Review: 40 Questions About Heaven and Hell

 

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40 Questions About Heaven and HellAlan 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.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Last Things

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The Last Things (Contours of Christian Theology), David A. Höhne. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A theology of the last things that is Trinitarian in focus, centered on the exaltation of the crucified Lord, and the preservation of the believer.

There are many books about the last things or the end times. This work takes a different approach. The author contends that the Lord’s prayer is an eschatological prayer, that the focus of each of its petitions is the full realization of the kingdom of God in the person of the crucified and risen Lord through the work of the Holy Spirit. This includes the preservation, purifying, and protection of those whose hope is in the crucified and risen Lord.

The book is written for those (all who have ever believed in Christ), are living in the Middle. It is both about what God has promised us for the future but how this is already being fulfilled in our lives. It concerns how God has already established a relationship and a people, and how we will one day be perfected.

The chapters focus around each of the petitions in the Lord’s prayer. At the same time, he discusses these through the lens of interacting with Karl Barth’s theology of the Word and Jurgen Moltman’s theology of hope. The first three petitions for the hallowing of the name, the coming of the kingdom, and the doing of God’s will on earth as in heaven are the what, how, and why of God the Father’s purposes through the Son in the Spirit. The prayers for daily bread, for forgiveness, and for deliverance focus around what we need to make it to the resurrection, and our eternal glory with Christ.

I found this the hardest “read” in the series. I think this has to do with the author’s engagement with Barth and Moltmann throughout, and a conscious effort to emphasize the work of the persons of the Trinity throughout. The introduction to the series speaks of making this accessible to educated laypeople. The author appears to assume a familiarity with Barth and Moltmann that may be true of seminarians, but probably only a minority of others. I founded the presentation stronger where the author connected themes in the Lord prayer to the rest of scripture, establishing the eschatological “arc” of this prayer.

I had looked forward to the completion of this series, this “last” volume of which had been long-awaited. While there were elements I appreciated, particularly the structuring of the work around a prayer many of us pray daily or weekly. But I had hoped for more in a series that had set a high standard of theological reflection accessible to the educated layperson. What the book did make clear is that we will not be disappointed by the God who keeps all his promises both for the exaltation of the crucified and risen Lord, and the resurrection hope of we, his people.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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?

Review: New Creation

New Creation

New CreationRodney Clapp. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018.

Summary: An exploration of how the end of the Christian story, or eschatology, ought shape the life of the church in this time between the comings of Christ.

“We are storied creatures, and everything happens because we lean toward endings. These endings are the goals, the pursuits, the destinies, the termination points that mark and animate our lives. Without endings we could never begin anything. We would lack plots and our lives would be without purpose, devoid of meaning” (p. 1).

This statement from the Introduction captured my attention. I’ve long felt that the Christian faith is not merely beliefs to embrace, or precepts to practice, but a story in which we find ourselves. It has seemed to me that one of the great needs of the church, and individuals within her, to understand is the story within which we live. Often, I believe that we are living in other stories, perhaps familial, or cultural, rather than the story of the kingdom.

Rodney Clapp begins this work with a summary of our story of creation, fall, the mission of Israel, the coming of the kingdom in the person of Jesus, and the kingdom yet to come. He crucially observes that the idea of kingdom implies a politics for the church–not that we so much have a politics, but that we are a politics as the people of God.

Clapp then explores a number of topics in light of “the end of the story.” He begins with a discussion of heaven, and the Christian teaching of our ultimate destiny as resurrected people caring for the new creation with heaven as a way station. He discusses our identity as a royal priesthood, that are also the temple of the living God. Every other allegiance is secondary, and releases us to identify with the powerless, those on the margins. The day will come when the lion will lay down with the lamb when the rule of the Prince of Peace is established. For now we follow Jesus by turning from violence to bear the cross of peace, even while we engage in warfare, not with people, but with the Principalities and Powers, the structures of life that oppress. We name them and refuse them our allegiance.

He moves on to prayer, reflecting on the Lord’s prayer, how prayer is the watchful waiting of the pilgrim, and how the lament and theodicies of scripture give us language to face the disjunct between our broken world and the new creation we await. He considers what our hope for the new creation means for our care for the present creation, one whose creatures God knows and provides for. He even includes a poem on “Lessons in Prayer, from a Dog,” inspired by his own dog, Merle. For many, the most interesting will be his discussion of sex in the eschaton. He proposes, in the language of the Song of Solomon, that love is indeed stronger than death, and that although the scriptures are not definitive on this, there is reason to hope for sex in the new creation, even if there is no marriage or giving in marriage. If we are resurrected bodies, he proposes that our genitalia will not be mere ornamentation!

Finally, Clapp explores the question of the last judgment, offering an interesting discussion in which he argues against eternal conscious torment as inconsistent with God’s reconciling work through the cross of Christ. He explores both the idea of conditional mortality, that the unrepentant simply cease to exist, fading to “nothingness,” and hopeful universalism, in which, after suffering judgment that purifies and redeems, all will be saved. Clapp does not commit to either of these positions, which he shows have been embraced by various parts of the church, and argues that ours is not to judge but to proclaim the good news of the kingdom. He concludes that our view of eschatology enables us to deal with the tragedies and ironies of our current existence and to live with both calmness and joy in the present time.

The book includes appendices in reading the Bible for the first time, and also some suggestions for reading Karl Barth, whose influences are evident through the book. What is so good about this book is how it deals with the misapprehensions so many have about the last things. For many, a destiny of only being ethereal spirits strumming harps is far less attractive than embodied, and perhaps sexual, creatures working in the new creation. He speaks of an end of the story that answers to our deepest longings for peace and healing the rifts within humanity and the rest of creation. His account gives us hope to face the hardships of life, and a call to a higher allegiance that transcends all earthly political engagements. Twice during the book, he makes this assertion:

“If the Republicans are the last ones caring for the unborn, the Christian will be among them. If the Greens are the last fighting for a caring stewardship of creation, the Christian will be among them. If the Democratic Socialists are the last ones fighting for the poor and the working class, the Christian will be among them. If Black Lives Matter are the last ones believing that black lives do matter, the Christians will be among them. If the relief agencies are the last ones caring for refugees, the Christian will be among them. If the pacifist anarchists are the last ones standing for peaceable alternatives to war, the Christian will be among them” (pp 45, 113).

If nothing else, Clapp is an equal opportunity offender! Readers will doubtless find something to take issue with in this brief and forthright account. Some might disagree with Clapp’s take on the last judgement. But if he provokes us to think about what the end of our story is as the people of the kingdom, in all its glory, and challenges us to shape our lives, in these tumultuous times, by this story rather than other cultural stories, then this book will have accomplished its purpose.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Eschatology

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EschatologyD. Jeffrey Bingham and Glenn R. Kreider (eds.). Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2016.

Summary: A compendium of essays on the future hope of Christians reflecting a dispensational premillenialist perspective.

Craig A. Blaising is a biblical theologian whose roots are in the Baptist tradition. He has taught at three southern seminaries in the U.S. and is known for his work in what is called “progressive dispensationalism.” This volume of essays, a survey of scholarship around the “last things” was compiled in honor of his 65th birthday and certainly reflects this theological tradition at its best.

Discerning what theological persuasion the writers were coming from, I thought, “O.K. here we go, prophecy charts and predictions that our conflict with ISIS is the prelude to Armageddon.” There is none of that in this book. Instead, what I found was good scholarship seeking to be faithful to scripture and relatively wide-ranging in discussing the history of eschatology through church history and the implications of this all for the church, organized into a comprehensive survey that I would suggest reflects the best of dispensational premillenialism.

After introductory essays that include a biography and curriculum vita of Blaising, the book is organized into four sections:

  1. The Doctrine of the Future and Its Foundations
  2. The Doctrine of the Future in the Bible
  3. The Doctrine of the Future in the History of Christian Thought
  4. The Doctrine of the Future and Christian Ministry.

Hence, the collection moves from theological foundations to biblical theology, to historical theology, and to pastoral and practical theology.

The first section includes a fine essay by Stanley D. Toussaint on the concept of hope and the profound basis the prophetic passages offer for hope that sustains endurance and joy. Then Charles C. Ryrie and John D. and Stefana Dan Laing address the eclipse of attention to the prophetic scriptures having to do with our future hope and the impact this has in the life of the church.

The next section explores the doctrine of the future in each part of scripture, essentially doing the spade work to construct a biblical theology from the whole of scripture about our future hope. It was interesting to see the historical books in scripture discussed by Gregory Smith, exploring the implications of the Davidic covenant and its statements about David’s, and Israel’s, distant future hope. If you want to find arguments for a future hope for Israel as a national entity, you will find it among this and other articles in this section.

Section three turns to historical theology with articles beginning with the early fathers and concluding with contemporary European theology, capped off by David Dockery’s article on Millenialism in Contemporary Evangelical Theology, which gives one of the best explanations I have seen of a-, post-, and pre-millenial positions. It was interesting that while several essays concerned Reformed, Anabaptist, and Baptist theology, there was no treatment of eschatology in Wesleyan theology, and a mere subsection of the Contemporary European Theology devoted to Catholic theology.

The final section turns to pastoral and practical concerns. J. Denny Autry discusses the place of eschatological concerns in both preaching and pastoral care. For my money, the book should have ended with R. Albert Mohler’s essay of contemporary challenges. Stephen Blaising’s contribution on the doctrine of the future and the marketplace felt like an add-in to include Blaising’s son in the collection. Mohler concluded his essay with these words, that should have ended the book:

     “The rapid disappearance of cultural Christianity in our own time will mean that Christians may soon find themselves in a situation similar to that of the early church in Rome. Preaching the Lordship of Christ and biblical eschatology rooted in the arrival of God’s kingdom will be considered culturally and politically subversive. Proclaiming a biblical eschatology that heralds the message “Jesus Christ is Lord” will lead to direct confrontation with the culture.

“While the disappearance of cultural Christianity is a cultural disaster, it is also a theological gain. It is disastrous for society because it will destroy a worldview most conducive to human flourishing. A post-Christian culture will be a very inconvenient place to raise your children, minister the gospel, or speak in the public square. Yet, at the same time, the evaporation of cultural Christianity may prove a theological gain for the church. Our lives and beliefs will only make sense if indeed Jesus Christ is Lord and our hope is not bound up in the city of man, but in a city to come. From a gospel witness perspective, that is a very convenient place to be.”

This quibble with the order and selection of these last essays aside, I would commend this collection, along with Dr. Blaising’s own work if you seriously wish to take the measure of dispensational premillenialist eschatological thinking today. This probably could be used as a basic textbook, or at least supplemental text in theology courses in Christian colleges and seminaries sympathetic with the dispensational premillenialist position. Rather than being about prophecy charts and sensational predictions, it is about the substance of Christian hope concerning the future of every believer, the church, Israel, and the world.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Last Days According to Jesus

The Last DaysThe Last Days According to Jesus, R. C. Sproul. Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 2015 (originally published in 1998).

Summary: R.C. Sproul takes on the time-frame issues of the New Testament that seem to reflect an expectation of an imminent return of Christ and gives serious consideration to the preterist position that all or most of the predictions concerning the Last Days were fulfilled by the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

Understanding the “Last Days” predictions made in the gospels by Jesus as well as in the epistles and in the Revelation to John is among the most challenging areas of Bible study for most Christians. Furthermore, skeptical scholars take the statements of Jesus and others about the nearness of his return at face value and contend that on this, Jesus and the New Testament writers were mistaken.

In this work, R. C. Sproul takes on this question and challenges both the skeptics and those who believe most of the Last Days prophecies concern the future by considering the work of J. Stuart Russell and Kenneth L. Gentry,  preterist scholars. In fact, he gives these scholars such consideration that I thought at one point that he was going to announce that he had adopted their position, which would mean arguing that the rapture of the church, the resurrection of the dead and the return of Christ all occurred in the events of 70 AD, which requires spiritualizing these events. Sproul does not, but he does take up the cause of moderate preterism in arguing that much of what Jesus predicted in the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24 and parallels) was fulfilled with the fall of Jerusalem. He also seems to endorse Gentry’s contentions that Revelation was written prior to 70 AD, a view that even most evangelical scholars would not accept.

What weighs heavily for Sproul are the time frame references that say such things as “Behold, I come quickly” or “the time is near”. These make the most sense if one takes at least a moderate preterist view. He, at the same time, refuses to take a full preterist view because he cannot accept the “spiritualized” versions of the rapture of the church, the resurrection and a return of Christ that was hidden, all of which go against the biblical evidence.

The last two chapters take on other questions often of concern in Last Days discussions. One is the identity of the Antichrist and the other concerns the different millenial views. Sproul does propose an identification for the Antichrist while not, in this volume, identifying his millenial views.

I particularly appreciated Sproul’s careful study of Matthew 24, to which he devotes several chapters. His study of both the epistles and Revelation seemed a bit more cursory but still dealt with the relevant texts. I felt he didn’t seriously engage the scholarship that argues for a later date for Revelation.

It did seem to me a curious choice that he devoted so much of the book to the views of Russell, a nineteenth century scholar who would not be familiar to most. Much of this had to do with his serious consideration of the preterist view for which Russell argued, perhaps at the very time when dispensationalism was gaining its initial head of steam.

What I think of greatest value in this book is Sproul’s serious consideration of the time-frame references of Jesus and also his arguments that we must understand much of the “last days” fulfillment to have occurred with the fall of the temple and of Jerusalem. Sproul also provides very clear explanations of the various millenial positions and the model of a scholar who takes the Bible seriously as the final authority in these discussions. Whether you agree with Sproul’s moderate preterism or not, you might, as did I, find that Sproul gives you some new things to consider.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Review: Jesus, The Temple and the Coming Son of Man

Jesus the Temple and the Coming of the Son of ManJesus, The Temple, and the Coming Son of Man, Robert H. Stein. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: This commentary on Mark 13 sorts through the complex interpretive issues concerning the fall of the temple, apocalyptic events, and the return of the Son of Man.

Perhaps the greatest interpretive challenge in the gospel of Mark concerns the predictions of chapter 13, beginning with the questions the disciples ask in response to Jesus’ statement, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (v. 2). The disciples ask, “When will these things be and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” (v. 4).

Robert H. Stein provides one of the best explanations that takes seriously the question of Mark’s readers as well as the original context of Jesus’ words. He deals with one of the thorniest parts of the passage, who “this generation” is in verse 30 and whether this applies to the fall of the temple, or the return of the Son of Man. If it is the latter, it is hard to explain how this could be true.

First of all, Stein surveys the various ways the different “quests” for the historical Jesus have shaped readings of Mark 13 before arguing for his own approach of considering what the author of Mark intended his readers to grasp. Then he turns to the first four verses of Mark which he sees as key to the whole. He would argue that the parallel phrases of the disciples question are both concerned only with the fall of the temple and that the second concerns the sign to be looked for to warn when the time of the temple (and Jerusalem’s fall) was imminent. Their question did not envision any events beyond this including the Son of Man’s return.

He then argues that the rest of the chapter follows an A-B-A-B pattern:

A. Verses 5-23 are Jesus’ immediate response to the questions. He first warns them of what will not be signs of the temple’s fall–false messiahs, wars and rumors of wars, and persecution. The sign will be the “abomination of desolation” that Jesus’ original hearers would have understood as those who defiled the temple, probably fulfilled in 67 AD when Zealots and their leaders performed sacrilegious acts in the temple. It was at this time that Christians fled the city to Pella and escaped its destruction, heeding the warnings Jesus gave.

B. Verses 24-27 speak of events in some subsequent time, “in those days, after that tribulation” when there will be signs in the heavens and the Son of Man comes on the clouds. Stein understands this occurring at some indefinite time in the future after the fall of Jerusalem, but not necessarily close in time.

A1. Verses 28-31 focus again on “these things” which Stein understands as the abomination of desolation (which is likened to the blossoming of the fig tree) and the ensuing fall of Jerusalem, and sees “this generation” as the generation that will still have living members when these events in 70 AD occur.

B1. Verses 32-37 speak of no one knowing the time and refers not to the fall of the temple but to the return of the Son of Man, and concludes with exhortations to be watchful and ready at any time.

One benefit of this explanation is that his inclusion of the sign of Jerusalem’s fall encourages the believers to trust the other predictions, particularly post 70 AD. Also, the exhortations to faithfulness in the face of persecution and watchfulness are relevant to their situation (and indeed for believers in subsequent generations).

What I most appreciated about this work was the clarity and concision of writing (138 pages, excluding bibliography and indices), and the close textual work that supported his arguments, providing an explanation of this text that demonstrates that neither Jesus nor Mark were mistaken in what was said or written, as would be the case of those who believed that Jesus thought that the Son of Man’s return would be within the apostles’ generation. Stein concludes this lucid explanation of Mark 13 with his own interpretive translation consistent with his reading. A useful resource for anyone teaching or leading a study of Mark.

The Month in Reviews: February 2015

February is always a short month. It was also a “full court press” month in my work with travel and several major events. Somehow I managed to finish nine books this month ranging from another John Scalzi novel to The Bully Pulpit to a fascinating book on the value of vulnerability and a thought-provoking treatment on the idea of revelation (not the book but the concept) by a young Catholic theologian. Here’s the list with links to the full reviews:

1. Paul and Judaism Revisited: A Study of Divine and Human Agency in Salvation by Preston Sprinkle. Sprinkle thinks a more nuanced view is needed of the continuity between Judaism and Paul than is proposed by “New Perspective” theologians.

Paul & JudaismBully PulpitDaring Greatly2. The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin. A magnificent work that introduced me to the lesser know figures of William Taft and the muckraking journalists like Ida Tarbell who set a high bar for investigative journalism. Of course, there was also a fascinating portrait of Teddy Roosevelt, as well as the complicated relationship between him and Taft.

3. Daring Greatly by Brene’ Brown. Brown explores how the courage to be vulnerable leads us to personal wholeness, human connection, better parenting, and more effective organizational life.

4. 30 Events that Shaped the Church by Alton Gansky. Gansky gives us a highly readable narrative of key events throughout church history. I would have wished for more from outside the western world and more about the African-American church’s contribution, particularly around civil rights.

Essential EschatologyRevelation30 events5. Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation: The Mediation of the Gospel Through Church and Scripture by Matthew Levering. Levering is a Catholic theologian publishing with an evangelical publisher who both upholds a high view of the inspiration and authority of the Bible while also arguing for the important role of the church in its councils, liturgy and leadership for mediating a clear and unified understanding of that revelation.

6. Essential Eschatology: Our Present and Future Hope by John E. Phelen, Jr. Hope is a theme of this book that explores how our future hope may shape our present lives.

7. The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi. The second in “The Old Man’s War” series which explores the ethical landscape of enhanced human clones grown specifically to become Special Forces troops in the midst of a riveting plot.

Ghost BrigadesProtegeShepherding God's Flock8. Protege’: Developing Your Next Generation of Church Leaders by Steve Saccone with Cheri Saccone. The Saccones outline five key elements of their leadership development work: Character, Relationships, Communication, Mission, and Entrepreneurial Leadership.

9. Shepherding God’s Flock: Biblical Leadership in the New Testament and Beyond edited by Benjamin Merkle and Thomas Schreiner. The contributors to this volume do just what the title proposes, albeit from a common, shared Southern Baptist perspective.

I thought this month I might start including my “best book” recommendation, and “best quote” simply for your enjoyment!

Best Book: Hands down, it had to be The Bully Pulpit for its exploration of presidential influence, the role of the press, and the fascinating portraits of Roosevelt, Taft, and the muckraking team of journalists that gathered around McClures.

Best quote:  Consistent with my best book recommendation, but cited from Daring Greatly is this quote from Theodore Roosevelt in a speech at the Sorbonne in 1910:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Previews for March: A collection of essays on Christian political witness, a book exploring the future of higher education, a mystery by Michael Innes, a narrative on the rise of Amazon, and her founder, Jeff Bezos, and the place of paradox in our spiritual journey.

All “The Month in Reviews” post may be accessed from “The Month in Reviews” category on my home page. And if you don’t want to wait a month to see my reviews, consider following the blog for reviews as well as thoughts on reading, the world of books, and life.

 

Review: Essential Eschatology: Our Present and Future Hope

Essential EschatologyDiscussions of eschatology (the study of end things) often get wrapped up in debates about interpretive themes for the book of Revelation, attempts to equate different symbols with different contemporary events, and predictions of the date of Christ’s return (several of which I’ve seen come and go in my lifetime!). What I loved about this book by John Phelan is that he focused on how the future hope we embrace can practically shape our lives as individuals and church communities in the present.

Hope is a theme that runs through the book, and even through the chapter titles. Phelan begins by exploring the hope of Israel and the promises to Israel fulfilled in the breaking in of the kingdom of God in the person of Jesus. That fulfillment is both present and future and in fact the church in mission  brings the future into the present through its hopeful life. At the same time this is not a hope that should be diverted into accommodations with political powers. Phelan traces the sad history of this from Constantine to the present and our call to be a counter-cultural people of hope in the Lord who will make all things new. Because of this hope of creation renewed and the resurrection of Jesus, we believe that this renewal will extend to the resurrection of our bodies. Our hope is not to be disembodied souls floating around heaven but saints with new creation bodies in the new creation on earth.

Phelan then turns to the strange hope of judgment that actually is good news, that God will set things right. While he argues that descriptions of heaven and hell are metaphorical, he does believe in a reality behind these metaphors and the possibility that God will honor the choices of those who refuse heaven while arguing that we may depend upon “the judge of the world will do right.” While arguing against purgatory as an intermediate state or process, he allows for the possibility of healing and growth to fully realize God’s image in us.

He goes on to explore in more depth the idea of the coming of the kingdom, which was not “the end of the world as we know it” but the coming of God’s rule into the world. He argues that the community of those who are under the rule of Jesus are a reflection but not the coming of this kingdom in its fullness. It is a community whose life should anticipate mending the rifts in the world as a people of peace and reconciliation. The church at the same time is not to consider either personal renewal or societal renewal to replace the ultimate personal return of Jesus. This expectation also provides hope in the midst of empire, whether that be the power of Rome or western capitalism. Against both amillenialism and premillenialism, he argues for the personal reign of Jesus on earth, leaning toward a type of post-millenialism. With regard to Israel, he argues against supercessionism (i.e. that the church has superceded Israel) to propose the salvation of the Jews alongside Gentiles. He argues that perhaps the most powerful witness to the Jews is to manifest Christ’s transforming power in living lives of shalom in the world, bringing peace rather than conflict. He recounts a conversation where a Jewish rabbi, in response to sharing along these lines says, “Well, we Jews have not seen it.”

And so he concludes with what it means for the church to bring its hope for the future into the present. It is the living of shalom, this mending of the world lived out in service, in mission, in play, and celebration. It is to do so without corrupting alliances with political powers or structures of ecclesial power. It is proclaiming the God who both respects human freedom while entering into the suffering caused by the misshapen exercise of that freedom.

Some may take exception to the author’s ideas about the millenium and about judgment. What is incontestable is the challenge to live into the new creation hope of the risen Lord which means living toward the peaceable kingdom to come. This challenges our false hopes in technology and political structures while calling us to lives of great joy, humble service and abiding hope. What Phelan has given us is a book about the future enabling us to live with hope in the present.