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: What Happens After You Die

What Happens After You Die

What Happens After You Die Randy Frazee. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2017.

Summary: An exploration of the Bible’s teaching on what happens to us after death, if we know Christ or if we don’t, both before he returns, and after.

Randy Frazee is a pastor, seminary trained, and a teacher of the Bible. Yet when his mother died of pancreatic cancer, and even though she was a believer, Frazee was confronted with a profound challenge to his faith. In the beginning of this book he writes:

“The more I thought about it, the more I struggled to believe that at the moment my mother breathed her last breath, her spirit exited her body and went to be anywhere, let alone with the Lord. I just didn’t have a mental model for this concept, and yet we Christians, base our entire hope on this reality. I know some say they have, but I have never personally met a spirit being. Did such beings really exist?

My mind continued to wander without permission. Even if life after death was true, and a person’s spirit did exit the body, the idea of a naked spirit entering into heaven, floating on clouds forever, and continually singing worship songs–maybe with earned wings, like Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life–just didn’t seem all that compelling to me. It was certainly better than the scriptural alternative, but it was still not something I craved.

‘I don’t believe in heaven.’ I whispered” (p. xv).

This led to an intense time of searching the Bible for answers, and this book is the product of his search. He begins with the question his mother asked him on her deathbed, “Is Jesus enough?” He explores the questions of works and faith concluding that faith in Christ’s saving work is indeed enough.

Then he moves on to the questions of the afterlife, breaking his exploration into two parts–life in between (before the return of Christ) and life forever (after the return of Christ, the resurrection and final judgment). In each case, he considers the destiny of those who have put faith in Christ, and those who do not know Christ. He does not go where scripture does not, with regard to life in between, or the intermediate state, about which scripture says little. He says that our spirits either go on to be with God in Christ if we have believed, or to Hades, the place where those who do not know Jesus await judgment.

Following the return of Christ, he teaches that the unrighteous will face the judgment where the books recording all of what they have done in their lives are opened. By their refusal of Christ and their deeds, they are destined for “the lake of fire.” Frazee leaves it an open question as to whether this is everlasting punishing (eternal conscious punishment) or everlasting punishment (annihilation), indicating that there are thoughtful biblical scholars who affirm each of these possibilities, neither of which are particularly desirable!

For the believer, the destiny is written in another book, the book of life. It means new bodies, life not “up there” but “down here” in a new creation, and the new city God will establish and make his home.  Rather than ethereal spirits floating on clouds, we will be embodied creatures in God’s new heaven and earth with work to do. Frazee then concludes the book with a short chapter on “life now”–how we live as people of faith and witnesses to hope until that time.

Each of the major sections concludes with a question and answer section addressing questions ranging from “are there such things as ghosts?” and “Is there such a thing as purgatory or Limbo?” (he would argue there are not) to questions about rewards, pets, marriage, resurrection bodies, and food in the new creation. One of the most interesting was a question of whether we would retain memories, particularly of regrets or griefs, in the new creation. He suggests that the wiping away of tears involves a wiping of memories. I am not so sure, because of how significant our memories are to who we are. I wonder, rather if the thought is the healing of memories, where they remain, but no longer grieve us. After “life now” he includes questions on guardian angels (yes, we do have them), cremation, predictions about Christ’s return, and life after death or near death experiences.

The book not only references the scriptures Frazee studied throughout but includes a section at the back of just the texts, organized by his chapter headings. There is also a discussion guide for small groups.

Frazee gives us a readable, very personal discussion of these matters. It is ideal for anyone from young believer to someone really coming to terms with the question of the afterlife and our eternal destiny. It is straightforward rather than nuanced. Apart from the discussion of eternal punishment versus punishing, he doesn’t discuss differing scholarly views. He is pastoral and honest at the same time. While he thinks pastors should not either assure people that a loved one who as far as anyone knows did not know Christ is with the Lord (or not), he takes the approach that we must trust the Lord with this, and “this is what your loved one would want you to know.” Indeed, this book explores life’s ultimate questions, offering the fruit of Frazee’s own search on these vitally important matters.

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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.

 

Reflections on C.S. Lewis

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This Sunday, November 29, was the birthday of C. S. Lewis. It’s an easy day to remember because it is also my brother’s birthday and my son’s anniversary. What is interesting to me is why people still pay attention to such things more than 50 years after his death. I kind of doubt people will be remembering my birthday 50 years after I’m gone.

I really can’t speak for anyone else but I will mention a few of the reasons I continue to read Lewis’s works and find his life of interest.

  1. I first discovered C. S. Lewis in college. What he represented to me then, and still, is an example of one who both thought deeply and believed deeply, and that these needn’t be a contradiction in terms.
  2. While Lewis thought rigorously, he was also imaginative. Whether it was creating a world of floating islands as in Perelandra, or one that could be accessed through a wardrobe, Lewis taught me that grown-ups and children could both love imaginary worlds and good stories.
  3. That leads to another reason I have loved Lewis. I shared reading The Chronicles of Narnia with my son and have watched the love of story blossom in his life as an aspiring writer.
  4. There was an amazing seamlessness about Lewis’s thought. Owen Barfield once remarked, “Somehow what Lewis thought about everything was secretly present in what he said about anything.”
  5. Lewis helped me understand the banality of evil in The Screwtape Letters, and that all evil ever does is twist and distort the good.
  6. Likewise The Great Divorce helped me understand that if anyone endures hell, it is largely of one’s own making. He wrote in The Problem of Pain, “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”
  7.  I cannot commend all of C. S. Lewis’s attitudes toward women, but I also find quite attractive this group of men who gathered weekly over an “adult beverage” and talked deeply about theology, literature, and whatever they were working on at the moment. Until I learned of the Inklings, I thought all a group of men could ever talk about, especially in a pub, was sports!
  8. Lewis was an amazing correspondent. There are at least two volumes of his correspondence in print in addition to several books of letters (To an American Lady; To Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer; and To Children). But then, he wasn’t on Facebook! What a wonderful thing it must have been to receive such letters.
  9. Lewis not only kindles one’s love for his books, but also for others’ books, particularly old books. In his essay “On the Reading of Old Books” which introduces a translation of Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, he advises reading one old book between our readings of new ones. He, as much as anyone, is my inspiration for a reading group I lead called “The Dead Theologians Society“.
  10. Lastly, I find particularly compelling the fact that Lewis was a first rate scholar, who because of his open espousal of his faith and his popular works, never received the accolades of others and was a “tutor” most of his life. Yet I find no evidence of him grousing about this.

I’ll stop at the convenient number of ten but would love to know what others might add to this list and how Lewis’s works and life have touched yours.

 

Review: The Evangelical Universalist

Evangelical UniversalistThe Evangelical UniversalistGregory MacDonald. Eugene: Cascade Books, Second Edition, 2012.

Summary: This book provides the biblical, philosophical and theological arguments for why the view that all will finally be saved is consistent with evangelical theology and also includes additional appendices responding to issues raised since the book’s first edition.

One of the most difficult challenges to the Christian faith is the existence of hell, which often calls into question how a loving God could permit eternal punishment. More than this, I know few people who relish the thought of anyone they know, less any human being, being consigned to hell for eternity, whatever one’s idea of hell might be. Gregory MacDonald argues that this is in fact inconsistent with the Christian idea of God’s redemptive purposes and acts as revealed in the scriptures of the Old and New Testament. MacDonald would argue for salvation through Christ alone by grace alone as well as real judgment for the unrepentant, and thus would claim that his position is in fact “evangelical.”

First for a few pieces of housekeeping. One is that Gregory MacDonald is a pen name for Robin A. Parry, an editor at Wipf and Stock Publishers. For the sake of this review I will use the name under which the book is published and refer you to the author’s explanation for the use of this name. Second, I should say upfront that I differ with the author in that I would affirm the eternal condemnation of the unrepentant, and continue to hold this view after reading MacDonald’s argument. That said, I would number MacDonald among the more articulate and thoughtful exponents of this view.

MacDonald begins with the “problem” of hell and the logical inconsistency of an all-powerful, and all-loving God who has effected a cosmic redemption in Christ of all things, and yet those who do not believe in Christ are eternally damned. He would contend that final universal salvation of all in Christ is the best resolution of this problem. He contends that this may be biblically argued to be the case if it has positive support from scriptures and does not conflict with the explicit teaching of scripture.

Turning from logic to scripture, he observes God’s treatment of Israel and the nations in the Old Testament and Christ, Israel, and the nations in the New Testament to show that the metanarrative of scripture is consonant with a vision of universal final salvation. In particular, he gives weight to the “all” passages including Romans 5:12-21, I Corinthians 15:22, Colossians 1:20, and Philippians 2:5-11, arguing that “all” means “all without exception” rather than “all without distinction”.

He turns to Revelation, which has some of the most clear descriptions of hell and observes that judgment texts are followed by salvation texts in such a way that he would argue that hell is a real, but temporary judgment followed by the final salvation of all. Lastly, he considers the gospel texts dealing with hell, some of which he observes remain problematic for his view. He writes:

“Clearly my interpretation is underdetermined by the texts, so I cannot claim that it is obviously the only way to interpret that matter. I am not so much exegeting the texts as trying to draw out the logic of New Testament theology as I understand it and its implications for those texts. In the process I may be offering ways of reading the texts that go beyond what their authors had in mind. When that is the case, I am seeking to remain true to what they did have in mind, even if I feel compelled by the wider canon of Scripture to say more.” (p. 140)

MacDonald then concludes his argument by arguing the advantages of Christian universalism: (a) it makes the problem of evil less difficult, (b) it enables us to hold together important Christian teachings that pull apart with a traditional view of hell, (c) it adds an inspirational dimension to our ecclesiology, worship, and mission, and (d) it has significant pastoral benefits.

The book closes with a series of appendices detailing responses to his critics, his thoughts on the contribution of Rob Bell’s Love Wins to the discussion, and his engagement with Calvinist ideas of election and moral formation. Most of these have been added to the second edition of the book.

What I appreciated about the book was both the serious attempt to argue a biblical and evangelical case for universalism that sought to be God honoring and evinced a personal humility on the part of the writer. At the same time, I found myself unpersuaded, and it seems appropriate to articulate some of the reasons why I found this so:

  1. The insistence on logical consistency is a recurring theme of heterodoxy in Christianity, in which orthodoxy often involves holding apparently contradictory truths in tension, such as is the case with the incarnation, the Trinity, divine sovereignty and human free will, and more. That we see both a wideness of God’s mercy and judgment against unrepentant wickedness should not surprise us.
  2. I found the case he made from scripture an inferential one that went from some statements of apparent universalism to saying what other passages speaking of apparently eternal judgment must really mean. The block quote above is a telling admission of how this approach glosses over texts that are at variance with the inference of universalism, and a kind of a rejection of the evangelical hermeneutic of interpreting scripture by scripture.
  3. His argument that everlasting judgment being a failure of God’s purposes begs the question of “why hell at all?” Can’t it be argued on his terms that God’s inability to save all within their lifetime on earth is itself a similar failure? And how is it a victory of God for people to believe to escape the protracted consequences of sin in MacDonald’s version of temporary hell?
  4. I also wonder whether he gives sufficient credence to the hardening of the human heart and the effects of deliberate unrepentance. C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce explores the scenario of the possibility of post-mortem salvation and the hardened refusal of many to accept this.

Yet MacDonald opens a conversation that is important to be had. In truth, many in pastoral counsel to the grieving seem to imply some form of post-mortem salvation for some and others in apologetics cede the possibility of some form of post-mortem salvation for those who have never heard the message of Christ in their lives. How might we intimate the possibility of salvation for some and not allow the ultimate salvation of all?

I still think at the end of the day that the safer course is that of Deuteronomy 29:29:

“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.”

Among the things revealed are the truths of how we might have abounding and everlasting life in Christ, the commission of God’s people to proclaim this truth to the nations, and the warnings of judgment for those who neglect and refuse this truth. While God will do as he wills, I don’t feel at liberty to go beyond the things revealed, even if doing so would relieve certain tensions. Truthfully, I’ve enough on my hands to live faithfully according to what I do know.

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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: Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction

Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction
Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction by Kathryn Gin Lum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The idea of hell has been contested territory for a long time. From Dante’s Inferno to Rob Bell’s Love Wins, the reality of hell and who is consigned to it continues to be “hotly” debated.

Damned Nation looks at a critical slice of American history from the formation of our country up through the Civil War and the contested ground of the preaching of hell during this period. On the one hand, this book considers the prevalence of the preaching of hell when this was already waning in Europe, and seems to suggest that many public figures were supportive of this preaching as a form of social control in a forming country. On the other, it explores the alternative ideas about judgment that were already present even prior to the civil war. This is encapsulated in the illuminating profiles of two preachers with the same name, “Salvation” and “Damnation” Murray and the distinctive styles and theological convictions of their preaching.

Lum traces this preaching in the Second Great Awakening of the 1820s and 30s as well as the growing concerns about the impact of such preaching on some troubled individuals. In her second section, “Adaptation and Dissent”, she particularly explores not only the tempering of such preaching but also alternative visions of heaven and hell in Joseph Smith and the Latter Day Saints, Swedenborgians, and in Native American religion.

It is fascinating to see how the concept of damnation is part of the discussions of slavery and abolition and is handled during the Civil War. Most often, it was very tempting to consign the opposition (whether slaveholding or abolitionist) to hell, and then there were African-American voices who consigned their oppressors to hell. Hell and the state of one’s soul was also a concern of chaplains preparing soldiers going into battle. However, the message was different for the families of those who died in battle, where death in battle or prison camps itself was treated as having an atoning effect that assured the deceased of heaven’s glories. Lum, as have others, notes the distinctive note Lincoln sounded in his second inaugural of seeing the war as a judgment of God on north and south alike.

I found Lum fair and meticulous in the handling of primary source material, mostly consisting of sermons and other printed tracts. Perhaps space did not permit this but I found myself wondering if more might have been done to situate particular preachers’ preaching of hell and damnation in the wider body of their work. It is common, for example to focus on the images of being dangled over the flames in Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, which is admittedly drastic language, but many treatments of this sermon neglect its larger theological context, which emphasizes the mercies of God in giving the opportunity to turn and respond to Christ’s saving work.

While some find any mention of hell or judgment offensive, others (and Lum does note this) would find equally offensive the idea of a God who fails to judge evil. In the concluding sections of her book, Lum extends this conversation to the present, chronicling the continued belief in hell for a number or even majority of Americans and that this belief continues to be contested ground.

This review is based on an advanced e-galley copy of this book provided by the publisher through Netgalley. No compensation was received for this review and the opinions in this review are that of the reviewer alone.

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