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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



  1. Avatar
    godspell  March 9, 2017

    I think people’s political and ethical behavior is mainly impacted by personality and the culture they were brought up in. Many religious people have been strong environmentalists–most of the early environmentalists were religious. Atheists are often also Libertarians in America, and thus oppose any government intervention in what people do to exploit the land, make money from it. Some of the most reactionary people I’ve met online are vehement unbelievers, as fanatical in their unbelief as any follower of Abrahamanic religion ever was–maybe worse–certainly less polite–and supremely irrational.

    And of course, many other atheists are nothing like this–so what does it mean, really? When people who believe in God and people who don’t can end up resembling each other much more than the people whose opinions on religion they share?

    There are so many ways to be religious, so many ways to believe in an afterlife, that I’m not sure the question, taken in itself, is meaningful. The first environmentalists in America were the native tribes. I doubt there was a single atheist among them. And they’re still fighting for nature, at Standing Rock. Pope Francis has declared his support for them.

    Humans of Good Will. That’s all that matters. Humans of Good Will, who believe we all need to make a future together. Whoever is not against us is for us.

  2. Avatar
    madmargie  March 9, 2017

    I personally do not believe in an afterlife. I believe this is all there is. That’s why I believe it’s so important to do all we are able to make life count for something other then ourselves.

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    andersg89  March 9, 2017

    I think you got it backwards. People of a conservative nature tend to adhere to whatever faith is proper in their social context while liberal people are more spiritual and open to new faiths (generally speaking of course).
    What those faiths are is mostly cultural, conservative Christians in Sweden belive strongly that the Bible say that we’re responsible for the maintenance of the Earth and they long for the days a strong government supported Christianity. But as it is impossible to elect a pro Christian government they support personal freedom in family matters etc. something conservative Russians do not since they actually have a strong government that exclusively support their brand of faith.

    As to belief in the afterlife you probably should recall the Japanese suicide pilots who died not for paradise but for a concept of honour. But the psychology is probably similar in nature to jihadi suicide bombers and other forms of religious martyrs.

    Best of luck with your new book

  4. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 9, 2017

    I am delighted that the editor has given you a “green” light. Your question about whether views of an afterlife are correlated with other views is an intriguing one. Maybe so, in some people. I have a neighbor, for example, who completely discounts his earthly existence focusing only on the afterlife to come so he does very little in his yard which, hence, always looks overgrown. In essence, his yard just doesn’t matter to him. Moreover, I have certainly been intrigued how in our culture certain views about religion and politics seem to often, not always, go together. For example, a fundamentalist view of the Bible probably predicts certain views about gays, abortion, guns, and illegal immigrants. It would be hard, however, to always attribute these views to views of the afterlife and the problem would be how to separate this afterlife view factor from other factors whatever they happen to be. In psychiatry, we are big on there being multiple determinants for almost everything.

    As usual, your thoughts about such matters are probably running way ahead of mine..

    For me, the issue of the afterlife is intriguing because it is a way of trying to put it all (the atonement, the divinity of Jesus, and on and on) together much as the ultimate goal of physics is the search for “the mathematical theory of everything.”

    I am sorry that I cannot be more helpful, but I have seen you churn away at stuff before and that gives me confidence that you will somehow work this out even if I may not get parts of the path at first.

  5. Avatar
    Rockwine  March 9, 2017


    A number of years ago, I discovered the significance of near-death experiences. It is also called life aftr life.. I have researched it over the years, and I have discovered that there are many thousands of people from all around the world, who have actually gone through the experience of dying and returning to relate their experiences. It seems that many many of them describe a situation in which a being of light put them through an examination. The issue seems to be love; caring for themselves caring for other people and obviously caring for life. Many of them were offered a future life if they so chose. But they were also given the choice of returning to their own life to take care of unfinished business until they die naturally. These people if they were willing to describe their experiences made it clear that they in fact no longer felt afraid of dying. In the meantime they were very concerned to be active in their life in the present. By the way there is no indication of hell.
    I tend to believe in these witnesses. And since I believe them I also believe that my life needs to be concerned with the world. And I in particular am very concerned about the quality of life, the quality of food and water and the future of our environment which affects us so much. I believe that global warming is going to happen. I believe that this will cause enormous suffering. Since I’m already nearly 80 years old this will not affect me that much I imagine. Since my wife is 20 years younger it may well affect her. I don’t want her to suffer. I think there is enough suffering in the world with out the effects of global warming. I love the earth with all its wonder and abundance. I feel angry that we are destroying it. Personally I can do very little about this. Our family of three myself my wife and our pussycat consume very little energy. I communicate to my clients my own value about the world we live in.

    I have always been concerned about the earth. But I’ve always believed that I would go into a future life when I died. I have also believed that in some ways I would be held responsible for my contribution during my life. I am sure that belief in a future life does intensify this. I have a difficulty in imagining why Christians, who believe in a Creator who created the world, do not care about his world. If God loves the world then why don’t Christians care for and take care of the world? However somewhere they must feel that they will be called to account for their attitude and lack of action.
    Therefore Bart I think that the issue of future life after death is actually extremely important. I believe that I will be examined on my behaviour. I don’t think that I will be condemned to hell because I think that is totally ridiculous and out of all proportion. But I do think that I may be put through a certain amount of discomfort in facing the truth about my own responsibility. Could I be doing more now about this issue? I’m really not sure.

  6. Avatar
    Eskil  March 9, 2017

    Afterlife matters for the third monotheistic sister as well.

    Muslims regard Mohammed as the restorer of the true monotheistic faith. I have noticed that some muslim scholars have welcomed the historical critical view that the doctrine of the trinity is a latter Christian innovation as proof of their tradition that latter Christians corrupter Jesus’ original gospel i.e. teachings about Allah.

    However, Quran has vivid and frequent descriptions of heaven and especially hell.

    As a comparison…

    “The Qur’an uses a number of different terms and phrases to refer to hell. Al-nar (the fire) is used 125 times, jahannam 77 times, jaheem (blazing flames) 26 times.”

    “Most [Bible] translations only contain the word “Hell” a dozen times or so and many do not contain the word at all. The primary word some Bibles translate “Hell” is the Greek word “Gehenna.””

    If and when the afterlife (including hell) was introduced into the Judeo-Christian religion by the latter Chritians (similarly to trinity), it could be taken as proof that Mohammed did not restore any true monotheistic faith but just further developed Christianity as the predominant religion of the Roman empire as it was know in the times of Mohammed.

  7. Avatar
    skhackett  March 9, 2017

    One line of approach may be to incorporate in the book a comparison/contrast of how your behavior and/or world view has been affected/changed as your own personal beliefs in the afterlife have evolved from those of a fundamentalist to those of an agnostic.

  8. Avatar
    rburos  March 9, 2017

    James Watt as Reagan’s Sec’y of the Interior seems to fall into that line of thought. . .

  9. Avatar
    Wilusa  March 9, 2017

    My first quick thought: I was raised Catholic. And among the ordinary, middle-class Catholics I knew, I don’t think their beliefs about the afterlife had *any* effect on other aspects of their “present” lives – politics, charitable giving, etc. They expected to wind up in Heaven – imagined, vaguely, as some kind of continuation of their life with family and friends – and rarely thought about it.

  10. Avatar
    James Chalmers  March 9, 2017

    I’m finally doing my intellectual duty and reading the Qur’an. A lot of the world’s second religion is lifted from the first. One lift-out is its doctrine of the afterlife. Again, as in the first, some ambiguity as to what happens in the interim before the day of judgment and resurrection. But clarity that judgment is coming (can’t say just when, but soon), that belief and acceptance of what’s in a book or preached has a lot to do with entry to the kingdom, that those who don’t get in will burn. Also clear that the new world is Edenic and very nice. Not so clear–or maybe I have to read better–just where the resurrected will live, where the better place is, on earth or elsewhere.
    But anyway, it is clear that Mohammed like Jesus is promising resurrection for those who believe, and warning of coming judgment. It’s not so much souls gone to heaven as it is resurrected believers who’ve passed judgment.

    This is all very crude and simplistic and probably downright bad interpretation at points. But I would suggest the world’s second largest fastest growing religion influences the beliefs about the afterlife of a quarter of the world’s population and rates a chapter in the pending book. I’d also say it’s interesting that the views of the founder(s) of Christianity and founder of Islam both differ from those of their latter-day followers, as the followers had to accommodate the fact that the judgment day proved to be less imminent than the founder or founders had declared it would be.

  11. Avatar
    chrispope  March 9, 2017

    One group it might be worth spending (a little) time looking at is the Jehovah;s Witnesses. Definitely apocalyptic, with ‘unusual’ views of the afterlife – a literal belief in 144k going to ‘heaven’ (but not Jewish male virgins as in Rev), the rest living in a paradise earth afterlife.
    As I understand it, their beliefs in the afterlife very much affect current teachings, even after failed ‘world will end in 1975, sell the farm’ and other statements. Current teachings still warn against further education, planned careers, pensions, etc., as these won;t be needed in the afterlife soon to come and ‘faithful’ JWs are expected to see ‘how bad this world is’ and follow these teachings.
    JWfacts.com is a good resource for this – all stuff from their own publications.
    Amazing how apocalyptic stuff from the late 19th century still apparently shapes lives today.

  12. Avatar
    mjt  March 9, 2017

    I can only speak for myself. When I first became a Christian, it was common in my social circle to talk about ‘this world’–and how foolish and pointless it seemed in comparison to the real deal, the afterlife. I became much less interested in the affairs of the world. Climate change wasn’t a hot topic back then, but I probably wouldn’t have cared much. I also thought the 2nd coming might be imminent, which made me more apathetic toward this life.

    • Avatar
      iameyes137  March 12, 2017

      Apathy towards my life having any other goal except a religious one was what I suffered from in 1980. A northern Minnesota version of fundamentalism, where King James was still king, gripped me and some friends. I thought that there was little left to live for other than converting others to Christianity.

  13. Avatar
    rburos  March 9, 2017

    I’m kind of thinking aloud, but:
    1. I’ll read it, but am not as excited about it as I am waiting for Triumph. I think historians will be interested, but since I’m not literate on the topic and I’m not sure what direction your narrative will take, I’m not sure how to feel about it. I can say that over the last two years I have learned to TRUST your instincts, so I’ll read it.
    2. I think those employed by established religions will either legitimately be or will pretend to be offended, even if for no other reason than the obvious one.
    3. Many claim to be religious, although they never read the Bible, or read about the Bible, or even attend religious services on any regular basis. They will probably still feel justified in disparaging your work as the attempt of another elitist. The fact that you ARE elite in your field will be lost on them, and I wouldn’t put it past those in item 2 above to feed those feelings in an attempt to polish their own legitimacy. Alas, you’re probably already used to that. . .

  14. Avatar
    KSS  March 9, 2017

    My wonder about the afterlife, is how so many political decisions are made by primarily religious politicians who believe in the afterlife, and thus willing to engage in acts here on earth, that may/do result in death for some, or themselves, “knowing” that they are going to a wonderful afterlife. Seems that the afterlife concept drives many decisions; the Middle East conflict, the Iraqi War, etc. It’s almost like with this afterlife “knowledge” so many believe in, they feel actions are permitted now, as the afterlife will justify, or correct the issue ultimately.

  15. Avatar
    Debbie  March 9, 2017

    It will be interesting to read what you come up with in this new book. Most of the people I know believe the “here-after” is a continuation of this life, “escaping from Hell and being received in Heaven” where they will be reunited with family and old friends (pet and pumpkin pie, too). Please do tell where this idea of the afterlife comes from.

  16. Avatar
    leo.b@cox.net  March 9, 2017

    I believe that the idea of an afterlife can be very effective from a psychological aspect. It is a way for many to be able to cope with the frustrations of this life. As well as the suffering, misery, and injustices so paramount in this life. The hope of a better, everlasting life can give one some meaning or even a purpose to get out of bed in the morning and try to accomplish something. Just some thoughts.

  17. Avatar
    dragonfly  March 10, 2017

    This study is rather intriguing. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0039048
    It seems to suggest belief in hell keeps national crime rates down, whereas belief in heaven by itself actually increases crime rates. A lot more research needed of course, but it seems a lot of the social benefits of religion cone from fear of punishment rather than anything to do with love. Self interested bunch of primates we are.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2017

      Wow. Interesting. Thanks.

      • Avatar
        stuckyabbott  March 19, 2017

        At the risk of being entirely wrong about everything because I don’t have time to fact check my skepticism – I want to share a few thoughts that might make one hesitate to swallow this whole.

        1. game theory shows a usefulness of the threat of punishment in changing human behavior. Is this effect greater or less than game theory would indicate?
        2. Differences of belief systems in abstract thinking cultures and concrete thinking cultures. Concrete cultures would be more apt to believe in supernatural punishment. Many of them also have severe and concrete forms of punishment in their criminal justice system – chop off one’s hands for stealing etc. Does belief in supernatural punishment correlate with cultures that punish crimes concretely?
        3. My impression is that more Americans believe in God (heaven and hell) than Europeans. Americans have a higher crime rate than Europeans who don’t believe in either heaven or hell – not even in supernatural power.
        4. Fear is a more powerful emotion than love – and dictates behavior based on the animal side of our brain. Love is a more highly developed concept/feeling and will not evoke the same control – this might explain the research with those writing about God’s love or punishment and then cheating. Are they in their amygdala or executive part of brain? Fear restrains and love entitles.

        I don’t know enough about evaluating studies such as these – but these thoughts jump out in my brain and send up red flags. Perhaps you know much more. leona

  18. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 10, 2017

    After sleeping on it, I think it’s clear that the current behavior of some radical Muslim terrorists is strongly influenced by their view of the afterlife. I am sure you are already thinking about this aspect of how the afterlife affects current life in a very powerful way.

  19. Avatar
    Epaminondas  March 10, 2017

    “But it is a question I’ve become more interested in all of a sudden: do views of the afterlife have any bearing on life outside of our inner thoughts, fears, hopes, and dreams?”

    Is it possible that the implied cause and effect in your question are reversed from the true relationship? Similar to the reminder that correlation does not prove cause. This is a tough old world, and it’s natural to feel unhappy about that. I’m consciously unhappy about how dysfunctional “civilization” is — how poorly naked apes are suited for it. I don’t think there is a cure, though. There’s going to be a lemming-like end to the tragedy of the commons we’re caught in.

    I’d sure most people — anciently and currently — feel a similar unhappiness, and in typical human fashion, must have an answer for it. The cure that many (50% ?) prescribe is religion, strong authority, and patriotism. At least that’s a plausible theory.

    To put it simply, the feeling is that if we could just (authoritatively) fix everybody the world would be a wonderful place. And incidentally, our cure would take care of the little problem of the finality of death.

  20. Avatar
    flcombs  March 10, 2017

    Belief in an afterlife with reward or punishment has been used as a powerful motivator through history. Not always bad of course, but look at the times through history where religion (afterlife) was used to motivate people to do things they might not have done otherwise because “God wants them to” and to be rewarded in the afterlife. Muslim extremists today for example that are expecting a reward for killing others and dying for God (the guys get all those virgins, but not sure what the women get! 🙂 . Making God happy so you’ll get your reward and go to heaven has frequently been important. Haven’t wars and conflicts been fought by people with different views on what happens to you when you die?

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