Review: Death and the Afterlife

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Death and the Afterlife (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Paul R. Williamson. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: A discussion of the biblical texts concerning death and what follows: the state of the dead post-mortem, the resurrection, judgement, hell, and heaven.

One of the most indisputable statistics is that one out of one die. While many other things differentiate us as human beings, the terminus of our lives is one thing we all have in common.  Our responses to this vary, from denial to despair, to mute acceptance that when we die, that is all, to some hope for continued existence beyond the grave. What we believe about these things profoundly shapes how we live.

In this monograph, Paul S. Williamson explores these questions in light of contemporary and ancient thought, and biblical teaching. He writes at the outset, “My primary focus, however, is not the theological case that proponents of various views can mount but rather the prior question: What does the Bible say?” In his opening chapter, he summarizes various views, both ancient and modern, and some of the areas disputed even by evangelical interpreters.

Following this he explores first the biblical materials surrounding what happens to us at death. While acknowledging the limits of the evidence, he recognizes the possibility of some form of post-mortem existence, although this involves a radical separation from embodied life and is thus interim. The ultimate destiny is resurrection. He considers but dismisses the idea of the dead being outside time, and thus the resurrection “immediate.” He traces the idea of resurrection and its development in later OT and intertestamental periods, to its full blossoming following the resurrection of Christ. His chapter on judgement particularly deals with tracing the idea of divine recompense for one’s deeds and how this might be reconciled with salvation by grace alone. He contends that saving faith is trust in action through persistence in doing good, that reflects the transforming work of God in our lives.

Many will turn to the final two chapters on hell, and on heaven, and the contention that ultimately all will wind up in heaven. On hell, while he argues that the language of fire and darkness may well be metaphor, we cannot ignore the language of torment that is everlasting, dismissing the language arguments that deny this. He would argue that annihilation must be read into the text. On heaven, he would contend from scripture that this is the interim resting place of those who die in Christ, but that God’s intention is for a new creation which the resurrected will inhabit. He responds to the arguments of “Gregory MacDonald” for a final universal salvation in which those in hell are brought to post-mortem repentance, showing that this case cannot be made from scripture.

The outcome of Williamson’s study is to uphold the traditional teaching of the church and contend that this is rooted in scripture. There is evidence for an interim state between death and resurrection, for the final resurrection and judgement of all and for eternal conscious punishment in hell. Following some newer interpreters, he would argue that the ultimate destiny for new believers is eternal life with God in the new creation, where heaven “comes down” to a transformed and renewed earth.

No doubt, this is contrary to what interpreters like Rob Bell (“love wins”) or “Gregory MacDonald” (“God wins”) would contend. What Williamson makes the case for is that while such opinions may be popular, they are wanting in terms of biblical evidence. For those who really care about searching such things out, this book is a good, careful statement of the traditional understanding of what scripture affirms, cautious in acknowledging what is not known, and equally cautious in not speculating on what scripture does not say. It makes clear the hope of the resurrection, how we may hear God’s “well done” in the judgment, and how one may enjoy eternal life in God’s new creation as well as warning of what faces the unrepentant. As much as we struggle with the hard truth of the latter, this book poses the question of dare we go beyond what scripture has plainly affirmed?

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