I have read Dale Allison’s Night Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things. There are three aspects of his book that he mentions right at the end.
The first is historical. At various places he has surveyed what Jews and Christians have said over the centuries about death, heaven and hell. He has set this over against what is the major perspective in the modern West. That perspective is skepticism based on the idea that our thoughts about life after death come from projection or wishful thinking.
The second aspect is the argument that today’s Christians, especially in mainline Protestant denominations, should not allow the modern perspective to muzzle us concerning Christian hope. In popular culture the discussion is very much alive, whether you think of evangelicals who talk about the rapture or ideas that arise from Near Death Experiences or Eastern religions.
The third aspect is the way we may use imagination to deal with the unknown. This is necessary because in all humility we have to recognize that we really do not know much about the life to come.
One of the reviews of this book on Amazon claims that Allison does not give any reasons for believing in life after death at all—that it is all just a leap of faith.
That is not the way I read Allison. He is a historical-Jesus scholar who takes a relatively conservative position on the historicity of the gospels. Although he knows the constraints on using the resurrection accounts as proofs, he also knows that there is more to those accounts than projection.
More than that, he believes in God because the reality of God impinges upon him in silence and darkness and the experiences of community and worship.–even in some mysterious religious experiences. Once you believe in a God who is stronger than death, I think you see the resurrection accounts and the whole question of life after death in a less skeptical light.
Even the New Testament knows that we do not know any details about life after death. “What we will be has not yet been revealed” (1 John 3:2). So I do not fault Allison for his appeal to imagination.
I know a little about the ancient Egyptians who used their imaginations to say a lot about life after death. Of course, they tied it all to their many gods. But the basis for their imaginings and speculations consisted of their experience of life.
They basically used two this-worldly experiences. They used their experience of the river that nourished their lives and gave them a means of moving up and down their land. They imagined life as a river that eventually carried them away from their familiar world into a new one.
But their other experience was more universal. They observed the sun rising and setting each day. Night came. But every morning the sun rose again. This is also the fundamental image that we see with Allison. Night comes. . .but what then?
Every night we go to sleep with a certain trust that we will wake to a new dawn. I recently saw the children’s movie, Peter Rabbit. It is amusing that the rooster in the movie who rises and crows with the dawn always expressed great surprise that the sun rose again. To me this is a metaphor for the resurrection morning. Maybe we will be surprised to wake to a new dawn.
When I was a child I sometimes experienced terror of the dark and the night. Perhaps monsters would come out. Perhaps I would die before I woke. But, instead, I awoke refreshed to a new dawn.
So I think we have to take seriously both our fear of the dark and the reliability of the dawn in a created world. I leave this topic with the music video of Metallica’s Enter Sandman. It is an anti-lullaby. It is laced with religious themes. It imagines the things we fear. “Exit light, enter night.” But “take my hand.”