Dale C. Allison Jr.
Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Mich. 185 pages
Reviewed by Susan R. Garrett
What hope for life beyond death can thinking Christians have? In “Night Comes,” Dale C. Allison Jr. explores core Christian doctrines of death, resurrection, immortality, judgment, eschatology, hell and heaven. Allison is the Richard J. Dearborn Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, and the work reflects not only his virtuosity as exegete and theologian, but also his skills as a writer who can engage and even entertain.
Allison begins with the premise that death is more than a biological fact: It is a cultural construct with a history to be interrogated. “We can’t rightly understand doctrines without understanding the people who’ve promoted and demoted them, and we can’t do that without understanding broad historical trends and social tendencies,” he writes. As Allison surveys the development and change of various tenets through the centuries, he presses those constructs for inconsistencies or fissures in logic. In the general resurrection, what will happen to atoms that belonged to different people at different points in time? Will our microbial ecosystems have to be resurrected too? And so on. An overarching aim of the relentless cross-examination is to show that “the Bible and the interpretive traditions parasitic upon it, when scrutinized critically, don’t offer details.”
Through his interrogation Allison pushes us into the arms of metaphor, poetry, symbol and parable. Regarding resurrection, for example, he writes that biblical language “must be a way of suggesting an eschatological future that transcends prosaic description, a future that can only be intimated through sacred metaphor and sanctified imagination.” He demonstrates that when we leave literalist readings behind and ask instead what was being said and heard when ancients talked about last things, then insights into God’s character and our hope unfold before us. When it comes to talking about death and afterlife, preachers and theologians needn’t be muzzled. “There’s much to ponder, much to explain, much to criticize, and much to imagine.”
To give a single example: Allison brings together biblical ideas about Jesus as judge and about his crucifixion as itself a judgment and eschatological turning point (see John 12:31) to suggest what Allison calls “a Christological approach to the Last Judgment.” He asks whether in his passion Christ faced his own apocalypse – “the end of the world in miniature” – then what does his way of conducting himself in that moment tell us about the apocalypse and judgment still to come? Given that Christ did not answer violence with violence, but always responded with forbearance and forgiveness (as summarized in 1 Peter 3:23 and depicted in many places in the New Testament), then Christians can infer an idea of what lies ahead at the judgment. The one who repudiated violence and vengeance will do so again. The one who forgave his enemies will do so again. Judgment is sure to come, but we can trust that the Judge bears his scars as a sign of his everlasting character, mercy and forbearance.
“Death Comes” will not suit either radical skeptics and materialists or the piously faint of heart. But those yearning to think more deeply and speak more profoundly about these topics than they have in the past may find it to be a work full of wisdom and generative of hope.
Susan R. Garrett is dean and professor of New Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.