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Book Review: Heaven and the Afterlife

Heaven and the Afterlife by James L. Garlow and Keith Wall   

Bethany House ǀ CBD ǀ Amazon

With thanks to Bethany House for the review copy!

This book is rather outside my normal reading in that it is a non-academic work.  I typically shy away from works such as this for a number of reasons, but I thought I’d read through this one to see what kind of thoughts were hitting a larger audience than an academic treatise on the subject might.

Death and what happens after has long been an issue humanity has sought to understand. Because death is something all will face, it only makes sense that we would like to know something about it. The authors, one a journalist and the other a pastor, seek to provide some insight into what lies beyond the bounds of physical life.  Questions such as “What happens after we die?”, “What do near-death experiences mean”, and many others in this vein were the impetus for this work.  The authors have compiled a host of accounts from historical records and personal testimonies that tell of various kinds of experiences about a post-mortem existence and they seek to sort through it all to offer their readers a glimpse into these what might be.

For some this work will tickle an already-itching ear that longs to hear of encounters from beyond; for others the claims and accounts will not deter their agnostic or skeptical bent. For me personally, I find this book to be a mixed bag—some entertaining stories, some good and helpful discussions of biblical matters, and plenty of frustrating claims and suggestions.

The book is arranged into six sections:

1)    Through Death’s Door (near-death experiences)

2)    What Lies Between Worlds (ghosts, departed spirits, etc)

3)    Crossing Over: The Upward Call (heaven)

4)    Crossing Over: The Dark Descent (judgment and hell)

5)    Hell-Avoidance Strategies (universalism, annihilationism, purgatory, and reincarnation)

6)    Confident Before the King (essentially a “plan of salvation”)

As the title indicates, this book is about heaven and the afterlife. I will begin with a few comments on the authors’ discussion of heaven, followed by a few thoughts on their discussion of other post-mortem issues, then a brief summary of my own opinion.

Part 1 (comprised of chs. 1-4) is entitled Through Death’s Door and essentially tackles near-death experiences (hereafter NDE), both positive and negative experiences people have had. Having never had such an experience, I can’t say one way or the other what such an experience would be like. According to the authors, NDE are not an unknown phenomenon amongst the general population. Their reports of what they experienced when near death are interesting to read and I would not be so bold as to say they couldn’t have experienced what they claim to, for I’ve not ever been near death. This first section, then, is basically a collection of personal accounts/stories of those who have been near death and experienced various kinds of phenomena—some good, others not so much. One story the authors share is of a man who “died” only to come back to life a short time later. It was during his “death” that he claims to have left his body and went with people. While in this state, he encountered Jesus, who healed his wounds and showed him some of what awaits on the other side. It was then he decided to become a follower of Christ. I certainly don’t want to say that God can’t communicate with and reveal himself in such a way, but it seems quite outside the norm and honestly I am not sure what to think of it.

Part 2, entitled What Lies Between Worlds, explores various accounts of what are “ghostly” encounters, both benevolent and nefarious visitors from beyond, and the methods by which mediums and other “spiritualists” seek to communicate with the dead. Paranormal phenomena have been reported for as long as people have been able to do so and it’s no more popular than in our own time. Shows like the once popular Crossing Over and more current series such as Long Island Medium, Paranormal State, Ghost Hunters, and a plethora of others testify to the fact that people are fascinated with what lies beyond the grave.

The authors, as they have done thus far, recount numerous stories and accounts of those who have seen and otherwise encountered what they say are ghosts, angels, and demons. The chapters on ghosts include much of what you might find in any of the episodes from the shows mentioned previously. I found this section to be somewhat interesting, though most of it is stuff I’ve heard or knew of already. I was also glad to read that the authors discourage communication with the dead (90).

Part 3 is entitled Crossing Over: The Upward Call and deals with the “first heaven,” judgment, and the “permanent heaven.” The “first heaven,” as the authors call it, is temporary stopover and the account of Lazarus and the rich man is touted as the best description of this first heaven.[1] One of the questions raised is that of physical bodies in this first heaven—will we/they have them? Personally, I believe the intermediate state (the interim between death and the eschatological resurrection) will be an existence absent the body (2 Cor 5:8). The author remains a bit hesitant to argue a fully physical body upon death, though he seems to suggest that we will have some sort of one (141). In all the discussion of heaven and rewards, the author remains a bit reserved in pressing the imagery of the scripture to the point of hyper-literal, and this I appreciate. That is not to say that he doesn’t think heaven is a real place—indeed he does—but that the language and imagery used by the biblical authors to describe such a place is simply inadequate to express its wonders.

One thing that may strike some as odd is what will take place in heaven according to the author. I appreciate that he says heaven will not be an eternal church service, but his description may come off as strange to some. I must say at this point that I certainly believe heaven is a real place; in fact, that the “final heaven,” or as the scripture describes it, the new creation, will be right here on earth. Earth will be freed of its bondage, all unrighteousness will be purged, and God and Christ will rule over it with us there with them. Exactly what we will do in the new creation I am not completely sure, save for living in God’s presence. Garlow offers quite a few possibilities as to what life will be like. He says there will be pets, there may be games, there will be goods, services, major events, transportation, and communications, education, eating (let’s hope so!), and work. The picture he paints is much like life here and now only without the evil one and sin and death, a picture I can agree with, at least generally. Whether or not all of the things he mentioned will be there I can’t say for sure (nor can anyone else).

One point of disagreement I will mention is his argument that the dead can contact us and that doing so is part of the “communion of saints” (165). I know some of my Roman Catholic friends would have no issue with this, but I have always been leery of any kind of communication with the deceased. He likewise appeals to authority and refers to a “respected community professor” who communes with his deceased wife (165). The Israelites were strictly forbidden from communicating with the dead (Lev 19:31) and the NT is silent on the matter; however, it would seem within reasonable interpretation of the scripture to assume that communication with the dead is not a good idea.

Part 4 is Crossing Over: The Dark Descent is about “hell” and judgment. I’ll only mention a few things here; I feel this review is already a little too lengthy. For one, the authors argue that hell, as a concept, has been around since OT times, but rightly note that it was not as developed a concept as that found in Jewish apocalyptic and in the NT.  Second, the author likens the term Gehenna to the smoldering trash heap, an idea that has found great popularity in the evangelical world, but has more recently been questioned as the actual idea behind the word. Third, the author seems to suggest that natural revelation is sufficient for salvation. Ironically, he cites Rom 1:19-20 as evidence that God may indeed save some this way. While I think the passage from Romans actually mitigates against his view and that natural revelation is insufficient to lead to saving knowledge of God in Christ, if God were to save someone that way it would be a good thing. Fourth, the author sees hell as largely figurative, a position that I am quite comfortable with. Whether hell is a figurative place or a real physical one, the end is the same—separation from God and all that is good—and this is its true horror. He writes, “Separation from God after death means separation from everything that’s right, true, and wonderful; he is the source of all that is good. Eternity without God means exposure only to what is wrong, false, and horrible” (190).

Section 5 is entitled Hell-Avoidance Strategies and deals with the various ways in which people have sought to deal with the doctrine of hell, namely universalism, annihilationism, purgatory, and reincarnation. This is an informative section and is helpful, though a bit succinct.

The last section, #6 (Confident Before the King), is essentially a presentation of the gospel, a brief God-loves-you piece that points people toward Christ.

In sum, Heaven and the Afterlife is an decent read and is geared towards a lay audience. One of the positives of the book is that the authors are Christians and ultimately point toward Christ. This book also manages to cover quite a bit of ground in terms of competing views on various aspects of the afterlife. Aside from the few points of disagreement mentioned, most of the points made herein are right and helpful. The sprinkling of evangelical clichés throughout I found a bit annoying, but that’s a matter of personal preference. A second point of additional criticism I’ll mention is the rather common negative portrayal of Rudolf Bultmann (which is spelled Rudolph in the book). Though it is brief (only a paragraph), he casts Bultmann’s demythologizing as stripping the scripture of its authority, something that I am sure Bultmann would say is quite far from his intent.

Would I recommend this book? Yes, to some; to others, no. My only concern with is that some, perhaps those with a fascination with the paranormal, may find in its pages justification for practices I am confident are contrary to God’s good purposes for them.

Αυτω η δοξα


[1] The author does not address the parable other than the imagery it provides. Scholars debate whether or not this particular account is a parable, a decision which makes quite a difference in how one reads and understands it. I happen to believe it to be a parable, so I don’t believe it is meant to provide a geography of the afterlife, but to illustrate the consequences of neglecting those who are less fortunate and the permanence of that consequence.