Book Review: 50 Things You Need to Know about Heaven
Author: John Hart
Publisher: Baker Books (Bethany House)
Pages: 144 (e-book/Nook)
Disclaimer: In full disclosure, you need to know that I was provided with a free e-book copy of the above mentioned book in exchange for my fair and unbiased review. I have also posted this review at Goodreads.com and Amazon.com.
I think the initial problem I had with this book is found in the title of the book. The word 'need' is kind of strikes me as misplaced because Dr Hart never really tells the reader why they 'need' to know these things about heaven. Unless, of course, it is because 'our ideas of heaven are drawn from many different sources [so] how do we know whether any of [the concepts in those sources] are true?' Maybe that was the point. However, it then begs another question: How then do I know that this particular author has provided me anything more substantial than the other sources? How do I know his authority to write this book is any more noteworthy than, say, a 10 year old kid who died, went to 'heaven', and came back telling us all that it 'is real'?
Truth is, there are all sorts of books and films and seminars and motivational speakers and Oprah episodes dishing about heaven. What's one more voice going to add? And, to be sure, are there really 50 things I need to know? "But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; or by earth, for it is his footstool" (Matthew 5:34-35). What more is there to say besides that? Well, at least 50 other things; I guess.
That said, the introduction, a mere three paragraphs, is entirely too short for such a subject. This is the perpetual problem with the popular level book market in today's world of Christian book publishers and stores: very little depth. I think this book is no exception. It is 144 pages of hurry up and get a book on the market before someone else does. I found that in reading the book I grew weary of a lot of the retread: repeating the same parables or verses or ideas. That is, there was simply too much repetition in the book. (!) There is so much repetition, I think, because there's just not all that much to say about a subject that the Bible says so little about. So many of the questions are questions that the Bible cares so little about that the author has to offer a great deal of speculation in order to arrive at a satisfactory length chapter. Sure there are Bible references in every chapter and at the end of every chapter for 'further study,' but I was unconvinced that even those extra references were going to be helpful in developing this subject properly.
Another aspect that was extremely irritating to me was the constant use of a variety of Bible translations. Personally, I believe the text would have flowed more smoothly if I didn't have to stop and think about what translation the author was using when quoting Scripture (that is, by figuring out what the letters after the verses meant, CEV, NIV, TLB, etc). If you need to use a different translation to make your point then maybe, just maybe, the point is beyond making. Stick with one version and note textual variances if necessary–or use your own translation directly from the original languages. Most people read one translation–not all of us have fifteen different translations laying about for comparative readings.
Finally, my last criticism is this: some of the questions really had nothing to do whatsoever with 'heaven'–if heaven is defined properly. So the author entertained questions about whether or not we will be bored in heaven; what is 'soul sleep'; do some people go to purgatory; and how can I explain heaven to my children. And there were more. At times I thought I was reading a book of salvation theology–who's getting in, who's not. I think maybe this book should either be titled differently or it should have about half as many questions. I'll say it this way: there is simply not enough information in the Bible about some of these subjects to warrant so many questions or to fuel so much speculation about their answers. Pulling snips and pieces of Bible out of context and developing an entire theology around those pieces is, in my mind, not much different than the way most people in the world get their (false) ideas about heaven in the first place.
Now, on to a couple of the more commendable aspects of the book. You may have guessed so far that I didn't care all that much for the book. That's not entirely the truth. I actually like the format–questions/answers–I just don't think most of the questions asked/answered have anything to do whatsoever with heaven as it is properly defined in Scripture. I think many of the questions asked/answered are drawn more from pop-culture and the 'various sources' referenced in the short introduction. Maybe the book would be better titled something like '50 Misunderstood Ideas about What Happens After We Die' or something like that. The title is too narrow; the scope of the book too large. So for me there was somewhat of a disconnect.
Nevertheless, there is a place to answer some of these questions and, for the most part, I think the author does very well answering them. I was very satisfied that the author made proper reference to the fact that heaven is not where we will spend 'eternity,' but I wish he had dwelt a lot more on this idea of the 'new heavens and the new earth' (see chapter 5; I noted that this conversation should have been in the first chapter, not the fifth). Genesis and Revelation provide very nice bookends to this remarkable story in the Bible about our creation, our fall, our redemption, and our ultimate reward. This, it seems to me, is a far more interesting discussion than whether or not there will be animals in 'heaven.'
Second, there were other times when the author's keen attention to Scripture's detail was riveting. For example, in chapter twenty-two when he was discussing the New Jerusalem, I was very happy that he noted the connection between the cube shaped Jerusalem and the inner room of the temple. At this point I think his exegesis was dead-on especially after he went on to note that it is heaven that comes down to earth and not the other way around. On the other hand, I found his subsequent thoughts about the New Jerusalem having vertical levels and floors to be utterly ridiculous (p 68). Why talk about new heavens and new earth if we are going to live in a cube with floors with a mere acre of land?
Third, in chapter 35 I found his discussion of whether or not we can trust the testimony of those who claim to have died and gone to heaven and come back to earth with a story to tell compelling. His key: "Jesus himself suffered death and was raised to tell about it. Shouldn't his testimony be worthy of our trust?" Amen. He's right and maybe that's what needs to be understood most about this book. There's a lot of nonsense (endless creation of computer code, new musical instruments being created continuously), some sketchy (typically Calvinist) theology, and some silly questions (likely designed to get the book to 50 Questions) but throughout the book the author does manage to stay on point by showing us Jesus. And here we are in complete agreement.
So, then, I didn't enjoy the book nearly as much as I had hoped to; nevertheless, it is a quick, easy read, the author is fairly consistent with this theology, and, despite my questions about some of his exegesis and application, he does fill the book with a lot Scripture (I personally believe there simply needs to be more context around those references and a little more care paid to how some references are 'used' to make a point) and this, too, is a good thing.
PT Forsyth wrote, "The Bible is not a sketch-book of past things nor a picture-book of the last things. It has been especially discredited by treating its imaginative symbols of the future as if they were specifications or working plans attached to God's new covenant and contract with man" (PT Forsyth, The Justification of God, 197). Indeed, we must be careful when sketching our own ideas about things the Bible is only taking a passing, if not indifferent, notice of.