There is a note of poignancy about this book because it was written when the author, now in his late seventies, was recovering from a near-fatal stroke, and one can imagine that his topic was of personal moment to him. Still, Thiselton's slow, deliberate manner, devoid of any haste or superficiality, is evident throughout the work's 250 pages. One of the world's leading authorities on hermeneutics, but equally at home in New Testament exegesis, the author brings to his subject a lifetime of hermeneutical, theological and biblical scholarship. The analysis is clear, yet profound, although the general reader may find some chapters difficult to digest all in one go.
"The Last Things" covers the kind of topics one would expect of such a title: Christ's return (the Parousia), resurrection, hell, purgatory, last judgement, heaven, and so forth; but the kind of philosophical questions that might occur to the general reader tend to be spurned in favour of detailed biblical and theological analyses of contrasting concepts, often drawing on such weighty characters as Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Barth, Moltmann (frequently), and Pannenberg.
Thiselton's arguments will be persuasive only to those who are prepared to accept his fundamental presuppositions, primarily that God exists, and that the Bible is the word of God. Given these, his reasoning is characteristically careful, and frequently watertight. But the first order philosophical questions are left out of account (although linguistic philosophers like Wittgenstein, Ryle and Searle do get a look in). Thus, to take his chapter on resurrection as an example, the kind of questions to which many people might expect some kind of response (e.g. How can one's personal identity survive death and dissolution, when it is known to be largely contingent on the physical brain?) are shelved in favour of a close analysis of often ambiguous biblical texts, and quotes from a host of theological worthies. Thiselton concludes that the general resurrection of believers is a "gift of grace" by God's sovereign act, which the author seems to feel should override any consideration of philosophical questions. Indeed, at one point he implicitly chastises the Christian philosopher Paul Helm for not being biblical enough. Ask: But how does God bring about the resurrection? and one surmises that Thiselton has little option but to fall into the safety net of mystery.
In similar vein, it is suggested in Chapter 2 that trust and promise are essential at all times. We trust IN God himself, and not THAT God will act according to our wishes. By way of illustration he cites Daniel 3 where Shadrach and his two companions, who are to be thrown into the fiery furnace, declare that they will not bow down to Nebuchadnezzar's image, regardless of whether God saves them or not. But if we trust God regardless of his rsponse to us, doesn't the whole question become arbitrary? It could never be demonstrated to anyone else's satisfaction that God has acted in a particular way. If we are going to assert that God is acting in response to our prayers, whatever happens in the natural world, the view that God has acted merely becomes a matter of prejudice.
Thiselton's arguments always sound erudite, and often are, but we should not allow ouselves to be seduced by mere rhetoric. A couple of examples will suffice. On p.45, he writes:
"We have argued that the evidential viewpoint is not appropriate for considering human existence in life after death. Even though it is the
appropriate domain for the physical sciences, a view of future postmortal events does not depend on extrapolating on the basis of the present, or the
speculative use of our imagination. It depends on appropriating the promises of God, and trusting him."
This all sounds very fine, but the materialist would simply dismiss it as empty rhetoric because in effect we are being asked to trust that our wretched existence here on earth will turn out alright in the end, even though there is not the slightest indication that it will. The whole issue boils down to one of perspective, and the believer can speak of God's acts and promises only on an anti-realist basis - for realism surely requires evidence. The assertion that X exists as an objective reality is meaningless unless it is verifiable, at least in principle.
Again, Thiselton draws on speech-act theory (according to Austin and Searle in particular) to claim that words can be performative - that language about God's promises can be regarded as those promises in action. But can the "de dicto" power of words be in any sense identical with the reality ("de re") to which they refer? There would seem to be a parallel here with criticism of the ontological argument: one cannot simply define something into existence - even if that something happens to be God. Similarly, God's promises cannot be realised merely by stating what they are... But perhaps I am missing a trick here.
In common with many theologians, Thiselton can be ambiguous or evasive. For instance, in his chapter on the Parousia (pp.89-110) he warns that this concept should not be taken with "flat-footed literalness", but signifies a "coming together" of all Christians at the end. Yet what is this supposed to mean? In a physical, or a spiritual sense - or what? The author does not specify. Is this because it is impossible to do so? If so, he should make this clear. His intended audience is, after all, the non-specialist.
For those who are prepared for an intellectual challenge, "The Last Things" will prove a good sparring partner - It could even finish you off! But don't expect clear-cut answers. Thiselton often steers a "via media" between extremes, as when he affirms that hell is neither annihilation nor everlasting torment, as well as dismissing the view that hell does not exist. We might well wonder what he thinks hell really is, but again he retreats to the safe haven of mystery: "... there are some questions to which God does not wish us to know an answer in this life" (p.xvi). Hmm...