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Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction
by Terence Nichols
(220 pages, $22.99, paperback)
reviewed by Graeme Hunter
Diane, a mother in her mid-forties, is dying of leukemia, leaving behind her husband and two teenage boys. The stuff of domestic tragedy. You can easily imagine distraught relatives, and nagging questions that have no reply.
However, in Terence Nichols's fine book, Death and Afterlife, Diane's death figures as a luminous episode, which left her loved ones with "an inexplicable sense of peace and joy." Her story serves as a frame for Nichols's book, not only to introduce the wider themes of death and what comes after, but also to prepare the reader to consider the forgotten art of "dying well," the master theme towards which the story builds.
It was wise to defer that unfamiliar theme to the end of the book. Modern people need all the help they can get to grasp an idea so out of keeping with the age. A world as materialistic, scientistic, and consumerist as ours inclines by its nature to impulsive self-absorption, and is little given to introspection about death or the inscrutable reality behind death's door. Instinctively the modern mind thrusts aside such meditations as morbid and medieval. In their place we put the celebration of life. Think of the new style of obituary, in which we are promised a celebration of the loved one's life but seldom a funeral, much less a Service or Mass of Christian Burial. Lacking the concepts to deal intelligently with death, we think it better to avert our gaze.
A Better Approach
Nichols's engaging book offers readers something better. It presents the Christian Church's considered wisdom about death and the afterlife in a manner that is both informed and practical. It addresses the difficulty of integrating Christian belief on these matters with modern presuppositions, and only then turns to offering practical ways of making the contemplation of mortality, resurrection, and eternal life our means of dying well.
The early chapters relate the main stages by which the Christian understanding of last things came to have its present form. Nichols moves with assurance through the Old and New Testaments, the church fathers, the Reformation period, and up to the present day.
He is aware that he "cannot present a comprehensive scholarly account of all the relevant material" in such a short book. Nor does he attempt to hide the diversity of Christian opinion about eschatological matters. He is able, however, to establish the existence of a broad agreement, forged over many centuries, according to which death is the dissolution of the union between an imperishable soul and a perishable body, while the afterlife involves the eventual union of the soul with an immortal, resurrection body, forming a person who is morally continuous with the one who lived and died on earth.
Addressing the Challenges from Science
Nichols's writing is principled, but never boring. He is bold enough to look at big questions, and is able to discuss them clearly. After three chapters on the historical development of the Christian understanding of death and the afterlife, he turns to the challenges contemporary science presents to it.
Overt scientific arguments against the Christian faith are not the issue. The era when serious scientists challenged religion is long past. Today that task is left to buffoonish science boosters like the ones who call themselves "The New Atheists," who give us little reason to take them seriously.
Daunting scientific challenges to Christian faith still exist, however. They arise for the most part unintentionally, as science goes innocently about its business, operating on assumptions it knows to be assumptions, but which can have unsettling consequences when uncritically imported into the context of theology. The middle chapters of Nichols's book alert us to some of the dangers arising from second-hand science.
Physics and cosmology, for instance, take for granted a universe made of the same stuff, and governed by the same laws, as can be observed in the part we know. That is a perfectly reasonable assumption for physicists and cosmologists to make. A Christian who uncritically adopts it, however, will find that it puts in jeopardy some of his beliefs. What should he think, for example, about the resurrected body of Christ? Does it occupy some region of the physical universe, a certain fixed number of miles away from, say, Philadelphia? That seems wrong. To deny it, though, while affirming the materialistic and naturalistic assumptions of physicists and cosmologists, amounts to atheism.
In a similar way, Christians also need to be wary of some assumptions commonly adopted by biologists and neuroscientists. What becomes of our traditional doctrine of the soul, for example, in the face of reductive materialism, or of our commitment to the human soul's special creation in the light of evolutionary biology? Rejecting science, Nichols rightly assumes, is not an option. Embracing a doctrine of double truth, one for Sundays and the other for the rest of the week, was long ago declared a heresy. We need to find a way of honoring both the claims of science and those of orthodox faith, and Nichols offers one that I, at least, find plausible.
His response to the challenges of science begins cautiously with the suggestive, though controversial, evidence provided by near-death experiences. Nichols recognizes that many such experiences meet only low standards of evidence, but nevertheless thinks at least some of them present good evidence for such things as out-of-body states,
and encounters with the dead. If such events are possible, then they in turn put in question the assumption of reductive materialism that is so problematic for Christian thought.
A Discipline to Practice
In later chapters Nichols broadens his account of last things, remaining thoroughly grounded in orthodox Christian theology. On that basis he is then able, in the final chapter, to introduce the traditional Christian idea of dying well, showing his readers why it is a discipline they should practice. If you are in search of an excellent meditation for the Lenten period, look no further. •
Graeme Hunter teaches philosophy at the University of Ottawa. He is the author of Radical Protestantism in Spinoza's Thought (Ashgate). He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.