By Jana Bennett
As a moral theologian, I usually read all books, theological or otherwise, through the lens of what people in my field discuss. So it is with this book. The questions Matthew Levering raises in Jesus and the Demise of Death: Resurrection, Afterlife, and the Fate of the Christian, are not ones moral theologians often discuss. After all, Christian ethics seems to focus on this life. Judging from the topics Christian ethicists write about (on our blog, economic parity, discussion against the death penalty) seeking social justice for all in this life seems paramount, far removed from Levering’s accounts of what Jesus did when he descended to hell, or whether humans have spiritual souls. And this view of ethics as related to this-world issues is supported by some of the predominant views of ethics espoused in business, engineering, health and legal professions. In the professions, ethics often tends toward a utilitarian calculus, a weighing of this-worldly pleasures against pains, where the right decision becomes one of choosing the avenue aimed toward the most pleasure, for the most people.
Ecclesiologically and academically, however, Christian ethics as a field has seen a shift over the past thirty years, toward a focus on virtue. Setting virtue front and center has also necessitated a recovery of the understanding of theological virtues like faith, hope and love, and this is where a this-worldly/other-worldly dichotomy makes little sense. Love, as the crowing virtue in Thomas’s work, is best understood as something practiced in this life, but hoped for in all its fullness and glory at the eschaton, when God will be all in all, and when we shall see God face to face.
Here, then, is where readers interested in moral theology questions will find Levering’s clear, well-thought-out book of immense importance. Using his usual interlocutor, Thomas Aquinas, alongside probing some of the best arguments about hell, the soul, and death (from people like NT Wright, Gary Anderson, and Nancey Murphy) Levering seeks to bring “a robust recovery of apocalyptic teaching.” (citing Richard Hays, 1). Part of the book’s significance is that we must grapple with the limits of material, human, this-worldly knowledge, and be humble enough to recognize that ethics for Christians cannot really be about fixing the world. As Levering writes, “Human desire cannot rest in these limited goods [wealth, fame, power, health, pleasure and so on]; we seek communion with ‘the universal fount itself of good.’” (111) The material world becomes fulfilled in God; “time, space and matter will not continue as they are now.” (124)
One of the key words there is “fulfillment,” a word Levering uses often. A focus on the eschaton does not mean a rejection of our bodies, or this world, but rather hope in something better. In a world that despairs that this life is all there is, Levering suggests that the task of Christians is to witness to God, who is fulfilling all things. So – Christian ethics is not about finding “the” answer to human conundrums, but about witnessing to the resurrected Jesus. Stances that seem confusing in our utilitarian-minded world – like Christian non-violence or parents who chose not to abort children that will have significant disabilities – become clear in the light of Jesus’ resurrection.
This book is a wonderful reminder and invitation, especially during Holy Week, to consider our fate, as Christians bound up together in Christ’s life, death and resurrection.
Jana M. Bennett is Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Dayton, and a contributor to the blog Catholic Moral Theology.