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A Satirical Lesson about the Afterlife

One of the things I’m planning to emphasize in my scholarly book on voyages to the afterlife, is that the overarching point of most of these narratives is not only (or even primarily) to reveal what will actually happen to people after they die, but to encourage them to live in certain ways now, while they can.  This is true not only for the Christian accounts but for pagan ones as well.

One of the most hilarious authors from Greco-Roman antiquity is Lucian of Samosata, a second-century CE author who wrote numerous satires that we still have, poking fun at philosophers, religious leaders, tyrants, and most anyone who he thought led a ridiculous life or had ridiculous views.  A number of his works portray fictitious journeys to the realms of the dead.

One of them is often simply titled “Voyage to the Underworld.”  It is about the stark contrast between a fabulously wealthy tyrant named Megapenthes and a dirt-poor cobbler named Mycillus.  The contrast is not so much between their ultimate fates – they both, in fact …

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What Did the Angels Tell the Shepherds? It Depends. Mailbag Sept. 10, 2017
Looking at Hell



  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 7, 2017

    This story reminds me of Buddhism. If I understand it correctly, one of the main goals of Buddhism is to deal with suffering and the best way to do this is to not want much. By not wanting much, one does not suffer the pain of not having stuff. This reminds me of Mycillus who does not want much.

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  September 7, 2017

    What I find interesting, Dr. Ehrman, is that at some point there was a pivot where the afterlife was no longer seen as “egalitarian,” a sudden leveling of everyone’s fortunes; but, rather, everything was reversed. Those who were successful, wealthy and in power in this world would be become poor, miserable and powerless in the next world; and those who are poor, miserable and powerless in this world would be happy, fulfilled and powerful in the next (e.g. Luke 14:11). “The first will be last, and the last, first.” I’m curious at what point this doctrine of the Reversal of Fortunes took hold in Judaism. Was it during the Hasmonean era, as you’ve suggested thus far?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 8, 2017

      Yes, that is when it can be traced to, and the shift appears to be driven by persecution of Jews for being Jews. But the other big question is what drove the shift (much earlier) in Greek (and related) cultures, as evidenced, for example, already in Plato’s myth of Er.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  September 8, 2017

        In the research for my Jesus novel I read some of the works of the Cynic philosophers, and they seemed to have held a similar view. Meanness was seen as a virtue, and riches a vice — an idea tersely expressed by Diogenes of Sinope when he said: “He has the most who is most content with the least.” Though, for my money, I think Diogenes said it best when he said: “In a rich man’s house, there is no place to spit but his face.”

        It seems that this concept of virtue through austerity flourished in the Axial Age, as it informed philosophies from China (the ancient Chinese philosophers regularly spoke of the wisdom and virtue of hermits and ascetics) to India (it is the bedrock tenet of Buddhism, Jainism and most strands of Hinduism) to the Levant (the Essenes, Jeremiah, Jesus) and Greece (the Cynics).

        There are socio-psychological reasons for why we see austerity as a virtue, which I won’t get into here, but let’s just say it has something to do with our natural feelings of compassion and pity for the meek, and our innate aversion to avarice and hoarding.

        • Avatar
          godspell  September 13, 2017

          Our possessions tend to possess us.

          As to ‘innate aversion’, it can’t be as innate as all that, looking at the world we have made for ourselves.

          Philosophy and religion both strive to contain our innate Darwinian desire for acquisition–which is to say, for security, that thing we all fervently believe in that is more fictive than any god ever worshiped. And they contain it most imperfectly. The new philosophies don’t even seem to try anymore, and there are Christian ministers preaching a gospel of wealth to the sheep they fleece, without any apparent fear of eternal damnation (and who could be more deserving of it?)

          Please note, most of those famous thinkers who have chided wealth have possessed at least some for themselves. It’s easy for feel contempt for what you already have, or could obtain without difficulty.

          Jesus is rare among them in having been born to deep poverty, then embracing absolute poverty, and yet feeling only pity for the rich. Poor wretches.

          I can’t quite join him in that, but I aspire to it.

          • talmoore
            talmoore  September 14, 2017

            I mean our innate aversion to other people’s avarice, not our own. We love to be greedy. We don’t love others to be greedy.

  3. Avatar
    Eric  September 7, 2017

    Hilarious, and I would say philosophically non-trivial. Does get rewarded by not having to drink from the Lethe, so he can enjoy his improved state for eternity?

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    timber84  September 7, 2017

    Have you done any research on Pascal’s Wager? I am interested in reading a book about Blaise Pascal and Pascal’s Wager. Can you recommend any books on the subject?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 8, 2017

      I don’t know of any books about it. It’s a pretty simple wager, and in my view far too simplistic (as if one’s eternity is based on correctly answering a one-question true-false exam….)

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  September 11, 2017

      It’s not a book, but I found this:
      Geoffrey Brown, in “A Defence of Pascal’s Wager,” (1984) (http://www.jstor.org/stable/20006079?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents) states Pascal’s argument as follows:
      “(1) Either God exists or He does not.
      “(2) Reason cannot tell us whether He exists or not.
      “(3) If he exists, then those who believe in Him will be rewarded with an infinity of infinitely happy life.
      “(4) If He does not exist, every man’s life will end with his natural death.
      “(5) On the strength of the preceding premises, the prudent man will choose to believe in God.”
      As Brown acknowledges in his defence of this line of reasoning, Pascal does not introduce the possibility of eternal torment, or even boredom. (Boredom is my least-worst formulation, not Brown’s) So Pascal’s Wager may work if the stake is a finite lifetime of doing as one pleases. The sacrifice, as I understand it, is choosing a life consistent with belief in a God that is beyond human comprehension.
      I will go out on a limb and suggest that, if Pascal were writing now, he would argue that any person who adopts a religious or ethical system that acknowledges a universal principle to which one should commit oneself, sacrificing the right to complete freedom of action in favor of the restrictions of a religious/ethical life, loses absolutely nothing in the end, even if no such universal principle exists. This is about what the author of Ecclesiastes argued some two millenia earlier, is it not?

      • Bart
        Bart  September 11, 2017

        Yes, part of the problem is that Pascal was not acutely aware of religious pluralism, as we are today. You can take Paschal’s wager as a Christian and be damned if certain Muslims are right, or take it as a Muslim and be damned if certain Christians are right. So taking the wager is not as simple as saying yes or no.

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    ardeare  September 7, 2017

    Ah, which is why we should strive for knowledge and good memories while in this world.

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    Apocryphile  September 7, 2017

    Very entertaining! I’d never read this story before. I’m naturally intrigued whenever I see (or think I see!) connections or similarities between the mythology or religious beliefs of different cultures. Much of this is no doubt due to the basic experiences we all have as humans by simply living in this world. One thing that caught my eye was Lucian’s comment “somehow or other such things are like glue – the soul sticks to them”. I know his story was meant to be satirical, but to me, this parallels the Hindu idea of samsara – the reason for the soul’s cycles of rebirth. Somehow, if the soul is still attached to the things of this world, it gets “stuck” in this cycle and can’t move on to Nirvana. However, between lives there is something like the soul’s drinking from the waters of Lethe, so that they generally forget their prior lives on earth. In yet another ancient culture, Egypt, we see the heart serving as a witness to a person’s earthly deeds (instead of the lamp and bed), and the crocodile-headed chimera Ammut (Cerberus in other guise) ready to devour said heart if it weighs heavier than the feather of truth.

    Whether these similarities in the mythology of the underworld indicate cultural contact, or whether they spring from some deep psychological/anthropological/spiritual well within us, they are immensely intriguing. I know you can’t cover the full gamut of world mythology on the afterlife in your book, but it would be great if you could touch upon the possible connections or influence of ideas beyond just the Greco-Roman and Jewish worlds on later Christian views of the afterlife.

  7. Avatar
    godspell  September 7, 2017

    An interesting counterpart to the parable of Lazarus and Dives, which only appears in Luke. There the rich man goes to hell, and the poor sick beggar, who only the dogs took pity on in life goes to heaven, and apparently those in hell can see up to heaven and recognize how the last are now first, and the first last. (This is a very popular story in my very hispanic working class Catholic neighborhood, judging by all the votary candles I see with images of Lazarus and the dogs who licked his sores).

    It’s a simpler story, with a moral that is perhaps more attuned to the tastes of poor people. I like the satiric bite of Lucian’s tale, but find more genuine compassion–and wrath towards those who abuse their station in life, and fail to pity those less fortunate until it’s too late to matter–in the parable.

    However, they are similar enough to beg the question–Luke’s gospel was written in the first century–Lucian’s satire in the second.

    Could this be a case of a pagan writer influenced by a Christian? Or did this story exist before Lucian wrote it down, and ‘Luke’ was adapting it to his own purposes?

    • Avatar
      godspell  September 7, 2017

      To be clear, I don’t mean to suggest the stories are so similar that one must have influenced the other, and this might even have been a sort of mini-genre–stories counter-posing the very different fates two different people met in the afterlife, and what lessons we should draw from those fates.

      However, if there is no afterlife, what’s the point of Lucian’s story? The cobbler hardly seems to have enjoyed his life, let alone spent it philosophizing–and if there had been no Hades, the rich man would not have had time to regret the way he’d wasted his mortal span on frivolous pursuits and possessions.

      “When you got nothing you got nothing to lose” is the point of Lucian’s story. The point of Luke’s is “You have everything to lose, no matter who you are. And everything to gain.” A different kind of equality in death.

      Well, you know, I’m a sucker for any story with dogs in it. You going to talk about the Mahabarata in your book? Specifically, the final part of the story, Yudisthira’s ascent to heaven while still in bodily form. There’s a dog in that one too. 😉

    • Bart
      Bart  September 8, 2017

      Scholars have often argued that both tales are based on older models, especially the Egyptian folktale of Setme Khamwas and Si-Osiris. I’ll eventually get around to summarizing that story and showing the similarities (and differences) with Luke’s Lazarus and rich man.

      • Avatar
        godspell  September 8, 2017

        That story is written from the perspective of two living men who visit the Egyptian land of the dead, as one wishes to show the other that the poor are sometimes better off after death than the living–that the tables can be turned. Lucian and Luke are writing from the perspectives of two men who have died. So that’s a major difference.

        The basic idea of role reversal after death–the last first, the first last–must have occurred independently in basically every culture where there was great social and material inequity. Even in Egypt, where the most wealthy and powerful went to extraordinary lengths to make sure they did, in fact, take it with them.

        Since Lazarus and Dives only occurs in Luke, there is a real chance it’s not a parable told by Jesus.

        Jesus believed in the Kingdom–which would transform the world of the living, and end all injustice and inequality forever–so Lazarus and Dives could be something tacked on later, as Christianity came to terms with the fact that the Kingdom was not coming anytime soon.

        I’ve wondered sometimes how much importance Jesus really attached to the afterlife. Why worry so much about this world, if there’s a perfect one awaiting you?

        He was a bit of a Wobbly, perhaps. Like Joe Hill. “And there’ll be pie in the sky when you die–that’s a lie!” Both dreamed of remaking the world they lived in. And both were done to death by the state.

        Patterns that keep recurring.

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    plparker  September 8, 2017

    Or there is something like the following, a contemporary treatment of the afterlife, just recently published. LOL! The book is actually titled “Afterlife”:

    [From Amazon book summary:] “An instant Wall Street Journal bestseller. Soon to be a major motion picture from Imagine Entertainment and producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer.

    Between life and death lies an epic war, a relentless manhunt through two worlds…and an unforgettable love story.

    The last thing FBI agent Will Brody remembers is the explosion—a thousand shards of glass surfing a lethal shock wave.

    He wakes without a scratch.

    The building is in ruins. His team is gone. Outside, Chicago is dark. Cars lie abandoned. No planes cross the sky. He’s relieved to spot other people—until he sees they’re carrying machetes.

    Welcome to the afterlife.

    Claire McCoy stands over the body of Will Brody. As head of an FBI task force, she hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep in weeks. A terrorist has claimed eighteen lives and thrown the nation into panic.

    Against this horror, something reckless and beautiful happened. She fell in love…with Will Brody.

    But the line between life and death is narrower than any of us suspect—and all that matters to Will and Claire is getting back to each other.

    From the author of the million-copy bestselling Brilliance Trilogy comes a mind-bending thriller that explores our most haunting and fundamental question: What if death is just the beginning?”

  9. Robert
    Robert  September 8, 2017

    Not so very different from some of the parables of Jesus. What do you think of Lucian of Samosata’s view of Peregrinus Proteus being one of the early Christian authors?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2017

      My guess is that he’s making it up — but it would be so great if The Gospel according to Peregrinus were discovered!!

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    SidDhartha1953  September 10, 2017

    Today’s gospel from the RCL is Mt. 18:15-20. It struck me as a model of progressive discipline as used in education and the workplace. Are there other ancient models of the same or did Christians invent this practice?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 11, 2017

      I don’t know. Critical scholars have long thought that hte passage could not go back to Jesus, but that it represents a way of resolving conflict in Matthew’s own Christian community.

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    SidDhartha1953  September 12, 2017

    Jumping around the NT here: Philippians 1:19-26, according to HCSB notes, follows typical stoic meditations on suicide. Do many scholars think Paul may have been considering ending his own life in order not to be forced to renounce Christ? Did any early Christians have a tolerant attitude toward suicide, that you know of?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 14, 2017

      I’m not sure if it is a widely held idea, but some scholars have argued this, and I’ve thought so (based on their arguments) for over twenty years!

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    JRH  April 6, 2018

    I assume this story is just a parable and the occupation of the poor man is irrelevant. However, were cobblers really poor in the ancient world? I assume that everyone needed shoes, since walking was the de facto means of transportation. So it’s seems to me that a good shoe maker/repairer would earn a decent living, (at least compared to beggars or slaves.) So how likely was it that cobblers were poor?

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