Night Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things.
By Dale C. Allison, Jr. Eerdmans, 184 pp., $18.00 paperback.
What happens to our bodies and souls when we die? Is heaven real? What about hell? Can I be Christian and not believe in an afterlife? Questions about death and the hereafter—or if there is something after—occur to most people. In Night Comes: Death, Imagination and the Last Things, Princeton Theological Seminary professor Dale C. Allison Jr. addresses such eschatological questions. Having had a near death experience as a young man, Allison uses his experience and subsequent fascination with people’s post-death destiny as a jumping-off point for this work.
Well-researched and thorough, Night Comes investigates cultural and theological ideas about the last things. Throughout the book, Allison wades through a vast amount of literature spanning from Greek playwrights to St. Augustine to contemporary theologians. In several places he also includes anecdotes from his own life experience. Allison’s near-death experience informs his arguments, and he includes near-death experiences more broadly as a resource for imagining answers to some of the most perplexing eschatological questions.
Allison divides the book broadly into 6 themes: Death and Fear; Resurrection and Bodies; Judgment and Partiality; Ignorance and Imagination; Hell and Sympathy; and Heaven and Experience. As he addresses each topic, Allison lifts up a variety of (often conflicting) viewpoints. The structure of each chapter points to an evolution of belief over time. Rather than attempt to choose one argument over another, though, the author instead shares his own opinion about where he does or does not resonate with each viewpoint. Because each chapter is self-contained, the reader can easily agree with Allison’s conclusions about one theme while disagreeing completely on another. The result is a thought-provoking work that encourages readers to engage in further reflection, research, and conversation.
Night Comes intends to be “a miscellany, a book of thoughts” (ix). The work claims to be intentionally and necessarily incomplete. After collecting arguments from a variety of sources, the author does not form a cohesive argument of his own. Nor does he offer any strongly-argued conclusions. Rather, Allison’s guiding principle is that which offers hope. He writes, “If… death can separate us from the love of God… then love doesn’t endure all things but finally fails. Which cannot be” (18). Regarding each theme, Allison concludes with a statement of hopeful conviction.
At times, these convictions appear to be rooted in the theological arguments presented in the chapter. At other times, though, these convictions rely heavily on evolving cultural beliefs with which the vast majority of theological work presented does not resonate. Thus, the argument behind Allison’s convictions can be challenging to navigate. It feels at times as though, despite the obvious research that went into this book, the author’s conclusions were based more on experience and instinct than a well-researched argument.
Based on the book’s description, I had expected this to be the case. On the other hand, I had also expected to hear more about near-death experiences. Some of the challenge of navigating Allison’s argument comes from his reluctance to use his experience as a primary argument for his own beliefs. The few highly personal vignettes shared by the author appear to lack true vulnerability. That is, the author shares stories without drawing lines directly to his beliefs. While he uses these vignettes as a resource, he does not fully invite the reader into similar engagement. Rather, he cautiously invites the reader to consider his and others’ near death experiences without requiring conviction about their validity. A stronger and more hopeful argument would be made by fully embracing the validity of these experiences as a resource for eschatological imagination.
Another challenge for this book is the intended audience. Written as a collection of incomplete thoughts based on a lecture series, the book intends to be informal in style. However, Allison’s academic writing will stretch the average lay reader. While the arguments are thought-provoking and interesting, I found that I needed to restate many of the viewpoints in order to enter into conversation with them. At the same time, Allison sometimes reverts to informal language and displays a laissez faire way of coming to convictions without strong supporting arguments.
In spite of these challenges, Night Comes is a well-researched introduction to historical and current thought around eschatological themes. It addresses pressing questions about what happens when we die. It also raises interesting historical and creedal arguments that few people today speak aloud, whether inside or outside of the church. And in suggesting near-death experiences as a resource for this conversation, Allison bridges a gap in currently available literature between experience (of the Heaven is for Real variety) and sound academic scholarship. While I would caution the reader to consider the book a conversation starter rather than a cohesive argument for a particular viewpoint, I recommend Night Comes as a solid resource for theological imagination about post-death hopes.