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Does the Afterlife Matter for Other Things?

This past Friday I went up to NYC to meet with my editor, and the marketing team, at my new publisher Simon & Schuster, both to discuss the next book coming out in September AND to talk (with my editor herself) about the possible new book, the one I am tentatively calling The Invention of the Afterlife (dealing with the question of where the widespread views of heaven and hell come from, especially since they are not actually what the Old Testament, Jesus, or the NT writers actually taught).  This was kind of a first pitch, to get them interested.

They are indeed interested, and so now the next step for me will be to write a prospectus to get them to agree formally and finally.  I want to do this now, so I don’t spend months reading about the topic – both ancient writings that deal with the afterlife and modern scholarship on the matter – only to find out that this will *not* be my next book.   Just to write the prospectus I still will have to do a lot more reading, but not MASSIVE amounts of reading.  Once we’ve agreed to the book, then we move to the very big pile of books.

As I think I have mentioned on the blog, this is a very different book for me in one obvious respect.  For (nearly) all of my other books, I have tried to find something about the Bible, the life of Jesus, or the history of the early church that would be interesting to a general reader.  USUALLY this reader has been someone already interested in the Bible or early Christianity.  For people like that, what can I write about that would be especially interesting?

This book is different because …

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What I’m Thinking about the Afterlife
Me and Jesus

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Comments

  1. tskorick  March 8, 2017

    Some eastern/Asiatic religions dating back to the iron/bronze ages and their embarrassing cousin the Western New Age movement espouse a lot of ephemeral, elemental visions of the nature of the afterlife while other Middle Eastern and post-Christian faiths are very physical and corporeal in how they view it. It appears to me that, on a sliding scale of afterlife state interpretation from spiritual to corporeal, the closer a given faith’s teaching gets to the latter the more fundamentalist and literalistic the religion appears to be with regard to their scriptures. There are of course exceptions, even within a given major faith. Obviously Christianity contains a number of denominations that fit either description.

    I wish I had a good survey on the general topic to recommend, but most of what I’ve read has been pretty awful. If you do find something worth reading I’d love to see a bibliography




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  2. doug  March 8, 2017

    I don’t believe in an afterlife. But I once did. Part of the difference for me as a non-believer is a greater desire to do a lot of things, both fun and altruistic, in my life, because once I die – that’s the end. It’s a matter of degree, since when I believed in an afterlife, I also wanted to do a lot of things. But if I didn’t get as much done as I wanted – well, I still had heaven to look forward to.




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    • Alanizd1  March 10, 2017

      I quit believing in my strict Catholic religion my 10th of 12 years of parochial education. Four of those 12 were high school with Jesuits! I’m an agnostic and I mostly agree with Doug’s comments above. I wake up each day happy that I have another; I try to have as much fun as possible each day, and I respond to a deep seated belief that each man is my brother and we are all in this together. My good deeds are not about an afterlife which I don’t think exists. I wish I had a scholarly reference to give you but I don’t, just my ethic and non-belief in an afterlife. Also, I am very liberal if that means anything but even when my parents taught me strict Catholicism, they were very liberal. Could have a lot to do with their being 2nd generation Mexican Americans. Hope you satisfy the publishers without a lot of hassle.




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  3. tcasto  March 8, 2017

    I’ve heard others express the thought that, because they are living for the next world, not this one, that matters such as climate change are of no regard. You could same about pollution and poverty too, I guess.

    What I would like Christians to embrace is the idea that, if there is a God, he gave us this world to preserve and enjoy, and to leave it a little better than we found it. I don’t think that should take anything away from living for Christ; I don’t think it’s idols of the heart. I think you should be able to love God and still do the right thing in this world.




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  4. Adam0685  March 8, 2017

    I wonder if views of the afterlife for many early Christians (and many Christians today) is ultimately related to/the outcome of their view that God is interested in ultimately rewarding/punishing, particularly in the ultimate sense for those who are thought to be condemned to hell forever or rewarded forever in heaven. Much of early Christian belief seems to be rooted in/the outcome of the view of a God who punishes or rewards in the afterlife–and much of the beliefs that developed is focused on coming up with a theological system of why this is the case and how one is saved from punishment in the afterlife (e.g., the meaning of Jesus’ death – God punishes Jesus for the sin of others to save those who believe from punishment in the afterlife).

    A book on this may want to explore not only what early Christian views about the afterlife were, but also how the view in a God who judges, punishes, and rewards in the afterlife affected the origins and development of early Christian beliefs and economics, politics, justice system, etc in the history of the West, for example. Did the early architects of economics, the justice system, etc. talk about hell/heaven/afterlife in their theoretical works that shaped the views and practices of the West?




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  5. Todd  March 8, 2017

    You said in your previous article that you are an atheist and that this life on this planet is all there is. That is a statement of belief due to the absence of empirical evidence one way or another that there is or is not a god or an afterlife. To say there is a god also cannot be proven empirically for the same reason. The writer of 1 John says straight out the “No one has seen God” and uses love as evidence of God’s presence. That is a belief statement. God is not provable scientifically. It is a matter of belief.

    The same is true of an afterlife. No one has come back from the dead, that we can prove with tools of science and is also a matter of belief.

    Belief in a god or in an afterlife come simply from people in history from various religious and non-religious positions saying that there is or is not a god or an afterlife. Such testimony is also based only on personal belief.

    I think that for your book it would be best to examine the historical testimony found in the early documents as to how people understood the afterlife and make it quite clear that all of the various positions concerning this topic is based always on one’s belief and not on verifiable evidence.

    I would like to suggest that you write the book laying out the various positions on the afterlife and leave the issue totally open-ended while indicating that each position is one of personal belief…that is, no one can prove this either way.

    I think that a conclusion that states that there is definitely not an afterlife is a bad idea and will turn faith based readers away from the book.

    On the contrary, producing a book that clearly outlines the many ways that the Judeo-Christian documents view the afterlife and leaving the conclusion up to the individual’s belief would be very useful to read, especially if the study includes a comparison to the early traditions on this subject compared to various contemporary western views on this issue.

    Those are my suggestions. Please keep us posted.




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    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2017

      Yes, I am definitely not planning on taking a personal stand in which I definitively state there is no afterlife! I may express this as my personal view at this stage in my life, but I think it’ would be flippin’ crazy to be dogmatic or even insistent on the point.




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  6. talmoore
    talmoore  March 8, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, the following study is full of complex economic models that you can simply skip over (I’m not even convinced the mathematical models are accurate). However, it’s a good summary of some of the things I’ve been expressing in my comments on this current discussion of the afterlife. Like I said, you can just skip over the eyeglazing math (which is mainly concerned with the correlation of belief in a just world and tax rates, because economists are obsessed with taxes) and simply read the theory, especially the section on the afterlife.

    https://www.princeton.edu/~rbenabou/papers/beliefs%20qje%201%20web.pdf




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    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2017

      Great, thanks.




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      • Todd  March 10, 2017

        I am agnostic in many things simply because it is not always possible to know with certainty regarding them, such as an after life, the existence or nature of a god, and so on. It is just better to find happiness within ourselves and to live this life as compassionately as we can, and what come after this life is not something we can know. This is a good discussion and a project I do know will be a good book to read. Blessing to you.




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  7. JamesFouassier  March 8, 2017

    What I’d like to see, Professor, is some discussion about why humans need to believe in an afterlife. What is it about the human psyche that rebels at the idea that one day a lifetime of experience, emotion, knowledge, accomplishment is suddenly obliterated? From the dawn of humankind there always has been some kind of belief that life, in some way or form, does not end with physical death; almost always it involves not just continuation but also an extension of consciousness that in some way preserves the identity of the individual; he or she basically remains what he or she was in physical life. Why is it so important that all that we were in our physical existence in the here and now somehow will go on?




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  8. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  March 8, 2017

    Bart, are you familiar with the website and TV series, “Closer to Truth” hosted by Robert Lawrence Kuhn? It covers a vast number of subjects from quantum physics to the existence, nature, and possibility of an afterlife. He goes around the world talking to scholars, scientists, philosophers, and others about each question.
    Here’s the URL for the section “Life After Death?” https://www.closertotruth.com/topics/consciousness/persons/life-after-death
    The contributors are shown on the lower part of the page; you can arrow to the right to see them all.
    I don’t know how much they get into the greater significance but I’m sure some do at different points.




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  9. wostraub  March 8, 2017

    One question that immediately comes to mind is whether Christianity’s sweeping popularity in its first few centuries had anything to do with the promise of a pleasant, eternal afterlife. Bart often uses the term “living close to the edge” in his books and talks, referring to how the lives of most people long ago were so difficult that they just wanted to get through this life with relative ease — the afterlife wasn’t worth bothering with. That’s certainly not the case now, as eternal life seems to be the only thing motivating today’s Christians.




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  10. jdh5879  March 8, 2017

    I think that conservative Christians denial of climate change and lack of interest in social justice issues is very much an USAmerican phenomenon. Christians I have met from Africa and Latin America (although theologically conservative) are still very concerned with these issues.




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  11. sladesg  March 8, 2017

    Surely you’ll be able to tie in information you’re currently researching on the afterlife with your prior research into your book about memory. My point is, from a psychological standpoint, an afterlife grants peace of mind in the present, along with a set of moral beliefs that guide us as a society (that are to ultimately make our individual lives better, and thus give more peace of mind (theoretically)). As a product of the American South, culturally I’ve been knee-deep in the Church my whole life, and heaven/hell is always a topic not too far distant. With everyone around me believing there is an afterlife, it shapes who we are as people, or at least has a big impact, but it (surely) factors into how our brains process memories and/or information concerning the afterlife, ghosts, visions, etc. I suppose my main point is this: I don’t think you should dispose your prior psychology research as you move onto this other subject, as I see that they are inherently intimately related.




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  12. BrianUlrich  March 8, 2017

    On a very basic level, this is one example of an idea developing and spreading in a religious contexts. Because ideas develop and spread in religious contexts still today, understanding how and why that happens is itself valuable.




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  13. seahawk41  March 8, 2017

    Do you intend to focus mostly on Christian views (and their Jewish background)? What about Islam or other belief systems. Obviously, the beliefs of *some* Muslims are having a critical impact on our world. But your book could become very large if you try to cover faiths other than Christianity. I suspect there is plenty to deal with just in the realm of Christianity and Judaism!




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  14. cheito
    cheito  March 8, 2017

    DR Ehrman:

    Your Comment:

    What my editor wants to know is how views of the afterlife might have broader significance for something other than themselves.

    My Comment:

    Believing in the after is considerably significant if one desires to be with loved ones forever and not just for however many years we live in this life.

    For example I believe I will see my mother again. However, If when I die all ends, and I cease to exist forever, then I will not see her again. That doesn’t make any sense to me!

    If one has children would not one want to see them again? If there is an after life then one will see them again, and also their offspring if they have any. That makes a lot of sense to me!

    To me life would be pointless if I believed that this life is all there is.

    As far as I’m concerned, the universe and it’s vastness would be a waste if all I’m going to live is sixty-five or maybe ninety or less.

    I want to live forever and one day visit other galaxies and see other wonders that I haven’t yet seen.

    I want to see all my relatives that have passed on and those I’ve never met.

    I want to Jesus, Abraham, George Washington, etc.

    So the implications of the afterlife are as vast as the universe itself and as deep as our mind will reveal to us when this mortal will put on immortality.

    Well this is one insight, I hope it helps DR Ehrman.




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    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  March 10, 2017

      Comedian Julia Sweeney tells a great story about two Mormon missionaries coming to the climax of their pitch to her: “And you can spend eternity with your family!!” Her response was, “Oh no”

      That an idea makes sense only means that it is understandable. It has nothing to do with whether the idea is true or not.




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    • cheito
      cheito  March 12, 2017

      My edited version:

      What my editor wants to know is how views of the afterlife might have broader significance for something other than themselves.

      My Comment:

      Believing in the afterlife is considerably significant if one desires to be with loved ones forever and not just for however many years we live in this life.

      For example I believe I will see my mother again. However, If when I die all ends, and I cease to exist forever, then I will not see her again. This doesn’t make any sense to me!

      If one has children would not one want to see them again? If there is an after life then one will see them again, and also their offspring if they have any. This makes a lot of sense to me!

      To me life would be pointless, if this life is all there is.

      As far as I’m concerned, the universe and it’s vastness would be a waste if all I’m going to live is sixty-five or maybe ninety or less years.

      I want to live forever and one day visit other galaxies and see other wonders that I haven’t yet seen.

      I want to see all my relatives that have passed on and those I’ve never met.

      I want to see Jesus, Abraham, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, etc.

      So the implications of the afterlife are as vast as the universe itself, and as deep as our minds will reveal to us when this mortal will put on immortality by the grace and power of God in Christ Jesus.

      Well this is one insight, I hope it helps DR Ehrman.




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  15. Boltonian  March 8, 2017

    I know you have said that you want to stick to your last and make the Bible your focus but I would urge you to at least read about Buddhist beliefs in this field. My wife is a Therevada Buddhist (although fairly lukewarm) from Thailand and we have some spirited discussions from time to time about re-incarnation. How can one’s behaviour in this life determine, or at least affect, what one becomes in the next? How (and why) are we being punished in this life for what one did in the last? What is the mechanism that causes re-incarnation? Etc etc.




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  16. flshrP  March 8, 2017

    Of course the belief in the existence or non-existence of an afterlife has enormous repercussions for human society.
    9/11 would not have happened if those Muslim fanatics had not believed completely in an afterlife of pleasure as a reward for their suicides.
    For other believers in an afterlife, their struggles against perceived injustices in this life may be endured more or less stoically when buttressed by the belief in a Judgement Day in which the dead will arise and the guilty will be punished.




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  17. Hume  March 8, 2017

    This is more for your previous post on why you are not a christian. Doubt! Christianity punishes the non-believer for non-belief. Even if the rationality endowed by the creator, the mental faculties given to us by Him, lead us to doubt bronze age texts, changed over the ages, that contain bronze age morality, and borrowed myths from other civilizations – we will be cast into the fire. How is this fair Bartholomew?! To me the punishment does not fit the crime.




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  18. tcastner  March 8, 2017

    I can’t remember whether I read this in a study or if this was based on conversations that I have had with a number of people (maybe Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture), but premillenial dispensationalists tend to believe that things will keep getting worse until the very end when the earth will be destroyed before it is recreated. For that reason, environmental activism is a complete waste of time. I had a youth pastor express that view to me in New Hampshire in the early 1990s. A 19th century postmillenialist might see greater need to reform society, including its environmental ills in order to usher in the millenium and the Second Coming.

    Care of creation edited by R.J. Berry and Redeeming Creation by Van Dyke and Mahan each address newer Evangelical approached to “Creation Care” as it has been rebranded. There appears to be a growing emphasis in some evangelical circles on the final state being on a renewed earth which appears to be opening more avenues for environmental thinking. I think that end times scenarios might be more important that views of the after life per se. C.S. Lewis’ Last Battle might also be interesting from an afterlife/environmental perspective.




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  19. Tony  March 8, 2017

    ­
    “Does the Afterlife Matter for Other Things?”

    Belief in the afterlife influences political orientation. Here is a recent Pew study that touches on the subject:
    http://www.pewforum.org/2015/11/03/u-s-public-becoming-less-religious/

    Not surprisinly the survey findings state that:
    “In some ways, the basic patterns in religion and politics in the United States remain unchanged. Some religious groups (including evangelical Protestants and Mormons) are generally supportive of the Republican Party, while other groups (including Jews, religious “nones,” Hispanic Catholics and members of churches that belong to the historically black Protestant tradition) tend to be more Democratic in their partisan allegiances”.

    I read your recent posting with interest and your analysis of the early Christian beliefs in the cosmic battle between good (the celestial Jesus Christ and God), and evil (Satan and his minions) is spot on. However, the celestial Jesus was the main player in this drama – and never a spokesperson for the apocalyptic beliefs.

    The creator of the earthly Jesus of Nazareth character put the apocalyptic beliefs of Paul, and his followers, on the lips of their Jesus. It was Paul, (preceded by Cephas), who expected the imminent apocalyptic end times and the arrival of the celestial Jesus from their visions and scripture interpretations.

    The early “Gospel Jesus” sayings merely carried Paul’s apocalyptic component forward – for awhile.




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  20. thebigskyguy  March 8, 2017

    While I think it would be very interesting to explore how a person’s views on an afterlife might affect other behavior, I think it would be very difficult to isolate causality to just one aspect of their worldview. If someone believes in an afterlife and is skeptical of climate change, that may be caused by the underlying dogma, rather than just a belief in an afterlife.

    It would not be a stretch to assert a hypothesis that those with a firm belief in an afterlife also have a low tolerance for uncertainty and greater willingness to follow authoritarian figures. And that they are easily manipulated by a charismatic religious authority giving them a sense of certainty, as well as a manipulative politician giving them easy answers. But it would expensive to prove.




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