40 Questions About Heaven and Hell, Alan W. Gomes (Benjamin L.Merkle, series editor). Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2019.
Summary: Addresses with clear and concise biblically based answers common questions about the afterlife: heaven, the intermediate state, the final judgment, the new creation, and hell.
What happens to us after we die? This is one of the most basic questions every human being has thought about (or tried not to think about). There are a variety of conceptions of what will happen. Some think that there isn’t anything after death. Many in the world anticipate reincarnation in some form. Others, including many Christians think of our post-mortem existence more along the lines of ancient Greeks, where an immortal spirit will reside in some kind of “heaven” in the presence of angels and God.
Alan W. Gomes offers a very practical exploration of many of the questions that arise both from these popular notions and from our reading of the Bible. The title of the book says “40 Questions” but technically, some questions are answered in two parts. Here are some of the kinds of concerns he gets into: what do we mean by soul or spirit and do one or both survive our death? What does the Bible mean when speaking of “heaven” or “hell”? What happens in the period between our death and the resurrection? Will there be rewards in heaven? Degrees of punishment? What about purgatory? What are the “new heavens and the new earth?” Will there be marriage and sex in the eternal state? How can a loving God send anyone to hell? How can we be happy if there are people suffering in hell?
This isn’t an exhaustive list but gives you the sense that you will probably find the questions you or others have asked addressed in this book. Each chapter offers a general discussion of the background of the questions and positions Christians have held, then considers biblical texts with the author’s conclusions of how scripture addresses each question. The chapters conclude with reflection questions allowing readers to review the content, as well as determine their own response to the material presented. Generally, each chapter runs between five and ten pages.
Rather than go into detail on most of the author’s answers, which would be kind of spoiler, I would observe that Gomes would tend to take a traditional approach to many of the questions in the book. What I appreciate is that he does not try to speculate on questions for which the Bible is silent. He affirms the existence of souls of believers in a conscious state prior to the resurrection. Along with other traditional and modern commentators, he believes in the resurrection of the body, and the reign of resurrected believers with Christ in the new earth, the New Jerusalem come down from heaven. He affirms both our salvation by grace, and rewards for believers on the basis of their works, their faithfulness. While acknowledging the figurative language about hell, he believes the scriptures give no warrant for anything other than eternal conscious punishment. He rejects annihilationist, and universalist proposals that have been advanced and discusses the biblical arguments that have been advanced.
I did find his answer to the question of how one could be happy knowing of others people undergoing punishment. His proposal comes down to the idea that from the perspective of eternity with God, we will see things differently–the opportunities for repentance, faith and salvation, and the sinfulness of sin. I also found it interesting that he finds no biblical warrant for the statement “he descended into hell” in many renderings of the Apostles Creed.
It’s likely that not all readers will agree with all that the author says. That, in my mind is not a reason to not buy this book. Often, those who would reject the positions the author takes actually reject poor caricatures rather than the kind of carefully argued treatments this author gives us. Particularly with questions of ultimate destiny, a book like this challenges us to examine whether our beliefs are grounded in what we would like to be true, or hopeful speculations, or grounded in what scripture has made known to us. The reflection questions leave room for the reader to wrestle with these question on his or her own, and that the reader may or may not be convinced of what the author has written. I appreciate the approach here that does not shrink from setting forth what may be hard for some to accept, while giving the reader the space to reach his or her own conclusions.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.