Life after Death: A New Approach to the Last Things

Life after Death: A New Approach to the Last Things

by Anthony C. Thiselton


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Writing in the wake of a near-fatal stroke, eminent theologian Anthony C. Thiselton addresses a universally significant topic: death and what comes next. This distinctive study of "the last things" comprehensively explores questions about individual death, the intermediate state, the return of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, hell, the final state of the redeemed, and more. At once scholarly and pastoral, Thiselton's Life after Death offers biblically astute, historically informed, and intellectually sound answers — making this book an invaluable resource for thinking Christians.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802866653
Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date: 12/28/2011
Pages: 269
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Anthony C. Thiselton is professor emeritus of Christian theology at the University of Nottingham, England.

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A New Approach to the Last Things
By Anthony C. Thiselton

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2012 Anthony C. Thiselton
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6665-3

Chapter One

Death, Dying, and the Meaning of Life

Geoffrey Rowell represents a widespread view, declaring, "Heaven, hell, death and judgement, are the traditional Four Last Things of Christian theology." If this is correct, we must certainly include chapters on the four themes mentioned under this title, and popularly they probably remain the subjects of most concern. Nevertheless, J. A. T. Robinson declares, "The interest of the modern man [or woman] in Christian eschatology, if he has any interest at all, centres on the fact and moment of death. He wants to know whether he will survive it, and in what form.... In the New Testament, on the other hand, the point round which hope and interest revolve is not the moment of death, but the day ... of the appearance of Christ in ... glory ... [and] the doctrine of resurrection." The main focus in the New Testament and in this book, therefore, lies not chiefly in the experience of the individual, but on the last great cosmic acts of God, namely, the Return of Christ (often called after the Greek term the Parousia), the Last Judgment, and the resurrection of the dead, as well as what follows these "Last Things."

For this reason, the first draft of this book included Chapters 2 to the end, but not this first chapter. But Rowell is no less right than Robinson. For most people "heaven, hell, death and judgement" are expected subjects among the Last Things. We therefore include death and individual destiny, although Robinson is also right about the doings of God rather than simply the experiences of humankind, and the corporate and cosmic emphasis. This twofold theme is one of several which separate the Christian view of resurrection from the pagan or religious view of immortality. The two conceptions are poles apart: the former is based entirely on the promises and sovereign grace of God; the latter is based on the supposed human capacity to survive death.

1.1. Facing Death: The Inevitability of Dying

There is a practical or existential element to the present book. The author is in his seventies, brought back to life after a near-fatal stroke. It remains a stunning source of perplexity, puzzle, and mystery why so many in their seventies, eighties, and beyond, often seem less to contemplate the inevitability of death, which may come at any time, than many young people or previous generations. Jürgen Moltmann addresses this head-on. Many, he urges, live life as if death did not exist. But this does not help us to live life to the full at all. He writes, "To push away every thought of death, and to live as if we had an infinite amount of time ahead of us, makes us superficial and indifferent.... To live as if there were no death is to live an illusion."

We can easily see, Moltmann claims, how readily honesty about death can be liberating and life-enhancing. To be reprieved from serious illness, or to have experienced near death, far from deflecting us from this life, can give our present life a new depth. It is those who repress the thought of death, who turn life into an idol, who perhaps have also deeply repressed anxieties about death.

Part of the reason for this is the age in which we live, especially in Western culture. Geoffrey Rowell shows how in earlier times death was a central concern to virtually all human life. Even in Victorian times the death rate made confrontation with death inevitable. Cholera epidemics were often devastating, he claims. Rowell writes, "In 1840 the annual death rate per 1,000 persons in England and Wales was 22.9; by 1880 it had fallen to 20.5, and in 1900 it was still 18.2; but by 1935 it had decreased to 11.7.... In 1840 there were 154 infants under a year old who died out of 1,000 live births, and this figure remained fairly constant until 1900." Today, most of the Two-Thirds still-developing World experiences what many in America and Europe think they have left behind. In Christian theology, too, death, and life after death, remained an important subject. Henry Venn, an evangelical pietist, encouraged parents to allow their children to witness the deathbeds of Christians, as did the high churchman John Warton. If we were to consider Africa, India, or much of the Two-Thirds World today, we should find how different is the experience of death among children or near families, not to mention times and places of war.

Moltmann compares the horror with which people faced "sudden death" in the medieval and Renaissance periods, with the contrasting modern Western hope for exactly that: a quick and painless death. Earlier generations feared "sudden death" because such death gave no time for preparation for the next life. But in an age which today tries to suppress the thought of death, this attitude "paralyzes our energies for living.... It makes us arrogant or depressive; it spreads indifference, coldness of heart, and spiritual numbness.... We shut ourselves up in the prejudices that cut us off from new experiences, and wall ourselves up. To live as if there were no death is an illusion which is the enemy of life." This becomes a vicious circle. For the self-love or "narcissism" of modern life not only makes an idol of life, but makes notions of death marginalized, and meaningless, and absurd, as if it were simply "the end" of everything good. Part of the suppression of death leads to fast living: to fast food, to fast cars, to fast relationships, or to fast meetings.

If further evidence is required, whereas in previous generations the elderly lived and died at home, fully respected, amid the circle of family and friends, today the dying are shunted off to hospitals, where they often become anonymous "cases" or "patient-requirements." Moltmann notes that whereas the churchyard used to be situated in the center of the village, today cemeteries are often on the periphery of towns and cities. Death is no longer the public, solemn event it used to be. Moltmann notes, "Dying and death are privatised.... There is an unconscious suppressive taboo on dying, death and mourning." No one any longer makes the attempt to stand still, and in the case of men to raise their hats, when a hearse passes. Often people may look the other way.

In the Old Testament, the worst feature of death was possible separation from God, after a life of communion with him. One stream of thought conceives of death as a descent to She'ol, which occurs 65 times, and is rendered hades in the Greek Septuagint. In English it is sometimes netherworld or the grave. Ryder Smith comments, "Here he [the dead] could hardly expect to 'live', but he went on existing in a bloodless, juiceless way, the 'shade' or shadow of his former self." She'ol or Hades might be called "horrible," and the Hebrew notion of death signified not only the momentary "physical" or observable event, but also the state which followed it.

Richard Bauckham explains, "Ancient Israel shared the conviction of the Mesopotamian peoples that 'he who goes down to Sheol [the underworld] does not come up' (Job 7:9: 'As the cloud fades and vanishes, so those who go down to Sheol do not come up'; cf. Job 10:21; 16:22; 2 Sam. 12:23)." In 2 Sam. 12:23 David asserts, "Now he is dead.... Can I bring him back again? ... He will not return to me." A single instance of necromancy (1 Sam. 28:3-25) is narrated, but this was explicitly rejected by the Law (Lev. 19:31; Deut. 18:10-12) and the Prophets (Isa. 8:19; 65:2-4) more than once. If some references speak of God's intervening to "bring them up" (Pss. 9:13; 30:3; Isa. 38:17), this metaphorically applies only to being rescued from near death (cf. Ps. 107:18; Isa. 38:10; 3Macc. 5:51; Ps. Sol. 16:2). Jonah's language is modeled on a psalm in his thanksgiving for deliverance from the fish (Jonah 2:2-9). Ezekiel condemns Pharaoh to She'ol, or to the pit (Hebrew, bôr; Ezek. 31:16).

After the Exile a series of changes emerged. The earliest expectation of deliverance from She'ol comes in Isa. 26:19: "Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake, and sing for joy! ... The earth will give birth to those long dead." In postbiblical literature a notion of a division into that of the righteous and godless arose, the former entering what Persian thought conceived of as "Paradise." According to Jeremias, "Hades" (Greek, hades; LXX) then came to be used only as a place of punishment (Eth. Enoch 22; Josephus, Antiquities 18.14). By the time of the New Testament, the Rich Man (in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Luke 16:23) was "in Hades, where he was being tormented." In 1 Pet. 3:19 Christ preached "to the spirits in prison" (some read, "to the spirits [who are now] in prison"). Jesus is depicted as declaring, "Today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43; originally from the Persian word for garden), discussed further in Chapter 4. Lazarus did not experience resurrection, but only restoration to life, since presumably he eventually died again (John 11:11-44).

Nevertheless the canonical writings, especially the New Testament, place all their emphasis on resurrection, in spite of very occasional references to immortality in the Apocrypha, in the light of Hellenistic, not purely Jewish, influence. We still await God's full and final salvation. We have devoted Chapter 4 to "waiting." It is vital to take seriously the fact that "The last enemy to be destroyed is death" (1 Cor. 15:26; my italics). Paul does not say in the abstract, "Death has been swallowed up," but "When this perishable body puts on imperishability, ... then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: 'Death has been swallowed up in victory.... Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin ...'" (1 Cor. 15:54-56). Insofar as on the cross Jesus won for us forgiveness of sin and justification by grace through faith, believers face a "stingless death." Insofar as in life elements and effects of sin still remain, death is not without sorrow, until the yonder side of it. As Moltmann insists, since God is God of the living, life is far more than a preparation for death.

We must consider one further aspect of "facing death." Many of us have long-term projects, ambitions, and hopes. This may range from finishing writing a substantial book to witnessing the marriage of a son or daughter, or the graduation of our children or grandchildren. Reinhold Niebuhr and Jürgen Moltmann both address the problem of life's being "cut off" before a hoped-for completion. Niebuhr regards this as part of the "sting" of death, which may seem surprising since this sting is connected with sin. But God is in control of time. If the kingdom of God or the world really needs the completion of what we are doing, God will give us time to finish it. This is not to devalue or to forget the real pain of disability, or degenerative illnesses. But if it is purely an investment of self-centered hopes, for ourselves or others, it may seem to be cut short. Pannenberg rightly reminds us that this is a matter of trust. We all aim at some kind of security, but our "relationship [with God] is ... destroyed when a person tries to replace trust with security."

Nevertheless Moltmann argues that any reasonable human being tries to map out plans for their lives, and sometimes these cannot be completed because death intervenes. In postmortal resurrection it will have become irrelevant to wish to live our life all over again. God's creative act of resurrection means then "the chance to become the person God meant us to be." This may be applied to the child who dies at birth or in infancy, the boy run over by a car, and the multitude of those who die because of malnourishment in war, especially in Africa or the Two-Thirds World. Further, Moltmann comments, "The idea that for these people death is the finish would plunge the whole world into absurdity." Their life would have no meaning. Pannenberg extends this approach with reference to the promise by God of postresurrection life. He asserts, "The power and faithfulness of the biblical God stands behind the promises. They create courage for a future that is not yet visible." This overlaps with the main argument in Chapter 2, which we extrapolate in more detail below.

1.2. Mourning for the Deaths of Others

It is not surprising that in both the Old Testament and the New, mourning customs were elaborate and involved family and friends. Mourning and grief flows from the love which the mourner lavished on the deceased. Moltmann observes, "The greater the love, the deeper the grief; the more unreserved the surrender, the more inconsolable the loss. Those who give themselves utterly in love with someone else die themselves in the pains of grief, and are born again." He adds, "The person who cannot mourn has never loved."

The Old Testament contains many examples of mourning. The Hebrew abal, "to mourn," and 'abel, "mourning," occur together about 45 times; and the word saphad, "to mourn, to beat the heart, to lament," occurs also over 40 times. When he heard from Reuben of the supposed death of Joseph, "Jacob tore his garments, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days. All of his sons and all his daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted" (Gen. 37:34-35). We also read in Genesis: "Sarah died [after 127 years] ... and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her" (Gen. 23:2; Hebrew, saphad). In 2 Sam. 13:36-39, "The king and his servants wept very bitterly. ...David mourned for his son day after day.... The heart of the king went out, yearning for Absalom." When his three sons were killed, "their father Ephraim mourned many days, and his brothers came to comfort him" (1 Chron. 7:21-22). Mourning took place not only for a son or wife, but for a public figure, as when "all Judah and Jerusalem mourned for Josiah [and] Jeremiah also uttered a lament for Josiah, and all the singing men and singing women have spoken of Josiah to this day. They made there a custom in Israel" (2 Chron. 35:21-25).

In the New Testament we similarly read of lamentation and mourning for the dead. Probably the most widely known passage concerns the death of Lazarus: "When Jesus saw her [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.... Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, 'See how he loved him!'" (John 11:33-36). This underlines the point about the direct connection between intense mourning and intense love. Both the Old and New Testaments associate mourning with weeping. The Hebrew word bakâ can mean both mourning and weeping, and lament. The Greek in John 11:33-36 uses both klaio, "to weep," and embrimaomai, "to be angry or be deeply moved," stressing either indignation at what in principle ought not to happen, or deep emotion, or both. Paul uses klaio, "to weep," in his injunction, "Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep" (Rom. 12:15). No Christian should be left to mourn and to weep alone.


Excerpted from LIFE AFTER DEATH by Anthony C. Thiselton Copyright © 2012 by Anthony C. Thiselton. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Abbreviations x

Introduction: A New Approach xii

1 Death, Dying, and the Meaning of Life 1

1.1 Facing Death: The Inevitability of Dying 2

1.2 Mourning for the Deaths of Others 6

1.3 Death and the Meaning of Life 9

2 Things Not Seen 16

2.1 The Problem for Doubters 16

2.2 A First Step: Promise and Trust 20

2.3 Promise and Language 26

3 The Sacraments, the Covenant, and the Bible: Completing the Argument for Doubters 34

3.1 Promise, the Sacraments, and the Word 34

3.2 Promise and Covenant 38

3.3 Completing the Argument: Does God Speak through the Bible? 45

4 Waiting and Expecting 53

4.1 Waiting and Expecting in the Biblical Writings 53

4.2 What Is It to "Expect"?: Wittgenstein's Answer 58

4.3 Attitudes to "Expectation" in Christian Thought 61

5 Two Apparent Problems: The Intermediate State or Immediately with Christ? Will There Be a "Millennium"? 68

5.1 An Immediate Departure to Be with Christ or an Intermediate State before the Resurrection? 68

5.2 Gilbert Ryle's "Paradoxes" of the Participant and the Logician 71

5.3 Will There Be a Millennium? A Further Controversial Issue 79

6 The Return of Christ 89

6.1 The Central Teaching of Paul 89

6.2 Further Questions on Paul's Teaching 95

6.3 The Teaching of Jesus and the Book of Acts 99

6.4 Hebrews, John, and Revelation, and the Postbiblical Church 104

7 The Resurrection of the Dead 111

7.1 Do Our Conclusions Represent a New or Distinctive Approach? 111

7.2 An Exegesis and Exposition of 1 Corinthians 15 115

7.3 The Nature of the Spiritual Body as the Ongoing Work of the Spirit 122

8 Is Holiness Given at Once in the Resurrection, or Gradually in Purgatory? What Does "Eternal" Mean? 129

8.1 Gradual Purification in Purgatory? 129

8.2 The Nature of Holiness in the Immediate Power of the Spirit and the Presence of God 132

8.3 Eternity as Timelessness, Everlasting Duration, Simultaneity, or Multidimensional and Transformed Reality? 136

9 Claims about "Hell" and Wrath 145

9.1 The Nature of "Hell": Everlasting Punishment in Christian Thought 145

9.2 An Assessment of the Biblical Evidence 151

9.3 The Wrath of God 159

10 The Last Judgment and Justification by Grace through Faith 166

10.1 Judgment Anticipated with Joy? Vindication and Truth 166

10.2 The Last Judgment, "Verdictives," and Justification by Grace 174

10.3 Universal Judgment: Will It Involve Retribution? Will All Be Judged? 179

11 The Beatific Vision of God: From Glory to Glory -The Final State of the Redeemed 185

11.1 Two Meanings of Glory: God's Presence and His Glory as God's Self 185

11.2 Two Further Meanings of Glory: Loving God for His Sake, and Seeing Him Face-to-Face 190

11.3 The Symbolism and Purpose of the Book of Revelation 193

11.4 The Symbolic Language concerning the Last State of the Redeemed in Revelation 197

12 The Beatific Vision and Trinitarian Work of God: More on the Final State of the Redeemed 204

12.1 Joy, Wonder, and Christ's Crucifixion and Resurrection 206

12 The Continuing and Ever-Fresh Work of the Holy Spirit after the Resurrection: The Transformation and Enhancement of Sense Experience 208

12.3 The Purposes of God the Father: Divine Dialogue; God as All in All 213

Bibliography 216

Index of Subjects 229

Index of Names 234

Index of Biblical References 243

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