HEAVEN AND HELL: Eternal Life, Eternal Punishment. By Brian R. Keller.
HEAVEN AND HELL: Eternal Life, Eternal Punishment. People’s Bible Teachings series. By Brian R. Keller. Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 2007. 218 pages. Paper. $14.99.
Reviewed by Timothy Maschke, Concordia University, Mequon, WI
Many Christians struggle with the concepts of hell and heaven. Brian Keller, parish pastor and popular writer, has provided another helpful resource for pastors and Bible study groups which will help them wrestle with the biblical teachings surrounding their own deaths. This compact book, another in the series by Northwestern Publishing House, covers a range of related pastoral issues—death, judgment, heaven, and hell—in a dozen chapters and in a clear and solid, biblically balanced approach.
Addressing basic questions about death, Keller shows that the origin of death is the wages of sin and that all creation is subject to physical death. Noting the distinction between physical, spiritual, and eternal death, he defines death as a separation—of soul from body, of unbeliever from God, and of unbeliever from God’s eternal blessings (20). He then explains that there are only two destinations after this life—heaven or hell—alternative suggestions of purgatory, reincarnation, and a universal salvation are all clearly, yet caringly, shown to lack any biblical support.
Secular authors have opened the discussion of near death experiences (abbreviated as NDEs in the book). In the second longest chapter of the book, Keller addresses not only these recognized physical experiences, but also the related issue of life support. He sets forth two basic principles: “1. Only God has the right to end human life. 2. We do not have the right to decide when we or others should die” (44). From these principles, Keller articulates over a half-dozen biblically founded and helpful applications for end of life decision-making.
Concern about eternal punishment and the reality of hell are addressed in four very detailed chapters. Exploring the biblical terms for hell—Gehenna, Hades, Sheol, Tartarus— as well as many biblical descriptors—fire, deprivation, wrath and anger, loathsome, darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth, second death, destruction—Keller delves into the implications and consequences of God’s judgment and righteous justice. Although there are several religious groups that deny the existence of hell, Keller concludes this section on hell with the assurance that only rejection of salvation is punished with an eternity apart from God’s gracious presence.
Heaven is the ultimate focus of this book. The biblical descriptions of the eternal joys of heaven are clearly articulated. Keller makes an interesting and helpful distinction between heaven “before judgment day” and “after judgment day” in chapter 9. He proceeds to examine the biblical descriptions of heaven, alerting us to his biblical hermeneutic—“The Holy Spirit uses what we know to explain what we do not know” (139). His concluding chapter on heaven underscores the comfort of our Christian hope. He describes hope not merely as a humanistic wish or a positivistic desire, but “hope becomes faith directed toward the future” (162). It is the future faith-assured eternal life with Christ that is the final focus for the faith-filled believer.
Keller’s style of writing is unapologetically pastoral and biblical. His use of Law and Gospel highlights a biblically oriented approach to answering life’s questions. This is especially noteworthy in his last chapter, simply entitled “Common Questions and Answers.” Answering questions such as “What will I say to the grieving family at a funeral home?,” “Why don’t our pastors preach eulogies?,” “Is it wrong to be cremated? ,” “Do the spirits of the departed remain here with us or haunt houses?,” and “How old will we seem to be when we rise from the dead?” Keller addresses the questions with a biblical perspective that keeps the comforting Gospel central.
Eternity is a very long time. The comfort that this book can bring to those who are wrestling with the death of a loved one or who are facing certain death (all of us) will be made absolutely certain through a careful reading and prayerful consideration of this topic. This is the kind of book every church library should have readily available to its members and of which every pastor should have copies to distribute as needed. The comfort and hope and joy of being a Christian believer are the central feature of this biblically practical book.