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 of 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).
Perhaps 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.
The 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.