Yesterday was the last Sunday in the liturgical church year, a day when many churches devote time to thinking and talking about the last things — the return of Christ, the last judgment, resurrection, and the like.
In his new book, Life after Death: A New Approach to the Last Things, Anthony C. Thiselton — one of the foremost hermeneutical thinkers alive today — tackles many of these mysteries as he probes the New Testament books for answers to every legitimate eschatological question that might be asked of them. In this post, Thiselton introduces us to just a few of the biblical puzzles he attempts to unravel in the book.
Eerdmans will shortly publish Life after Death: A New Approach to the Last Things. This will be the most “existential” or self-involving of my seventeen or so books. Four years ago I suffered a severe stroke, which the medics told my wife would be fatal. With God’s grace and much prayer, I made an almost complete recovery. It seemed to me strange that so few elderly people appear to reflect on imminent death and on what follows it, when only a few years may remain.
It may seem to some paradoxical to write on that for which our evidence-based scientific culture demands visible evidence. Hence, after a chapter on death and mourning, I look at what the Epistle to the Hebrews calls “things not seen.” In the Bible these are based on the promises of God. Hence I discuss promise and trust, promise and language, and problems for doubters. Covenant-promise, Scripture, and sacraments constitute a third chapter.
Then more genuinely “new” arguments emerge. Christians hold two views about Christ’s Return. One is that Christ will return at once; the other is that the dead will “sleep” while other events first take place. The Bible holds both. This demands a careful argument. The immediate-return view is a “participant” view for those involved in the process. The dead in Christ will experience at once being with him in glory. But the “observer” view, which describes events from outside, allows for the resurrection, judgment, and other events to precede it. In one respect, Christmas offers an analogy. The sooner a child falls asleep, the sooner, for the child, Christmas morning will come. Meanwhile parents wrap up presents, go to church, and so on. This is not a “contradiction.” Some readers may prefer to skip the details of the philosophical argument; it is called “conceptual analysis.”
What do “waiting” and “expecting” the End mean? These terms have a different currency of meaning from that which most Christians imagine. The philosopher Wittgenstein asks what “to expect” amounts to, which, again, is conceptual analysis. But it makes a practical difference to how we prepare for Christ’s Coming.
On the Return of Christ, the meaning of such passages as “we who alive and remain” (1 Thess. 4:17) need careful scrutiny. Over forty-eight years of university teaching and research has familiarized me with New Testament, philosophy, theology, and hermeneutics. How do presupposition and statement differ? How much biblical imagery functions as suggestive metaphor, and how much is “literal”? Is the Bible’s language always like a subway map, telling us, “You are here”? The Resurrection requires understanding 1 Corinthians and 1 and 2 Thessalonians, on which I have published three commentaries.
Then we encounter several more puzzles. How shall we always freely choose to be holy, when the Holy Spirit has raised us from the dead? I argue that the Holy Spirit gives us the disposition to be holy. What does “eternal” mean? I question three views and argue for a fourth. Some questions about “Hell” can be addressed; others cannot. We can face the last judgment with confidence and joy, if we understand its meaning. The opposite of love is not wrath, but indifference, as many parents know. Purgatory cannot be defended.
The last two chapters consider the beatific vision of God, the destiny of believers, God’s glory, and the Trinitarian work of salvation. In other words, what will eternity really be like for Christians? My study of the New Testament yields some answers:the counterpart to experience through the senses will be enhanced, not diminished; the work of the Spirit will be ever-fresh and dynamic; self-identity will be preserved; we shall never leave Calvary and the Resurrection behind; and God will be all in all. “Happy ever after,” the Bible promises us, will not be static perfection, but a progressive, ongoing, experience of God’s dynamic Spirit.