Book Review: Dale C. Allison, Jr., Death Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things

Allison, Jr., Dale C. Death Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 194 pp. pb; $18.   Link to Eerdmans

This short book was developed from Allison’s Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary in October 2014. As he notes in his preface, these essays are edited and are more like a series of thoughts and reflections on life, death and the afterlife. As the book develops, there is a sense of Allison’s struggle as a scholar to deal some very basic issues allison-death-comesof human existence. On the one hand, Allison is an excellent scholar who wants to take into account a wide range of disciples including psychology, sociology, and biblical studies. But on the other hand, he is a real person who has been deeply affected by the experience of death and separation from loved ones. There is a very real personal struggle in this book. In fact, it is the tension between experience and academia that makes this book extremely intriguing. Allison quotes Princeton philosopher Mark Johnston who says “you either rehearse a scientifically establish materialism about life and death, or you preach” (70). In this book, Allison preaches.

Near the end of the book Allison comes to three possible options for understanding the future. One is to dismiss it as an intellectual anachronism and reject popular descriptions of heaven and hell as myth (or fantasy). The second approach is to search the Bible for information about the future on the presupposition God knows wants to reveal something about heaven and hell to us. The third approach is to explore what human experience, including psychology near-death experience is in those sorts of things. Whether by temperament or experience, I am less inclined to listen to near-death experience reports that Allison appears to be in this book. He certainly does not take them at face value and he does not seem inclined to accept the strange trend in popular Christian publishing toward heavenly (or hellish) experiences.

For Allison all three strategies are problematic. Although my preference would be for the second approach, Allison is certainly correct the Bible tells us less about the future than we might think. It seems as though most people understand heaven through the lens of popular media, primarily Dante and cartoons.

The first chapter deals with the fear of death, or in some examples, the non-fear of death. Allison describes his own fears after a near-death experience. After seeking answers in his theological education, he confesses “I’d been interrogating my religion more than benefiting from it, and fear and trembling assailed me” (13). Allison cannot agree with scholars like John Dominic Crossan who think the resurrection is an outdated myth. For Allison, “Christianity without hope beyond death is of reduced relevance and diminished interest” (16).

As for what the resurrection looks like Allison confesses he is not sure what to believe. He begins the second chapter by citing some absurd examples of why some people have rejected a literal resurrection and even immorality. For example, how can resurrected bodies be brought back together again after thousands of years, since the material remains are long gone and have been likely consumed and incorporated into other bodies? Questions of cremation and organ donation have caused Christians to rethink resurrection, but as Allison says graves and bones are irrelevant. Although belief in a literal resurrection has waned in recent years, and literal resurrection has been more or less abandoned by many scholars, a future hope in the resurrection has not been completely reversed. Although Allison rejects anything other than a biblical dualism (body and soul rather than body soul and spirit), several possible explanations for a resurrection body remain open. But in the end, he remains in agnostic on what the resurrected body might look like (37).

His third chapter concerns God’s final judgment. Like the previous chapter, he begins by surveying some of the more absurd views of what that judgment might look like. There is little wonder why most mainstream pulpits remain silent on the topic of eschatological judgment. For Allison, there is a cultural problem with the concept of judgment (we do not like it anymore), but also a theological problem. Theologically, many Christians stress justification by faith and therefore are less interested in having our lives reviewed by an “end times final judgment day.” Allison rightly points out some Western theological traditions take extended court room metaphors too far. This certainly applies to the eschatological judgment. The judge on the last day is not a detached enforcer of inflexible laws, rather he is the father in the prodigal son parable (67).

Although chapter 4 is entitled “ignorance and imagination.” it is on eschatology and ethics. The chapter quotes both pulp science fiction writer Philip José Farmer and John Lennon, Allison asks us to imagine what our ethical life might be like without a belief in heaven or hell. While unsatisfied with hundreds of-year-old sermons with title scary titles about the “efficacy of the fear of hell,” he makes the point that like most doctrines, Christians tend to take a predominantly self-interested point of view of heaven and hell. For Allison, thinking about the future is to use one’s imagination. Most portrayals of heaven and hell are artistic, they are symbols of what we hope or fear lies ahead. To be useful, this imagination must engage us where we are. Heaven looks like what we prefer in this life. Second, these imaginings of heaven need to be theologically sound (and they are usually not!) Just to Scripture says we do not know what to pray for beyond “Thy will be done, we also don’t really know what to hope for beyond “thy will be done” (92).

bosch-hellPerhaps chapter 5 will be the first most contemporary Christians read, since everybody wants to know whether there is a literal hell. Allison interacts with some of the major problems with hell found in contemporary literature on the topic. The real problem, Alison suggests, is that we just do not like torture anymore and we cannot imagine a good, loving and kind God sending people to a Dante-style hell against their wills to torture them with ironic and macabre punishments. All that used to make for effective preaching, but not anymore.

First, Allison says God does not send people to hell against their will. People who have rejected God also reject heaven. Second, hell is not a torture chamber, in fact Allison thinks hell cannot be objectively described. At best we can make theological assertions about it or construct useful parables about it. But we do not have any “precognitive snapshots” or what hell is really like (103).

One strategy for rejecting hell is to argue Jesus did not teach there is a hell. But as Allison says, even if you could detach Jesus from hell, that would not get the doctrine off the other pages of the rest of the New Testament. As a historian, Allison is not convinced Jesus would not believe in a hell. It is difficult to separate eschatological judgment from Second Temple theology. Another strategy is an emphasis on human freedom. But for Allison an over-emphasis on human freedom moves God to the wings. Modern Americans don’t like a God who decides their fate and might send them to hell. Somehow we have turned heaven and hell into a kind of Christian version of karma.

Bosch-heavenThe final chapter is on heaven, a topic Allison notes some pastors do their best to dodge. For many pastors a biblical teaching on heaven is too minimalistic to be good preaching. Once again Allison makes a few comments on the absurdity of most popular pictures of an eternal heaven.  What does one do for all of eternity? Eventually boredom must set in. He briefly comments on N. T. Wright’s dismissal of “going to heaven” as a tag for what happens after death. It is well known Wright does not think heaven is eternal floating around in another world; For Wright, heaven is a renewed body living on a renewed earth. This is similar to Moltmann, who insisted the eternal kingdom of God will be a this-worldly kingdom. The meek after all, will inherit the earth.

Allison spends a large section of this chapter dealing with the view did humans become in some way angelic in the next life, examining Second Temple Jewish texts as well as some early Christian documents. Although there may be nothing to this tradition, Allison observes that angels are never described as having private lives. They are in fact thoroughly theocentric beings. Perhaps if our view of heaven was as theocentric as possible, our personal questions would become far less important.

Conclusion: This book is not a textbook on personal eschatology. There is no sustained argument for a resurrection, or against a literal hell in this book. Instead, the reader is treating to the careful reflections of a respected New Testament scholar who is still looking for satisfying answers to these ultimate questions.

Late in this book, Allison observes that are thinking about the afterlife has become less geocentric and more anthropocentric. He observes that hymns from the nineteenth century seem to look forward to the “Sweet Bye and Bye” in which Heaven is a reunion with loved ones across the stormy Jordan. But is anthropocentric view of heaven (or hell) biblical? We naturally ask questions about what our personal bodies will be like, or what we will be doing for all eternity. But our personal fate is not the point a biblical teaching on death and resurrection, heaven and hell.

Instead, these our thinking about heaven and hell ought to focus squarely on God and his glory alone.


NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Published on July 28, 2016 on Reading Acts.

Hell Under Fire Giveaway

I do not think that it is any coincidence, but Zondervan is giving away a copy of Hell Under Fire.  This book came out in 2004 and should get a nice bump in sales in the wake of the release of Rob bell’s Love WinsHell Under Fire is a collection of essays on the topic of Hell from the perspective of  historical systematic and biblical theology.  The final chapter is a nice reflection on preaching the topic of hell (or not).   The title is not supposed to be funny; this book is part of a mini-series from Zondervan.  Jesus Under Fire was a collection of essays written in response to Jesus Seminar style Historical Jesus studies and God Under Fire was written in response to so-called Open Theism.

There are ten chapters, 259 pages.  A topical index is included.

  1. Albert Mohler Jr.:  Modern Theology: the Disappearance of Hell
  2. Daniel I. Block:  The Old Testament on Hell
  3. Robert W. Yarbrough:   Jesus on Hell
  4. Douglas J. Moo Paul on Hell
  5. Gregory K. Beale:  The Revelation on Hell
  6. Christopher W. Morgan:   Biblical Theology: Three Pictures of Hell
  7. Robert A. Peterson:  Systematic Theology: Three Vantage Points of Hell
  8. J. I. Packer:   Universalism: Will Everyone Ultimately be Saved?
  9. Christopher W. Morgan:  Annihilationism: Will the Unsaved Be Punished Forever?
  10. Sinclair. B. Ferguson:   Pastoral Theology: The Preacher and Hell

Even if you do not win a copy, check out this important resource.

Rob Bell, Love Wins, and Burning Down the Internet

Rob Bell certainly knows how to stir things up.  A short video on YouTube promoting his new book created such furious response from bloggers that it is hard to avoid the controversy.  Between John Piper’s now-famous tweet and Justin Taylor’s Wittenberg Door-esque blog, the controversy over Bell’s new book threatens to burn hotter than the Hell which Rob Bell supposedly denies.   In case you were offline last week, here is a useful summary of RobBellGate on New Ways Forward.

Any debate over doctrine is good, and any reformation of a doctrine that brings it more in line with scripture is good.  This “Rob Bell is a Universalist” dust-up raises a few questions in my mind.  Let me preface this by saying I am a firm believer in Hell as a real place, a separation from God in some real way.  I have never been a believer in the popular image of Hell as fire and brimstone or ironic punishments meted out by cruel demons with pitchforks.  All of that is based on Dante and Looney-Tune cartoons, or perhaps the Farside. I also think that calling someone a Universalist is the evangelical equivalent of an F-Bomb.  Better to not use the word if you do not mean it.

My questions:

First, Is a traditional belief in Hell required to be a Christian? There have been plenty of serious scholars who were undoubtedly Christian and even evangelical yet denied a literal hell.  Clark Pinnock, for example, said “The traditional understanding of hell is unspeakably horrible. How can one imagine for a moment that the God who gave his Son to die for sinners because of his great love for them would install a torture chamber somewhere in the new creation in order to subject those who reject him to everlasting pain? (C. H. Pinnock, “Fire, Then Nothing,” in Christianity Today 20 (March, 1987): 40).  Pinnock’s own view is more of a “conditional immortality” in which only the righteous dead are raised to eternal life, something which was at one time called “soul sleep.”  Pinnock was deeply committed to the Gospel and the truth of Scripture, but he was also not bound by a traditional confession which demanded he believe in Hell.

I am fairly confident that denying a literal Hell will keep you from being a staff member at John Piper’s church (and mine, for that matter), but it does not separate you from what it means to be a Christian. I cannot imagine someone claiming to be a Calvinist, for example, and denying some form of literal hell.  But  I am not sure I want to define “Christian” as “Proper Calvinist.”   When we debate the reality of Hell, we are asking questions about how to read the Bible properly.  There are texts which imply some sort of eternal punishment Matt 25:46, for example), but do those texts imply a “real hell” or is the text using a metaphor?  My view is that there is a metaphor, but that metaphor points to the terrible reality of eternal separation from God.

Second, Is it important that we imagine Hell as “hellfire”? Personally, I think the church has gotten itself into trouble by describe Hell too clearly.  It is all too easy to laugh at the cartoonish descriptions of Hell found in a Chick Tract and never confront the terrifying reality of what Hell is really about.  Luther himself said “It is not very important whether or not one pictures hell as it is commonly portrayed and described.”  (Luther’s Works: Lectures on the Minor Prophets, II, Jonah, Habakkuk 19:34).  Similarly, Charles Hodge said “ There seems no more reason for supposing that the fire spoken of in Scripture is to be literal fire, than the worm that never dies is literally a worm” (Systematic Theology, 3:868).  I doubt that anyone will accuse Luther and Hodge of liberalism, although I would not mind reading Tweets from Luther, Eck and Carlstadt.

Third, What is the “proper use” of the doctrine of Hell? When I taught systematic theology I often ended my discussion of the eternal state with this question.  I would quote passages from “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and simply ask if it is right to scare people into salvation with dark fantasies of eternal punishment.  I recall one student very clearly saying that yes, if someone accepts Christ, then it is perfectly acceptable “to scare the Hell out of them.” I disagree, since I know I can emotionally manipulate people into any decision. The point of a doctrine of Hell is not to scare people into being good, nor should the doctrine of Heaven  be used to coax people into being good.  This medieval view of eternal life sounds a bit too much like Santa Claus, and this implied merit system certainly not the biblical view.

C. S. Lewis said that the doctrine of Hell ought to be more about yourself than others.  The point is not to decide who will be in Hell or think through the delicious tortures your personal enemies will endure when they get there.  Heaven and Hell are intensely personal doctrines which should motivate worship out of a thankful heart for the grace of God.  “All your life an unattainable ecstasy has hovered just beyond the grasp of your consciousness. The day is coming when you will wake to find, beyond all hope, that you have attained it; or else, that it was within your grasp and you have lost it forever” (C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, chap. 10, “Heaven”).