My Kindle book Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective is selling like hot mince pies on Amazon, which is quite a bit less than hot cakes but much more festive. Can you think of a better way to make a loved one very happy at Christmas for just $3.29 (or the equivalent in pounds and euros)? One person who has read it and found it “fascinating” is Andrew H, though he was surprised by the lack of hope in the ending and had this question to ask:
I wonder if I may ask though… how does one get their name into the book of life. I felt the ebook ended quite abruptly with little hope as you simply stated that people and non-martyred believers will be resurrected, and depending on their name being written in book of life they will be annihilated.
I’d be interested in your thoughts, as this seems quite depressing and arbitrary if not downright scary.
It’s a very good question. It’s partly just that it’s a book about the supposed doctrine of “hell” with heaven added rather as an afterthought. My understanding is that hope lies in the renewal of creation, which is something beyond the heaven and hell dichotomy.
But there is also an issue of perspective here, which is more a matter of hermeneutics than of belief. Our modern perspective puts the final destiny of the individual in the foreground—we operate mostly under a theology that is powerfully oriented towards the ultimate heavenly existence of all believers. But this is not the New Testament’s perspective. New Testament theology, in my view, is oriented fundamentally towards the historical transformation of the people of God and the vindication of the suffering churches. The resurrection of the martyrs to reign with Jesus in heaven is a critical part of that story, but it is a limited and subordinate part.
The problem that we face, therefore, is that the ultimate questions that are so important to us were of much less importance to the early church. This is true even once we have shifted our focus from going to heaven when we die to the renewal of all creation. What happens at this final eschatological horizon remains unexplored and undeveloped in the New Testament. I wouldn’t call that “arbitrary”, but I can understand why it might seem “depressing” or “scary”. Perhaps a final, more positive chapter would have been a good idea.
So part of the answer is that we would do well to refocus our theology on the concrete life of the people God in the here and now, as part of the continuing narrative of history. As a community—or as communities—we anticipate new creation, under Christ as King, empowered by the Spirit of God, sustained by grace.
That missional calling, I would suggest, is then the primary ground for the hope that we will participate in the new heavens and new earth, though how we correlate that with a final judgment according to what people have done (Rev. 20:13) I’m not sure. Perhaps the point to stress is that there is a concrete continuity between the new creation that we are now practically—not merely theoretically—as God’s people and the final new creation. In any case, I’m not sure we can simply reduce it all to a matter of faith.
It is interesting that this final judgment is framed negatively: those whose names are not written in the book of life are thrown into the lake of fire. The emphasis is on the exclusion of what is incompatible with new creation rather than on the inclusion of what is compatible.