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Friday, June 2, 2017

Review of Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz, "Answering the Toughest Questions About Heaven and Hell"


Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz, Answering the Toughest Questions About Heaven and Hell.  Minneapolis, MN:  Bethany House, 2017.

In studying fundamental theology, one of the main aspects is what is called Eschatology, meaning the study of the "Last Things."   Although much about this subject often emphasizes prophetic and futuristic events, that is only a small fraction of how the Church has historically taught on the subject, as what the Church understands as Eschatology can be condensed down to what is called "the Four Last Things" - death, judgment, heaven, and hell.  This particular book by Bickel and Jantz deals with the latter two, as anagogically they sum up the final destinations of all of us.  The book addresses some important questions, and thus is why I chose to review it.  However, again, I want to also look at who the authors are, as well as what source material they used, before delving into the content of the book itself.

Bruce Bickel is an attorney in Fresno, CA, and he has collaborated on other books with Stan Jantz, who in turn is a writer and speaker living in Orange County, CA, and he is the CEO of something called Conversantlife.com, which serves as sort of a forum for other writers on a variety of topics.  Together, according to that website, Bickel and Jantz have co-authored over 50 books.  A lot of background material is lacking on them when doing an online search, so this is essentially all I could find out about them. 

Regarding the source material they used for the book, I notice an odd mix of both standard Evangelical literature as well as some "Emerging Church" writers such as Douglas Moo, Rob Bell, Dallas Willard, and Scott McKnight.  Utilizing such source material regarding such a fundamental topic raises concerns, especially the references to Rob Bell who espouses some heretical universalist soteriology.  That is why I am also going to be focusing attention on a couple of chapters in particular.

Beginning with Chapter 1, the basic question of the existence of an afterlife is addressed.  On page 12, the authors affirm the basic Christian doctrine of life after death, which so far is good.  Further down the page, an important statement is made regarding fundamental eschatology - "Be it heaven or hell, Christians claim everybody's headed somewhere."   The authors then begin to tackle the question of if the Christian position is the only way to see a post-death future, and in subsequent pages they present a sort of brief overview of the positions of other religious traditions on that topic.  They correctly note that 99 percent of the world's population ascribe to some view on an afterlife, but they also say this doesn't solve the issue of whether it is a reality or not.   Of the world's major religions, the authors on pages 14-16 discuss the views of Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam, and on pages 16-18 the perspective from science is addressed.  It must be noted here that neither of the authors would be what would be considered "Young-Earth" Creationists - their frequent references of Hugh Ross (a leading proponent of the "Old-Earth" view) permeate the discussion, as well as their stating of "millions of years" on page 13.  However, they do present an intriguing discussion of the scientific issue, and a few things are worth noting.   First, the demand for physical proof (empirical evidence) at times permeates man's desire for understanding if there is an afterlife, but one thing the authors lack in that discussion is the role of metaphysics - there are some things that are true but not tangible, in other words, and tangibility does not necessarily make a criteria for truth.  Beginning then on page 17 and going into page 18, the authors discuss first of all the relation of biology to the afterlife.  The authors admit at the end of the first paragraph in this section that self-awareness cannot be explained - emotions, feelings, and other aspects of personality, for instance, are not tangible, but they are real.  As they note in the second paragraph, the qualities of the mind and body are indeed different, and that death to the body might not necessarily mean death of the mind - this is both Aristotelian and Thomistic as far as conclusions go, and again without specifically saying it the authors are making a valid distinction between biology and metaphysical reality.  Quoting Dinesh D'Souza, they make an equally astute observation on page 18 as they affirm that consciousness indeed operates often outside the physical laws of nature (the realms of the metaphysical, in other words) and that consciousness is independent of the body - the intersection of the physical and metaphysical, the authors note on page 19, is teleology, which they define as the study of why things are.  The teleological argument discussed, as noted in the last sentence of the section on page 20, is that this doesn't establish scientific proof necessarily for an afterlife, but it opens the possibility.  To put it in philosophical terms, where physics leaves off, metaphysics fills in. However, in the next section discussing physics specifically, the authors note that there are now possible physical possibilities for life after death, including a multidimensional universe, and also the existence of multiverses (ala Michio Kaku?) and alternate universes, and although I would differ with them somewhat for even entertaining that, they make a good point on page 21 by noting that at times reality can be stranger than science fiction and more bizarre than the most creative of wild imaginations.  That means the possibility of a scientific basis for life after death (for more on that, I would recommend Frank Tipler's The Physics of Christianity). However, as noted on pages 21 and following, Christians (and indeed humanity in general) are people of the heart as well, and there are two observations the authors note that point to the reality of life after death.  One, on pages 21-23, is what they term "cultural obsession."   This has to do with man's obsession with finding his own immortality, and it has led to some extremes that have pushed us to seeking ways to cheat death - they note that medicine in general, age-defying products in particular, cosmetic (plastic) surgery, and an emphasis on the young at the expense of the old.  To this, I would also add more sinister movements of eugenics, transhumanism, and other attempts to purge humanity of apparent weakness in order to create a more perfect specimen of the species that would ensure some degree of immortality.  A desire to live forever is something that is inherent to human nature, as the authors accurately state on page 23, but the section lacks in that it doesn't deal with the root issue as found in Genesis 3 - why we lost our immortality in the first place.  Sin and death are consequences of the Fall, and man deteriorates and dies because sin and death came in at the Fall.  Having affinities with a more "Old-Earth" position however, the authors cannot in reality make the connection to reconcile that reality with their view, and that is where the book is weak on this topic.  The redemption though is in the following section, as the authors begin a sort of Bible study on the issue of life after death, and they conclude the chapter with an affirmation of the orthodox Christian position that life after death is a cosmic reality.  

The next chapter I want to look at a little more closely is Chapter 5, which deals with the question "Do all roads lead to heaven?"  The term "roads," as clarified by the authors on page 66, is synonymous in this context with other religious traditions besides Christianity, and it is an important topic to address.  On page 67, there is something I wanted to explore closely, in that there can be potential confusion on the part of the reader with where the authors stand on this subject.  The paragraph of focus opens with this statement - "In past generations, becoming a Christian was like joining an exclusive club.  Only those who believed in and followed the club rules could be members, and only the members (those who were 'saved') were going to heaven.  Unfortunately, this way of believing often led to a smugness on the part of the members."   Further in the next paragraph, it follows with this:  "Thankfully, such a distorted view of what it means to be a Christian - Tim Keller accurately calls it 'deadly triumphalism' - has fallen out of favor with Christians today."  There are many, many potential problems with these statements that need to be addressed.  First, let us look at who this Tim Keller guy is.  Tim Keller is described in a Wikipedia article (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Keller_(pastor) - accessed 6/2/2017) as being a Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and apologist.  He also seems to be identified with the "Emerging Church" movement, and identifies his theology as not "conservative" or "Evangelical" but rather by the ambiguous moniker "orthodox" - however, what does he mean by "orthodox?"  Examining his theological position, he has a rather iconoclastic view of "traditional religion," saying that salvation is substitutionary, and he also is quite ambiguous regarding the Creation/evolution discussion.  Although also pro-traditional marriage and pro-life, he also is a cultural conformist in many areas, which may be problematic for his more traditional positions.   His soteriology is eerily similar to "Emerging Church" gurus Rob Bell and Brian McLaren in that he dismisses the traditional view of salvation (based on passages such as John 14:6 and Romans 5) in favor of a broader approach.  The authors therefore would be at odds with a more sacramental theological position that an Anglo-Catholic traditionalist like myself would hold, in that the inerrant truths of Scripture point all to Christ, but it is also up to the individual to accept or reject Christ, as well as accepting the consequences of said choice.   Rather than being Time Keller's "deadly triumphalism," this is the prevalent view of the Church as taught throughout the centuries, and the authors and Keller had best exercise caution at thinking they know more than Jesus, the Apostles, and the many great Fathers and Doctors of the Church through the ages.  A further red flag pops up on pages 67-68, as the authors reference a heretical text by Rob Bell entitled Love Wins that promotes universalism - although the authors acknowledge problems with Bell's text on page 68, it is still problematic that they are still noting in a negative light the idea of exclusivity, and more clarification is needed.  While false triumphalism is indeed an error as well, the authors need to exercise more caution so as not to confuse the fact that Jesus is the only way to salvation with the smug attitudes of the triumphalist - the true Christian is not smug about the eternal damnation of others, nor does he or she arbitrate based on the "likes" and "dislikes" of individuals who is "saved" and who is not - to do that is to do the Holy Spirit's job, and that is not possible.  There are those who do seek answers, like the example of Ari the book uses, but that doesn't mean we just extend salvation to them either just because they are "sincere" - no, we witness Christ to them, and that is the way they will find the answers they seek.  I am actually quite relieved though when I read on page 69 the following statement - after a discussion about the one true road to God, they conclude that section by saying "We know, this is harsh.  But it's what the Bible says in pretty much the same way:  ' There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death' (Proverbs 14:2)."  It is perfectly fine to point out the wrong way, but it is also equally important to point out the correct path too, and that is John 14:6 - "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and no man cometh unto the Father except through Me."  Fortunately for the authors, they devote pages 70-72 to the fact that Jesus is an exclusive way to salvation, and thankfully they rely on referencing a sound Roman Catholic apologist, Peter Kreeft, to substantiate their position.  Beginning on page 73, they also affirm that no man-made road reaches heaven, and this is also consistent with both Scripture and the teaching of the Church.  However, the final section of the chapter, pages 74-79, deals with another aspect of the question - there may only be one way to heaven, but are there more ways to Jesus Himself?  Interesting question that merits a discussion of its own, which follows.

The authors open this section with an important question they quote from Kreeft on page 74 - what subjective relationship must one have with Jesus in order to be on the right way?  Is it a simple "prayer of the heart," in other words, or is it a systematic approach?  How much knowledge does one have to have about Jesus to be "saved?"   I will take it one further on that last question - what does it mean to "be saved?"   This term salvation means different things to different Christian traditions - to Evangelicals, it is a one-time event synonymous with conversion, whereas with more Catholic traditions it is a lifestyle that is lived out after conversion.  The authors make an important point on page 76 that provides an answer to this dilemma - salvation by faith in Jesus is not as straightforward or formulaic as we think?  Hmmm...odd statement coming from a couple of Evangelical Protestant authors, but not so odd when thought in the context of the historic Church.  The authors deal with some interesting Evangelical cliches that I myself often questioned in my days as an Evangelical many years ago - questions such as what does it mean to "ask Jesus into your heart," or "accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior."  Is  it merely a profession, or is there something more to it?   I prefer the Catholic understanding personally of conversion and salvation - they constitute a mystery of faith that cannot be articulated, but you know something real has happened.  It seems - and I could be wrong - that the authors are sort of coming to that conclusion as well.

So, the base question - does the exclusivity of believing in Jesus marginalize others?  On pages 76-77 the authors tackle that question by noting that Christians first don't have a monopoly on truth - that is actually correct, and also Thomistic, as natural law even applies outside the Church as well.  Also, although Jesus is the only, true way of salvation, this in no way implies marginalization - John 3:16 affirms that Jesus died for all men out of great love, and that it is up to the person as an individual to choose to follow Him or not; that choice, as a gift of free will, is to be respected but also lamented if it is a wrong choice.  The final point they make in that section is that it is people rather than truth itself that marginalizes - people who are well-meaning but misguided can let their convictions create walls that generate marginalization, in other words.  The convictions themselves are not necessarily evil, but the attitude with which the conviction is carried out may be the marginalizing factor.  Those are actually some good points.  In the following section - pages 77-78 - the authors bring home the point by suggesting that the way to Jesus is exclusively one, but its availability is to all.  This is a fair and orthodox way of stating it.  

On pages 78-79, the authors tackle the question of why people are reluctant to follow Jesus, and some obvious things is that it is an emotional decision rather than an intellectual one, and this therefore means one's choice is based on how they "feel" about it.  However, they also discuss the role of faith, and although they don't explicitly state it, they do correctly conclude that faith is not based on feelings, but often transcends them.  Also, when one relies on reason alone without faith, one is subject to only empirical data, and faith oftentimes transcends the empirical.  If I may add to this, faith is transformative, and as a response to supernatural grace, it aids in making our minds and hearts open to being healed, elevated, and perfected by that same supernatural grace, and in essence we see the "bigger picture" that mere empirical data or emotional response cannot provide.  On that note, the chapter ends on a fairly orthodox note that would elicit little argument from historic Church teaching.

The rest of the book deals with other specifics - hell, what happens at the moment of death, whether animals go to heaven, etc.  However, these two pivotal chapters set the stage for the rest of the book, in that they address the fundamental questions that need to be answered in order to move forward.  In that regard, perhaps Chapters 1 and 5 should have been together, and the rest of the book following, but the flow of the text does bring everything together.  There is much to concur with in Bickel's and Jantz's text, but there are also concerns - the reliance on "Emerging Church" writers such as Tim Keller and Scott McKnight, for instance, as well as some rather normative Evangelical convictions that would be at variance with more traditional Patristic and Catholic viewpoints.  However the text is not without its merit, and it does provide some good material for pastors, catechists, and others when these questions inevitably will arise.