In addition to the novel’s controversial ideas about a new way of envisioning the Trinity and a weeping God, a third point about the book’s theology has attracted readers. That is the concept of heaven . . .
The Shack posits a beautiful afterlife. Although Mack has always had “head knowledge” that his daughter Missy was in heaven, he experiences a tangible vision of a happy Missy in paradise. She has forgiven everyone, including her killer, and romps with Jesus and her siblings in a land that appears custom-made for her with its inclusion of a waterfall, a reference to her favorite story. In some ways, this is not unlike our cultural understandings of heaven: harps, clouds, streets of gold, everybody dressed in white robes. Think of all the jokes that begin with Peter at the gates, checking a list; the most recent one I’ve saw depicted Steve Jobs, founder of Apple computers, telling ole Pete, as the saint scrolls through his list on a clipboard, “There’s an App for that.”
This joke and Missy’s waterfall point to another common theme: heaven seems especially fitted for individuals. In fact, such personal touches are deeply comforting to us. I remember a eulogy in which a son imagined Dad was put in charge of growing tomatoes in heaven. Lovely!
But there is another side to these personal touches, just as you and I are different with different tastes. When I was a youth director, one of my students named Jeffrey once asked me what heaven was like; basing my answer on descriptions of the saints gathered before the throne in Revelation, I replied that it must be like a church service that went on forever. To which Jeffrey responded, “That sounds like hell to me!”
If we could be serious for a moment, perhaps the most common denominator between all these speculations about heaven is that it is somewhere else. Hence the little boy, whose father wrote the best-selling book, Heaven is Real, had a near death experience, was transported elsewhere, and vision of the afterlife. Dr. Moody, at UVA, has documented hundreds and hundreds of similar cases in a book, Life After Life.
Jeffrey reminds us that not all images of heaven are as cute or comforting. In Love Wins, Rob Bell describes a picture that hung in his grandmother’s living room: a giant cross, suspended horizontally over a fiery chasm. People were using the cross as a bridge, walking over towards the pearly gates just visible on the horizon. Bell asks, “Are there other ways to think about heaven, other than as that perfect floating shiny city hanging suspended there in the air above that ominous red and black realm with all that smoke and steam and hissing fire?” In other words, just where is heaven? Up? In the clouds? Beyond space?
Jewish theology, including what we know as the Old Testament, had a term for heaven: the olam habah, loosely translated as the “world to come.” The first thing we must say about the olam habah is that it is not this, but after this. It is somewhere else. Jesus instructs us to pray to our Father in heaven and that God’s will on earth be done as it is in heaven. Two different place . . . for now!
The second thing we must say about the biblical understanding of heaven is that it is coming here, even though we most often think of ourselves as going there, as in the picture of people walking over the cross. The prophets believed that history, the entire universe, was headed somewhere because they believed that God had not abandoned the world and that a new day, a new age, a new era was coming: Isaiah saw all nations streaming to Jerusalem, as swords became plowshares and spears became pruning hooks. Then Isaiah continues, everyone will walk in the light of the Lord and they will neither harm nor destroy. The earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. Ezekiel adds that people will be given grain, fruit, and crops; and a new heart and new spirit. Amos foresaw new wine, dripping from the mountains. In other words, life would be heaven on earth. Quite literally! The world to come would have finally arrived.
I find it helpful in this regard that The Shack goes beyond affirming individual eternal life by making bold claims about the redemption of this physical world. In addition to the images of Missy in heaven, places on earth are redeemed, even the shack itself. In a transformation worthy of the TV show Extreme Makeover, it miraculously goes from being a broken-down outpost to a comfortable log cabin—“postcard perfect,” as Mack puts it, and equipped with a generous front porch and a white picket fence. The rocky shore of the lake, once overgrown with weeds, is now beautifully kept. Once the locus of the worst of human depravity, it becomes synonymous instead with divine tenderness. God reaches into the literal site of Mack’s deepest pain and transforms it. This is reminiscent of the book of Revelation: that the very earth will become new in God’s time, and no part of creation will be left unredeemed. Heaven on earth.