Death and the Afterlifeby Paul R. Williamson
Length: Approximately 7 hours. To read (194 pages).
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“Where do bad folks go when they die?” is an age old question. While examining Biblical evidence, Mr. Williamson gives a thorough treatment to the questions we’ve always had about death and the afterlife.
Who should read this?
Anyone who reckons to die someday. And for those who don’t, read it anyway! This book is helpful for people who want to examine death and the afterlife from a Biblical perspective, especially for those who appreciate in-depth coverage of these topics.
Death, they say, is one of the few certainties of life. While nobody knows for certain what happens once a person dies, the Bible does offer some idea about our post-mortem state of being. The problem with this is that because of God’s progressive revelation, Biblical ideas about death and the afterlife have changed over time. And they still are changing.
A growing number of people believe that this life is all there is. A 2011 global survey revealed that half of the world’s population believe in an afterlife, while the other half either disbelieve or are unsure. This stands in contrast to many historic cultures where belief in an afterlife was de rigueur.
Joining the fray of changing beliefs, some even in the evangelical community are calling into question traditional Christian beliefs about death and the afterlife.
Mr. Williamson outlines five key ideas that Christians historically have affirmed:
- An interim state between death and resurrection
- The bodily resurrection of all dead people when Jesus returns
- The final judgment of all people based on their earthly lives
- Eternal conscious punishment in hell for the unrighteous
- Eternal life with God for those who believe in Jesus
From these five core beliefs about death and the afterlife arise five chapters dedicated to exploring Biblically these ideas.
Each chapter follows the same basic structure: look at pertinent Old Testament scriptures, scan the intertestamental literature, and then examine New Testament passages related to the topic at hand. Following each of these subsections is an analysis of the literature, and at the end of each chapter is an overall analysis to determine how the Bible most clearly speaks.
Mr. Williamson thoughtfully walks through the Biblical data and makes careful exegesis to determine that the historic Christian beliefs about death and the afterlife probably are what the Bible intends to convey. He states in his concluding chapter that though he has “candidly acknowledged that at least some of the biblical data are not so clear as sometimes assumed. Even so, there is sufficient biblical warrant for what I have labeled the traditional understanding of personal eschatology” (p 193).
This is a well-written book that deserves a wide audience. There is much to commend and little to criticize.
- Tackles head-on difficult questions and thorny issues: The Bible is less than clear on a number of issues that have major implications. This is one reason why there are so many views on major doctrinal issues, and it can make answering the question What does the Bible say about ___? difficult to answer. I appreciate an author’s willingness to rise to the challenge of discerning in murky areas what the Bible teaches. Mr. Williamson rises to that challenge and is unafraid to sift mountains of data to arrive at well-reasoned conclusions.
- Biblical supremacy with careful examination of appropriate extra-Biblical literature: Mr. Williamson unswervingly holds to the authority of Scripture, but he at the same time introduces and weighs extra-Biblical data such as intertestamental literature and scientific and historical research.
- Biblical theology is king rather than proof-texting: Instead of taking a collection of texts that favor a certain position, Mr. Williamson does his best to engage the whole of Scripture, even when Scripture doesn’t readily reflect the traditional position. Rather than explaining away these texts, he sees how they fit in with the flow of Scripture. As God progressively has revealed more of Himself to mankind, we see how and why people have taken different views on death and the afterlife.
- Puts aside presuppositions to look at Scripture with fresh eyes: My guess is that Mr. Williamson went into the writing of this book holding classic evangelical positions, but he willingly set aside his presuppositions to see what Scripture revealed. Rather than looking at Scripture through the lens of his beliefs, he took off those glasses to see with fresh eyes.
- Interprets Scripture wisely and even-handedly: Mr. Williamson uses a conservative hermeneutic in that he doesn’t stretch Scripture to fit a shape of his choosing; he unpacks Scripture to let It reveal Itself.
- Heavily researched: Death and the Afterlife reads like an academic paper in that he places numerous footnotes on each page. This saves a reader from flipping to the rear of the book, and if you don’t like reading footnotes they easily are skipped. While the format might look intimidating to some readers, it is a good way to allow the reader to gain extra insights and find new resources if they so choose.
- Logical progression and flow: Perhaps because of his academic bent, Mr. Williamson maintains an excellent logical progression in his book. From topic arrangement to chapter format, there is a logical flow that aids the reader in following the proffered information. Readers never will wonder where Mr. Williamson is going, nor will they wonder how he arrived at a certain conclusion.
- Informative: This certainly is not the least reason to read the book – most readers will chose to read this because they want answers to questions about death and the afterlife. They will not be disappointed, because Mr. Williamson concludes what Scripture says but doesn’t stray into speculative theology.
Clear, informative, and exegetically sound – it is easy to like Death and the Afterlife!
No book is perfect, but I only have a couple of minor suggestions for changes to make:
- Relies too heavily on a few authors: At least two of the chapters are based largely on the writings of one or two authors. Seeing footnote after footnote about the same author made me wonder if I would be better served putting this book down and reading the other author instead.
- Old references in places: Theology is one place where old authors still can speak authoritatively, but brain science is not. Brain science in a theology book? In one chapter, Mr. Williamson delves into consciousness and references 18 year old brain science to support the point he makes. Surely the study of consciousness has developed much in the past 18 years. Fortunately there aren’t many examples I can provide of old references, but I did notice it more than once.
Death and the Afterlife does not answer every single question about death, heaven, and hell. Since the Bible hasn’t answered all our questions, Mr. Williamson rests in good company. He speaks where the Bible speaks and is silent where the Bible is silent. This is frustrating to those whose curiosity desires answers, but it is the wisest course to take.
Though contemporary evangelicals might be tempted to abandon traditional beliefs about personal eschatology, Mr. Williamson makes a strong Biblical case for the retention of classical beliefs about death and the afterlife.
I received this book free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.