Saturday, October 05, 2013

Review: Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy by Jerry Walls

In Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy, Jerry Walls has four goals: (1) to argue that heaven is plausibly real (based on the existence of near death experiences—henceforth NDEs) (2) to defend the concept of heaven against various objections (3) to demonstrate the central role that heaven plays in Christian theology and (4) to show how fruitful a philosophical concept heaven is. Rather than writing at length on (1), I will simply point the interested reader elsewhere[1]. For the sake of completeness I will briefly address (2) before spending the bulk of the review on (3) and most of all (4), both because (4) is of most interest to me personally and is, I think, an underexplored area in philosophy of religion. As will be seen, there are tight links between (3) and (4).

Defending heaven against objections. In regards to (2), a couple of prominent ‘counter-Heaven’ objections and their rebuttals are as follows. One involves the complaint that Christ made failing to hold a belief (Christ is the Messiah) a sin that carries the consequence of eternal damnation. With disarming simplicity, Walls explores what it means to be in Heaven—namely, to be in the direct and loving presence of God. T he upshot is that Heaven won’t be Heaven for someone who is not already in love with God.[2] Walls then turns to a discussion of soteriology, broadly speaking.[3] Throughout, he plumps for a broadly orthodox form of inclusivism[4]. What is unique about Walls (although it is not central to this particular work[5]) as an evangelical scholar is that he does not hesitate to invoke the possibility of purgatory[6] to answer many of these issues.

Heaven is central to Christian theology. In addressing (3), Walls starts off in what seems to be a surprising place—but one that in the end turns out to be quite enlightening. He examines the case that David Hume presented against belief in heaven. Hume granted, even if merely for the sake of argument, that there was an omnipotent, omniscient Creator and Designer of the World. But from this little of existential import followed for Hume, because Hume thought this being was essentially amoral. Hume arrived at this conclusion by proposing the following epistemic principle: we can only assign to a cause what we see in the effect. It is obvious that there is a lot of good and evil in the world. Hume thus considers the following options: either the Creator is (a) all good (b) all evil (c) both good and evil or (d) amoral. Both (a) and (b) seem out of court, given the mix of good and evil we see in the effect (the world). Hume ruled out (c), apparently on the grounds that we would expect to see more irregularity in the laws of nature if there were such a fundamental conflict present in the cause of all things.[7] Therefore, he concluded, (d) was true. As such, there is no real existential impact on our lives of the Creator and Designer.

Ah, not so fast, says Walls. God, as the cause of all things, is also the cause of our own moral intuitions about what is right and wrong.[8] From this fairly strong arguments can be mounted that God is most definitely not amoral. Either our moral intuitions are in fact a clue as to God’s own nature (and hence God is in fact good), or God has deliberately deceived us (and God is in fact evil). Walls then considers the possibility that God is evil and notes the impact that such a belief would have on our motivation to be moral, foreshadowing later discussions linking heaven to morality. Walls further notes that while the wickedness of God is in some sense a bare logical possibility, other pragmatic factors come into play here[9] that may push someone toward belief that God is good. And here is where the first indication of the centrality of heaven comes into play. If God is good, he will want to share himself with us. If he is all powerful (as Hume granted) then he can do all logically possible things. Combined together, these raise the probability of heaven being real. Since God’s goodness and omnipotence are both central to Christian (and classical) theism, and since they seem to be interwoven with the concept of heaven, we have our first indication of how central heaven is in traditional Christian theology.

Walls also describes how Christian doctrine developed. Citing the work of Richard Swinburne[10], Walls notes that if we have prior reason to believe that a good God exists then we have prior reason to believe that God will act in certain ways…including provide us with information about how we can get to know him. These a priori reasons ‘lower the bar’ of historical evidence required to believe in certain events (i.e., the resurrection). The resurrection is such a central event both because it indicates that we ourselves have the possibility of arising in a new body (and hence of immortality) and that it vindicates Christ’s claims to divinity. It involves the development of formal doctrines like the incarnation, atonement, and ascension, and hence salvation. The resurrection , in implying what our resurrected bodies will be like in the afterlife, is implicitly invoking images of what we will be like in heaven. And the end goal of Salvation is, of course, an eternal, perfect relationship with our Creator in heaven. The Ascension, most straightforwardly, is the translation of Christ from Earth to Heaven. This, for Walls, demonstrates that removing the concept of heaven from Christianity would inevitably warp the fabric of Christianity into an unrecognizable shape.

Heaven is a fruitful philosophical concept. In making the case for (4), Walls draws connections among (a) heaven, the Trinity, and personal identity (b) heaven and ‘irredeemable’ evils and (c) heaven, morality, and the meaning of life. Turning to (a), Walls notes that the afterlife raises some profound philosophical problems. If Jerry Walls on earth (call him JW1) dies and is raised in the general resurrection in a new body (call him JW2), in what sense is he the same person? None of the physical constituents are the same.[11] Walls then discusses various theories of personal identity, including what kinds of criteria are involved in personal identity. He then notes something very striking: it has always been part and parcel of Christian theology that the Godhead is a Trinity: three non-physical yet distinguishable (in some sense ‘identifiable’) persons. On certain models of the Trinity, the persons of the Trinity are defined by the relationships among those persons. Each member of the Trinity may also have different memories (e.g., if Christ was the one who hung on the cross presumably Christ remembers ‘I hung on the cross’ while the God the Father remembers ‘Christ (not *I*) hung on the cross’). For die-hard materialists who retort that it is bodily continuity (primarily brain continuity) which determines personal identity, Walls punts to Richard Swinburne for a rebuttal.[12] In any case, Walls notes that the traditional Christian view of man has been dualistic—that is, man at his core is an immaterial substance that carries his memories. Thus the original problem of personal identity posed earlier in this paragraph is perhaps starker for the physicalist than the supernaturalist (and brings further problems—see footnote 10). Other philosophical problems related to personal identity may be smuggling in presuppositions that the Christian theist will not grant[13].

In addressing heaven and irredeemable evils, Walls notes that on naturalism there is no point to evil because, simply put, there is no larger point per se to anything. On Christian theism, however, there is a wider context in which suffering can be placed. If on balance we are grateful for our lives, if it is possible that evil can be a transformative experience[14], if an ultimate good[15] exists that can undo all the damage that has been done, then heaven is indeed an invaluable part of a theodicy.

In sketching the connections between heaven, morality, and meaning, Walls first focuses on heaven and morality. In Walls’s view, Christian theism does a better job of accounting for three aspects of morality than does naturalism: altruism, moral obligation, and ‘Sedgwick’s dilemma’. In dealing with altruistic behavior, the Christian needs to simply reflect on what it means to be altruistic. On the Christian view, being altruistic is to be admired, and reflects what is true of the ‘basic fact’ of the universe—namely, the communal, loving, other-serving, Triune nature of God, our Supreme Benefactor. On naturalistic accounts of altruism, however, altruism is basically a survival-serving mechanism that is essentially illusory.[16]

In terms of moral obligation, it is intuitively obvious that we can only be obligated to persons and not to forces of nature. If the most ultimate things in reality are forces of nature, there simply are no ultimate obligations. The more things we owe to a person, the more obligated to we are to them. If there is a person (Person) who functions as our Supreme Benefactor, then our moral obligations are as firmly and deeply rooted as they could possibly be.

In terms of ‘Sedgwick’s dilemma’, naturalism has a problem in accounting for why persons should not behave selfishly when it benefits them to do so. On the naturalistic view of the world, there are certain goods that can only be achieved by ‘gaming the system’. That is, maximum gain can be had if one is, say, a contract lawyer by (a) being as slimy and devious as you can be while (b) getting the other persons to be as honest and forthright as they are and getting them to think you are honest and forthright as well. On the Christian view of things, however, there is a distinction between being self-interested and selfish. Being truly and properly self-interested would involve being rightly oriented toward our supreme good, that is, God himself. Once that relationship is in right standing, selfishness will fall away as our relationships with others will begin to reflect the relationship God wishes us to have with them.

Conclusion. My only quibble with this book is that it requires some very close reading. I can’t help but feel that a major reorganization under the four goals (explicitly stated by Walls in his introduction) would have helped clarify the structure of the work. Nonetheless, this book is a rare and commendable blend of philosophical rigor and passion; I was deeply moved as I read certain sections discussing the role that the afterlife will play in making sense of the evil here on earth. While I am not sure that this book will sway a hardcore naturalist (and I get the sense that that was not its intended function), it is a must-read on a too-little-philosophically-discussed topic.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Latter Day Inkling is a U.S.-based research psychologist for the military. He is especially interested in epistemology and natural theology.

[1] For a review of a well-written and accessible review of the NDE literature, see

[2] A point C. S. Lewis makes throughout The Great Divorce.

[3] Very broadly speaking, embracing discussion of ‘non-Christian’ saints like Gandhi, children who die in infancy, ‘epistemically’ disadvantaged persons, persons from other faiths, etc.

[4] As compared to exclusivism or pluralism (ala John Hick).

[5] See his Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation.

[6] Walls is at some pains to stress that his view on purgatory is one of post-mortem sanctification, and thus should be palatable to Protestants.

[7] A similar argument is made against polytheism by Richard Swinburne in The Existence of God.

[8] As Hume himself acknowledges elsewhere in his writings.

[9] Obvious echoes of William James and Pascal here. A similar vein can be found in Richard Swinburne’s Faith and Reason, where he uses the analogy of a British Soldier trapped behind Nazi lines. The Soldier may rightly judge it a minute probability that a German civilian will help him elude the Gestapo, but approach the civilian nonetheless on the grounds that the civilian is the only hope the Soldier has of achieving a valuable outcome.

[10] Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy.

[11] A similar argument is made against materialism by Victor Reppert in his book C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea. See ‘The Argument from the Unity of Consciousness in Rational Inference’, pp. 82, Kindle edition.

[12] Swinburne’s rather ingenious reply is, in essence, as follows. Memory continuity is, as we have already argued, one proposed criteria of personal identity. Swinburne argues that we assign primacy of bodily continuity to the brain because that is where memories reside. Thus memory continuity is, in a sense, more fundamental than brain continuity. The physicalist is thus implicitly begging the question by assuming that memories must reside in a brain.

[13] Consider the problem of duplication: two bodies are raised in the afterlife. Both possess the exact same memories of Jerry Walls (JW1) on earth (call the two afterlife JW2 and JW3). Assume that JW2 and JW3 meet all other criteria for personal identity. What to make of this? Walls simply points out that if this would thwart God’s good plan, then God would not allow it to come to pass. Similar responses are made by Baggett and Walls in their book Good God to various Euthyphro Dilemma objections. In essence, a conditional statement with an impossible antecedent is not worth addressing.

[14] Walls notes that pain is, according to Marilyn McCord Adams, a window into divine suffering.

[15] See C. S. Lewis’s The Weight of Glory.

[16] In the more extreme versions, even the person who is engaging in altruism is mistaken in thinking that they themselves are doing the action for altruistic reasons!


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