One of the ways people put down any discussion of life after death today is to call it pie in the sky bye and bye. The “bye and bye” part of this depends on how long we live nowadays. Aside from traffic accidents, the causes of death have been greatly reduced today.
I was born in the baby boom after WW II and probably only lived through the first week of my life because of medical advances made during the war. If I had entered the world even a decade earlier, I would not have survived. I was born with collapsed lungs and serious hemorrhaging.
My wife, a daughter-in-law, and one of my brothers are also only alive today because of modern medicine.
In his book Night Comes: Death, Imagination and the Last Things; Dale Allison spends much of his first chapter dealing with this difference between biblical times and today. Life was much shorter. Death was a much more immediate prospect.
One of the results of this may be that in the Bible death is seen as a bad thing, an enemy, more than it is today. Today death that comes after a long and full life often appears as a natural thing. Very few people experienced that in biblical times.
Allison retells the story found in the Testament of Abraham, a second century CE Jewish work. In the story Abraham has lived nearly a thousand years when the angel Michael comes for his soul. Abraham refuses to go. After the angel reports this back to God , God sends Michael back to tell the patriarch that every human from the beginning has died. No one has escaped Hades or the sickle of death.
After Michael delivers this message, Abraham says he has a sort of bucket list. He wants to see the whole world before he will go. So the angel takes Abraham aboard an angelic chariot. In a journey reminiscent of the Book of Enoch and foreshadowing Dante’s Inferno, Abraham gets to see not only the inhabited world but the fate of saints and sinners in the afterlife.
But even after this journey, Abraham refuses death. So instead of Michael, God sends the angel of death, portrayed as a really nasty and horrible entity. He tricks Abraham into dying at the end of the story.
Allison takes this to show that the human will to live is not completely rescinded just because we live a long time.
It is hard for human beings to be philosophical or relaxed about their own death. Even Jesus, when he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, seemed afraid when death neared. Like Abraham in the story we put it off and bargain for more time.
The rational skepticism of modern educated people cuts against the idea of an afterlife. Even some theologians have given up on this idea. Allison cites Paul Tillich and Gordon Kauffman. These were precisely the two systematic theologians that I had to read in seminary. Both authors wrote tomes about theology without believing in any kind of life after death.
Allison talks about his own struggles with conceiving of the next life. But he is in touch enough with the feelings of ordinary humans to think that when parents, for instance, lose a child it is not good enough to say that their “daughter is forever gone, they will never see her again, yet God is good and God is love (p. 16).
He tells about an experience when a friend’s wife had died. She appeared to him very concretely and told him to support her grieving husband. Allison does not know whether this experience was subjective or objective. But he does not think it is irrelevant. Many others have testified to similar experiences. Such experiences connect us with the hopes and imaginations of many spirits who have sought to reach across the gulf. Perhaps some on the other side reach back. He keeps an open mind.
I love that he ends the first chapter with a LOTR reference. Frodo and Sam, after destroying the ring, lose consciousness amid ashes and rising lava on Mount Doom. Eagles carry them away and the hobbits wake up in the presence of Gandalf. Sam says, “I thought you were dead. But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue?” (p. 18).
Allison mentions that scriptures says death cannot separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39). So faith in the face of death is really about what we believe about God.