understand the big picture restored through Smith, you realize this is exactly why we are here wading through the opposition of mortality. Not to “earn our way into heaven” (as this is only attained through Christ’s atonement), but to develop godly attributes such as love, charity, honesty, justice, mercy, patience, faith, etc. I’m sure you’d agree that enduring/overcoming temptations, weaknesses, consequences, challenges, trials, etc. have taught you the kind of lessons that really stick with you and become a part of your character? Could you have ever really learned to walk by faith if it weren’t for the separation from God caused by the Fall? One thing the B of M confirms is that it wasn’t a tragic cancellation of paradise due to the stupid decision of two people–it was part of the plan, that we may find true joy.

  • Drew,
    You are saying that you know Joseph Smith is a prophet because you basically liked what he had to say. You were left with a conviction that he was a prophet when you read the B of M.

    Here is the problem with that line of reasoning. I am equally convicted that Smith is not a prophet. I would also wager that I have studied the Bible far more than you have. (could be wrong about that, but most people haven’t studied as much as I have).

    How do we adjudicate between our two convictions? We need an objective test. That objective test is to see if what Smith wrote about the history of the Americas is actually born out by historical, archaeological, and biological evidence. The Bible clearly says that a true prophet will never make errors about what they teach about God’s revelation.

    Your ignoring all of that evidence has removed you from the realm of objectivity and put you into a realm that is 100% subjective.

    You think Smith is a prophet and I don’t. Comparing our feelings or convictions will get us nowhere. We need to look at objective evidence.

  • Drew

    Bill — When Christ taught us to distinguish between true and false prophets “by their fruits” (Matt 7:16-20), do you think He meant only the ones that can be scientifically proven? As such, wouldn’t you agree that your approach to the BofM is in direct contrast to the core message of faith that Christ taught? I assume you don’t only accept the fraction of the Bible that’s been proven archaeologically?

    So for you to reject the BofM based on the relatively tiny amount of archaeological knowledge we have about the ancient Americas, is just another proof that you really don’t want it to be true. Again, it’s impossible to have faith in something you hope isn’t true.

    I’m sure you’d agree that archaeology is a living, changing thing. Every year discoveries are made that change existing thought. For example, at one time the idea of engraving records on metal plates was considered preposterous (and thus fodder for Mormon critics)—but discoveries since then have reversed that view completely. Here’s another example–just a couple days ago I read of the discovery of an ancient encampment in Mexico where people hunted an elephant-like creature (likely a gomphothere), which scientists had “previously thought” to have vanished from North America long before humans arrived. See how scientific views can change in an instant?

    It’s for that reason that claims against the BofM are anything but an open and shut case. However, I personally don’t think it will ever be 100% proven scientifically, because think how counterproductive it would be if it were accepted based on science instead of faith! Like I said before, learning to walk by faith is one of the great purposes of mortality, which again is why the Fall was an essential part of God’s plan.

    This last point, incidentally, is one of the wonderful messages of the BofM–but it’s just one of many puzzle pieces that make up the big picture of the gospel restored through Joseph Smith. For me it is this entire big picture that really confirmed to me that Smith was truly a prophet–which once understood, just fits together way too perfectly to deny. Let’s just say it’s not a coincidence that the one who claimed to be called by God as a prophet, is the one who came up with all this. What was astounding to me was that I could largely trace the loss of this big picture to post-Apostolic theologians, who despite no prophetic calling or commandment, opted to incorporate philosophies of man into Christian doctrine–exactly what Paul fought so hard to keep out.

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