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Review: Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction

Questions about death and what may lie beyond are always with us, and the mystery of the unknown has given rise to more than a few theories. With Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction, Terence Nichols provides a biblically grounded, historically rooted, and carefully argued account of the Christian understanding of what awaits us after death.

The first two chapters introduce the reader to the various attitudes toward death and afterlife in the Old Testament and other ancient Jewish texts. He concludes that ancient Hebrew texts generally show belief in some sort of ongoing personal existence after death in Sheol (or the underworld), but these concepts were vague and lacked detailed expression. As time passed, Jewish texts became increasingly, though not exhaustively, characterized by belief in bodily resurrection. Nichols finds extensive evidence in the New Testament for early Christian belief in future bodily resurrection, and he accurately identifies this as transformed physical life in God’s new creation. He helpfully resists a strong duality between heaven and earth suggesting that afterlife is the consummation of choices made in the present.

After laying out the biblical material, Nichols investigates the meaning of death and afterlife in key thinkers in Christian history (Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin). He demonstrates that each one affirmed the resurrection of the body as the Christian hope, even if each one understood resurrection in somewhat differing ways. The strength of the study to this point is the demonstration that from its earliest history, Christianity has come at questions of death with a firm vision of the resurrection of the body.

Chapter four brings a shift from historical theology to a presentation of contemporary scientific challenges to afterlife and the soul. This chapter will be particularly useful to those unfamiliar with these recent and varied challenges to the historic Christian view. Chapter five begins the author’s response to the challenges by appealing to testimonial evidence of those who have had near death experiences (NDE) and argues that such experiences cannot be accounted for by physicalist denials of an immaterial soul.  

This leads Nichols to a discussion of the soul (chapter 6) in which he describes the different approaches to the body-soul relationship (physicalism, substance dualism, holistic dualism). Nichols argues for a form of  holistic dualism that he calls “subject-in-relation”. This means that the soul and body are, in this life, an integrated whole but that the soul can still survive bodily death and carry forth personal identify to the resurrected body. The soul, he believes, is a subject that stands in relation to the body, others, its environment, and to God. Thus, it exercises its powers through the body, but the body also influences the soul. So, causality goes in both directions. Particular powers of the soul include free choice and the ability to relate to God. Nichols thinks of the soul as a “bridging principle” for humans to relate to God (132). By this he means that a bridge is needed for the world of spirit to interact with the world of matter. As physical creatures, human beings need a means of relating to God, who is understood as pure spirit. The soul fulfills this bridging role as a non-physical aspect of human life that allows us to relate to a spiritual God.

I do find this bridging role to be somewhat problematic in that it seems to slide into an unnecessary contrastive dualism. If our non-physical souls can interact with our physical bodies, why should we think that a non-physical God is unable to likewise relate to physical creatures? Further, it’s not clear how an immaterial soul successfully bridges the gap between God and humanity. As David Kelsey points out, when we concieve of the difference between God and humanity in terms of the difference between the Creator and the creature, then it’s not clear how a created soul relates to an uncreated God, even if both are immaterial (cf. Kelsey, Eccentric Existence, 1:255-56). Instead, following Kelsey, I think we can say that God lovingly relates to those he creates in the very act of creating them, our physicality is no barrier to God’s determination to relate to us. Indeed, in the very act of creating, the immaterial God lovingly relates to his physical creation.

Nichols goes on to articulate a case for belief in resurrection despite arguments to the contrary (ch. 7). He gives a chapter to “Justification and Judgment” in which I found little with which to disagree, even though Nichols is writing from a Roman Catholic perspective. He describes justification as “forgiveness of sins, through faith in Christ” that “should lead to the inner transformation that comes from the outpouring of God’s love in the hearts of believers” (160). He describes that transformation in terms of sanctification through the presence of the Holy Spirit. He does say that justification is “completed by sanctification” (160), but this doesn’t seem to conflate the two, and, while sympathetic to the Canons of the Council of Trent, his view strikes me as somewhat more Protestant than Tridentine.

Nichols does argue for the historic Roman Catholic view of purgatory in chapter nine. I would like to take more space to present and evaluate this interesting, though flawed, argument. But this review is already rather long for a blog. So, I hope to follow-up with a post devoted specifically to interacting with Nichols’ view on purgatory.

The final chapter presents a vision of dying well, which Nichols describes as “dying into God” (187). This involves a deeper surrender of ourselves to God as we move toward death, the supreme trial of our lives.

All in all, I found this book very interesting and very helpful. The apologetic value of the book is high in that it summarizes and introduces readers to the significant difficulties for those who reject (whether for scientific or other reasons) the historic Christian understandings of the soul and the resurrection of the body. It also does an excellent job of drawing a vision of a future with a hope, and a path for the journey through death. I am happy to commend it.

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