Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective by Andrew Perriman

I will confess that the controversy surrounding Rob Bell’s Love Wins has caused me to reconsider a number of my theological assumptions.  This reflection and development, however, is not tied just to Bell.  I had already begun to explore NT Wright and the New Perspective on Paul for example, but it certainly sparked a more focused meditation and thought process as I sought to make explicit what had been a vague collection of thoughts and instincts. (This will only reinforce for some that Bell is a false teacher leading people on the path to perdition, etc.)

Andrew Perriman 1
Andrew Perriman 2011 (via Flicker)

Somewhere along the line I discovered the work of Andrew Perriman and his narrative-historical approach to biblical study and a post-Christendom path for the People of God.  I find his work and approach fascinating, challenging and often quite convincing.  I have spent hours reading his blog; deep diving into scripture, eschatology and theology.  As I said, fascinating and challenging.

This in turn led me to Perriman’s books. And I started with his e-book Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective.  As I noted at Goodreads, it is hard to review this book as it is really a collection of blog posts. If you are interested in the subject and have some solid background in the issues involved you will probably find it fascinating (or perhaps infuriating if you don’t share the author’s perspective). I enjoyed immersing myself in Perriman’s thoughts on heaven and hell but did sometimes wish he offered more of a primer on the issues or had time to slow down and unpack some of the details, etc.

Spoiler alert! Perriman believes common conceptions of both heaven and hell are not biblical, and are products not of scripture, but rather are cultural and institutional developments (and products of a theology which has locked in systematic doctrine at the expense of an accurate and historical reading of scripture).

Perriman has a unique take on eschatology (a version of preterism, with narrative theology and new perspective aspects, I believe – although he would probably reject that description) which I find compelling in many ways but which is certainly not straightforwardly orthodox or traditional.  Traditionally eschatology would mean the study of end times or last things. Andrew’s perspective, however, envisions it as “decisive, theologically significant historical events in a foreseeable future.” So the New Testament is not focused on the “end of the world” per se but on the Jewish war with Rome and the fall of the pagan world and the triumph of the martyr church.

With this in mind, from his perspective scripture is primarily to be understood as historical and narrative rather than theological and metaphysical. He also stresses a community rather than an individual focus. As such he rejects traditional conceptions of hell (a literal place of eternal fire and torment, etc.) and heaven (a physical place believers go immediately after death to be with God and await the second coming) as cultural artifacts not scriptural formations.

Whether you agree with all of his conclusions, or all of his exegesis, I find his approach refreshing and useful for getting beyond stale and route arguments.  I like this quote in particular:

Theology should not flatten scripture into dogmatic abstractions and generalities. Theology should seek to follow, and sympathetically narrate, the tortuous journey of faithfulness as it picks its way across the complex, broken, mountainous landscape of history.

It is also worth pointing out that his theology and eschatology are based on a close reading and understanding of the biblical texts not on a desire to remove difficult or hard doctrines. It is post-modern in a sense (or perhaps post-Christendom) but not with the connotation of removing or denying truth, etc.  As I said, fascinating to me but not for everyone. And of course, if you wanted to you could read all of this on his blog.

So on to the book.  Keep in mind also that I read this book almost a year ago but have never quite got around to publishing this review until now (I have been fiddling around with it off and on). So some of this might be a little fuzzy.  I have, however, continued to read Perriman’s blog, and his other books, so perhaps have a better understanding of his overall perspective. Much of the argument is complex and detailed but allow me to outline the basics (most of which are noted here).

Judgement in scripture comes in the form of destruction; both of nations and people.  “The wages of sin is death” is the formula here.  God judges nations and people and they are destroyed. From the flood to the destruction of the temple to exile this is the pattern in the Old Testament.  There is not a universalized, metaphysical/spiritual conception of post-mortem judgement.

In the New Testament the perspective is the same but the focus looks forward to the coming judgement on Israel and the Jewish War with Rome.  And it is through this lens that passages about judgement should be viewed.  Perriman understands the images used in the NT to be motifs from the OT intended to prophetically warn Israel about their impending judgement at the hand of pagan Rome.  These images are about historical judgement and events not universal judgement for every individual.

The next horizon in the narrative is the judgement on Rome and the pagan world. God has judged his own people and then will judge their persecutors the idolatrous pagan nations.  After His resurrection Jesus is elevated to the right hand of God, and made ruler of the nations, and he will come to judge and to destroy.  The church must mirror Christ’s faithfulness to survive this time of judgement and enter the age to come. Christ will be shown to be victorious and those who remained faithful will be vindicated.

The third and final horizon is the culmination of this victory when death itself is destroyed and we see a new heaven and a new earth.  Again, in Perriman’s view, the passages in Revelation are not about personal torment but about the destruction of all that is contrary to God’s good creation.  The second death is just that, the destruction of all even death itself.

Perriman uses this focus or frame to analyze and discuss the relevant passages in scripture pertaining to hell, judgement, life after death, etc.  Some of this is in the specific context of the debate over Bell’s book and some of it is more general.  But Perriman effectively uses the debate to explore the issues. He moves from his general perspective, to the Bell debate, to addressing specific passages.  He agrees with Bell on some issues/approaches but brings a much more tightly argued and focused perspective.

But like Bell he is attempting to help Christians put aside their cultural and doctrinal assumptions and approach scripture with fresh eyes; letting scripture guide us rather than guiding scripture towards conclusions we want to draw.

Perriman than turns his eye toward heaven and deconstructs our conceptions of this term in much the same way:

By comparison with “hell”, which in its traditional sense is not a biblical idea, “heaven” ought to be a fairly straightforward theological concept to explain. Surely heaven is simply what belief in Jesus is ultimately all about? It’s where we go when we die.

[…]

Unfortunately, our popular beliefs about heaven are almost as misconceived as the belief that there is a place called “hell”, deep in the bowels of the cosmos, where the wicked – by “wicked” is often meant “those not chosen” – will be tormented for eternity. Heaven certainly exists, but it is opposed in scripture not to a metaphysical hell (as alternative final destinies), but to earth, in recognition of the fractured structure of creation. The fundamental problem addressed all the way through the biblical metanarrative is not: How are people to get to heaven? but: How is God to live in the midst of his creation?

In Perriman’s eyes the focus is not, with some limited exceptions, about going up to heaven but about heaven coming down to earth. It is about new creation; a people set apart to reflect the reality of the one true God, maker of heaven and earth, into the world.

Perriman than wraps everything up with another unorthodox proposal. He believes that scripture teaches a limited historical resurrection for the martyr church who will then reign with Christ throughout time until the new heaven and new earth.

This would mean that all except Jesus and the martyrs will be raised after the earth and sky have fled away. Including believers. We die. We are dead. We are raised at a final judgment. And if our names are not written in the Book of Life, we are thrown into the lake of fire, which is the second death, a second destruction (Rev. 20:11-15). The end.

As I noted at the start, this is not an easy book to review or summarize. It is largely a collection of blog posts but posts that include detailed exegesis and commentary.  Perriman’s perspective may be unorthodox but it is throughly grounded in scripture and based on a great deal of thought and study.  You may not agree with his conclusions but if you have an open mind and a generous spirit you will be challenged and given food for thought in your approach to the bible.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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