NIGHT COMES: Death,Imagination, and the Last Things. By Dale C. Allison, Jr. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016. X + 174 pages.
When it comes to matters of eschatology, it seems that the dispensationalists have a corner on the market. People read Hal Lindsey or Tim LaHaye and figure that’s what eschatology is about. It’s true that eschatology as a theological discipline speaks to matters of the future, but it has this moment impact. While many preachers resist delving into matters of eschatology, at least more progressive/liberal preachers, these matters remain of great interest to the broader populace. It is important then that they are offered an alternative to the popular messages. One who has a deep interest in such matters, and brings deep wisdom rooted in close attention to the biblical story and Christian history, is Dale Allison, a New Testament professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. Night Comes is Allison’s offering to those seeking a word of wisdom, one that is rooted both in personal experience and deep scholarship.
You might say that this book centers on death and how we deal with it. Whether we’re talking about resurrection, heaven, or hell, we’re dealing with issues that involve matters beyond the grave. Death is something that we all face, even if science is hard at work prolonging life and even suggesting that we can envision living hundreds of years (though I’m not sure I’m eager to live to deep old age without some assurance that I can keep my faculties and independent living). Perhaps one reason that we pursue a cure for death is that we fear death. Uncertainty about what lies beyond is scary. Allison is one who embraces the message of life beyond the grave, even if we don’t have full details. He writes that “for me, Christianity without hope beyond death is of reduced relevance and of diminished interest” (p. 16). There are those content with this life and need no other, but for many, especially those for whom life is difficult and challenging, the vision of something new and different gives strength and hope to live out this life with anticipation.
With this we begin our journey into matters theological and eschatological with a discussion of the resurrection. I was especially interested in the chapter on resurrection, for I know that there is difficulty with the idea. Allison confirms that resurrection is out of style. While many prefer some form of immortality, they aren't too sure about anything body-related. It doesn't fit with science as we know it today, and besides immortality sounds more spiritual. What I appreciated here was Allison's support for resurrection as more than metaphor, without getting caught up in a narrow literalism. He notes that the resurrection isn't about the individual, but about the community. He speaks of resurrection being rooted in a great Wisdom that has been with us since birth. He writes “hope in resurrection is the conviction that this Wisdom won’t abandon us as death approaches but will accompany us to whatever awaits us” (p. 43).
Not only is resurrection a problematic idea among many progressive types, but so is judgment. Nonetheless, Scripture speaks regularly of judgment, and it is a staple of Jesus’ own message. Consider that favorite of many social justice types—Matthew 25—it is a scene of judgment. Jesus the judge divides the sheep from the goats. Despite our aversion to judgment, it appears that it might be part of our internal make up. Allison takes note of the wide prevalence of reports of what he calls "life reviews." Life reviews are experiences of experiencing one’s life a brief moment of unexpected reflection. These often occur in relationship to Near Death Experiences (NDE). The fact that these “life reviews” cross cultural boundaries is intriguing. While judgment is part of the biblical story and apparently human experience, from a Christian perspective the biblical message focuses not on a narrow legalism, but offers judgment in the context of grace. Thus, the one who judges—Christ—is "wildly biased in favor of all the defendants" (p. 67).
Resurrection and judgment, these are both part of the story of our future (along with the reality of death). What may confound us is that details of the future are at best unclear. Thus, we live with a great deal of ignorance, but with the possibility of using our imaginations to conceive of what might be. When we deal with eschatological matters, Allison reminds us that the bible isn't history written ahead of time. Rather, what we have here are "artistic portrayals of what lies beyond the realm of our immediate, ordinary experience. Like icons or expressionist paintings, they aim not at picture-perfect representations but seek to convey meaning" (p. 83). The Enlightenment desire for proof and precision has dulled our imaginations, but the biblical story frees us to imagine what lies ahead and beyond. As for the concern about whether such imaginings dull our concern for this world, Allison isn’t so sure (neither am I). He points out numerous cases where even those who embrace a futuristic eschatology, are committed to transformation of this world. Thus, they needn’t be at cross-purposes!
If resurrection, afterlife, and judgment pose problems for many modern Christians, the idea of hell is even more problematic. Many of us, myself included, have abandoned the idea of a literal hell to which those who fail to embrace Jesus are destined to inherit, but the biblical story and great swaths of Christian tradition speak of it regularly, sometimes in great detail. Besides great numbers of Christians believe hell exists. Down through the ages the idea of hell has served as a warning to those who might stray from the right paths (morally). Over time, most of us have become uncomfortable with visions of fire and torture. We can’t envision God engaging in things we consider inhumane. So, even many who retain belief in hell offer a more nuanced view. Hell is chosen and it’s more in the mind than the body. We can leave it at any time, but for some reason can’t make the jump (C.S. Lewis). Allison ultimately embraces a form of universalism, "even if, as the New Testament more than suggests, God allows some of us to carry our personal hells into the next life" (p. 119). But even if there is stuff to work out in the next life, that needn't go on forever. Ultimately his hope is that mercy triumphs over judgment. That makes sense to me!
Finally, we come to heaven. He addresses the criticism of belief in heaven/afterlife, because it is assumed to be a deterrent to embracing this life. That is, because one is heavenly minded, they are of no earthly good. While that can be true for some, it needn’t be the case. Believing that there might be more than this life need not keep us from embracing our call to address this world’s issues or simply enjoying this world’s gifts. Moving beyond the criticism to visions of the afterlife, he notes that there are several options. I found this discussion fascinating. Allison notes that there are essentially three different visions of heaven. The first is what he calls "angelization." He shows us that there has long been belief that humans and angels aren't all that different, except that angels don’t procreate! Indeed, our future life may be that of an angel. The key to this vision is that it is God-centered. The focus here is on being part of the heavenly host that is devoted to worshiping God. The second vision, which is very popular, is one that he calls "social reunion." This is the hope that we will be reunited with loved ones. This is a more human-centered vision. Allison is attracted to it, even though he has concerns. One of the concerns addresses the reality of those for whom family or even friendships are at best dysfunctional. Such a future might not be all that attractive. Besides, where does God fit? Finally, there is the idea of paradise. Remember that Jesus promises the repentant thief that he would be with Jesus in paradise. In this vision of heaven, the emphasis seems to be on enjoyment of a garden-like existence. He notes that in many NDE reports, besides social reunion, is an experience of great natural beauty. Each of these visions can be found in scripture, in theological discourse, and personal experience. One contributor to the conversation is the testimony of NDE. While there are many questions about such experiences, he warns against trying to explain them away as some sort of psycho-physical experience. They may have a certain revelatory pattern to them. When we talk about such things, there is also the question of whether there is some kind of intermediate state, that lies between death and ultimate judgment. This is an important discussion because it affects lives and the way envision them. It is a significant pastoral concern. As a pastor dealing with a grieving family, raising questions about the afterlife will not provide comfort.
Allison closes the book with this reflection. Regarding the aches and pains that accompany aging, they "remind me that night comes. My hope is that light shines in the darkness" (p. 150). Indeed, that is a hope to have.
This is a fascinating book. It deals with issues that many of us wrestle with, especially pastorally. He addresses questions that clergy face every day as we tend to those who face life and death situations. He does so with candor and thoughtfulness. He invites us to boldly embrace an eschatological vision. Be not afraid of what is to come. The book is well written. It’s relatively accessible, at least for a theologically-literate audience. In other words, he’s not writing for scholars, though the scholarship is sound. I should note that as s a historian of seventeenth and eighteenth century English theology, I was more than taken by his regular references to such figures as John Tillotson and other divines of that era.
Reading this book as I was during Easter week, I found the message therein to be profound and important. I believe that this is a must-read book, especially for those Mainline Protestant clergy that find themselves averse to matters eschatological. If we don’t deal with the questions responsibly, others will do so in ways we might not like. So pick up the book and read!