Night Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things

Written by Dale C. Allison Jr. Reviewed By Dane Ortlund

Night Comes defies neat categorization. It is part historical reflection, part theologizing, part autobiography, and part integration of science into his own field of biblical studies. Throughout, the book wrestles with the great existential questions that loom over our frightfully transient existence.

Dale Allison, an accomplished Gospels scholar, is Richard J. Dearborn Professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary. As an ordained PCUSA minister he self-consciously writes out of the mainline Protestant tradition (pp. 46, 85). I can only assess the book from where I stand, in alignment with the TGC Confessional Statement, and thus situated somewhere between the fundamentalist Dispensationalism Allison considers silly and the mainline church to which he appears to be writing. I say he appears to be writing for fellow mainliners due to comments sprinkled throughout such as the observation that many pastors don’t preach on heaven because they don’t really believe it exists (p. 121), or in appealing to the mainline acceptance of angelic transmogrification (p. 132), or in the popular eschatological ignorance that is insufficiently engaged “in mainline pulpits and seminaries” (p. 85).

I will try to review this book with realism and charity. At the same time I can only review it honestly, believing that swallowing this book wholesale is intellectually confusing and spiritually dangerous.

The writing of even a short book like this one requires a mountain of effort and deserves due appreciation. It is not difficult to find praiseworthy elements in Night Comes. First is the pervasive theme reflected in the title. Death is coming, and it is coming to all, heedless of the infinite human resources distracting us from this unpleasant but unavoidable fact. “[I]f one thing seems assured, it’s that we have no power in the face of death. We may, with diet and exercise or whatnot, fend off the sickle for a bit, but the hour comes when none of us will work” (p. 42). The reminder is ever salutary.

Second is the way Allison writes, reflecting a literary craftsmanship honed over a lifetime of writing. Judgment upon death is “that resting place . . . when lame self-justification will halt” and we will finally be able to view ourselves “from a perspective that transcends and shatters our absurdly partisan self-perception” (pp. 62–63). Or: “If death is the end, then we’re all snow: we arrive, we melt, we are no more” (p. 88). Or: “Human beings aren’t unidirectional vectors but bundles of contradictions. Saints are sinners; sinners are saints. Everyone is Jekyll; everyone is Hyde” (p. 117). Well said.

Third, one appreciates Allison’s honesty and candor. He does not hide behind his scholarly reputation, afraid to voice his questions. His admirably transparent queries lend to the reader a certain openness to hearing him out.

Fourth, the breadth of reading informing the book astonishes. Allison meanders reflectively from the church fathers to the reformers, from Tolkien and Lewis to Pannenberg and Moltmann, from Hamlet to It’s a Wonderful Life, from the natural sciences to the fields of psychology and NDEs (near death experiences). At times the sheer number of quotes becomes cumbersome, but the range of reading is commendable of the author and deepening to the reader.

Finally, the actual content at times carries refreshing and eye-opening insight to the reader. One example is the discussion of judgment versus justice and the way contemporary culture views the former as negative and the latter as positive, and how this is out of accord with Scripture’s use of these terms (pp. 47–49). Another example is the way eschatology fuels ethics: what one believes about the next life necessarily informs how one lives this one (pp. 73–77). Yet another is Allison’s useful reminders throughout the book of the restraint needed regarding how much we can really know of the next life (e.g., p. 89). We should let the mysterious remain so. If that leaves us with some measure of discomfort, so be it. We shall be that much the humbler.

For these reasons and more the book holds one’s attention throughout, with occasional pockets of highly enjoyable reading. It is therefore saddening to acknowledge that Night Comes is a deeply unchristian book.

By this I do not mean that Allison rejects wholesale the Christian gospel. He holds various historic Christian convictions. But his approach to death and the afterlife fundamentally approaches his subject from below, not from above. Human learning, not divine revelation, forms the basis for Allison’s claims. This book walks by sight, not by faith.

One way we see this is the repeated inclusion in each chapter of affirmation of Allison’s points from other world religions. Hinduism, Buddhism, and even New Age thought (p. 128) are brought in as further vindication of Allison’s experientially-based thoughts on the afterlife. To be sure, we ought to expect to find strains of truth in other religions due to God’s common grace and the imago Dei, but Allison seems to put all religions on equal footing.

The main reason I call this book “unchristian,” however, is its unstated but pervasive bibliology. Toward the beginning of the book, for example, Allison asks why we fear death. “The obvious answer is: genetic programming. Our recoil is a biological reflex, bestowed by an evolutionary process that instills the instinct to survive” (p. 5). Why not reflect on the Bible’s teaching on death to answer this question? The next page answers: “the Bible is, despite the latest covers, old and distant, and it gets older and more distant with each passing day” (p. 6).

Throughout the book Allison bows to “the irrefragable results of modern science” (p. 33) in an undisguised privileging of post-Enlightenment thought that causes his admittedly broad historical reading to be unhelpfully selective toward his own case. Thus he argues that the traditional doctrine of bodily resurrection has been losing widespread assent the past few centuries (pp. 27–35), yet nowhere acknowledges the alternative and major swaths of Christian thought that have held strongly and clearly to the doctrine of a physical resurrection. One thinks of Robert Yarbrough’s The Salvation-Historical Fallacy? (Blandford Forum, UK: Deo, 2004), which demonstrates with ample evidence the continued belief in the traditional doctrine of the final resurrection during the heyday of Wrede, Harnack, and other vocal voices within German higher criticism. Liberalism wasn’t all there was. Indeed, students of post-Enlightenment biblical criticism will notice that Allison’s approach is precisely the difference highlighted when Schlatter joined Harnack at the University of Berlin in the 1890s. One scholar stood under the Bible, the other over it.

Problematic suggestions arising from Allison’s unchristian approach include:

  • The rejection of physical resurrection (pp. 40–42) and of this planet as part of the new earth (pp. 126–27). A useful recent corrective here would be Richard Middleton’s A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology, which, though downplaying the invisible/soulish dimension of sin and redemption, is crystal clear on the corporeality of biblical eschatology.
  • A one-sided view of God, making the same mistake Doug Campbell does in his widely acclaimed The Deliverance of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), receiving the loving and benevolent side of God while stiff-arming the judging and retributive side (66–67, 118). The answer is that God is more complex than Allison allows. What he makes an either/or is a both/and.
  • His understanding of marriage, including the suggestion that it if humans start living significantly longer (he suspects that in the future we will live as long as the saints of old, upward of several hundred years), we will have to make divorce permissible. He wonders: “How many people are going to confine themselves to one matrimonial adventure before their 500th birthday?” (p. 8). Never mind that he contradicts this later on (“As a general rule, the more time I’ve spent with a friend or family member, the more profound and meaningful the relationship has become” [p. 87]). Is not the Christian understanding of marriage that of sacred union before God, reflecting the unbreakable union of Christ and the church? Moreover, do not the best marriages confess that the relationship gets better with time (my own parents come to mind)? Why wouldn’t this trajectory of an increasingly strengthening bond continue over centuries, as over decades? I wonder how Allison’s wife feels about his argument.
  • An extended argument that deceased humans turn into angels based on less than careful readings of biblical and intertestamental Jewish texts (pp. 127–34). Even the texts cited consistently say the deceased will be like angels, not become angels. And there is no interaction with Hebrews, the argument of which depends on a clear distinction between angels and humans.
  • A noncommittal stance throughout that feels more like an adolescent’s journal than the published work of someone who has been teaching the Bible to pastors-in-training for decades. Thus he “ardently hopes” universalism is true (p. 118) and quotes universalists for support while refusing to say outright whether he believes it. Nor does he interact with the many books arguing for the traditional view of an eternal hell (though he names several titles of such books at one point, indicating his awareness of them). With this book Allison flirts with the danger of “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 3:7).
  • Perplexing comments claiming to speak for the whole Christian church. For example: “More than a few Christians expect nothing beyond this world” (p. 70). I can only ask what, to Allison’s mind, is a Christian? If many of them disbelieve in an afterlife, what do they believe? Jesus’s moral teaching? I am reminded of Machen’s critique of Liberalism almost a century ago in Christianity and Liberalism. Night Comes is not so much a leftish form of Christianity as it is something other than Christianity that retains Christian language. This is an alternative religion. Unlike that with which Machen locked horns, Allison is not antisupernaturalistic. He goes in the other direction. His supernaturalism is a mishmash of personal experience (see esp. pp. 147–49), accounts of near-death experiences, the natural sciences, and ancient literature (Second Temple Judaism no less than Christian Scripture, as “Scripture offers no consistent teaching about life after death” [p. 148]).
  • Connected to the question of what Allison thinks a Christian is, one wonders what he understands the gospel to be. With assumptions reminiscent of Rob Bell’s Love Wins, Allison compares Pol Pot to Mother Teresa (p. 116), suggesting that we can conceive of the former in hell but not the latter, and rejects the thought that “kind, attentive” Hindus could go to hell (p. 106). The problem is that this is implicit works righteousness. Allison assumes that the goodness of nice people merits heaven and the badness of Pol Pot deserves hell. But the message of the gospel is that people are saved by grace, by God’s gifted goodness through his Son, not through human goodness. At this vital point too, then, Night Comes is unchristian.

I am therefore at a loss as to any real usefulness for this book. The methodology is deficient, the history selective, the suggestions at times bizarre, the tone noncommittal, the arguments occasionally contradictory, the Bible eviscerated of authority, and the gospel confused.

Dane Ortlund

Dane Ortlund
Wheaton, Illinois, USA

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