Beyond Death: What Jesus Revealed about Eternal Life
by Flora SlossonWuellner
Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 2014
Reviewed by Linda Douty
What happens when we die? Are eternal life and life after death the same thing? What about heaven and hell and the final judgment? Will we see our loved ones again? In what form?
Flora Slosson Wuellner is not afraid of the daunting questions that plague the mind of every thinking person—the nagging anxieties that are rarely spoken out loud. Not only does she dare to confront them, but she shares her own spiritual struggles while wrestling with issues surrounding death and dying. Ultimately, she helps us encounter answers about eternity through the eternal eyes of Jesus.
Wuellner writes through the lens of a lifetime of seeking God. Her spiritual maturity has been hard-fought and hard-won, stemming from more than forty years as an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ and specialized ministry during retirement. The author of fourteen books on individual and communal healing, her words of wisdom have guided the steps of serious Christians throughout the world for many years. With refreshing candor, she boldly describes her own early attempts at dealing with the crises of her parishioners: “In the midst of a funeral service for a young man of our congregation, I realized with great inner shock that I did not believe Fred was still living beyond death. Obviously I did not dump this awareness on my grieving congregation. Nothing would have been crueler. I finished the service appropriately, went home, sat down, and tried to understand what had happened to my faith. Fifty years ago, there were few spiritual resources to which pastors could turn when in faith crisis. We were not supposed to have faith crises! Or if we did, we kept them to ourselves” (10).
She follows that experience with another one that slammed her against a spiritual wall, severely challenging her faith. A pastor and his six children had perished in an auto accident while his wife was attending a church event. Wuellner’s inner wrestling was heightened by questions such as: Where did this whole woman’s family go? Were they obliterated as individuals? Did they live only in her memory and by their influence for good? And what meaning does that have for the baby who had not lived long enough to have influence? Were they near her in any real way, loving her? And on and on.
Wuellner clearly thinks that it matters what we believe and how we deal with such looming issues. She sought counsel from many sources, some of whom gave her vague answers about everlasting bliss and joy, while others gave rigid, judgmental answers based on the belief that our one life determines whether we deserve heaven or hell. She sought a third way, “I asked myself if other options beside vague generalities, on the one hand, and beliefs of a static heaven and hell on the other, existed. Was there something real and solid on which to build, something that brought together the love and justice of God and the complex realities of our human condition?” (13).
As she bravely tackles these gigantic conundrums, she focuses on the words of Jesus as found in the Gospels. She explores suicide, the meaning of eternal life, preparation for death, psychic research, the communion of saints, dementia, and a host of other end-of-life issues without giving glib, nonsensical answers. At the end of each chapter, she offers a powerful meditation with the potential to open the reader to deeper understanding and personal healing.
This is a very important book, one that I will recommend again and again to spiritual directees and colleagues. Perhaps what I treasure most about Wuellner’s writing is that her guidance is loving and gentle. She affirms our humanity, releases us from guilt about our imperfections and limitations, and is a living channel for God’s own love and mercy.
Linda Douty is a spiritual director and retreat leader living in Memphis, Tennessee, USA. She is the author of Praying in the Messiness of Life: 7 Ways to Renew Your Relationship with God and How Did I Get to Be 70 When I’m 35 Inside?: Spiritual Surprises of Later Life. Her e-mail address is LindaDouty@aol.com.