Under the Bed of Heaven
Christian Eschatology and Sexual Ethics
- ISBN: 9781438486260
- Published By: State University of New York Press
- Published: November 2022
Sexuality remains perennially in need of ongoing ethical discussion that attends to the complexities of human experience in a fast-paced, media-saturated, globalized world. Richard McCarty’s Under the Bed of Heaven: Christian Eschatology and Sexual Ethics addresses Christian sexual ethics from a not-so-common perspective: eschatology. This book rests on the pivotal assumption that reflecting on the question of sex in heaven has direct applicability to how “graced relationships and prodigal love . . . might be incarnated upon the earth” (9).
Given Christian belief in the resurrection of the body, there is doctrinal grounding for thinking about sexuality and the afterlife. McCarty takes the next “cataphatic” methodological step, linking “the unknown to life as humans know it” (116). He calls this approach doing ethics under the bed of Heaven, alluding to the quaint rabbinical story of the overly eager Torah student who hid under his master’s bed to learn first-hand about godly marital intimacy. McCarty invites his readers to turn their attention to beatific existence and explore how to craft theological metaphors that could apply to glorified human bodies expressing love and desire in heaven. From this “sexual eschatology” (117), one can then derive earth-bound ethics.
McCarthy mounts his argument in stages. The first two chapters of the book lay the groundwork for how theology and ethics are mutually informative, justifying his methodological decision to move from doctrine to morality. He does not propose a single path but, rather, clarifies how moral reasoning happens in a variegated interplay of human experience, direct revelation, social location, the Bible, moral theories, and church teachings. McCarty takes a biblical approach to eschatology, noting the obscure, even perplexing, statements of the apostle Paul on resurrected existence. That Paul advocated for “an eschatological ethic” (29) is clear; however, what one might then extrapolate from his epistles about sexuality in heaven remains cloudy.
The lack of Christian consensus on the nature of bodies and sexuality in heaven is underlined by McCarty’s discussion in chapter 2 of interreligious and historical perspectives on gender and sex in heaven. He gives a brief overview of sexual ethics and eschatology in Judaism, Islam, and Mormonism (scholars from these three traditions might find McCarty’s summaries too cursory). McCarty’s inclusion in this chapter of polyamory practices of contemporary Christian “swingers” (married couples who trade sexual partners for fun) seems an odd juxtaposition with three world religions. Nevertheless, one can concede McCarty’s point that erotic pleasure has not always been denigrated in religious teachings and has not always been thought of as antithetical to existence in the afterlife.
The heart of McCarty’s constructive proposal is found in chapters 3 through 7. Chapter 3 gives a cogent overview of how Christianity eventually settled on a dismal view of sexual desire: lust as sinful, sex in marriage for procreation alone, the spiritual primacy of celibacy, and a sexless heaven. The historical church’s anti-eros eschatology persists into the present day. From the body theology of Pope Paul II to the evangelical ethics of Stanley Grenz, one finds similar messaging: bodies but no sex in heaven.
McCarty finds some glimmers of hope from three contemporary progressive Christian thinkers, whom he credits for offering “new visions for sex in heaven” (81). Chapter 4 details David Jensen’s God, Desire, and a Theology of Human Sexuality ( Westminster John Knox Press, 2013) and Patricia Beattie Jung’s Sex on Earth as It Is in Heaven (SUNY Press, 2017), as well as an essay I wrote (“Sex in Heaven?” in The Embrace of Eros, Fortress Press, 2010). McCarty uses these three texts as a springboard to move beyond “agnostic openness to sex in heaven” (109) and toward a bold imaginary of eschatological sex.
McCarty next considers monogamy and celibacy, promiscuity and polyamory, and even pornography. The first pair might find acceptance as heavenly activities, even among conservative Christians today. The other p-words will be a hard sell. Chapters 5, 6, and 7 offer sustained biblical, theological, pastoral, psychological, and scientific arguments for why promiscuity, polyamory, and pornography can be appropriate metaphors for heavenly existence. The key word here is metaphor.
For McCarty metaphorical thinking “allows for creative descriptions of heaven without making predictive promises” (113). For example, promiscuous sex as a metaphor captures the “intimate, exquisite, playful, healing, and indiscriminate” nature of heavenly love (125). Earthly promiscuity may be fraught with human failings, but presumably that would not be case with sex in heaven. Once the notion of eschatological sex becomes conceivable, ethics follows. Whatever the saints might do gracefully in heaven, could—in some circumstances—also be morally acceptable on earth. If one can imagine sex in heaven, then there is at least “the potential to mimic… aspects of these heavenly goods” in human interactions in this life (187).
McCarty wants his eschatological imaginary to have a biblical basis, but he asks his readers to take some giant hermeneutical leaps. He suggests that gospel accounts of Jesus’ “episodic” expressions of loving and healing touch (124) open the door to seeing promiscuous sex as a type of relationship that instantiates God’s love. McCarty also intimates that (the arguably patriarchal) polygyny in the Hebrew Bible could provide a biblical basis for “open relationships,” such as polyamory and sex with friends (179). Again, another hard sell for biblically oriented traditional Christians.
Believers attempting to implement the expansive sexual practices McCarty proposes will face many obstacles because of human finitude and personal failings. However, McCarty is unwilling to let human sin sabotage his sexual ethics. By throwing down an eschatological gauntlet, McCarty presses traditionalists to explain why free love would be proscribed for glorified bodies in heaven. When the eager theologian lies under the metaphorical bed of heaven, a world opens up for modes of sexual relating that were hitherto inconceivable for Christian sexual ethics.
Margaret D. Kamitsuka is professor emeritus at Oberlin College, Ohio.Margaret D. KamitsukaDate Of Review:September 13, 2023