In my early days of teaching introductory philosophy courses, I always lectured on Socrates’ understanding of the immortality of the soul. I would lead my students through the dialogue recorded in Plato’s Phaedo, where Socrates explains to his friends why he can face death so calmly. The body is the prison–house of the soul, he argued, and at the moment of death the soul is released from those bodily desires that have kept it from pursuing its proper business of rational contemplation.
I looked at my old lecture notes recently, and it is clear that I did not think too highly of the Socratic position. I would tell my students about the stark contrast that the theologian Oscar Cullmann had drawn between the death of Socrates and the death of Jesus. Unlike the Athenian philosopher, Cullmann noted, Jesus did not face death calmly. In Gethsemane, he sweat drops of blood as he thought about the ordeal he would soon endure. And on the Cross he cried out in agony, quoting a psalm that speaks of divine abandonment.
From a biblical perspective, I would tell my students, death is an enemy. Our hope for an afterlife is not grounded in any confidence of an indestructible soul. If we are ever to live again, it is only because of the hope of the resurrection of the body. And that means, I would go on, that eternal life should not be understood in terms of a , disembodied contemplation of the divine, but rather of an active resurrected embodied life. “We’re going to do
stuff,” I would proclaim from my classroom podium. “The Coming Age will be an active mode of being: problem–solving, relationship–building, communal projects. The Book of Revelation says that we will reign in New Creation.”
Now that I have grown much older, it makes me tired even to think about what I so passionately advocated in those days. I’m not sure I want to “do stuff” for all eternity. Passive contemplation doesn’t seem nearly as bad as it once did. I’m not convinced, though, that my evolution can be explained purely in terms of my personal psychology. The broader theological culture has also changed since my early days as a teacher. The theologians of the 1960s and ’70s, young and old, were generally quite down on the “other–worldly.” The activist mood of the day called for a theology in which “praxis” loomed large on the Christian agenda. It was quite convenient, then, to project a lot of “doing stuff” onto the afterlife as well. The biblical scholars helped the cause along by insisting that “embodiment” is the key for understanding our humanness. The Old Testament, they said, would have nothing to do with the idea of a disembodied soul. We are our bodies, so it should not surprise us that the New Testament’s focus on the hope of the resurrection is in fact a celebration of our physicality. As embodied creatures we can look forward to an eternity in which we will be raised up in order to . . . well, in order to do stuff.
I learned some helpful lessons from those emphases. But I am much less inclined these days to see this picture as the best overall account of what it means to live in this world or to anticipate the world to come. Nor am I alone in having altered my focus. As we all know, there has been a renewed interest in recent times in “spiritual pursuits. And there is also considerable attention being paid to the afterlife, including the more disembodied conceptions of what might happen to us after we die. In the past decade or so we have been blessed with some important books dealing with what past theologians labeled personal eschatology—for example, two studies of the “history” of heaven have been published, as well as an important anthology of writings about heaven. Attention has also been given to the possible connection between “out of body” experiences and post mortem survival—as in Carol Zaleski’s marvelous little book, The Life of the World to Come: Near–Death and Christian Hope.
Jerry Walls’ Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy is an important addition to this growing body of scholarly literature. It is an excellent example of how a number of Christian philosophers, many of whom, like Walls, are evangelical Protestants, have been employing the tools of analytic philosophy to significant theological topics. They have realized that it is not enough simply to show the inadequacy of various objections to Christian beliefs. It is also necessary to develop robust accounts of the positive dimensions of Christian thought. And this necessitates, in the words of the Yale philosopher Marilyn McCord Adams, “mounting theological theories” that demonstrate a Christian understanding of “moral value and the human good.” Adams herself has taken on this assignment in creative ways, in the company of, among others, the Oxford professor Richard Swinburne. The result has been some fascinating studies of such topics as sin, the Atonement, and the Incarnation.
Walls himself has been focusing primarily on eschatological topics. His latest book is a follow–up to his Hell: The Logic of Damnation, published in 1992. The use of “the logic of” in the subtitles of both books gives a good clue to his basic intentions. He wants to provide a rationale for accepting a Christian conception of life after death. More specifically, Walls wants to explore the seriousness of the portrayal, in both the Bible and the Christian tradition, of the afterlife as a place of moral and spiritual accounting—a mode of existence in which those who have resisted God’s purposes in the world receive their due, while those who have benefited from God’s saving mercies receive an even fuller measure of those mercies in the experience of “eternal joy.”
Critics of Christianity have typically been especially dismissive of the idea of heaven. Often their objections to the heavenly state are expressive of what John Courtney Murray called the mood of “postulational atheism”; they simply take it for granted that theism is not a plausible way of interpreting reality—which allows them to out of hand Christian eschatology in particular as an elaborate “pie–in–the–sky” fantasy. Walls is bold in responding to such an outlook. Not only is it reasonable to believe in heaven, he argues, but the question of an afterlife is actually the most important issue a human being can face. Citing Pascal’s insistence that “all of our actions and thoughts must follow such different paths according to whether there is hope of eternal blessing or not,” he makes a powerful case for the view that “to recover heaven as a positive moral source is to recover our very humanity.” If it is not possible to have an eternal relationship with the One who alone can satisfy our deepest longings, then our lives have no real point. Of course, it is always possible simply to accept the conclusion that human existence is pointless, as it is also possible to insist that what believers take to be our deepest longings are in fact neurotic impulses that ought to be kept under wraps. But these alternatives cannot be established without considerable argument and—as Walls shows—the arguments need to be formulated with an honest acknowledgment of the explanatory power of the Christian web of beliefs.
Walls gives much attention to that larger web of beliefs in which the hope for heaven is nested. In the process he sets forth views on a variety of theological topics. Walls teaches at Asbury Seminary, and it is not difficult to discern his Wesleyan perspective at work in his probings. But he did earn a doctorate under the tutelage of the Catholic and Reformed philosophers at Notre Dame, and those influences can also be detected. All of this produces some interesting doctrinal combinations—as in his strong defense of purgatory as a doctrine that ought to be integrated into Protestant theology. Here, I must confess, I remain unconvinced. Actually, I happened to read Walls’ chapter on purgatory shortly after hearing, on a day during Advent, Handel’s dramatic rendition of the Pauline insistence that “we will all be changed, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet” (1 Corinthians 15:51–52). While I recognize the need to take Walls’ intriguing arguments on the subject seriously, I did gratefully receive Handel’s message as a providential sign that my Calvinist defenses would hold against the onslaught.
Walls discusses a variety of other topics that have traditionally engaged both philosophers and theologians—among them the problem of evil, personal identity, and moral justification. But he also explores some newer territory. He argues convincingly, for example, that recent studies of “near death experiences” (NDE) merit more careful attention from philosophers and theologians than they have been given thus far. Here he continues the important discussion that Carol Zaleski has initiated in her writings on the subject. He rightly pushes Zaleski for further clarification on the question of what the reports of NDEs might mean for understanding “what is really going on” in terms of the life of the human spirit. Walls is clearly not satisfied with what he takes to be Zaleski’s ambivalence about the question of whether NDEs constitute an “epistemic contact with the reality they attempt to describe.” On the one hand, she wants to insist that the reports of NDEs are really” about what is going on in people’s imaginations—they are using the symbols and images available to them, she says, to describe something that has occurred within their psyches. But she also believes that God is revealing something to them about an extra–subjective reality by means of NDEs.
Walls insists that Zaleski’s case as sympathetic as it is to Christian teaching, does not provide an adequate response to the naturalistic reductionists who see NDEs as having no relevance for learning the truth about an afterlife. But it is hard to see how his own suggestions improve on her discussion. She clearly demonstrates that the imagery employed in NDE reports is culturally conditioned. Contemporary , for example, tend to focus exclusively on blissful kinds of encounters, while medieval testimonies make much of the element of testing, and even torment and doom. And in any given period there is considerable variation in the imagery used in these reports.
We can improve on Zaleski’s account, Walls proposes, by building on the epistemological theory developed by Alvin Plantinga, William Alston, and others. They insist that our basic human cognitive equipment has been designed by God in such a way that we really can form reliable beliefs about spiritual realities. Walls applies this perspective to NDEs: when people who recover from, say, a coma remember meeting a comforting divine presence, they can be reasonably certain “that it was indeed God who encountered them, assured them of His love, allowed them to return to this life, and the like.”
All well and good. But it is difficult to see how this improves on Zaleski’s analysis of the status of the imagery involved in these experiences. Are people who report NDEs also warranted in believing that, say, the passage to eternity requires moving through a real tunnel? Or that in seeing their whole life pass before their eyes they were actually seeing the “real” events of their childhood? Obviously not. What it all comes down to—or so it seems—is that if one believes in God and the afterlife one can reasonably accept reports of NDEs as reliable signs of the presence of a caring God, even if the imagery that dominates those experiences is contained “within” one’s own psyche.
Even if there is much more to be said on this and other subjects that he takes on, Walls has done a fine job of showing us how the study of the afterlife deserves to be featured more prominently in contemporary theological discussion. The topic is intellectually fascinating. And it certainly concerns all of us in the most practical of ways, for heaven’s sake.
Richard J. Mouw is President and Professor of Christian History at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California.