Pastor and author Michael Allen Rogers, in his latest book What Happens After I Die engages a series of topics most authors and pastors either flee from or attempt to water down in order to make the subject matter more palatable. The typical approach to issues of the afterlife is a discussion of heaven as a dreamy land of clouds, harps and cherubs, a place people will get to go provided they make it past St. Peter and his checklist at the pearly gates. Any serious student of scripture will quickly notice that a salient and holistic understanding of what happens after one dies is not the fairy tale cartoon heaven is pictured as and hell is not the Far Side cartoon of devils with pitchforks making people listen for all eternity to “Achy Breaky Heart” by Billy Ray Cyrus. The matter of heaven and hell, redemption and sin are topics that should be addressed seriously and with great passion given the immensity of the subject matter and furthermore given the focus by God in His word on these two eternal destinations. It is this serious approach that Rogers takes in his book, an approach that actively engages the subject with perspicuity and dedication to searching the scriptures.
Rogers divides his book into 6 parts with each part dealing with a specific element of matters of eternal importance. Rather than diving right in to describing the nuances of heaven or hell, he rightly begins with a discussion of how death and the grave as described in Scripture, in particular the Old Testament use of the word Sheol. Rogers avers “total extinction of living persons never seems to be considered. Biblical teaching about Sheol showed that man continued to exist, and that he existed for a purpose.” So Scripture clearly declares death is not the end for either the wicked or the righteous meaning what one does on earth has eternal consequences as according to Hebrews 9:27 “it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.”
So what determines someone’s eternal destination? Good works, luck of the draw, giving enough money to your local church? Before engaging that question, Rogers first addresses the fact of death and why death is a reality for us all. Rogers aptly comments “death appeared as God’s inevitable judgment upon rebellious human sin.” Because of Adam’s sin, death is a “phenomenon impacting every dimension of what it means to be human.” Death then is something every human being will face. With that said, death will not be the ultimate victor for those who place their faith and trust in the atoning sacrifice provided by Christ on the cross. While everyone will succumb to the wages of physical death, those who place their faith in Christ will not succumb to what Scripture calls the “second death.” Rogers saliently notes the hope for the believer is centered in the resurrection of Jesus from the grave for this constitutes Christ as the victor over death, both physical and spiritually speaking.
While the believer has the hope of death being forever conquered, the reality for those who reject faith in Christ presents a mark darker proposition. It is perhaps this section that is the highlight of Roger’s book given the dearth of discussion and writing on the reality and eternality of hell for the wicked. As noted by Rogers, “Evangelicals have classically upheld a high view of Scripture inspiration and authority, with hell vividly taught as an outworking of the character of a just and holy God.” Unfortunately, the approach taken by many, such as Rob Bell for example, sugar coats a destination that is described in Scripture as something to not be treated lightly. Perhaps, as Rogers correctly notes, the reason for a failure to accurately describe hell in biblical terms is the very approach believers have taken to this topic. Rogers properly frames the question as “why should even one determinedly hell-bound soul ever be saved? Considering this will bring us to Christ in worship and thanksgiving, not angry vexation.” Those who view hell as the product of an unjust God are in effect improperly appropriating God’s very character. God is indeed a God of mercy; however, He is also a God of justice. Understanding that we are all hell-bound save for the grace of God will only serve to help people understand that God does not send people to hell. It is the default destination for all mankind and without the grace of God we would all end up there for all eternity. Those who reject God’s grace will merely be going to the place of their own choosing.
Furthermore, it has become quite popular to diminish the eternality of hell through the concept known as annihilationism. Rogers does an excellent job of pointing out the vast theological deficiencies of such an approach noting “Mature Bible interpretation in this case requires us to take hold of our minds by the scruff of our theological necks, forcing ourselves to see that doctrines of Scripture must not be determined by what we happen to prefer, or what our human emotions are capable of tolerating. We must determine to stick to who God is and not construct an artificial universe with contours drawn by our own whims.” The eternality of hell is well established in Scripture. To minimize the length of eternal punishment in reality negates the nature of the punishment meted out by a holy and eternal God on the wicked; something Scripture declares is absolutely not true. Rogers does an excellent job of establishing the reality and eternality of hell based on the teachings of the one who spoke the most on the subject, namely Jesus himself.
If I had any criticism of What Happens After I Die it would be the idea presented by Rogers that we immediately go to heaven when we die or that we immediately go to hell when we die. While this is a popular approach, it nevertheless runs headlong into a number of biblical principles that would seem to indicate a different timeline. The typical proof texts used for the going immediately to your eternal destination when you die are 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 and Philippians 1:22-23 wherein Paul presents the idea of preferring to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. What Rogers does and he is not alone in this approach, is to assume that what Paul is declaring revolves around the idea one will immediately go to heaven or hell upon death. As noted earlier, this flies in the face of some important concepts in Scripture such as betrothal and the fact the bride cannot reside with the bridegroom until the Father says it is time, a concept found for instance in John 14. An example of Rogers approach can be found in his exegesis of 2 Corinthians 5:8 where he notes the Apostle Paul “expected no interruption from the moment of physical death to conscious awareness of our heavenly home – no intermediate stopover, no waiting room. Transition from this body to be home with the Lord will be instantaneous.” What is Paul stating in the context of this passage? Paul is speaking of the longing all believers have for the return of Christ, our bridegroom, to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling. The term “heavenly dwelling” often refers to the desire to once again tabernacle with God, something that will finally take place when the new heavens come down and the present earth is transformed and all is renewed. Paul repeatedly notes the promise of the resurrection in his epistles and often notes a sense of longing for that day. Rogers takes these Pauline passages to mean “To be absent from this body brings the conscious Christian soul into the immediate presence of our God and King.” If we take the eschatological position that presents the earliest return for the bride by the bridegroom, namely that of a pre-tribulation rapture, the bride does not reside with the bridegroom until almost the end of time. Furthermore, one has to examine John 3:13 which states “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” This passage indicates support for the betrothal process found in Scripture meaning the bride cannot tabernacle with the bridegroom until the Father says it is time. Rogers notes in the beginning of his book that often at funerals it is stated the deceased has “gone to a better place” regardless of how wicked they lived their life on earth because it is viewed as proper to not state “Grandpa is likely going to hell because he rejected God.” In the same manner, it is likely viewed as not proper to say, “Grandpa was a righteous man and trusted in God, but he is awaiting the resurrection and the return of the bridegroom and for now he awaits in the grave that glorious day.” Instead we also state he has gone to a “better place.” One can certainly agree with Rogers that “we can rest in joyful security.” That joyful security is that death has no sting and since Christ conquered the grave, we can have confidence the bridegroom will return to resurrect the elect to live forever in a perfect, renewed fellowship with our King.
If anything, the issue of going immediately to heaven when you die is a small portion of an otherwise excellent book and any element of disagreement over that portion did not detract from the rest of Rogers’ effort. Perhaps in that regard the discussion revolves around the same element as the eschatological discussions, that of immediacy versus patient endurance. In either approach, the end belief is the same. Christ will return and this perishable body will put on an imperishable body.
Rogers adroitly engages some rather difficult and unpopular topics with great zeal and wisdom looking to Scripture as the source of truth rather than popular theological fads. He saliently notes the believer can look forward to a time when all things are restored and redeemed when the righteous will spend all eternity tabernacling with our bridegroom and with our God in the new heavens and the new earth. This is an important topic of discussion in our day and age and speaking out about the reality of heaven and hell is something no believer should shy away from. What Happens After I Die is a valuable primer on these topics and it will serve the reader well to read this book and to search the Scriptures for themselves in an age where universalism is increasingly the rage.
I received this for free from Crossway Books for this review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”