Hell and Beyond by Michael Phillips

I have been doing a decent amount of reading about heaven and hell in the last few years; kicked off largely by the controversy surrounding Rob Bell’s Love Wins a few years back.  And so when I  stumbled upon Hell and Beyond – a fictional take on the afterlife on Kindle for free I  picked it up.  I recently read it over Christmas vacation.

Hell and BeyondA prominent atheist dies unexpectedly and goes to hell. Or so it appears…but nothing is what it seems in this engrossing allegorical novel about the afterlife. In the tradition of C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce and John Bunyon’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Michael Phillips has produced a riveting tale of eternity. Hell and Beyond is a lively and fascinating trip through the afterlife—one that will inspire you to re-discover the significance of your life here and now.

It turned out to be an interesting, if somewhat flawed, non-orthodox, but Christian, fictional/allegorical take on heaven and hell; or the “afterlife.” Phillips leans toward the universalist side but with a great deal of purgatorial type purifying and repentance involved. Heavily influenced by CS Lewis and George MacDonald and along the lines of Pilgrims Progress.

While the philosophical aspects were interesting at times, it struck me as a bit too “universal” in perspective; not in the sense of “everyone goes to heaven” but in the sense of applying to everyone everywhere and lacking a connection to history or scripture in a rooted or narrative way. It is an imaginative creation based on a conception of God’s character and love but not connected to the story of God in time and space/place (the people of Israel, Jesus the Messiah, the martyr and apostolic church, etc.). So while it is literary to some degree it is really more philosophical/psychological. And thus it came across to me as a little too much speculation and metaphysics and not enough storytelling.

In Phillips conception, within the novel at least, humans have free will and that free will continues after death. Every choice a person makes impacts his life and his character.  He is either becoming more in line with God’s Fatherhood and becoming childlike in that relationship or moving away from that ideal state. At death you enter the afterlife and continue that journey.

The piety involved in the afterlife is as orthodox as the after death experience is un-orthodox.  The prominent atheist is immediately changed by his encounter with Christ and from that moment on is on the path to repentance and purification.  He must see the error of his ways, acknowledge and face the consequences of those decisions.  This process is painful and difficult both physically and mentally (or perhaps spiritually).  But it never really felt like he was not going to keep moving forward and so there was little in the way of suspense.

 For many orthodox Christians, Phillips work is likely to provoke objections and protests.  It doesn’t envision the traditional view of heaven and hell.  It posits the ability to make choices after death.  And it has a strong universalist perspective.  Phillips clearly thinks that current understandings of hell are more influenced by Dante than scripture and makes this clear in this work of fiction.

While I am not in any way offended by his unorthodox views on these issues and/or his attempts to explore them in fiction.  I found the overall effect rather flat.  It seems a little too much like a CS Lewis Pilgrims Progress mashup.  As I didn’t enjoy Pilgrims Progress and am not really a big fan of Lewis’s non-fiction (shocking I know) it didn’t work for me.

As noted above, I also found it too speculative and philosophical/psychological.  The fiction seemed more like a mental exercise than an attempt at art or literature.  As such it wasn’t really a novel so much as a thought experiment in the form of an allegory (if that makes any sense).

OK, I am rambling a bit here …

All in all, I think a couple of things limited the appeal for me. 1) it is clearly steeped in the world of Lewis and McDonald so if you don’t enjoy their style and approach it is unlikely you will like Phillips take 2) I have moved toward a view of scripture, and thus faith, grounded in narrative and history and so speculative theology holds little appeal 3) neither the writing nor the ideas were good enough to overcome these drawbacks.

But if you enjoy fictional explorations of the afterlife from a Christian but un-orthodox perspective you should check this one out.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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