Milton Essenburg is a longtime editor at Eerdmans who has worked on several of Anthony Thiselton’s books, including The Two Horizons, his two commentaries on 1 Corinthians, The Hermeneutics of Doctrine, and his most recent and personal book, Life after Death: A New Approach to the Last Things.
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About four years ago, as I was editing Anthony Thiselton’s The Hermeneutics of Doctrine, an email message appeared on my computer screen saying, “Please pray for Tony. He has suffered a stroke, and it is serious.” It was from his wife Rosemary, and it had an air of desperation to it.
A number of thoughts immediately flashed through my mind. One was, “If Tony is disabled, who will check the proofs of this book?” Another was, “God works both through means and above means. Pray for a miracle.” Well, that is just what I did. In the days that followed we received updates from Rosemary, and one of them said that the stroke had just missed a vital part of his brain and it appeared he would recover. As Tony said later, it was only through much prayer and God’s grace that he has made an almost complete recovery.
It was that experience that provided the motivation for his most recent book, Life after Death, which John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, calls, “Very accessible, deeply grounded in Scripture, pastorally helpful, and sensitive to that most democratic of all institutions — death.”
After his stroke, Tony lived on — praise God! But he, and every person who is now living, will someday die.
What a stunning source of perplexity, puzzle, and mystery, then, says Thiselton, that so many people now in their seventies, eighties, and beyond often seem to avoid the thought of death, which may come for them at any time, even more than many young people or people of previous generations.
At first there was some question about the title and subtitle of the book. On the one hand, it is about the traditional four last things of Christian theology: heaven, hell, death, and judgment. It is highly personal. In the New Testament, on the other hand, as J. A. T. Robinson has also indicated, the point around which hope and interest revolve is not the moment of death but the day of the appearance of Christ in glory and the doctrine of the resurrection. Hence the main focus of both the New Testament and this book is not chiefly on the experience of the individual but on the last great cosmic acts of God, namely, the Return of Christ, the Last Judgment, the resurrection and what follows. As a result it is also intended to be a textbook on eschatology, or the doctrine of the last things.
So entranced were the people of the Parish of Attenborough, however, with the subject of the future life that when Rosemary asked if they would like “A New Approach to the Last Things” to be the title, they stood in polite silence. But when she said “Life after Death,” they immediately broke out in applause. Here was a title with which they could resonate. And I can’t emphasize enough that it is obligatory for pastors to prepare their congregations for “the glory that awaits us.”
Something more should be said about “A New Approach to the Last Things.” To be sure, this book does offer a genuinely new approach to life after death within the framework of a biblical Protestant theology. But it also brings together Thiselton’s two areas of expertise — biblical scholarship and philosophical hermeneutics — to create a truly original approach to the broader area of the last things. The novelty may vary in degree and kind from chapter to chapter, but the emphasis falls on the biblical, with the hermeneutical there only to clarify the biblical.
Thus when Thiselton views promises as “performative utterances,” he simply means that what God says will certainly come to pass. Or when he speaks of “waiting or expecting” the Return of Christ, following Wittgenstein he says that “to expect” means “readiness” in behavior or conduct, as when preparing to entertain an important guest.
I was most impressed, however, with the last two chapters, on “the blessed state of the redeemed.” Here Thiselton uses both the book of Revelation and his own imagination to show that resurrection life will be enhanced rather than diminished. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit it will be ever-fresh, ongoing, and ever-new, with fresh surprises and constantly new activities. Heaven will certainly be far from boring!