‘Book of thoughts’ addresses life’s age-old questions

“Night Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things” by Dale C. Allison Jr. (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 150 pages, $18)

“The cover of your Bible may say New Study Edition or New Revised Standard or New International Version, but it’s all a lie. There’s nothing up-to-date about the two Testaments. As dispiriting as this may be for consumers in love with incessant innovation, the Bible is, despite the latest covers, old and distant, and it gets older and more distant with each passing day.”

Dale Allison’s statement is not the arrogant assertion of a Dawkins-like atheist who’s out to flay away at the body religion. He is, in fact, a noted professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary – and a 1973 Wichita North High School graduate. In his “book of thoughts,” as he calls it, Allison addresses existential and biblical subjects that have always troubled humankind – death, judgment, resurrection, heaven and hell – subjects that are not appurtenant only to Christianity.

The proper nomenclature for his work is eschatology, a study of the last things. How do we make sense of different views that the Scriptures speak of in often antiquated and sometimes contradictory ways? Allison compacts a lot of historical, cultural, scientific and theological knowledge into his 150-page book to help readers answer that question.

Allison, who is also an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), concedes his bias even as he unravels the threads of beliefs about eschatological subjects. For example, consider the subject of hell. As he notes, “Christians of all kinds – Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant – have enthusiastically detailed the gruesome and terrifying future that God allegedly has devised for the unredeemed.” But the times, he explains, have been a-changin’ since Christianity’s first followers.

Early Christian missionaries had to deal with converts’ tearful pleas: Are their loved ones who had died and hadn’t been converted now suffering the agonies of hell? “Hell has, from the beginning, unsettled some Christians,” Allison says. With the advent of the Enlightenment, the existence of hell was increasingly denigrated. By the 19th century, it was easier to ignore the idea of hell altogether.

As a result, Allison says. “Hell just isn’t what it used to be. Torture is out, metaphor is in, and just about everyone who defends hell does so in terms of human freedom.” A person chooses his or her destiny, including godless existence. The “hell of fire,” as Jesus describes in the Gospel of Matthew, has become for most people anachronistic and the subject of cartoon caricature.

Allison links hell’s demise to a host of factors: moral relativism, modern pluralism, reformist ideas about punishment and rehabilitation, and juristic rejection of torture. He presents the evolution of beliefs about hell, allowing the reader to reach his or her own conclusion, though he’s not averse to sharing his own:

“I can’t be objective here. The cultural history that I’ve introduced has made me who I am. I oppose torture, believe that punishment should, whenever possible be remedial, and recognize myself in my non-Christian friends. So I can’t believe in the old hell, which projects onto God the brutal and callous jurisprudence of the past. I want others to disbelieve, too.”

And that becomes the template of his book: objective analysis tempered with personal conviction. He describes his personal, theological exploration this way: “It’s an attempt to move from reconstructing the past to pondering the future.” Those with a spiritual proclivity to ultimate matters no doubt will have plenty to ponder as they wrestle with subjects both profound and provocative.

Tom Schaefer is a former columnist and religion editor for The Eagle. He lives in Wichita.