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Death, Where is Your Sting? Dying and death examined by Robert Reiss

04 March 2022

Bernice Martin reads a liberal Anglican’s study

ROBERT REISS, Canon Emeritus of Westminster Abbey, has written this personally truthful essay on the idea of life after or, as Reiss prefers, beyond death. It is not precisely an academic inquiry or quite a pastoral exercise, but suggests something of both, and is the fruit of more than 50 years as an Anglican priest on the liberal wing of the Church. Reiss is as well informed about scientific knowledge of the material basis of life and death as about theological arguments about “eternal life”.

Reiss considers how humans have pictured what happens after death and notes how unwilling we are to countenance personal extinction, and sometimes envisage a world after death which rights the wrongs of this world. His summary of world religions covers the late emergence of belief in life after death in Judaism; Muslim approaches to death, judgement, and heaven; and Hindu and Buddhist ideas of reincarnation.

The bulk of the book deals with Christian traditions, and focuses on the Church of England. The most substantive chapters discuss the theological arguments of influential 20th-century theologians, notably Hick, Hebblethwaite, Thistleton, and Allison, as well as secular analyses by modern natural scientists, notably neuroscientists, on relations of mind and body and the nature of death, physical corruption, and the continuous recycling of atoms of matter. He also considers the idea of the soul, near-death experiences, and the current debate about euthanasia for the terminally ill who request it.

The epigram of the book might well have been Genesis 3.19: “dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return.” “A Personal Statement” makes clear that Reiss sees this as the inescapable material truth, before he explores the significance of the life and death of Jesus for any credible version of “eternal life”.

His chapter on the resurrection of Jesus examines the canonical Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, the relative dates of their composition and the differences between them. He emphasises the deep significance for Jesus’s followers both of his life and teachings and of whatever happened in the period immediately after the crucifixion. Reiss notes a general decline in belief in the resurrection, even among Christians, and of eschatological understandings of it. He concludes that “not all the Bible stories should be taken literally.”

The collapse of Cartesian body/mind dualism in favour of seeing humans as psychosomatic unities, and modern scientific understanding of the structure of matter, lead Reiss to review the hindrances to reassembling scattered atoms in individual bodily resurrection. Christians should believe nothing that is not consistent with what we know about the world, he believes. This does not preclude a Christian understanding of God’s transcending his Creation. Reiss concludes that life beyond death is a property not of individuals. but of humanity as a whole.

This is a courageous essay, thoughtful and un-illusioned. It is unsurprising that it has been published in the Christian Alternative Books imprint of the publisher, John Hunt.

Bernice Martin is Emeritus Reader in Sociology at Royal Holloway, University of London.


Death, Where is Your Sting? Dying and death examined
Robert Reiss
Christian Alternative £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.89

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