Saturday, December 19, 2015

Book Review: A Rabbi Looks at the Afterlife, by Jonathan Bernis

A Rabbi Looks at the Afterlife: A New Look at Heaven and Hell with Stories of People Who've Been There
Jonathan Bernis
Trade Paperback, 252 pages
Destiny Image Publishers, Inc.
November 18, 2014
Source: Family Christian Bookstores
Christianity, Judaism, Metaphysical, Nonfiction, Paranormal Studies, Religion, Theology

Book Synopsis:
People genuinely want to know if there is life after death. However, there are many different ideas about the afterlife. Some believe that once you are dead, “that’s it.” Nothingness. Others sincerely hope that there is something beyond this life, but are not sure. Uncertainty.

Is it possible to know that there is life beyond the grave? If so, how does this change your life today?

In A Rabbi Looks at the Afterlife, Jonathan Bernis takes you on an unforgettable journey of faith, exploring Scripture, history, and first-hand accounts of those who have experienced the afterlife.

My Review

The topic of this book might seem morbid to some people, but I have been fascinated by it for a long time, having read a couple of books on the subject, by Raymond Moody and Elizabeth K├╝bler-Ross. However, these are secular writers and researchers. I had not come across a book written from the perspective of clergy from one of the major religions. Therefore, when I came across this one in a local Christian bookstore, it immediately caught my attention.

Bernis has penned a very interesting book indeed, one that will raise the faith of those who believe, and give food for thought to those that don't. His perspective is not only based on Judaism, but Christianity, as well, since he's a Messianic Jew. He is thus in a unique position to examine the beliefs of both religious traditions, and he does a very creditable job of it.

The book is divided into four sections. Part One contains the Introduction, as well as Chapters 1 and 2. Together, these give a general overview of the book. Part Two deals with heaven, and encompasses Chapters 3, 4, and 5. Part Three deals with hell, containing Chapters 6, 7, and 8. Part Four, which consists of Chapters 9 to 15, plus the Conclusion, is probably the most compelling part of the book, and is titled, "Those Who Have Gone Beyond the Veil".

It was the last part of the book, of course, that really drew me in, although the other sections also had material of great interest to me. The last part, though, has such incredibly fascinating stories!

The author first points out the following in his Introduction: "Most of the six billion people in the world today believe that life continues after death." (pg. 11) He then goes on to quote the famous Christian fantasy writer (who also wrote Christian nonfiction) C.S. Lewis, who, according to Bernis, " making an extremely strong case for the existence of a grand design -- and a Grand Designer -- behind the universe." (pg. 13) From this, Bernis goes on to briefly criticize the theory of evolution, as, in his view, it fails to explain how life evolves from non-life, and also discusses moral relativism and free will. 

Bernis begins Part Two with the observation that every culture throughout history has had a belief in a heaven or paradise. He cites the Vikings, Romans, and Egyptians, also mentioning Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim beliefs about heaven.

Chapter 4 discusses Jewish beliefs about heaven. Christians are usually not aware that Judaism encompasses more than what Christians know as The Old Testament. In addition to these writings, there's the Talmud, which itself came from the Mishnah, the written version of the oral law. The Talmud is a detailed explanation of the commandments contained in the Torah (the first 5 books of the Old Testament). Bernis also explains that the Torah, Talmud, and other rabbinic writings comprise what is known as Halakkah. This is the overall content of Jewish law. 

Most fascinating to me in this chapter was the author's mention of a belief in reincarnation in Judaism. This comes straight from the Kabbalah, as well as several ancient rabbinic writings. 

As for who is qualified to enter heaven, and when the resurrection of the dead would take place, there has been a lot of disagreement among Jewish sages for centuries. Some of them, though, seemed to believe that even non-Jews would have a place in heaven. 

Christian views of heaven are outlined in Chapter 5. In the early stages, Christian beliefs were much like Jewish ones. Some early Christians believed that the body and soul were inseparable, and thus, both would go to heaven. Others insisted that, since all humans had sinned, human flesh was thus too corrupt to enter heaven. 

This chapter mentions the teachings of several early Church Fathers, such as Origen, Irenaus, and Justin Martyr. It also mentions The City of God, which details St. Augustine's view of heaven.

Bernis also points out that both Judaism and Christianity share the belief that humanity is separated from God because of sin. Additionally, Christians believe that God sent His son Jesus to redeem all humans from their sins. The author then points out that "...the single most fundamental truth of New Testament faith -- (is that) the way to eternal life is found through Jesus the Messiah and him alone." (pg. 194)

Several contemporary Christians mentioned by Bernis in this chapter, such as John McArthur, firmly assert that we will be totally free from sin and other corruption in heaven. C.S. Lewis stated that we would all keep our earthly personalities in heaven, as does Randy Alcorn, who answers many questions about heaven in his book of the same title.

Part Three opens with a general look at the belief in hell. Bernis admits that he would prefer it if no such place existed, but affirms that it does. He then references Dr. J.P. Moreland, a professor of philosophy and ethics, and author of the book, Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality, according to whom hell is "...something God was forced to make because people chose to rebel against him and turn against what was best for them and the purpose for which they were created." (pg. 126, Lee Strobel quoting Moreland in The Case for Faith, pg. 175) 

Bernis then goes on to state that ancient cultures also had a belief in hell, although the Egyptians, for instance, did not have a doctrine of eternal punishment. Classic Greek mythology mentions a place known as Tartarus, where, Plato stated, souls were sent after being judged for their deeds on earth.

In Bernis's discussion of Jewish and Christian beliefs about hell, I was surprised to discover some differences between the two religions. For instance, Jewish belief did not unanimously include an eternal hell, whereas Christian belief always has.

Chapter 7 details Jewish views of hell, mentioning that ancient Jews called it Hades, a name which was borrowed from the Greeks. However, this place was not seen as anything but the abode of the dead. Later on, it was known as Sheol.

Bernis stresses that Jews have long believed in a place where humans who have passed on are separated from God and His blessings. He cites several Bible verses from the Old Testament that refer to this.

Another term used for hell is Gehenna, which actually refers to the Valley of Hinnom, just south of Jerusalem. This valley has a rather sinister history, as human sacrifices took place there in ancient times. The name eventually acquired the characteristics of an eternal place of punishment, although some Jews believed that it was instead a place of rehabilitation for souls ultimately destined for heaven. 

Yeshua -- this is the Hebrew name of Jesus, which is used by Messianic Jews -- firmly stated that Gehenna is a place of eternal punishment.

In Chapter 8, which details Christian beliefs about hell, Bernis again mentions early Church Fathers. He also references the Apostles' Creed, which can be traced back to the 4th century, A.D., part of which mentions that, before His resurrection, Jesus descended into hell.

Bernis also refers to recent criticisms about the existence of hell by some Christians. Michigan pastor Rob Bell, in his book, Love Wins, challenges the traditional Christian belief in hell. The late theologian Clark Pinnock also questioned its existence. Surprisingly, even the Catholic Church has altered its definition of hell. In 1999, Pope John Paul II declared that hell is not a place of eternal punishment, but is really a condition, brought about by our own attitudes and actions. In so stating, the then pope denied the traditional Christian view of divine judgment.

Contradicting all of the above, Bernis cites Christopher W. Morgan, who co-authored the book Hell Under Fire with Robert A. Peterson: "...the future punishment of the wicked in hell is a significant theme in the New Testament."

In the fourth part of the book, Bernis recounts the true-life stories of six people who have actually experienced the afterlife: Howard Storm, Dr. Gary L. Wood, Don Piper (famous for his book, 90 Minutes In Heaven), Bill Wiese, Curtis "Earthquake" Kelley, and Dean Braxton.

As I stated above, this part was absolutely fascinating and riveting! I actually jumped to it in the middle of the book, read it in its entirety, and then went back later to where I had left off. 

Three of the men listed above -- Storm, Wiese, and Kelley -- experienced the torments of hell, while the rest experienced the bliss of heaven. Each one describes his experience in detail. Wiese, for instance, screamed in such anguish one night, that his wife woke up. She found him on the floor, shaking and asking her to pray for him. His was not an NDE, though, but a vision. 

The men who experienced heaven have equally vivid stories to tell. Wood, for example, mentions clapping trees and singing flowers, and says that everything in heaven praises and worships God. Piper mentions a joyful reunion with loved ones, including his grandfather, who had died suddenly from a heart attack. And Storm tells of being rescued by Jesus as demons relentlessly attacked him.

Piper was already a pastor when he had his NDE experience, but most of the others were not living good Christian lives. After their experiences -- and this is especially true of the men who saw hell and/or were attacked by demons -- their lives totally changed, and they firmly committed to God. It was so inspiring to read about this type of thing!

I am very glad to have read this book! It has reaffirmed some things I had begun to doubt, and has really lifted my spirits, as the hope in and love of God have become more evident to me. What I especially like here is the author's combination of apologetics -- through a presentation and explanation of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs about the afterlife -- with the stories of six men who have gone there and returned to tell others about it.

I do think I need to re-read this book at some future point, as I'd like to thoroughly study its theological aspects. Unfortunately, Bernis doesn't provide a bibliography, although the book is extensively annotated, and he does give the titles of books he has consulted. Still, I think a bibliography would be most useful. 

The comment above is just one small issue I have with this book. Overall, I thought it was an excellent, highly interesting read, and one written in a simple, straightforward style that I had no trouble following, although the ideas and doctrines presented are deep ones. 

This book is perfect for Messianic and Christian laypeople, as well as for the theological student who might want a concise exposition of Biblical views on it, along with true-life stories that serve to strengthen the faith.

I don't give actual star ratings on this blog, but, if I were to do so, I would definitely give this book five stars! It's now a part of my 'Favorites' shelf!    


About the Author

Jonathan Bernis is an influential Messianic Rabbi, as well as President and CEO of Jewish Voice Ministries International. This is a Messianic Jewish non-profit organization, with branches in Canada and the UK. Its mission is to spread the Gospel of Yeshua (Jesus in Hebrew) to the Jewish people. This organization provides humanitarian aid to impoverished Jews around the world. It has also set up Messianic congregations in different parts of the world.
In addition to his leadership in the Messianic movement, Rabbi Bernis has written several books, such as A Rabbi Looks at Jesus of Nazareth, A Rabbi Looks at the Last Days, A Hope and a Future, and Etz Chaim: Tree of Life.
Rabbi Bernis is also an international speaker and TV personality. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona, USA, with his wife, Elisangela, and their two daughters.
(Source: Wikipedia)


Brian Joseph said...

Great review as always Maria.

Though a non believer I think that I would find this interesting. As you know I am interested in religious thing and related subjects.

It is interesting that you mentioned that this book tackles moral relativism. I am currently reading Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate. In that book Pinker demolishes that idea from a scientific and rationalistic point of view. I really dislike the idea myself. This is certainly something I can agree with religious folks about.

Maria Behar said...

Hey, Brian!

Thanks so much for the support!!

As I stated in the review, I have always found this subject fascinating. At this point in my life, as you know, it happens to have special relevance for me.

I'm so glad that, although a non-believer, you're still interested in religious subjects. Even if I were a non-believer myself, I, too, would still find them interesting. There's just that certain something that makes them so appealing.... I feel the same way about New Age topics.

How fascinating that you're currently reading a book on moral relativism! I need to get this book and read it!! I love that Pinker destroys this concept through a scientific and rationalistic analysis. Thanks for putting this book on my radar!!

I'm also glad that you agree with believers that moral relativism is not a worthwhile concept. That's AWESOME!! And this makes me want to investigate Pinker's book, and similar ones, even more! I know that many religious people accuse atheists of not having a viable moral philosophy, or good ethical values. I firmly believe that this is a gross generalization. In fact, there are atheists -- as well as agnostics -- that I'm sure would put some believers to shame.

Thanks for the great comment!! : )