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Life After Death Discussions.

Enoch’s Vision of the Realms of the Dead

In discussing the research I’m doing on (human) journeys to the realm(s) of the dead, I have so far mentioned two in particular that occur outside of Christian circles and much earlier: the famous account of Odysseus’s vision of the dead in Homer’s Odyssey book 11 and Aeneas’s journey to the underworld in Virgil’s Aeneid, book 6.   These are very similar to one another (since Virgil was basing his account on Homer’s) but also very different: in particular, whereas in Homer every spirit has the same uninteresting and boring forever in Hades, in Virgil the righteous are given fantastic rewards and the wicked graphic torment, with the possibility of reincarnation to have another go at it. .  Now I introduce a Jewish version of this kind of journey, found in the non-canonical book of 1 Enoch, which has many similarities to Virgil  (though not so much with Homer).  Here too the righteous are rewarded and the wicked punished.  But there are (a couple of) gradations from one kind of sinner to the next.  And moreover, [...]

2020-04-02T23:59:26-04:00April 9th, 2019|Afterlife, Early Judaism|

A Roman Vision of Heaven and Hell

In our world, most people who think about the afterlife suppose that when we die we either cease to exist or receive our due rewards (rewards/punishments).  I have pointed out that the latter view did not originate in Jewish or Christian circles, but in pagan, going back some time before the Greek philosopher Plato in the fourth century BCE.   The Greeks influenced their later conquerors the Romans in many, many ways, one of which involves their views of the afterlife.  The idea of fantastic rewards or horrific torments to come after death be seen in rather graphic terms in the writings of the most famous and talented poets of the Roman world, the great Latin poet Virgil (70-19 BCE), who like his Greek predecessor Homer, some seven centuries earlier, tells the story of a descent to the underworld.   Aeneas En Route to the Underworld Virgil is best known for his epic the Aeneid, named for its main character, Aeneas, a fugitive from the Trojan War who, in the wake of Troy’s disastrous defeat through [...]

2020-04-03T00:01:02-04:00March 27th, 2019|Afterlife, Greco-Roman Religions and Culture|

Did Ancient Greeks Invent Heaven and Hell?

Back, for a post, to the scholarly project I’m now doing on the “katabasis” traditions in early Christianity – the stories of people being given tours of / visions of both heaven and hell.   Some readers of the blog may be confused about why, on a blog devoted to the study of the New Testament and Early Christianity, I would want to discuss the Odyssey of Homer or the Aeneid of Virgil, etc.   It’s because I very much want to understand where the Christian ideas of the afterlife come from. In the traditional Christian view, after death a person is taken off to be rewarded with paradise or punished with the torments of hell came from.   In my book I’ll be arguing that idea did not come either from the Old Testament or from Jesus.  Then whence? My last post on this was on the Odyssey, where Odysseus goes to the underworld and there are no heaven and hell there either, just a place called Hades where everyone – whether great or small, valiant or [...]

2020-04-03T00:01:25-04:00March 26th, 2019|Afterlife, Greco-Roman Religions and Culture|

An Early Otherworldly Journey

Back to my scholarly monograph on Otherworldly Journeys.   I pointed out in previous posts that when scholars became particularly interested in these various accounts in ancient Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Christian circles, they were particularly intrigued with the question of where the idea came from, that a living person could see the realms of the dead.  I then devoted a couple of posts to exploring why, in the 19th century, this was a matter of such interest. I don’t at all deny that this question of “origins” is important, but I’m not particularly interested in pursuing myself.   There is already enough of that, for my taste!  I’m interested in other things, and am somewhat surprised that other scholars have not wanted to pursue them at greater length.   My book will not be an exhaustive study of the phenomenon – that would require several books, or, for at least a pretense of comprehensiveness, a book of over 600 pages.  And my days of 600-page books are over. I will instead be picking my spots and pursuing [...]

2020-04-03T00:05:21-04:00March 18th, 2019|Afterlife, Book Discussions|

The Passion for Origins

After I had engaged for a couple of months doing some real research and thinking seriously about my scholarly book on visions of and journeys to the realms of heaven and hell (tentatively entitled, for now, Otherworldly Journeys: Katabasis Traditions in Early Christianity), I thought I might start it all by doing a kind of history of research.   This is how scholarly books commonly used to start – especially books of German scholarship and American dissertations.  Chapter one would be a discussion of what all the other scholars had said about a topic, and use that history of scholarship to set up what the author him/herself wanted to explore, argue, and say that was different – whether it involved new data or new interpretations of old data, etc. That way of preceding was always highly informative (and often seen as essential: my dissertation advisor insisted on it!) but not always scintillating, and most books today are more driven by scintillation.   So I certainly was not planning, for this book, on giving a blow-by-blow account of [...]

The Original Obsession with Trips to the Afterlife

I have been interested in the early Christian texts that describe tours or visions of heaven and hell for a long time – I suppose since, when in graduate school, I first heard about the Apocalypse of Peter, which I have described on the blog before.   That’s not the sort of text we would have been reading at Moody Bible Institute.  (!)   But its description of the torments in hell – brief, yet lurid accounts of what will happen to people for all eternity, depending on what their characteristic sin was -- hooked me right away:  blasphemers, seductresses, adulterers, and people who lend money out at interest all get distinctive and rather ghastly eternal torments, specified for their crimes, (as if a person only commits one of them!). I didn’t realize at the time that we have several other accounts from Christian authors of the first few centuries; nor did I know, uneducated as I was, that it is one of the oldest tropes in literature, with examples in Gilgamesh, Homer, Plato, and on into [...]

2020-04-03T00:06:34-04:00March 8th, 2019|Afterlife, History of Christianity (100-300CE)|

My Next Scholarly Book: Visits to Heaven and Hell

As I have indicated on the blog before, I like to mix up the various kinds of research and writing projects that I do.  My time is not split evenly, but over the years I have written scholarly books for scholarly audiences, trade books for the wider reading public, and textbooks for college-level students.   Usually it’s one thing at a time, but as it turns out now I’m in the midst of three tasks – revising two of my textbooks (The New Testament and a Brief Introduction to the New Testament), writing up proposals for two future trade books to submit to my publisher to see if they would agree to publish them, and, principally, working on the next scholarly project. When I first started thinking about the scholarly project, I came up with the title: “Observing the Dead: Otherworldy Journeys in the Early Christian Tradition.”   I may still call it that – as you may know from my other posts over the years, titles usually are the last thing decided when it comes to [...]

Heaven and Hell, Finally

As I indicated earlier, I’m thinking about doing a series of posts on the various research and writing projects on my plate.   As of yesterday, my trade book on the afterlife is finished and moving into production (meaning that it will now go to a copy editor to deal with grammar and style, correct typos, etc.; it will then come back to me to review his/her suggested corrections; it will then….  and so it goes, till it comes out in a year from now). I had announced that the book was actually finished months ago, and it was, kind of.   But we still hadn’t settled on a title, and the title mattered because in the Preface of the book I discussed the title as a way of introducing the thesis and themes of the book.  If the title changed, well, that made the discussion irrelevant. We’ve settled now on the title.  I *had* been calling it “The Invention of the Afterlife,” which a lot of blog readers, and others, rather liked, and a lot of [...]

2020-04-03T00:06:52-04:00March 5th, 2019|Afterlife, Book Discussions|

The Aberrant View of the Afterlife in the Apocalypse of Peter

As we have seen on the blog before, when church leaders were deciding which books should be counted among the Christian Scriptures, to go along with the “Old Testament,” they used a range of criteria:   a book had to be written by an apostle or at least by an active companion of an apostle; it had to be widely used throughout the early Christianity communities; and it had to convey teachings that were widely accepted (by the “right” thinkers) as “orthodox.”  No false teachings allowed. And so my question about the Apocalypse of Peter.  What went wrong?  It was allegedly written by the apostle Peter himself.  Check.  It was known and used in widespread churches in the second and third centuries – not as much as, say, the Gospels and letters of Paul, but still, more than other books, such as 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude, that eventually made it into the NT.  So, widely enough used.  Check.  And its teachings about eternal torments for sinners and everlasting blessings for the saved [...]

2020-04-03T00:11:01-04:00January 30th, 2019|Afterlife, Christian Apocrypha|

Finally. Why Did the Apocalypse of Peter Not Make It Into the Canon?

  Sometimes in my courses on the New Testament my students have trouble understanding why I’m so interested (OK, obsessed) with the small details of the text, rather than the “big picture.”  Who cares if this or that little detail is a possible contradiction or problem for other reason?  What matters is the overall message, right? Yes, that’s right on one level.  But on another level (or two or three) the small details really matter.  Not only is the big picture made up of very small brush strokes – so if there are problems at the brush-stroke level there are problems with the picture itself – but also sometimes the details are the absolute key to understanding what’s happening in the big picture. And so I illustrate: when a detective arrives at the crime scene of a murder, he might start looking around for clues.   A finger print, a strand of hair.  And you can imagine the frustration of someone looking on:   There’s a DEAD BODY surrounded by BLOOD here!  Why are you looking for [...]

2020-04-03T00:11:17-04:00January 29th, 2019|Afterlife, Christian Apocrypha|

Other Manuscripts of the Apocalypse of Peter, And Why It Matters

In my last post about the Apocalypse of Peter I got down in the weeds a bit to talk about the discoveries and character of the two main manuscript sources of evidence we have of the document, a Greek version discovered in 1886-87 (the manuscript was produced in the sixth century or so) and an Ethiopic translation, found in a writing numbered among the so-called Pseudo-Clementines, and published in 1907-10.  Expert linguists have shown that this Ethiopic translation was made from an Arabic translation of a Greek original. Our natural inclination, as I pointed out, would be to think that a *translation*, twice removed from an original, could not be as reliable a guide to what a text originally said as an actual copy in the original language.   But the differences are so vast between the two, the Greek text and the Ethiopic, that scholars were driven to ask: which one is more like the book as originally written? Recall, the Ethiopic is much longer than the other.  It gives descriptions of more sins and [...]

2020-04-03T00:11:31-04:00January 28th, 2019|Afterlife, Christian Apocrypha|

How Do We Know What Was Originally in the Apocalypse of Peter?

It was a long time ago that I started a thread dealing with the question of why the Apocalypse of Peter did not make it into the New Testament but 2 Peter did.  I’ll give a summary here of where we are in the discussion just now, but if you want the full play-by-play, use the search function to look up Apocalypse of Peter; I’ve been blogging on it, on and off, since November 11.  And it’s time finally to bring it to a close. I’ve been delaying for a lot of reasons, the two most prominent are that I’m not completely confident in my views and that the matter is complicated and it has seemed like an inordinate amount of work for me to try to make it simple enough to be interesting to someone who isn’t completely obsessed with the manuscript tradition of the early Christian writings.  I.e., most people! A brief recap.  The Apocalypse of Peter provides an account of a guided tour of heaven and hell, given to Peter himself.  He [...]

2020-04-03T00:11:40-04:00January 25th, 2019|Afterlife, Christian Apocrypha|

Does Eternal Punishment Even Make Sense?

This will be my last post on the understandings of hell in early Christianity.  There is a lot more to be said, of course, but for our purposes this is enough.  I’ve been trying to show that there was a minority view held by some prominent thinkers – and possibly a lot of other Christian folk; there’s no way to tell – that said in the end everyone would be saved.   The dominant view, though, was that for non-believers and sinners, there would be hell to pay.  This would involve eternal torment. Once Christianity became a massive and widespread phenomenon – when there was no more persecution, and when philosophically oriented intellectuals had positions of authority in the church -- highly trained Christian thinkers could engage in reasoned and intellectual reflections on the fate of souls after death, and none did so more influentially than Augustine (354 -430 CE), the greatest theologian of Christian antiquity.   Augustine chose to conclude his great work, The City of God, with three books describing how the reality of God [...]

2020-04-03T00:14:41-04:00January 15th, 2019|Afterlife|

Eternal Torment Even for Christians?

I have been discussing the “universalistic” strand in parts of Christianity in the early centuries, which said that ultimately, everyone will be saved.  This was very much a minority opinion.  Most Christians continued to think that non-believers would be damned, forever, to some very nasty torments that would never end. In fact, in many circles, more and more people came to be subject to the fires of eternity in the Christian imagination.  In the fourth and fifth centuries, with a massive influx of converts there also came large numbers of less-than-devoted souls.  And the blessings and punishments of eternity almost inevitably came to be modified as a result.   By the end of the fourth century, when Christianity was well on the road to becoming the dominant religion of the empire, some Christian writers started to maintain that heaven was not the destination of all members of the church, or hell the fate reserved only for those outside of it.  On the contrary, Christian sinners too could be subject to the eternal wrath of God.  Especially [...]

2020-04-09T12:59:58-04:00January 14th, 2019|Afterlife, Fourth-Century Christianity|

The Happy News! No One Stays In Hell!

I don’t want to leave the impression that Origen was the only early Christian thinker who held to the idea of universal salvation, that in the end, everyone gets saved.  Very few (hardly any) would have agreed that the Devil too would get redeemed.  But that all humans will eventually “make it” was an attractive view to others – even “orthodox” Christian thinkers. Among scholars from the later church, the most famous theologian to countenance universal salvation was a self-confessed advocate of Origen, the late fourth-century Gregory of Nyssa (335-94 CE).  In a dialogue called “On the Soul and the Resurrection,” held with his own sister and fellow theologian Macrina the Younger, Gregory insists that suffering after death is not meant to be a punishment for sin, but as a way of driving evil out of the soul.  His sister agrees, at some length.  Moreover, she claims that when evil is finally driven out, it will disappear, since evil cannot exist outside of the will of a person.  And when that happens, Macrina maintains, there [...]

2020-04-07T14:49:23-04:00January 11th, 2019|Afterlife, Fourth-Century Christianity|

Did Early Christians Believe in Reincarnation?

In my previous post I talked about how Origen's view that souls existed before being born as humans related to his view that in the end, all things -- including the most wicked beings in the universe -- will convert and return to God: salvation for all!   Also connected to this idea was Origen's notion that after death people would be reborn to, in a sense, "give it another go."  Origen is our most famous Christian proponent of the idea of reincarnation. The idea of reincarnation had been floated for centuries before Origen.   In ancient Greece the great philosopher Pythagoras was widely believed to have been the first to perpetrate, or at least to popularize, the idea.    Later it was allegedly held by such figures as Parmenides and Empedocles, the latter of whom had allegedly said “Before now I was a boy, and a maid, a bush and a bird, and a dumb fish leaping out of the sea.” So too we find it in the Roman tradition, as when Virgil’s Aeneas visits the underworld [...]

2020-04-03T00:16:45-04:00January 9th, 2019|Afterlife|

Did We Exist Before We Were Born?

Yesterday I started explaining how the influential early Christian theologian Origen believed that at the end of time, all souls -- including the most wicked to have ever lived, even the demons and the devil -- will be saved.  To make better sense of why this happens at the end, it's important to understand what Origen thought happened at the beginning -- where souls came from in the first place In the first book of his theological work On First Principles, Origen explains how all sentient beings originally came into existence.   He argues that in eternity past, before the world was created, God created an enormous number of souls, whose purpose was to contemplate and adore him forever.   True adoration, of course, requires freedom of the will: beings need to choose to adore God if their worship is a true honor.  That means all souls must also have had the capacity to choose not to worship God, that is, to do evil.  None of these created souls was inherently evil, however, and none – not even [...]

2020-04-03T00:16:53-04:00January 8th, 2019|Afterlife|

Does Everyone Get Saved in the End?

I return now, at last, to the question of why the Apocalypse of Peter, an account of Peter’s tour of the glories of heaven and the torments of hell, did not make it into the New Testament.  It was a fairly widely known book in the first couple of Christian centuries, was accepted by some church leaders as part of the Scriptures, seemed to support acceptable Christian views, and was said to have been written by Jesus’ apostle himself.  So why did it come to be excluded?  No one in the ancient church actually says, and so we have to come up with a hypothesis.  I have one, but it’s a bit complicated, which is why I’ve been putting off talking about it (I’ve been out of town for a couple of weeks, away from my books, and wanted to make sure I could access them before giving this a shot). My thesis is that there are a couple of points of view in the book that were *eventually*, by the fourth century or so, [...]

2020-04-03T00:17:01-04:00January 7th, 2019|Afterlife|

Introducing the Apocalypse of Peter

As I said in my last post, I have been putting a lot of time into reading the scholarship on the Apocalypse of Peter, an early-second-century text that describes the torments of the damned in some graphic detail, and that almost came to be accepted as part of the New Testament canon.  I’m puzzling long and hard over why, in the end, it did not make it in.   It’s not an easy question to answer, given our scant discussions of it the matter antiquity, and given the fact that, well, there are no obvious disqualifying features.   But I’ll get to all that later.  First it’s important to summarize what the text is, so we’re all on the same page. Here is how I introduce it in my textbook on the New Testament. ****************************************************** The last Christian apocalypse for us to consider claims to be a firsthand account of the tortures of hell and the ecstasies of heaven written in the name of Jesus’ disciple Peter. As we have seen, there are a large number of [...]

2020-04-03T00:50:26-04:00November 12th, 2018|Afterlife, Early Christian Writings (100-400 CE)|

The De-apocalypticized Jesus of the Gospel of John

  An important request I received recently!   QUESTION At some point, I would like to hear more about the Gospel of John not having an apocalyptic view of Jesus.   RESPONSE This question relates closely to the work I’ve been doing on the views of the afterlife in the early Christian tradition.   As I’ve pointed out on the blog many times before, John was the last canonical Gospel written, probably 60-65 years after Jesus’ death.  One of the most striking things about John’s account of Jesus message, at this far a remove from Jesus’ life, is that his message has become seriously de-apocalypticized.  In John, Jesus no longer speaks of the coming intervention of God to bring in his glorious kingdom.  Instead, he principally talks about heaven above, and how people can go there by believing in him. That is not to say ... To see the rest of this post you will need to belong to the blog.  If you don't belong, join before it is too late!  The end is near! [...]

2020-04-03T00:50:47-04:00November 6th, 2018|Afterlife, Canonical Gospels, Reader’s Questions|
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