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My Major Anxiety for my Book. Are People Interested in the Afterlife?

As an author (such as me, for example) thinks ahead to the next book, he has a number of worries, concerns, and anxieties that crop up.  This is all part of the process – deep and cutting anxiety is what ends up inspiring quality.  Otherwise, we would just dash off books without a care in the world, and they would be completely mediocre, not-well thought out, uninteresting, not grappling with the really complex issues in ways that are clear and easy to understand.

Wait a second.  That’s how most books are!

Seriously, one has to grapple with innumerable problems, issues, and concerns from virtually the beginning of a book project.  Some of these concerns are small, but at the outset they tend to be large, big-scale.  Then, the more one works on a book, the smaller (and more specific) the issues get.  These small ones are of huge importance, because it is getting the small things right that makes an OK book good, a good book really good, and a really good book fantastic.

I’m still at the early stage of my book on The Invention of the Afterlife: A History of Heaven and Hell (as I am tentatively calling it; who knows what the thing will actually be called?  At this stage, the title is the least of my concerns.  Whatever I end up suggesting to the publisher will be taken under advisement, before they start floating other, probably better, titles and subtitles. )  Anyway, I’m at the early stage.  And right now, as of this week, I’m having one very major anxiety.   I’m beginning to wonder if people are interested in reading about the topic.

I’m not saying that people aren’t interested in the afterlife.  Most people think a lot about death, and about what comes after – even people who have very clear ideas about the matter.  My mother, for example, is in a facility where the very elderly spend most of their time thinking about it, and – given its geographical and social location – many (most?) of them are firmly convinced that when they die they’ll go to heaven and have a one-on-one with Jesus.

Other people are convinced that when they die, the lights will go out, and that will be the end of their personal existence.  But they still think about it, and wonder a bit, and try to convince themselves that it will be OK.

Yet other people, of course, have a wide range of views.  And some (many?) don’t really give it much thought, even if the rest of us think they should.

So that’s a given in my thinking.  But that’s not the issue I’m concerned about.  I’m concerned about whether people really want to read a book about it.  I know that some people love the new and popular genre of the Near Death Experience Account.  Lots of books like that sell well.  But are people interested in knowing where the much more widespread views of heaven and hell came from?

The reason I’m wondering is rather personal.   I’m noticing a lot less traffic on the blog since I”ve started talking about the issue.   There is not as much controversy, not as many objections, not as many people commenting at all, not as much interest, so far as I can see.  I take that as a bad sign.  Is this one of those topics that people think about but don’t want to *have* to think about, and certainly don’t want to spend their time reading about?

I’ve had this experience before.  A few years ago I was gung-ho about writing a book on the origins of anti-Semitism, where I would try to show that its roots are actually Christian, that before Christianity appeared on the scene there was never any widespread opposition to Jews for being Jews (I do know the notable, possible, exceptions, of course!  Think, Antiochus Epiphanes.  But even that was a bit different….).  The idea that Jews were enemies of God and needed to be opposed originated with Christians.  I think that’s terrifically interesting, and I think it’s demonstrable.  And I wanted to write a trade book about it.   But my publisher insisted that even though people are very deeply concerned about issues connected with anti-Semitism, they find the topic a real downer and simply don’t want to be reminded about how horrible it is by reading about it (nearly as much, for example, as reading about amazing Near Death Experiences!).  So the publisher suggested I try something else.

I may at some stage do the anti-Semitism book (I know a number of people on the blog want me to), but that’s not my point here.  My point is that sometimes an author is really interested in something that other people aren’t interested in (in fact, that is *generally* the case!); and other times the author is really interested in something that other people are indeed also really interested in, but they just don’t want to read about it.  And I’m anxious about whether that’s the case here.  If it’s not, I wonder about the rather tepid reception to the topic on the blog….

I’d be interested in your opinion.  Now would be a good time to give it!

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Too Much Money and the Afterlife



  1. Lev
    Lev  September 12, 2017

    Whilst I have a passing interest in what other religions, ancient and modern, teach about the afterlife, my main interest is how the beliefs on the afterlife developed within 2nd temple Judaism and early Christianity. You’ve done a great job of explaining how Jewish thought developed (I loved the Maccabees run through), but I wasn’t that interested in the ancient Greek accounts (even though they were sometimes amusing and illuminating).

    N T Wright seemed to catch a lot of attention when he reasserted how the early church believed the resurrection at the return of Christ was the ultimate afterlife destination – that heaven was merely a glorious waiting room, rather than the end, and was barely mentioned by Paul who spent most of his discussion of the afterlife on the resurrection.

    I think that interests people because it confounds their expectations – that many people (especially non-Christians) believe the early church taught that heaven (or hell) was ‘it’ – and don’t realise the early church taught a final judgement would occur, the saints would rise up from the dead in glorified, physical bodies and live eternally under a new heaven on a new earth, personally governed by the returned Christ, who would reign with his apostles administering perfect justice.

    Perhaps a new approach to understanding the afterlife would be to see how the early church developed their understanding of the apocalyptic teachings of Jesus (what would happen when the Son of Man returns) with the Pauline understanding of the (imminent) return of Christ, final judgement, the resurrection and eternal reign of Christ in the new world?

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    flshrP  September 12, 2017

    I think that your book on the invention of heaven and hell will be received enthusiastically by those people (like myself) who have reached the conclusion that death is final, that the heaven and hell ideas are human inventions, that the focus of one’s life should be on the present and not on an imaginary future, eternal existence. Fleshing out the history of the heaven and hell ideas in a trade book has been a long time coming.

    I think you underestimate the power of your name recognition in the areas in which you have previously published your trade books. Just listing on the dust cover the names of your books that have made the NYT best sellers list will generate over 500,000 sales for your new book IMHO. The number of hits on your YouTube videos should reassure you that the audience is out there eagerly awaiting your next publication.

    Fear not. Courage. Excelsior.

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    gwayersdds  September 12, 2017

    I for one would be very interested in how the concepts of an afterlife evolved. Somehow I think it must be hardwired in our genetic code. Why did prehistoric man bury bodies with grave goods meant for use in the next world. It may be that we as humans are so egotistical that we think that we simply cannot stop existing at the moment of death. We must be too important to just return to dust. Thus there simply has to be something to come after. I am reminded of the lyrics from a song, I do not remember the group, that said ” I know there ain’t no heaven but I pray there ain’t no hell”. Maybe we think that the concept of nothingness after death is too terrifying to contemplate so we create an afterlife to ease the terror. Thus, I would love to read your future book.

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      flshrP  September 14, 2017

      ” Somehow I think it must be hardwired in our genetic code.”
      Our species, along with the Neanderthals and possibly other hominids, are the only primates who understand that we will die some day. Our higher level of consciousness compared to our genetic cousins (chimps, the great apes, etc) is undoubtedly the reason we have this awareness of our own mortality and these other primates do not. So to that extent maybe the idea of an afterlife is in our genetic code.

      But believing in an afterlife (i.e. denial that death is final) is undoubtedly a product of our two most basic drives, namely, fear and greed. Our most primitive fear is fear of non-existence. And our most intensely felt greed is to have an afterlife of eternal pleasure. These are the two buttons that religion uses to indoctrinate and control us–the stick and the carrot. And fear and greed are both undoubtedly in our genes since the survival benefits of these drives are obvious.

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      mannix  September 15, 2017

      “And When I Die” Blood , Sweat & Tears
      Yer welcome

      • Avatar
        heisenberg  September 18, 2017

        “And When I Die” by Peter, Paul and Mary.
        Yer welcome

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    stonecold51  September 12, 2017

    I think the Afterlife is a very interesting topic and I am excited about your new book !

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    crucker  September 12, 2017

    Personally, I’m very interested in this book, and will definitely buy it if you publish. For me, this is one of the more interesting topics you could write about.

    I’ve been a regular reader on the blog for the past couple years or so, but I’ve only commented a handful of times or so. For me, the absence of a comment does not mean an absence of interest.

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    Boltonian  September 12, 2017

    Not uninterested – just more interested in other areas of your bailiwick. The origins, development and ultimate triumph of Christianity, for example.

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    Pattycake1974  September 12, 2017

    I think people are interested in the origins of heaven and hell and the development of views for the afterlife but may be more interested in what you haven’t posted about just yet; the developing views in early Christianity to what it is today. What will those views show exactly? Will they show that the afterlife is indeed an invention inside the human mind? That’s the fear I’ve seen mentioned more than once on the blog. I believe that’s what your editor was aiming for with the title. I have loved and hated that title, but I think you underestimate its power to spark interest if it’s the least of your worries. It really is a good title by the way, but what you explained to be writing about and what the title represents never matched up in my mind. If the content matched the title, I believe it’s a winner, but are you willing to go down that road?

    I will be straight up honest (as I always am lol) Homer is a great classic, but it’s about as exciting as watching a clock tick away. It’s boring and I have no interest in it. (a couple of other people have expressed this to me as well) That’s not your fault in any way. I had no idea when you began explaining the developing views that it would be so unrelateable. I think some of these classics only appeal to a small number of people.

    I think the afterlife is of great interest but what about it creates conversation? Did God tell the early Christians what would happen when they died or did this all develop some other way? Is Jesus really coming back? If Christians can’t prove the afterlife is real, can there still be an afterlife? Is there evidence for NDE’s and reincarnation? Or any other current trends (Year Million)?

    Those questions generate the fear that the afterlife may not exist. I believe it does exist, but I’ve also found myself being uncomfortable when you touch on certain topics that I disagree with because of my own fears. This is what it’s all about in my opinion. So, I think your editor was bang-on with the title. I don’t see how you can take yourself out of the hot seat when answering these questions in your book. I guess it’s a matter of if you find it worthwhile or if you’d rather do something else.

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    godspell  September 12, 2017

    I think the problem might be that the in both cases, it’s a very personal thing. What one thinks about the afterlife, and what one thinks about one of the oldest and most notorious prejudices (and who is to blame for it). For the record, I think the Old Testament is pretty strong evidence that the ancient Hebrews were having their problems a long time before the advent of Christianity (and that they were sinners, as well as sinned against), but that doesn’t mean Christianity doesn’t deserve a major share of the blame for anti-Jewish feeling. I’d certainly agree that afterwards, it took on a more personal character–a family feud.

    However, I think you might have paid some note to the fact that Hitler intended to destroy Christianity just as much as the Jewish people (some atheists continue to try and use his cynical public statements to prove otherwise, but the historical record is quite clear now, and those people should read Hitler Ascent by Volker Ulrich).

    Pretty nearly all the people who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust were either practicing Christians or had a Christian upbringing. Not going to find a lot of confirmed atheists on the Avenue of the Righteous. Atheists were not persecuted in that time period for not believing in God, but rather for believing in Marx, who was (of course) a Jew.

    It’s a complicated touchy subject that can offend people of almost any belief, or none. I think your publisher did you a solid there. It can be addressed quite well in more general books about the rise of Christianity. But here, it really sounds like you want to say there’d be no anti-semitism without Christianity, and quite honestly, there’s no way you could ever prove that. And the worst expressions of mass hostility towards Jews came from the pagan Romans, the anti-Christian Nazis (heavily influenced by Nietzsche and a very bad reading of Darwin), and the atheist Marxist-Leninists. Christianity was never racially oriented in its anti-semitism, which is no excuse, but it is something that bears mentioning. As does the fact that racism and bigotry is everybody’s problem, an inherent flaw in the human program that we all need to work on, rather than saying “It’s their fault!”

    Here–I think you should go ahead full speed. I have no idea what makes a best-seller in your field. Does anyone? But I think people might like to know more about how this belief evolved during the rise of world civilization (remembering that it seems to go back thousands of years before anybody wrote anything down, and possibly ‘thousands of years’ is an understatement).

    And I would suggest a better title would be The Evolution of the Afterlife. We don’t know enough to say how it was invented. Gilgamesh and Homer are not where it began. They are, in fact, rather late entries in the discussion.

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    adnbob  September 12, 2017

    Having read most of your trade books, I’m quietly looking forward to your History of Heaven and Hell more than most. I do worry that you’ll spill your beans on the blog but suggest that you keep plugging away on the new book…the topic is really a good one that needs your insights. I’d really like to have it right now.

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    DavidBeaman  September 12, 2017

    I am not personally interested in these posts. I scan them, but I don’t read them carefully as I do most of your other posts.

    I am more interested in the topic of antisemitism coming out of Christianity and the church. Christians are so ignorant and gullible to their authority figures. How could any Christian be antisemitic knowing that Jesus was a Jew and never intended to start the church?! Oh yeah, they don’t want to know that and neither does the church want them to know it.

    I am proud to be a heterodox bishop who advocates for Abrahamic faith as does your colleague James D. Tabor.

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    Todd  September 12, 2017

    I wonder why the primary focus of Christianity today seems to be “getting into heaven” rather than a compassionate concern for humanity in the here-and-now, especially since the Bible says so little about the afterlife. It seems that this is what Christianity is all about nowdays. Being “saved ” seems to focus on “going to heaven.”

    Example: a couple of years ago a prominent politician stated that the church should stay out of politics and do its job of “getting people into heaven.” Another example is often found in obituaries that will tell us that “so and so has now returned to the loving embrace of his heavenly father,” etc.

    I am interested in what is taught about this in the original sources and how it has changed so much in common Christian teachings that the primary purpose of being a believer is to get into heaven after death.

    Yes, please explore this in Your book.

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      DavidBeaman  September 15, 2017

      A lot of people fear ceasing to exist. They want to continue on forever. Furthermore, a belief in an afterlife in a better place helps dull the sting of death when a loved one dies.

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    Jessie  September 12, 2017

    With all due respect, Professor – you may be overthinking this.

    One of the first posts where you dive a little more deeply into the origins of the afterlife occurred on August 27th – the week before Labour Day. Now that September has arrived, many people are back to their work/school routine and have less free time to visit the blog.

    Give it time, and talk to your publisher. I think with the right timing and promotions, you’ll have another sought after book on tour.

    Of course, my advice and a toonie will get you a coffee. (ie. It isn’t worth much.)

    Best wishes for your latest project.

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    peterstone  September 12, 2017

    I certainly plan to read the book once it appears. Hope that’s of some help.

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    Pattycake1974  September 12, 2017

    Additional note: I think the comments will pick up when focusing more on Christianity and what we’re most familiar with, then expanding on that. And my guess is that today’s Post will generate lots of comments as well!

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    Judith  September 12, 2017

    I’m interested! Actually, anything you write I’m interested in because you make it interesting and I want/need to know about whatever that is. It frustrates me that I do not know how to forward your posts to those who would love them, too. Yesterday’s would have been especially appreciated by my son, Patrick. You would think giving him a subscription to the blog would take care of that problem but he still believes the Bible is the Word of God and probably would not read the posts on a regular basis. Still, if I could forward an occasional post, then that might begin the process of his evolving into the kind of Christian I am now.

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    Daniel  September 12, 2017

    I am extremely interested in seeing this book develop and be published. I’ve even gone to the book store before looking for something along these lines but didn’t find what I was seeking.

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    Wilusa  September 12, 2017

    I admit I haven’t been interested in topics like The Odyssey…I find them boring. But I realize those posts are related to the scholarly book you’re planning, not the trade book. When I think about it, I’m not sure what recent posts (if any) *have* been about the trade book!

    I know I, believing in reincarnation, would be especially interested in Origen…why he thought of it, and why his views were either condemned, or dismissed and allowed to be forgotten. (Did he believe *all* humans, or only some, were incarnations of “semi-fallen angels”?) I find it hard to believe anyone would embrace the idea of reincarnation without having heard *evidence* for it…someone’s having believable memories of a previous life.

    As for “Heaven” and “Hell”…I’m certainly interested in how the concepts developed, but I’m not sure how lengthy a description would hold my interest.

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    Jana  September 12, 2017

    I’m excited about your next book Dr Ehrman .. can’t wait for it to be published! As thorough a researcher you are with an easy to read writing style (I’m a layman and still grappling with concepts) as well as truthful, it will be an enlightening read!! I’ve got a lot of catching up to do now that the rains have stopped and internet more reliable. (btw: Although located on the Atlantic/Gulf side, we felt the 8.1 earthquake on the Pacific … Chiapas .. woke me up and I watched my house walls tremble)

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    Kernes  September 12, 2017

    my hobby is the study of US history, origins of religion in the south, and the relationship of theology to politics, the civil war & current events, so I look forward to your study of beliefs in an afterlife.

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    Ana  September 12, 2017

    I think that origin of views of heaven and hell is kind of old trash. Sort of like where the views of flat Earth originated from. I might be wrong. It depends on personal level of education on the subject. On the other hand if you can provide some new and interesting perspective it may be worth presenting such views.

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