I’ve read a lot of books in the last couple of years. These books helped me clarify and contextualize my thinking about “eschatology,” the study of things to come and the end times. I believe that each of these would be valuable to you, for varying reasons. I’ve included the Amazon blurb for each, as well as a link to the Amazon listing for the book.
This was an interesting book, but after about halfway through, I kind of got tired of it and skimmed the third quarter or so. It felt a bit pedantic at that point – reiterating the same ideas too many times. Perhaps this was because I’ve studied this topic for so long, and had heard most of his arguments in one form or another for quite a long time.
Also, while I appreciate his emphasis on the writing style and how that should shape our interpretation, I think most people who take his position make the same logical error. They assume that because it’s a largely symbolic book, one cannot ALSO find that it has a predictive value. I’ve been taught for years that prophecy in the Bible operates at multiple levels, where a given prophecy can have more than one fulfillment, each one closer to the ultimate perfect reality. We see this principle operating in prophecies in the Old Testament that refer to things the authors were describing about their own era, but later were recognized as describing Jesus. And there are likely ways they will be fulfilled in the future, too. So I think it’s a mistake to insist that one must only read Revelation as not having any specific future fulfillment.
With that said, I think McKnight does offer some excellent insights into the characters in Revelation, especially the overall concept of Babylon, and he’s right that we need to be incredibly alert to how we might fall into the trap of living in and worshiping Babylon today. (But we can still simultaneously have future specific fulfillments, and we shouldn’t miss that aspect of the prophecy.)”
Amazon description: The biblical Book of Revelation frustrates and fascinates many people with its imagery and apocalyptic tone. Most popular interpretations of the book rely on a perspective known as dispensationalism, popularized by the Scofield Bible and more recently the Left Behind series of novels. Yet there are many problems with this popular way of reading Revelation, and until now, few alternatives have been available that were easy to understand.
In Revelation for the Rest of Us, Scot McKnight with Cody Matchett explore the timeless message of Revelation and how it speaks to us today with a courageous challenge to be faithful witnesses to Jesus while standing against the ever-present reality of worldly authorities. The writer, John, stimulates the imagination to see the world differently, through the eyes of God, presenting a "divine politic" that subverts the anti-god patterns of governments, empires, and those in power.
McKnight addresses the popular misconceptions about the book, explaining what John means in his use of the images of dragons, lambs, and beasts, and how the symbolism of Revelation speaks powerfully to the present day–though not in the way most people think. Drawing from the latest scholarship, they present an understanding of Revelation for anyone interested in deepening their personal study of the Bible as well as preachers looking to communicate this timeless message today.
McKnight offers in this book a discipleship manual for discerning the immoralities of political powers and how the church can be both an agent of resistance and transformation.
John designed his Book of Revelation to disciple readers into dissidents of the ways of the world and empire. John describes that empire with the term "Babylon." Babylon is a timeless image of empire, militarism, economic exploitation, injustice, and oppression. The Book of Revelation disciples Christians through worship and the courageous challenge of faithful, or allegiant, witness to the slaughtered-Lamb. John’s dissident disciples can discern the presence of "Babylon" in our world and learn to speak up, speak out, and walk in the way of the Lamb. He disciples us by stimulating our imaginations to see the world and "Babylon" through the eyes of God, and in so doing John presents a "divine politic," a view of government and power that subverts the anti-god patterns of "Babylon" today.
I really have mixed feelings about this book. There are lots of good insights about the Scriptures about Christ and salvation, and Rohr makes it apparent how the evangelical church has taken some convenient liberties with the Bible regarding salvation, how a transactional gospel has taken hold of that wing of Christianity. I also appreciate how he identifies the risks of a dualistic view of the Kingdom, compared to the mystery that it really ought to be.
What bothers me about his overall approach, I suppose, is that it seems to minimize a number of passages in the Bible that do call for some suitable dualism. And there is a potentially dangerous blurring of the boundaries between religions, and I am not convinced that his insistence in the universality of Christ can dispense with the fairly straightforward language about the cross, not just Christ, as the essence of our salvation. To some extent I feel like he makes a case for a viewpoint without addressing its likely counterpoints. I’m too much of a scientist to ignore the "test your hypothesis against contrary data" method of analysis.
But with that said, I think it’s an interesting book for the challenges it presents to a black-and-white view of doctrine and salvation that is typical to the evangelical church. If nothing else, it will open your eyes to a variety of ways of understanding Christ.
Amazon description: In his decades as a globally recognized teacher, Richard Rohr has helped millions realize what is at stake in matters of faith and spirituality. Yet Rohr has never written on the most perennially talked about topic in Christianity: Jesus. Most know who Jesus was, but who was Christ? Is the word simply Jesus’s last name? Too often, Rohr writes, our understandings have been limited by culture, religious debate, and the human tendency to put ourselves at the center.
Drawing on scripture, history, and spiritual practice, Rohr articulates a transformative view of Jesus Christ as a portrait of God’s constant, unfolding work in the world. "God loves things by becoming them," he writes, and Jesus’s life was meant to declare that humanity has never been separate from God—except by its own negative choice. When we recover this fundamental truth, faith becomes less about proving Jesus was God, and more about learning to recognize the Creator’s presence all around us, and in everyone we meet.
Thought-provoking, practical, and full of deep hope and vision, The Universal Christ is a landmark book from one of our most beloved spiritual writers, and an invitation to contemplate how God liberates and loves all that is.
“Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem” by Bradley Jersak
I really enjoyed this book, much more than "All That Shall Be Saved." It was much more approachable, less excessively erudite, but just as solid a presentation about the topic of universalism and hell. It basically put the final nail in the coffin of eternal damnation for me: although "All That Shall Be Saved" was perhaps more scathing in its treatment of opposing views, this book was essentially the opposite, a gentle appeal based on reasonable discussion, and gave me the discussion tools I will need to talk about this with an open hand instead of demanding that others agree.
Basically, it’s a book based on hope and love.
I really loved this quote in his addendum: "If your only reason for becoming a Christian is to avoid hell, I wonder if you have ever encountered the love of our precious Savior. Have you met him?" That perfectly wraps up my feeling about this whole topic: love is so much stronger than fear, and mercy is stronger than judgement.
Amazon description: Everlasting hell and divine judgment, a lake of fire and brimstone–these mainstays of evangelical tradition have come under fire once again in recent decades. Would the God of love revealed by Jesus really consign the vast majority of humankind to a destiny of eternal, conscious torment? Is divine mercy bound by the demands of justice? How can anyone presume to know who is saved from the flames and who is not?
Reacting to presumptions in like manner, others write off the fiery images of final judgment altogether. If there is a God who loves us, then surely all are welcome into the heavenly kingdom, regardless of their beliefs or behaviors in this life. Yet, given the sheer volume of threat rhetoric in the Scriptures and the wickedness manifest in human history, the pop-universalism of our day sounds more like denial than hope. Mercy triumphs over judgment; it does not skirt it.
Her Gates Will Never Be Shut endeavors to reconsider what the Bible and the Church have actually said about hell and hope, noting a breadth of real possibilities that undermines every presumption. The polyphony of perspectives on hell and hope offered by the prophets, apostles, and Jesus humble our obsessive need to harmonize every text into a neat theological system. But they open the door to the eternal hope found in Revelation 21-22: the City whose gates will never be shut; where the Spirit and Bride perpetually invite the thirsty who are outside the city to "Come, drink of the waters of life."
“That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation” by David Bentley Hart
I really wanted to get my head around the doctrine of universalism, the idea that all humans will eventually be saved, even if they reject God in this earthly temporal life. This book looked like it would serve as a first reading.
I quickly found that I have an utter love/hate relationship with this book.
On the one hand, it was supremely useful. I found myself constantly thinking, "I guess I always knew that; I just didn’t have words for it" or "Oh, THAT makes perfect sense, and resolves all the internal contradictions I never was really willing to acknowledge." He often includes the original Greek versions of verses that he quotes, along with a translation, which should benefit anyone who knows a little Greek. And in my view, he utterly nails down the issue with a resoundingly complete package of conclusions and assertions that are entirely self-consistent and convincing. So if you’re looking for an incredibly thorough treatise on the issue of "infernalism" – the doctrine of hell – this is the book for you.
But be prepared to suffer through the author’s style. He’s brash, harsh, cocky at turns, and unwilling to brook those he views as idiots, castigating them in the strongest possible terms. As perhaps the hardest thing of all for me, he writes in the "sesquipedalian" (using overly complicated words) style of a Doctorate-level college professor: words like sanguinary, ameliorative, banality, hypostasis, ontologically, dialectical, recalitrant, surd, equivocacy, or sanguinary liberally flood this bookâ€¦ along with countless Latin phrases, often left undefined. If I were a graduate student of religion or philosophy, this style might suit me. But I’d much rather read a book in more everyday English, even if it required a few extra words to say the same thing. It would be infinitely more approachable, and that’s a true shame to me, because I wish I could recommend this book to everyone. However, I cannot, because I know a lot of people would spend more time in the dictionary than these pages. (The Kindle, at least, makes that fairly easy, by just long-pressing a word to pop up its definitionâ€¦ which works fine except for the Latin phrases.)
So it’s up to you. If you can tolerate the attitude and professorial language, I highly recommend this book for anyone wishing to understand universalism.
Amazon description: A stunning reexamination of one of the essential tenets of Christian belief from one of the most provocative and admired writers on religion today.
"A scathing, vigorous, eloquent attack on those who hold that that there is such a thing as eternal damnation."—Karen Kilby, Commonweal
The great fourth-century church father Basil of Caesarea once observed that, in his time, most Christians believed that hell was not everlasting, and that all would eventually attain salvation. But today, this view is no longer prevalent within Christian communities.
In this momentous book, David Bentley Hart makes the case that nearly two millennia of dogmatic tradition have misled readers on the crucial matter of universal salvation. On the basis of the earliest Christian writings, theological tradition, scripture, and logic, Hart argues that if God is the good creator of all, he is the savior of all, without fail. And if he is not the savior of all, the Kingdom is only a dream, and creation something considerably worse than a nightmare. But it is not so. There is no such thing as eternal damnation; all will be saved. With great rhetorical power, wit, and emotional range, Hart offers a new perspective on one of Christianity’s most important themes.
“The Evangelical Universalist: The biblical hope that God’s love will save us all” by Gregory MacDonald
This was another good book about universalism. It doesn’t stand out to me as much as Jersak’s book, but it was still useful.
Amazon description: Can an orthodox Christian, committed to the historic faith of the Church and the authority of the Bible, be a universalist? Is it possible to believe that salvation is found only by grace, through faith in Christ, and yet to maintain that in the end all people will be saved? Can one believe passionately in mission if one does not think that anyone will be lost forever? Could universalism be consistent with the teachings of the Bible? In The Evangelical Universalist the author argues that the answer is ‘yes!’ to all of these questions. Weaving together philosophical, theological, and biblical considerations, he seeks to show that being a committed universalist is consistent with the central teachings of the biblical texts and of historic Christian theology.
“Armageddon: What the Bible Really Says about the End” by Bart D. Ehrman
This book challenged a lot of my thinking about Revelation. I’ve spent the last four years fairly heavily studying the book and its theology, and with a rather different hermeneutic. I’ve been learning to see Revelation as largely symbolic, mostly focused on historical events, written in a specific literary style that focuses on retribution and empire-fighting, with perhaps some room for future applications as well as the ancient implications.
This book sharply challenged those assumptions, pointing out some of the rather obvious differences in tone between the Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus of Revelation, the focus on wealth and pleasures in the afterlife which go sharply against the focus on service and self-sacrifice in the Gospels. In short, the author is not a fan of the book, and is definitely opposed to those who use it to bend the world to their will.
After reading this book, I will have a lot of thinking to do. What the author observes about the differences between Revelation and Gospels is quite easy to see once it’s pointed out; that doesn’t mean I agree with his conclusions, but it does mean that my relationship with the book, and my resulting theology, will need some close inspection in days to come.
Amazon description: You’ll find nearly everything the Bible says about the end in the Book of Revelation: a mystifying prophecy filled with bizarre symbolism, violent imagery, mangled syntax, confounding contradictions, and very firm ideas about the horrors that await us all. But no matter what you think Revelation reveals – whether you read it as a literal description of what will soon come to pass, interpret it as a metaphorical expression of hope for those suffering now, or only recognize its highlights from pop culture – you’re almost certainly wrong.
In Armageddon, acclaimed New Testament authority Bart D. Ehrman delves into the most misunderstood – and possibly most dangerous – book of the Bible, on a “vigilantly persuasive” (The Washington Post) tour through three millennia of Judeo-Christian thinking about how our world will end. With wit and verve, he explores the alarming social and political consequences of expecting an imminent apocalypse, considers whether the message of Revelation may be at odds with the teachings of Jesus, and offers inspiring insight into how to live in the face of an uncertain future.
By turns hilarious, moving, troubling, and provocative, Armageddon is nothing short of revelatory in its account of what the Bible really says about the end.
“Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife Kindle Edition” by Bart D. Ehrman
This book provided a really solid walk through the history (and pre-history) of the doctrines of heaven and hell that currently exist in the Christian church. It starts long before Christianity, and ranges even into other ancient cultures. There are tons of useful quotations from both well-known and obscure ancient thinkers and early church fathers.
I learned a lot from this book. There were many facts I’d already known, but Ehrman uncovers a lot of detail about where those facts originated.
Despite being a very well-sourced and careful book, it’s not at all pedantic. It’s easy to read and Ehrman uses plenty of gentle humor to make his points.
I personally disagree with Ehrman’s conclusion about the afterlife, and even before the afterword where he explains his exact position, it was clear from his tone and selection of facts what he believes. However, I was not bothered by this, and he presented the various opposing viewpoints in a fairly balanced fashion, not talking down to the ones he personally does not hold, but showing how their proponents actually think, and not shirking away from facts and thinkers that don’t hold his views. To me, this is the mark of a careful scholar: present all the data, and do so with equity and care.
Ultimately, despite the fact that Erhman’s conclusions differ from mine, I think I do agree with what I think was his main point: the history of this topic makes it obvious that there isn’t a single consistent conclusion, and there really cannot be one. It’s ultimately up to us to wrestle with our consciences and God speaking to our spirits, and we ought to reject any absolutist statements that there is only one “Biblical” way to see these matters.
Amazon description: A New York Times bestselling historian of early Christianity takes on two of the most gripping questions of human existence: where did the ideas of heaven and hell come from and why do they endure?
What happens when we die? A recent Pew Research poll showed that 72% of Americans believe in a literal heaven and 58% believe in a literal hell. Most people who hold these beliefs are Christian and assume they are the age-old teachings of the Bible. But eternal rewards and punishments are found nowhere in the Old Testament and are not what Jesus or his disciples taught.
So where did these ideas come from?
In this “eloquent understanding of how death is viewed through many spiritual traditions” (Publishers Weekly, starred review), Bart Ehrman recounts the long history of the afterlife, ranging from The Epic of Gilgamesh up to the writings of Augustine, focusing especially on the teachings of Jesus and his early followers. He discusses ancient guided tours of heaven and hell, in which a living person observes the sublime blessings of heaven for those who are saved and the horrifying torments of hell for those who are damned. Some of these accounts take the form of near death experiences, the oldest on record, with intriguing similarities to those reported today.
One of Ehrman’s startling conclusions is that there never was a single Greek, Jewish, or Christian understanding of the afterlife, but numerous competing views. Moreover, these views did not come from nowhere; they were intimately connected with the social, cultural, and historical worlds out of which they emerged. Only later, in the early Christian centuries, did they develop into notions of eternal bliss or damnation widely accepted today.
In this “elegant history” (The New Yorker), Ehrman helps us reflect on where our ideas of the afterlife come from. With his “richly layered-narrative” (The Boston Globe) he assures us that even if there may be something to hope for when we die, there certainly is nothing to fear.
I’ll update this list as my reading continues.
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