What follows ‘When I have crost the bar’                      

by
17 February 2017

Geoffrey Rowell on the range of Christian ideas on the afterlife

Afterlife: A history of life after death
Philip C. Almond
I. B. Tauris £25
(978-1-78453-496-7)
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

 

Night Comes: Death, imagination, and the last things
Dale C. Allison
Eerdmans £14.99
(978-0-8028-7118-3)
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

 

PHILIP ALMOND’s history of life after death spans the two millennia of Christian theological reflection and speculation about eschatology and Christian hope.

Almond, Emeritus Professor of Religion at the University of Queensland, has previously written on 17th-century demonology, and heaven and hell in the Enlightenment. In this clearly written and wide-ranging work, he shows how Christian eschatology has from the earliest times involved tensions between the resurrection of the body and the immortality of the soul, judgement after death and judgement at the Last Day, and questions of justice, divine retribution, and predestination.

Apart from discussion of eschatology in the Greek Fathers, this is predominantly a history of developments, Catholic and Protestant, in Western Christianity, and reactions to many of those developments. Although the immortality of the soul became axiomatic for much of this history, Almond notes how discussion of the soul’s enjoyment of the Beatific Vision involved an increasing attribution of some physical attributes to the soul.

The theological conundrums posed by the resurrection of the body, when considering the fate of those eaten by sharks or cannibals; and Reformation and post-Reformation debates about the sleep of the soul after death — these are explored in fascinating detail, showing why these questions assumed the importance that they did. A chapter explores the development of purgatory, with the associated question of indulgences. There are well-chosen illustrations in both black-and-white and colour (though, sadly, some were missing from my review copy).

The influence of St Augustine is noted at many points, and the way in which ideas about the origin of the soul, and of original sin, influenced many developments in eschatology. Almond notes the points at which Dante’s Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso reflected earlier imaginative pictures of the afterlife and moved beyond them. The extent to which the torments of hell were seen as a necessary vindication of God’s justice, and the increasing questioning of such often sadistic portrayals called into question God’s love and mercy, are discussed in some detail, with particular reference to many English writers.

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The decline of hell in the 19th century, and portrayals of heaven owing more to ideas of family reunion and continuity than to the Vision of God, and the challenges of science bring us to a situation in which Jürgen Moltmann would say that “eschatological questions have dried up like fish in a drained pond,” and the feminist Rosemary Reuther could claim that “we can do nothing about the immortal dimension of our lives. . . it is not our calling to be concerned about the eternal meaning of our lives.”

For those called to preach the Christian hope at Easter and at funerals, Almond’s book is a cautionary and deeply informative survey of what has shaped the Christian tradition, and what within that shaping is no longer plausible, and why. As Almond concludes, his book is an exploration of the history of our imaginings about the afterlife: “it speaks to the desire that many have expressed for light beyond the darkness of death, for ultimate goodness beyond present evils, and for final justice over earthly iniquities.”

Dale Allison’s Night Comes, based on his Stone Lectures at Princeton, engages with questions raised in Almond’s historical survey, but is written in a different genre. Allison himself describes it as “a miscellany, a book of thoughts”, the sharing of “scattered observations and suggestions on subjects that continue to vex and absorb me”.

The six chapters reflect on death and fear, resurrection and bodies, judgement and partiality, ignorance and imagination, hell and sympathy, and heaven and experience. There are reflections on the significance of near-death experiences, and on the reasons for the decline of both interest in and preaching on eschatology, particularly in the context of American Evangelicalism (Allison himself is a Presbyterian).

Allison reflects on the inadequacy of contemporary transmutations of heaven into angelic transformation, into the domestic reunion of families, and into the entry into a paradise garden. Likewise, the decline of hell and the sense of the judgement of God is both linked with the sadistic horrors found in many places in the Christian tradition, and with the changing social history of punishment, with the emphasis on reformation rather than retribution as the contemporary perspective.

David Bentley Hart describes Allison’s work as “a wise, honest and penetrating meditation”, but readers in the UK may find the American context, and the style, though not the topic, less engaging. Almond’s history of life after death is a surer, more imaginative, and more informative guide to the problematics of Christian eschatology.

 

The Rt Revd Dr Geoffrey Rowell is a former Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe.

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