Jay McNeill: “When Theologians Get it So Wrong” part 2

I’m a little bit nervous writing this post (which follows from yesterday). Looking at some of the comments on Jay’s blog (see here), I’ve somehow managed to really upset people. And then my wife comes in last night, having read my response to Jay, and she has her angry face on.

Me (deciding to go where angels fear to tread): “okay, darling, what’s up.”

Elly: “I can’t believe you think there will still be disability in heaven! That’s a horrible and mean thought. When Sunny gets to heaven, she’ll be running around and talking non-stop, just like her sister.”

Me: “I agree completely, and I didn’t say otherwise.”

Elly: “you just always think you’re right – and you have to do make sure everyone knows it.”

Well, I am always right, but I can’t very well defend myself now, can I! (This is meant as a joke – but to all those people convinced I’m an arrogant sod, here’s your proof). With my silence an acceptance of defeat, we cuddled up and watched a movie that utterly depressed us (Never Let You Go – about the life story of children raised to be body part donors).

So, to proceed, I need to state the first that my intention is not to debate Jay (or Elly – especially not Elly). As far as I’m concerned, this is an exploratory conversation between two friends. We have a different perspective, and maybe it seems like we are utterly opposed, but I think we are looking at the same endpoint from a slightly different angles. And even if we end up disagreeing, I think that’s okay too. If friends can’t disagree then friendship is meaningless.

With that being said, I encourage you now to read Jay’s response to my blog yesterday – see here

Second, I also want to reiterate that any talk about heaven will be utterly speculative. The focus of the scriptures is not on heaven or hell – and generally when these topics are mentioned, the focus is for our life here and now, rather than any guess about what it might be like to be in heaven. The main point of the gospel is not for us to “get to heaven” but, rather, that we might work with God to confront evil here and now – “your kingdom come, you will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.” So, let’s move away from talk of heaven for a moment and focus just on disability.

Third, we need to reiterate that disability is not one thing – that I can’t universalise my experience with SCI. J makes the observation that “disability is a bloody bugger” and I wholeheartedly agree. In this light, I have been surprised to discover in reading through the broad literature on disability, that much of the writing in disability studies (by disabled people) resists any suggestion that disability should be viewed (at least in any a priori sense) as a “less than,” as “a bugger”, as something that should be eliminated. One of the areas in which this topic is explored is among the deaf community, where there are many different opinions. Of course, any parent who gives birth to a child wants whatever technologies that are available to enable their child to hear. But (and I know this is going to seem strange to those of us that can here), many (not all) within the deaf community are resistant to such technologies and some (not all) deaf parents hope that their children might also be deaf. This is because they hope that the children might be able to share their culture, language, and unique experiences. Indeed, some deaf people argue that “deafness” is not a disability. For more on this see the article, “do deaf people have a disability.” The real issue is, what is a disability anyway? Is there a point when a certain IQ is deemed “normal” or a “disability” and if we could should we genetically adjust every person to have an IQ of 180? What about autism, which sometimes (but not always) brings unique abilities? Is being too short a disability (dwarfism), if that means you can’t access storage or sit comfortably on chairs – or is the problem in the way we set up our social space, as well as the stereotypical way we think about people who are short? Conversely, might being too tall be a disability, since you can’t fit through doors or sit comfortably in an aeroplane?

The point in making these observations is not to be an nitpicking pedant. The point is for society to realise how much of disability is not “natural” but created by our social structures – by the way we set up society to include or exclude the so-called “abnormal.” I do think, though, that this discussion needs to be balanced. Much of what we call “disability” is a result of the impairment itself – and this is more or less true depending upon the particular person – and it is a bugger. disability both is social and embodied (physical/intellectual).

So, the issue of disability is inordinately complex – and now we are going to add to that complexity by speculating about heaven! Perhaps the point is we shouldn’t speculate, and yet if we pray such things as “on earth as it is in heaven” then there is at least a value in reflecting upon what this might mean for people with a disability. At this point, it would be helpful if I quote directly from J:

likening the holes in Jesus’ hands and feet to the possibility of people carrying their disability into heaven is a big stretch. It seems, at least on the surface, an attempt to see a purpose in disability. I just don’t buy that. If you have a disability it is a bloody bugger. As I have written about extensively, beauty comes from disability but I would give Jesus the credit for that as he tries to turn the war around (bring the kingdom). I don’t think Jesus tries to make the war worse by giving someone a disability and then celebrates it by introducing it into heaven. I find it hard to believe that God strategically uses disability to do his work, rather, he responds to the evil of disability by turning it to good.

I think that Amos Yong would wholeheartedly agree with most of what you say. I’m sure he imagines a heaven where people with disabilities are “healed” so there is no more crying and pain and hardship. But (and again I’m feeling nervous), he would also speculate that there is both continuity and discontinuity – that some of what we label disability will continue in heaven – although it will not prove to be a disability. We could allow our imagination to run over all sorts of questions; will a person with a low IQ have perfect knowledge in heaven – so that there is no varieties of IQ? Will we all be the same height? Will a person with down syndrome look totally different because they won’t have the same facial features caused by their genetic difference?

in terms of the nail scarred heads as a symbol, I personally think Amos has some insight – even though I can see Js point that it might be reading too much into the text. these scars represent something so essential to the past experience of Jesus that they have become a part of his identity and thus carry through to the future. if we carry this logic further, it might be true of some elements of a persons (so-called) disability – such as the beautiful face of a person with down syndrome.

Now, I can see why the theologian might be accused of absurd speculation at this point. The reason, though, that Amos Yong takes this step (and he admits it’s controversial) is because he wants to recognise that his Down’s syndrome brother is a child of God. Amos would say that his brother’s down syndrome is not the result of evil. In fact, he would say that such a position justifies abortion of down syndrome children. In contrast, Amos would say that the Down’s syndrome child is made fully in the image of God – and is a gift of God to families and society as a whole. Since this is so, he speculates that something of that disability (but this is the wrong word) continues in heaven. Let me rephrase that. His brother won’t be disabled in heaven, and all of the things that a horrible about down syndrome will be eliminated and healed. But there will still be a continuity – and it may well be the case that some things we label as “disabled” will turn out not to be so in heaven.

n.b. – this is my interpretation of Yong’s work, but I could well be wrong. If you are interested in this topic, I would encourage you to investigate his work.

Blah, if this is too abstract and confusing, then tell me to get stuffed and let’s all go back to what we really can say. If heaven means anything, then we shall be made whole. Precisely what that looks like, will be up to God. My Canadian friend, Clare, commenting on yesterday’s post by talking about her husband Don, noted the that he was most looking forward to experiencing sexual fulfilment. If everything said in these blog posts turns out to be nonsense – that is at least one thing that I wholeheartedly endorse.

About Author

Shane is an ethicist and theologian, Honorary Associate for the Centre of Disability Research and Policy, the University of Sydney, and Assistant Director, Policy, at the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation against People with Disability. Shane is proudly disabled, and an occasional blogger on


  • jaymcneill
    October 6, 2013 at 8:00 pm

    Hey Shane – get stuffed! Ha, thanks for having me a part of the conversation – I really mean that. This subject is potent and so it should be. If anyone reads my reply I would simply say whilst the conversation is important, it is also about people. I think any theological discussion MUST include the humanity behind it even if it contradicts the science/discipline. Ironically what I have wrestled most about this topic is during the time I have spent writing responses to this meandering conversation, my sister in law has been collecting packages of food and clothes for refugees in suburban Melbourne. Oh yea…I feel small! My last comment; I know jack shit about not much – that should keep me suitably humble, I hope Jesus knows what he is doing because we seriously need him.

    • Shane Clifton
      October 7, 2013 at 12:04 pm

      LOL – I think I might. I also enjoyed the conversation. By the way, I’m not sure I buy the guilt behind the idea that instead of having this sort of conversation you should be collecting packages of food for refugees. Of course, that’s a great activity – but so is reflection on the meaning of life. Action and thinking go together and both are important.

      • jaymcneill
        October 7, 2013 at 12:08 pm

        Agreed, for me it was a refreshing reminder of other things and it jolted me, so I took note. Take care man.

  • Lindsey Gale
    October 7, 2013 at 12:24 am

    When Christians with a disability affirm their condition and hope it will remain part of who they are in heaven, like everyone else, they don’t know what they’ll be like in heaven. Their affirmation is more a defense against the fact that everyone else perceives their disability as tragic and worthless. Who would want that message relentlessly spoken all their life?. What about being the workmanship of God, created for good works in Christ?

    I liked these thoughts in a recent book about heaven I glanced through –
    The planter does not plant the body that is to be, but the seed (1 Cor. 15:37).
    The seed bears little resemblance to the plant it becomes.
    No one possesses his or her ‘mature’ body before death. “We are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared.”. But we know that Jesus will transform our lowly bodies to be like his glorious body, by his almighty power (Phil 3:20-21).

    Amos Yong and Frances Young (Face to Face) both make what I feel is a poor argument that their brother/son respectively will not be who they are in heaven if they don’t retain their intellectual impairment. But we don’t know what we’ll be like in heaven, except that we will be glorious, and be like Jesus.

    John Swinton takes issue with the nail scars of Jesus representing disability in heaven – an idea that I think originates from Nancy Eiseland, in her book The Disabled God. Swinton says –

    “The problem with the suggestion that Jesus’ resurrected body is disabled is that Jesus’ body was no less able than it had been before the crucifixion. He could do the things he could before, and it was through doing one of the same things as before that he was recognised. If anything he was more able – he could walk through walls and disguise himself and then appear. Plus, he had just risen from the dead which is quite the display of ability! It seems that Jesus was scarred, but not disabled… The most that we might say about the “imperfect”form of Jesus’ resurrection body is that it was surprising and that all of our resurrection bodies will be surprising.

    • Shane Clifton
      October 7, 2013 at 12:01 pm

      thanks for the additional input, Lindsay. I don’t think anyone is saying that Jesus’ resurrected body is disabled – I certainly am not. the point is that the future resurrected body contains the scars of the past. there is continuity and discontinuity.

  • Deb
    October 7, 2013 at 8:41 pm

    Today my Pop (grandfather) came up in conversation, and I realised my husband never met him. Jeffrey said he’d look forward to meeting my Pop in heaven. My memory of Pop is mostly his legs (only mildly hairy, with several moles, and wearing shorts with long socks), his voice, and his laugh….the things that make an impression on you when you are a child! The other thing I realised about Pop is that I only knew him when he was old, so that is the only way I can imagine recognising him in heaven!

    But when Nanna pictures herself seeing Pop in heaven, is she hoping/expecting to see him as he was just before he died, or how he was when they first met, or somewhere in the middle, or something completely new?

    I suspect there will be new ways of being, new ways of recognising – and that will bypass some of the difficulties of people being overly identified or constrained by their age or biological composition…

  • Shane Clifton
    October 7, 2013 at 9:01 pm

    Nice deb

  • Cheryl Sullivan
    October 8, 2013 at 5:45 pm

    Cheryl Sullivan on October 8, 2013 at 2:28 am
    Your comment is awaiting moderation.
    Hi Shane,

    I feel personally that I went to war over this not that anyone was presenting this as a fight – I was just acknowledging the fact (and putting it out there) that I don’t have any emotional neutrality on this issue, and because of this I had for my emotional well being removed myself from the conversation. I only come back in because I don’t want you to feel in any way that you have upset me. I was extremely upset before you posted anything so you are not to blame in any way!

    I agree with you that a theologian who has studied for 10 years is entitled to a voice but unfortunately in this particular instance this is not the case – in fact the theologian that began the initial conversation has only been introduced to this thinking relatively recently – and is using his status as a theologian to give credence to his case

    In my opinion it is dishonest to use ones position to act like you have expertise in an area that is a recent avenue of thought.

    I have taken exception to his biased presentation and unhelpful speculation but mostly I have taken exception to my sons life as a person with a severe disability being summarised as his “having a blight on his life.” And then his advocating that some of the endearing features of disability may remain in Heaven – and holding up para Olympians as examples of the “successful” disabled, or sections of the deaf community who feel they have a better sense of community amongst themselves without hearing aids or cochlea implants – then the autistic community are mentioned but only the mild to moderately affected have any chance of feeling included in this original blog post and I feel discriminated against because my son Luke will never work, care for himself, and unfortunately can’t defend himself in his own words either because he is nonverbal. Luke’s main disability is Autism and his secondary disability is Down Syndrome, he also has life threatening dysphagia and such a low IQ that he continually puts objects un his mouth because he has no concept of his severe choking hazard.
    Where does a mother go when those around her who are trying to create a society with more inclusive attitudes towards people with disabilities discriminate through their bias towards success stories leaving her feeling that her son doesn’t even make the grade in the advocacy stakes. God help me – because “friends” like this original theologian aren’t advocating very well for my son and by extension for me either.

    • Shane Clifton
      October 8, 2013 at 6:00 pm

      dear Cheryl, thanks for coming over to my blog and commenting. It is important for all of us to hear about the way in which theory and theology can have a very real impact upon the day-to-day experience of people dealing with the hard consequences of disability. I do hope that you get the opportunity to challenge and help to change the attitude of the person in question.

      My own situation is very different to yours – physical disability is so very different (and in so many ways much easier to deal with) then the challenges of Luke and yourself as a carer. I have few answers to your final question. In Christian circles, I have found CBM to be a wonderful organisation – and I understand that you are connected to them. Let’s hope that, with time, their message can bring transformation in churches.

      Sincerely, Shane

      • Cheryl Sullivan
        October 8, 2013 at 8:37 pm

        Thanks Shane. Yes, let’s hope for transformation in churches. I protested at the time, but I don’t think my point got through to him.

        I’m in desperate need of transformation as we all are – so I will have to let this one go through to the keeper. Signing off now to nurse my wounds, and pray blessings on those who inflict pain without knowing what they are doing.

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