February 18, 2009

Book Review: Who are the Living-Dead?

Richard Gehman, Who are the Living-Dead? A Theology of Death, Life After Death and the Living-Dead. Nairobi: Evangel Publishing House, 1999.

Who are the Living-Dead?While preparing to become a missionary in East Africa, I am seeking to better understand the cultural beliefs and worldviews of those living in this region of the world. The latest book I have completed is Who are the Living-Dead? A Theology of Death, Life After Death and the Living-Dead by Richard Gehman. Gehman is an American missionary who served for years with the Africa Inland Mission at Scott Theological College in Kenya. He is also editor of the Africa Journal of Evangelical Theology.

The living-dead may not be much of an issue for Christians and others in North America, but they are very real for many Africans. As an experienced missionary teaching African pastors, Gehman recognized the need to address ancestors, death, and the living-dead biblically. He summarizes his purpose with three goals:

This book has three objectives:
(1) to provide theological and pastoral help for the Christian pastors and church leaders in Africa so that they can teach and strengthen Christians to face sickness and death with courage without returning to African Traditional Religion.
(2) to provide the educated, thinking lay Christian in Africa with an understanding of death according to the Bible so that he can develop a Christian world view and stand strong in his faith.
(3) to help the church in Africa develop a biblical theology of death, life after death and the living-dead so that she will continue to grow strong in the knowledge of the gospel and resist teaching contrary to the truth of the gospel (x).

His book is broken down into five parts. The author begins by explaining and summarizing the African Traditional Religion's beliefs and practices regarding death, life after death and the living-dead. Then he examines how Christians are to relate to God and to our parents, including the tension between the first and the fifth commandments concerning worship and honor. Next, he turns to different solutions Christians have offered to these issues in Africa, assessing their truthfulness in light of Scripture. The rest of his work is devoted to building a biblical understanding of the living-dead, death, and the afterlife.

Overall, Gehman's book is excellent. I found it very informative. He tackles many questions, such as the difference between veneration and worship, whether the living can speak and relate to the dead, and the powers of darkness. His work is theologically rich while remaining clear for the average believer. Additionally, I am grateful to his continual commitment to the centrality of Scripture in his study. He exegetes numerous biblical texts to see how they relate to the important issues under consideration.

One section of this work that really stands out is his consideration of the intermediate state (as well as his appendix on Hades and Sheol). What happens to believers and unbelievers between their deaths and the time when Christ returns? Gehman's treatment is one of the best overviews surrounding this complex question that I have read. Easy to understand and biblically compelling, I am especially thankful for the clarity he brings to this difficult issue.

However, I do have a couple of disagreements. First, Gehman seems to believe that Christians can be demonized (demon possessed). He writes:

Christians who are walking in obedience to God, filled by His Spirit and washed in the blood, have nothing to fear from the powers of darkness, as we shall see. But the Christian who lowers his guard and falls away from God by living in sin, may open himself up to various forms of oppression from the unclean spirits. There are various degrees of demonic control, ranging from milder forms of demonic oppression to a complete spirit possession (170).
While demons are real and can bring severe external oppression upon Christians, a true follower of Christ cannot be demonized. For more information and an excellent refutation of this view, see the article "Can a Christian Be 'Demonized'?" by Brent Grimsley and Elliot Miller in the Summer 2003 issue of the Christian Research Journal.

Second, when dealing with the destiny of the unevangelized, Gehman leaves open the possibility of salvation apart from the gospel. Following Reformers such as Zwingli and others, he says:

General revelation does not offer any hope of salvation. Only by a special revelation from God Himself can anyone understand his own sinful condition, repent of his sin, and turn to the Lord for forgiveness. Normally this comes through preaching the gospel. But there may be some individuals whom God draws to Himself apart from such proclamation, as He did with Job, Melchizedek and others. But this is the exception, not the rule (282).

In his analysis, the author simply does not sufficiently take into account the progression of redemption. We do not live in the era of Job and Melchizedek. Jesus Christ has come, establishing the reality of the new covenant. No hope exists apart from gospel proclamation.

Nevertheless, I cannot stress enough the importance of this book for Africans and missionaries serving our Lord in Africa. The church is indebted to Gehman for his taking the time to provide a theology of death, life after death, and the living-dead. I am sure that this book will continue to be essential reading for years to come.

One last note: this book was published by Evangel Publishing House in Nairobi, Kenya. While their distribution reaches Britain, this book may not be easy to find and purchase. Do not let this challenge deter you—it is well worth the money.