Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality
Dr. Craig Blomberg's review of "Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality," by Gary Habermas and J.P. Moreland.
Habermas, Gary R. and J. P. Moreland. Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality. Wheaton: Crossway, 1998. $22.00 Pap. 462 pp. ISBN # 0-89107-999-8.
This is a remarkably good book by a pair of outstanding evangelical philosophers that comprehensively surveys the evidence for and the nature of life after death.
Part One treats three kinds of evidence–philosophical arguments, the evidence for and from the resurrection of Jesus, and the evidence of modern near-death experiences. The philosophical sections are the toughest sledding in the volume but worth the effort. Going against the grain, but with important recent studies by such people as Stewart Goetz and John Cooper, a moderate dualism between body and soul is defended, suggesting that people do have an intangible portion of themselves that survives the decaying of their corpses. The section on the resurrection is least innovative but collects together standard material on the topic. By far the most fascinating material for me was the study of near-death experiences. Our authors recognize that fraud and unknown scientific explanations may account for some of them but are convinced that testimonies of people declared clinically dead but later resuscitated, who were able accurately to recount information about what was happening both inside and outside of the room where their bodies lay points to some genuine experience of life after death. These need not correspond to one’s final destiny, given the biblical notion of an intermediate state, yet interestingly a minority of people experiencing “NDE’s” who were able to recall them have described something very unpleasant, suggesting that not everyone moves on to one monolithically positive destiny.
Part Two explores the nature of immortality, especially in light of the growing challenge from the East, with its notion of reincarnation, to classic Jewish and Christian notions of resurrection. Habermas and Moreland recognize that there is enough evidence here, too, to suggest that some people really are able to recount experiences of others’ lives they have never had any contact with. But they note that this has happened even where the other person is still alive. Thus they prefer to attribute the phenomena to demonic spirits than to true reincarnation. An interesting endnote points out that among NDE’s in the East, no one ever seems to have interpreted them as reincarnation, though they would have had every cultural predisposition to do so. This part of the book proceeds to discuss the biblical data on heaven and hell and speculates (admitting that it is doing so) on possible answers to questions that the Bible does not directly address. Against most contemporary authors, Habermas and Moreland rightly recognize the biblical support for degrees of punishment in hell, which largely vitiates the need for radical revisionist alternatives such as annihiliationism. Unfortunately, they do not interact with my article (or the Lutheran tradition on which it is based) for an equality of life in heaven, beyond the initially unique experiences all people have before God on Judgment Day (JETS 35  159-72).
Part Three, the shortest major section, concludes the volume with reflections on how to become more heavenly minded, overcome the fear of death, and deal with sticky ethical questions such as abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. Our authors defend the possibility of passively withdrawing artificial life support but reject any active form of “killing” a person, no matter how much suffering they are in or how close to death they are. While most evangelicals will be in sympathy with the logic they have expressed here, the increase of both technology and thoughtful popular support for more active “mercy-killing” probably requires evangelicals to go into more detail and with fresh arguments on such issues if they are to stand the chance of convincing a significant percentage of the public.
Craig L. Blomberg
Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary, Denver, CO