Foundations: No.74 Spring 2018

Book Reviews

Death and the Afterlife

Paul R. Williamson, Apollos, 2017, 244pp, £9.71 (Amazon)

This is volume 44 of the New Studies in Biblical Theology series, edited by D. A. Carson, and the second in the series by Paul Williamson (Vol. 23 “Sealed with an Oath”) who is Lecturer in Old Testament, Hebrew and Aramaic at Moore College, Sydney.

Carson in his preface writes, “The first step towards regaining an eternal perspective is to rediscover what the Bible actually says about life, death, judgment, resurrection and hell. And this is what Paul Williamson has undertaken.” Williamson had six months of leave to prepare the material which was originally delivered as the 2016 Annual Moore College Lectures.

In his introduction he recalls reading, as a young Christian, “The Bible on the Life Hereafter” by William Hendriksen:

However, while the main topics of “individual eschatology” remain unchanged, some of the controversial matters are significantly different today… today the challenges often arise from within the evangelical camp (1).

The opening chapter lays out the basic plan and methodology of the book: five doctrines are analysed using three methods. What are the three tools of assessment? First, the ancient cultural context. He gives a sketchy overview of death and the afterlife in the ANE and in the Graeco-Roman world. In subsequent chapters the main focus is intertestamental Judaism.

Second is the Biblical context:

God’s revelation concerning personal eschatology was revealed progressively over time. Thus the Old Testament perspective is not necessarily the same as what we are more familiar with from the New (22).

Third, is the contemporary evangelical context: “During recent decades this traditional understanding has been seriously challenged… by those with impeccable evangelical credentials” (22):

1. Death

The controversy here is whether we have a soul. Is death the separation of the body from the soul, and is there an intermediate state after death.

The two questions are inter-related – if we have no soul, then we do not need an intermediate state; on the other hand, if there is an intermediate state, then presumably we must have a soul or some such non-material entity to inhabit such (33).

Perhaps the clearest single Scripture put forward is Matthew 10:28: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

He concludes: “Physical death may indeed be understood, therefore, in terms of the ultimate separation – the dissolution of the psychosomatic unity that is intrinsic to living human beings.” (62) There will also be a “post-mortem existence outside the body” (61) for believer and unbelievers, but it is to be emphasised that this is a provisional and impermanent condition, awaiting the general resurrection.

2. Resurrection

Some have been using 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 to teach that “believers have resurrected bodies from the moment they die”. Williamson shows that not only is this an inadequate reading of the text, but also that it would contradict the plain teaching of verses such as, 1 Cor 15:52: “For the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised, and we will be changed.” He states, “Clearly there is no place for an immediate resurrection at the point of death” (88).

He surveys both Testaments, suggesting the minimal direct teaching on personal resurrection in the Old Testament does not prove it to be a doctrine drawn from the surrounding culture, such as the teaching of Zoroastrianism, but that it is implicit in the doctrine of God (Deut 32:39).

3. Judgment

Here the question under consideration is, “How can we, in the present time, be justified by faith, yet on the last day be judged according to works?” (96)

The survey of both Testaments affirms that God judges us: In the Old Testament God’s promised judgments come within the flow of history, whereas the New Testament warns of a judgment that will end the history of this world. Williamson then focuses on three passages to examine the theme of “judgment according to works”: Firstly, Matthew 25:31-46. The key to the text is the much-debated phrase “one of the least of these my brothers… referring to his followers; that is all who are genuine disciples” (113). Our faith expressed in love within the church “will distinguish the sheep from the goats” (114).

Romans 2:7-10 “refers, not to a hypothetical ‘empty set’, but to those who are regenerate, who, albeit imperfectly, do what is good by the help of God’s Spirit” (116).

Finally, in Revelation 20:11-15, “the issue is not salvation by works, but judgment based on unimpeachable evidence – evidence that reveals the nature of a person’s relationship with God” (121).

4. Hell

The author states,

Currently evangelicals espouse three main views. First, hell as “eternal conscious torment”, second, hell as “temporary conscious torment”, third hell as “annihilation” (129). Our primary concern is with the first two views (130).

Regarding the Old Testament, “we note that… [its] portrayal of Sheol hardly resembles the New Testament presentation of hell” (134). In the New Testament, we are urged not to link “Gehenna” with Jerusalem’s rubbish dump (an idea invented in Europe during the Middle Ages) but with the OT associations of “burning” and “rotting” (148). Williamson identifies Revelation 14:9-11 as “unmistakeable” (159) evidence that hell is eternal conscious torment: “he will be tormented… the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever, and they have no rest” (158).

5. Heaven

The controversy here is twofold: how we conceive of the final destiny of the saved and whether everyone will eventually share this same destiny. “The main eschatological focus in the Old Testament was not enjoying God’s presence in heaven, rather God’s presence here on earth” (168). Whilst affirming the importance of the heavenly transcendent dwelling of God, the New Testament hope is summarised in the final two chapters of Revelation, where three concepts merge: The new cosmos, the new Jerusalem and the new Eden.

He describes the final destiny of the saved “in terms of transformation and renewal rather than destruction and replacement” (181). And in regard to those who think the Scripture guarantees eternal life to everyone, via a post-mortem repentance, Williamson states: “…there is no suggestion in Revelation 21 that anyone in the lake of fire repents or relocates to the holy city” (188).

In his conclusion, the author writes, “This book has provided exegetical support for the traditional evangelical understanding of death and the afterlife” (193). I agree, and appreciated the clarity of thought and faithful-ness to Scripture. This is a really helpful summary of biblical personal eschatology.

My one quibble is the legitimacy of referring, in chapter 6, to “Evangelical universalists” (184). To be an evangelical requires more than affirming the authority of Scripture to resolve all disputes; it also requires submission to the basic content of the gospel revealed in Scripture, which includes the truth that not all people are saved. One can either be an evangelical or a universalist, but not both.

Nathan Pomeroy
Pastor, Arnold Road Evangelical Church, Nottingham


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