Culture At Large

Will people have disabilities in heaven?

Mark Stephenson

If you never thought about this question before, you probably think it is ridiculous even to ask it. Your answer may well be, “Of course not. When people first disobeyed God, all manner of difficulty entered into our world, including disabilities. Even Jesus said that the evidence of his coming into the world is that ‘The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.'”

Strong evidence, but not convincing for everyone.

On a radio program in 2005, Ben Mattlin talked about his disability with pride. Then he asked, "Are there no wheelchairs in heaven? I'm not buying it. For me, if there is a heaven, it's not a place where I'll be able to walk. It's a place where it doesn't matter if you can't.”

I have talked with people who are deaf and whose first language is sign language. They have told me that they do not consider themselves to be disabled at all, just people who have a different language and subculture than most Americans. Why would God take from them an essential part of their identity when they go to heaven?

In his book, "Theology and Down Syndrome," Amos Yong argues that his brother Mark, who has Down Syndrome, is whole and complete as he is. Amos fully expects Mark to be the same person (including his Down Syndrome) in the new heaven and earth as he is today.

When she was a child, the late Nancy Eiesland, who lived with a congenital disability, was told that she would no longer have her disability in heaven. Horrified, she wondered, “...having been disabled from birth, I came to believe that in heaven I would be absolutely unknown to myself and perhaps to God. My disability has taught me who I am and who God is. What would it mean to be without this knowledge?” Like Eiesland, many other people consider their disability to be part of their identity. Take away their disability in heaven and they wonder who they would be.

Whether people will live with disability in heaven gets personal for me, because both my mother and my daughter live with severe disabilities. Mom’s abilities have declined significantly due to her dementia. She now refuses all food and most liquid. We don’t expect her to live more than a few weeks anymore. Her memory is so poor that she needs help with the basic tasks of daily living. She rarely remembers the names of her children, though she still knows that we are her children. Usually, “conversations” with her last for one exchange. Someone speaks to her or asks her a question and she responds. By that point, she forgets why she said what she did and that “conversation” ends.

Should I expect that Mom will be like this in the new heaven and earth too?

Our daughter Nicole seems to enjoy life at her group home and at school. She enjoys the people at our church on Sundays and she loves to worship. Someone looking on from the outside might pity her. She can’t speak or walk independently, the things that most adults consider to be important parts of a fulfilling life will never be available to her: work, marriage, children and so on. But if she could speak, I suspect that she would tell you that overall her life is good.

Still, all of us who love Nicole will never converse with her using words. I love words. I love talking with my wife and our other children. I talk to Nicole, but her responses cannot include words. Sometimes I feel sad that she can’t tell me how her day is going, what she is feeling, what she thinks about this or that. I wonder too whether she would like to be able to walk and use her hands and arms the way most people do.

Of all the things I long for in the new heaven and earth one of the deepest is this: To see Nicole come running up to me and say, “Hi Dad, let’s talk.”

Will people live with disabilities in heaven? What do you think?

Mark Stephenson served as pastor of two churches for a total of 17 years and is currently the Director of Disability Concerns for the Christian Reformed Church. This piece originally ran on The Network. A follow-up installment can be found here.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith, Theology