A little exercise in Christian apologetics:
Having an interactive blogsite means you will get plenty of questions thrown your way – by friend and foe. Sometimes one comment will have quite a few questions. And often they deal with mega-topics that can hardly be properly answered in a short comment. An article at least is required – and thus a piece like this.
It gets more difficult when a 2000-word article can still barely do justice to the big-ticket topics being raised – the topics that can easily fill entire libraries. A recent comment that was sent to me is a case in point, and what follows is the comment and my attempt to offer at least some brief and introductory answers to it. The comment was this:
Agreed, end times speculation is for another time, so to speak. Unfortunately the subject is of critical importance to the very meaning of life, yet we know so little with any certainty and there are so many different interpretations and opinions that it’s hard to know what to think. What is heaven? Why is there a distinction in eschatology between the past dead and the future saved, who apparently retain a human body?
It’s a real sticking point for my non-Christian friends who ask why I believe in an afterlife when I can’t provide any evidence that we survive death. A question I was asked recently was at what point in human evolution did humans acquire souls. As an evolutionary biologist specialising in consciousness I struggle with this question myself since the evidence shows a continuity rather than a defined break. If it’s DNA related which part of the genome is determinant given we are so closely related to other primates?
So many questions. I respect your scholarship Bill but I’m sure you also must struggle with these conundrums.
What follows are some of the sorts of things that can be said in response. One, the article where this comment appeared under had nothing to do with eschatology, but a few others had raised the issue anyway. So I will try to deal with that matter here in a moment.
Two, I know nothing about the person who sent in the comment except for what he wrote. Assuming he is being honest and open here – and not all commentators are – it still leaves me with little to work with. A preference would be to track the guy down, have a coffee with him, and chat for a while to see where he is coming from.
In that setting I would seek to determine just what sort of Christian he is. There are all sorts of course, from very nominal and superficial ones to those who have a very deep and serious faith, with a firm commitment to the authority and reliability of Scripture.
As such, some may put their career – be it in science or whatever – in first place, with Christianity just a little add-on at the end, with no real bearing on what one believes. Others will take biblical revelation as the starting point, and seek to put all knowledge and understanding within that framework. Again, I have no idea where this fellow fits in here.
Three, let me begin with his last point. As to issues like the intermediate state and the future life, actually I don’t “struggle with these” nor see them as “conundrums”. Let me explain. Sure, I have a kazillion questions about a kazillion things when it comes to Christianity. How could it be otherwise with fallen and finite creatures seeking to understand the perfect and infinite God?
However, the good news is, we do have comprehensive – although not exhaustive – truth revealed to us in Scripture. And on all the really crucial issues (eg., Who is God? What is man? Why are we here? What is our problem? What is the solution?), we have solid and sufficient answers provided.
But on secondary matters that are not as vital, we may have less clear information. But that is OK. I do not need to know everything about what happens immediately after death, or what exactly heaven will be like. But I DO need to know something about God and myself, and what he expects of me.
However, let me just quickly address one point he raised, about the distinction “between the past dead and the future saved, who apparently retain a human body.” There is no real problem here. All people, when they die, retain their soul, while they await a future bodily resurrection. They await the reuniting of their soul with their resurrection body.
Those who have already died are in the intermediate state – which Scripture does not speak a whole lot about. And those who are alive when Christ returns look forward to the same process: their soul and a new resurrection body will inhabit the new heavens and new earth. Christ is the first fruits of this resurrection reality that we all look forward to.
Four, as to differing and confusing views on eschatology, well yes and no. As I said, these are really secondary matters, and it is not essential that we have full clarity on those matters to properly function as a Christian and to offer real help to truth-seeking non-Christians. Sure, different questions and viewpoints will arise here, but they are not vitally important matters.
Furthermore, there ARE in fact plenty of very good books out there which do provide much help, information, and insight on these matters. Those who are interested can consult volumes such as the following for example:
Alcorn, Randy, Heaven. Tyndale, 2004.
Boettner, Loraine, Immortality. P&R, 1962.
Fabarez, Mike, 10 Mistakes People Make About Heaven, Hell and the Afterlife. Harvest House, 2018.
Gomes, Alan, 40 Questions About Heaven and Hell. Kregel, 2018.
Kreeft, Peter, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven . . . But Never Dreamed of Asking. Ignatius, 1990.
Morey, Robert, Death and the Afterlife. Bethany House, 2001.
Morgan, Christopher and Robert Peterson, eds., Heaven. Crossway, 2014.
Pache, Rene, The Future Life. Moody, 1962.
Twelftree, Graham, Life After Death. Monarch, 2002.
Williamson, Paul, Death and the Afterlife: Biblical Perspectives on Ultimate Questions. IVP, 2017.
Five, concerning “evidence that we survive death” – this too is another big discussion, requiring an article or two just for starters. But three brief things can be said. First, the science of NDE (Near-Death Experiences) is one area where even many non-Christians are doing work in. It is not just something only Christians are interested in.
Second, on many of these issues it all depends on one’s presuppositions. If one is committed to philosophical naturalism for example, one will rule out a priori any sort of miracle, including life after death and resurrection. So then the conversation has to be taken back a step and those sorts of issues must first be thrashed out.
Third, a number of important works by noted Christian apologists deal with this matter. It has been covered by many careful Christian thinkers over the years, with Gary Habermas being one of them. Check him out here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Y56qjTFd4M
Another is Steve Miller, also on video: https://seanmcdowell.org/blog/near-death-experiences-the-evidence
But if books are preferred, see these two to begin with:
Habermas, Gary and J. P. Moreland, Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality. Crossway, 1992, 1998.
Miller, J. Steve, Near-Death Experiences as Evidence for the Existence of God and Heaven. Wisdom Creek Press, 2012.
Six, as to things like evolutionary biology and related fields, one can run with just the secular take on all this. But the biblical Christian will seek to let revealed biblical truths form the framework by which such matters are assessed and evaluated.
As I said above, it makes all the difference in the world how one approaches such matters: is Scripture the supreme arbiter of truth here, or is it just an interesting book of moralisms that has no real bearing on any of the big questions in life?
And the truth is, plenty of important work has already been done in these fields. Those scientists, philosophers and others who are also strongly committed Christians already have thought and written quite a lot on these matters. Thus my commentator should be aware of at least some of their key works.
I have been interested in these issues for a while now, so last year I put together a bibliography looking at a number of related themes: anthropology, neuroscience, socio-biology, the mind-body problem, evolutionary psychology, and the new brain research. See here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2020/02/17/biblical-anthropology-a-readers-guide/
It features 60 key books that can be read with great profit. Again, knowing nothing about my commentator, I do not know if he is familiar with any of these sorts of titles – but he should be. The various questions he raises – and many others like them – are all carefully and intelligently answered in many of the books featured there.
Seven, and as a subset to the last point, I would let my biblical faith determine how I understand things like evolutionary biology, and not the other way around. It sounds from what he has said that he believes that at some point in evolutionary history consciousness became a feature of human beings. The biblical view would differ.
Assuming the account in Genesis is not pure myth but features historical truth, it does not posit a slow development from non-human to human, but the sudden appearance of human beings, complete with consciousness and the like. Our first parents had consciousness and a soul from day one – from when God first created them.
A somewhat different question – when the soul is created and/or united with each individual human being – does have at least two main answers. The theologically literate Christian would know about these two basic options: traducianism or creationism. I speak to them briefly here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2019/07/18/on-original-sin-part-two/
So if this fellow is not asking rhetorical questions, but really does want to know what I and other biblically informed Christians think about such issues, I hope he makes use of the bibliographies I have presented here and grabs some of these important works to learn more.
If he knows more about his chosen field in terms of the secular worldview and analysis that it provides than he does about the biblical and theological perspectives, then he needs to correct that imbalance. I hope he will run with some of the reading tips I have offered here.
If he is asking honest questions and looking for honest answers, I think a lot of the titles contained in the bibliographies featured here will be of some real assistance.