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Heaven: It’s not what you may think!

February 24, 2011

The other day something said in church made me remember a book that I read some 40 years ago that has not received the notice I think it deserved:  Calvin R. Schoonhoven, The Wrath of Heaven (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1966).   Schoonhoven argues that, as portrayed in the NT, ” Heaven, as well as earth, endures the wrath of God, the powers of evil, personal incompleteness and temporality.”  That is, he contends that, contrary to pop religious thinking (including most Christian versions), the NT presents “heaven”, not as the timeless state of perfection and the realization of final joy, but as itself also awaiting the consummation of divine redemption. 

In short, if Schoonhoven is correct, then the Christian hope presented in the NT is not to “go to Heaven”.  Instead, the hope is the future consummation of redemption that is to involve Heaven as well as earth. 

It’s a tightly argued exegetical study.  Though now over 40 years old, it seems to me still worth noting by anyone seriously interested in engaging the thought-world of the NT.  I’m not aware that it’s ever been refuted, or even adequately noticed.

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  1. Andrew Lincoln permalink

    Larry, I’ve just come across your recommendation of Schoonhoven’s study, am pleased that you have brought it to people’s attention, and thoroughly agree with your and his emphases. FWIW, I cite him in my own study on heaven in Paul’s thought – Paradise Now and Not Yet (pb. ed. C.U.P. 2004), the final chapter of which attempts to summarize how heaven functions in Paul’s eschatology precisely along these lines.

    • Thanks, Andrew. I’m doubly impressed with Schoonhoven’s book knowing that you found it agreeable.

  2. Jeff Brannon permalink

    In their respective treatments, Calvin Schoonhoven, Tom Wright, and Rob Bell all argue against different and (at least somewhat) distinct popular evangelical beliefs.

    The best summary of Schoonhoven is Professor Hurtado’s summary above – namely that heaven (including whatever we would understand as the highest heaven or the dwelling place of God) is not yet ‘perfect’, or ‘complete’ but rather takes part in the incompleteness and imperfection of this age. As part of his evidence, Schoonhoven cites Eph. 6.12 as evidence that evil spiritual powers are operative, even in the highest heaven. As part of his view, Schoonhoven also believes that there are some angels or evil powers who will be ‘saved’ or ‘reconciled’. He references Col. 1:15-20 and the reconciliation of all things in the heavens in the earth, including the spiritual powers which are in the heavens. In Schoonhoven’s view, there are wholly good angelic powers, wholly evil angelic powers, and also some powers which are neither wholly good nor wholly evil that will later be reconciled or redeemed. In this case, Schoonhoven understands ‘apokatallasw’ in the traditional sense of ‘reconcile’ rather than ‘pacify’, as many commentators do. But, as Professor Hurtado detailed, the primary concern of Schoonhoven is that ‘heaven’ is imcomplete, imperfect, and not the goal of the Christian faith; however, his polemic is not identical to Wright’s.

    It seems to me that Schoonhoven’s polemic is that the heaven of Scripture which presently exits is not perfect but explicitly involved in this present evil age. Wright’s polemic, as I understand it, is that ‘heaven’ is not the goal of the Christian life. Believers await the final consummation and the creation of the new heavens and new earth for their ultimate hope. In short, Wright is less concerned with whether heaven is currently involved in the present evil age, and is more concerned that the redeemed should place their final hope in the creation of the new heavens and new earth after Christ returns.

    Rob Bell’s primary concern (though admittedly I am not very familiar with everything Bell does) is not directly related to either of these concerns. Bell’s intent or polemic is to question the traditional evangelical/conservative doctrine of punishment or judgment for those who are not united to Christ. Bell’s concerns are not (at least primarily) that heaven is involved in the present evil age (Schoonhoven) or that heaven is not our final goal (Wright and Schoonhoven) but, to be more precise, that everyone (regardless of their beliefs) takes part in the final and full redemption brought about by Christ. As far as I can tell, Schoonhoven and Wright are not primarily interested in this question. I don’t think they seek to answer it at all. I also don’t think Bell is concerned with Wright’s and Schoonoven’s concerns but merely in a practical theological issue – that there is no final judgment or punishment for anyone and that everyone receives the full benefits of Christ’s salvific work.

    • Mike Gantt permalink

      @Jeff Brannon,

      Thanks very much for this explanation. For those of us who want to understand these issues better but don’t always have the time or resources to research and find the actual sources, it is a great help. It is even a help to our decision making process about whether to do the actual research.

      Thanks so much to you, Dr. Hurtado, and others who’ve commented here to improve our knowledge of Christianity, especially as it was understood in its very beginning.

    • Thanks for this delineation, very helpful. I guess I see all three as reacting against a modernist/quasi-Platonic view that Christian faith is about securing your passage to one of two possible post-mortem destinations after life on earth, Schoonhoven from an exegesis of ‘heaven’, Wright from biblical theology, Bell from pastoral theology/apologetics.

  3. Larry thanks for this. We have ordered a copy for our library (probably the other copy, Mark!).

    I am sure that this understanding is behind Tom Wright’s thinking too, and he rails against Christianized neo-Platonism. (Larry, if you want a quick way in, he has written a Grove booklet ‘New Heavens, New Earth’ which would give you a one-hour summary.)

    Rob Bell is a popular teacher in the States, and his next book is taking on the (mostly US) evangelical configuration of the gospel, that we as individuals are destined either to go (up) to ‘heaven’ or (down) to ‘hell’. I think he will argue that he is wanting to see how the Bible does not support this, but most US Conservatives are saying that this is, of course, what the Bible says (it must do, because it is their sound doctrine) and therefore Bell is an unBiblical heretic.

    As many blogs points out, Bell is only engaging at a popular level what are major theological issues, mostly connected with theodicy. But Schoonhoven’s work would provide the exegetical foundation for such a critique.

    I suspect the discussion will be the Next Big Thing in popular evangelicalism–at least that it what the publishers will be hoping!

  4. W. Andrew Smith permalink

    I see part of the Christian hope to be an anticipation of the redemption of creation with the new heavens and earth (2 Peter 3:13) and I have always understood the destruction of the (current) heavens (ἣν οὐρανοὶ πυρούμενοι λυθήσονται) as referring to the universe and not the “third heaven” or dwelling place of God. Is that what Schoonhoven is suggesting?

    • Schoonhoven’s argument is that in the NT references “heaven”, including the realm to which the righteous dead aspire and which is the seat of divine authority, is pictured as participating in the incompleteness and conflict that characterizes “this age”, and that “heaven” as well as the visible creation await the consummation of salvation that is emphatically linked to Christ and his triumphant “parousia”.
      The core of Schoonhoven’s case is that the NT view of salvation is thoroughly eschatological, linear, not a vertical flight to transcendence, but a forward move into “the age to come”. So, e.g., resurrection (not eternal life in “heaven”), redemption of the world (not flight from it), and a radical view of salvation in which Christ is central (not a lightly baptized pagan notion of the Elysian fields of bliss).

  5. Seems curiously apt reminder, with the broo-ha-ha about to erupt regarding Rob Bell’s forthcoming book.

    Was it ever published?

    • You got me! I’ve no idea who Rob Bell is or his book. But I can talk about Schoonhoven’s book!

  6. Howard Mazzaferro permalink

    Actually, this idea has been known and believed in by many for more then 100 years. The only difference is that the heavens are not redeemed. The redemptive properties of Jesus’ sacrifice only redeem human sin in relation to Adam. The sins of Angelic beings are willful disobedience to God’s will, and there is no sacrifice for such a situation. – Hebrews 10:26-31, Revelation 12:7-12.

    • Hmm. Actually, this isn’t at all what I was talking about. I’ll simply have to ask people to read Schoonhoven’s book. But the point he dealt with was more fundamental: That the NT reflects a thoroughly eschatological outlook (not a Platonic one), and that “heaven” awaits redemption as does earth. Nothing to do with angelic sins! More to do with the sense of what “redemption” in/involves. E.g., for Paul the ultimate is “the redemption of your bodies” (Rom. 8:23, not simply the salvation of souls), and in Rev 21 there is a “new heaven and a new earth” (both experiencing the salvation in question).

      • Howard Mazzaferro permalink

        I really do not see how I did not understand properly. The only entities in heaven are God, Jesus and the angels. How can anyone talk about the redemption of heaven if they are not referring to the disobedient angels? The only alternative is that our definition of redemption is different.

      • First, it’s not my understanding of redemption that I raised, but Schoonhoven’s discussion of the perspective reflected in the NT writings. The sole question, thus, is what sort of outlook is reflected in these texts.
        So, in the NT one finds references to the elect dead in some kind of “heaven”. E.g., 2 Cor 5:1-10, and also the curious text in Rev 6:9-11, where the martyred dead cry out “how long, O Lord”, appearing to reflect the idea of an incompletness until the final resurrection.
        So, I respectfully indicate that we are talking about different things, and that you haven’t caught the drift of what I’ve been referring to. It’s not simply a question of who gets redeemed, but of what salvation is in NT perspective.

  7. Rick permalink

    How different is this from Wright’s view as expressed, among other places, in Surprised by Hope? Maybe it complements it, a la his ‘heaven is about life after life after death’ (paraphrase).

    • I’m probably one of the 9 or 10 people on the planet who haven’t read everything Tom Wright has written, so I can’t say! Schoonhoven’s main point was to contend that the NT outlook was thoroughly eschatological, and that “heaven” as well as earth awaited the completion of redemption. So, a rejection of a Platonic idea of a timeless ideal heaven vs. a timebound earth. Also, ultimate salvation as an awaited consummation that would include effects upon/for “heaven” too.

  8. Thanks a ton for the reference! I just ordered a copy (a little hard to find) and I can’t wait to take a look at it.

    You commented that it hasn’t “been refuted, or even adequately noticed.” Does that mean there isn’t anything else you’re aware of that even interacts with Schoonhoven’s thoughts?

    • The book seems scarcely to have been noticed. I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to find reviews of it on the ATLA database.

  9. Mike Gantt permalink

    Thanks. I will check out.

    Yes, I am keenly interested in “engaging the thought-world of the NT,” which I why I follow your blog.

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