What is my personal feeling toward death?  That’s the first of two questions in this weeks’ Readers’ Mailbag!


How do you feel about dying? Is that not in some part terrifying?  And us losing our loved ones forever? How do you get over that?



Ah, how do I feel about dying?  In general, I’m against it.  🙂

But do I find the prospect terrifying?  I would say that over the years I have had different attitudes toward death.  I suppose when I was very young, I hoped I was a good enough person to go to heaven.  I was certainly terrified of going to hell.   When I had a born again experience in high school, I became absolutely convinced I was going to heaven, as would anyone else who did what I did (accept Christ as their Lord and Savior) and believe what I did.  Anyone else (i.e., most of the billions of people in the world): well, too bad for them.  They are going to roast forever in hell.

When, over some years, I became a more liberal Christian, I was not sure really what to think of heaven and hell.  But when I contemplated becoming an agnostic, that was one of the issues I was most obsessed about.  What if I left the faith and it turns out I was *wrong* to do so?  The fear of hell kept me wanting to believe.

But at one point, I simply couldn’t’ any more, and still feel true to myself and to what I really thought.  Still, after I became an agnostic, it was a gnawing thought that I regularly had:  What if I had blown it?  Would I be punished forever?

The way I overcame my fears was simply by forcing myself to be rational about it, rather than irrational.   I came to think that if there *is* a loving God in the world, he certainly is not intent on torturing most of the human race with horrible and unspeakable torments for trillions and trillions of years (and that would be just the beginning!).   That would make him worse – infinitely worse – than the worst Nazi the world has ever seen.  If there is a God, is he like that?  I don’t think so.

Now my view is that death is the end of the story.  We didn’t exist with consciousness before we were born.  And we won’t exist with consciousness after we die.  We can’t have consciousness without a (physical, functioning) brain.  And we can’t feel physical pain without a nervous system.  We will have neither after we die.

That thought does not greatly bother me anymore.  It’s the reality of life.  It doesn’t last long.  What the thought does do is make me more inclined to live life to the fullest, now, in the present.  This is not a dress rehearsal for something that’s going to come later.  It is the one and only Act of a One-Act Play.  We should enjoy life every bit as much as we can now, and see that others can do the same, by helping those who are having a hard (or completely awful) time.   Doing so is part of what it means to be fully human, in my view.

On a slightly related note, I’m *thinking* about making my next book for a general audience about where the Christian idea of the afterlife (heaven and hell) came from.   I’ve gotten very interested in that question!



Hi Bart, do you think the story about Barabbas is historical?  He is mentioned in all the gospels, but why would the authorities have been willing to set Jesus free if he was perceived to be a political threat to Rome? Was this story added to convince people that it was the Jews who were ultimately responsible for the death of their Messiah?



I deal with this question in my recent book Jesus Before the Gospels.  Here is what I say there:


Mark’s Gospel indicates that it was Pilate’s custom to release a prisoner guilty of a capital crime to the Jewish crowd in honor of the Passover festival.  He asks if they would like him to release Jesus, but they urge him to release for them Barabbas instead, a man in prison for committing murder during an insurrection.   Pilate appears to feel that his hand is forced, and so he sets Barabbas free but orders Jesus to be crucified (Mark 15:6-15).

This Barabbas episode was firmly set in the early Christian memory of Jesus’ trial – it is found, with variations, in all four of the Gospels (Matthew 27:15-23; Luke 23:17-23; John 18:39-40).   I do not see how it can be historically right, however; it appears to be a distorted memory.

For starters, what evidence is there that Pilate ever released a prisoner to the Jewish crowd because they wanted him to do so, or because he wanted to behave kindly toward them during their festival?   Apart from the Gospels, there is none at all.   In part that is because we do not have a huge number of sources for the governorship of Pilate over Judea, just some highly negative remarks in the writings of a Jewish intellectual of his day, Philo of Alexandria, and a couple of stories in the writings of the Jewish historian, Josephus.   These are enough, though, to show us the basic character of Pilate, his attitude to the Jews that he ruled, and his basic approach to Jewish sensitivities.  The short story is that he was a brutal, ruthless ruler with no concerns at all for what the people he governed thought about him or his policies.  He was violent, mean-spirited, and hard-headed.   He used his soldiers as thugs to beat the people into submission, and he ruled Judea with an iron fist.

Is Pilate the sort of person who would kindly accede to the requests of his Jewish subjects in light of their religious sensitivities?   In fact he was just the opposite kind of person.  Not only do we have no record of him releasing prisoners to them once a year, or ever.  Knowing what we know about him, it seems completely implausible.   I should point out that we don’t have any evidence of any Roman governor, anywhere, in any of the provinces, having any such policy.

And thinking about the alleged facts of the case for a second, how could there be such a policy?  Barabbas in this account is not just a murderer, he is an insurrectionist.  If he was involved with an insurrection, that means he engaged in an armed attempt to overthrow Roman rule.   If he murdered during the insurrection, he almost certainly would have murdered a Roman soldier or someone who collaborated with the Romans.   Are we supposed to believe that the ruthless, iron-fisted Pilate would release a dangerous enemy of the state because the Jewish crowd would have liked him to do so?   What did Romans do with insurrectionists?  Did they set them free so they could engage in more armed guerilla warfare?  Would any ruling authority do this?  Of course not.  Would the Romans?  Actually we know what they did with insurrectionists.  They crucified them.

I don’t think the Barabbas episode can be a historical recollection of what really happened.  It’s a distorted memory.  But where did such an incredible story come from?

We need to remember what I stressed earlier, that these accounts of Jesus’ trial repeatedly emphasize that Pilate was the innocent party.  It was those awful Jews who were responsible for Jesus’ death.  For the Christian storytellers, in killing Jesus, the Jews killed their own messiah.  That’s how wicked and foolish they were.  They preferred to kill rather than revere the one God had sent to them.   That is one key to understanding the Barabbas episode.  The Jews preferred a violent, murdering, insurrectionist to the Son of God.

There is even more to it than that.   We have no evidence outside these Gospel accounts that any such person as Barabbas existed.   It is interesting to think about the name of this apparently non-existent person.   In Aramaic, the language of Palestine, the name Bar-abbas literally means “son of the father.”   And so, in a very poignant way, the story of the release of Barabbas is a story about which kind of “son of the father” the Jewish people preferred.  Do they prefer the one who is a political insurgent, who believed that the solution to Israel’s problems was a violent overthrow of the ruling authorities?  Or do they prefer the loving “Son of the Father” who was willing to give his life for others?   In these Christian recollections, the Jewish people preferred the murdering insurrectionist to the self-sacrificing savior.

It is interesting to note that in some manuscripts of Matthew’s account of the Barabbas episode there is an important addition.  In these manuscripts – which may well represent what the Gospel writer originally wrote – Barabbas is actually named “Jesus Barabbas.”  Now the contrast is even more explicit: which kind of Jesus do the Jews want?   Which Jesus, the son of the Father, is to be preferred?   In this account, of course, the Jews are remembered as preferring the wrong one.  But for the Gospel writers that’s because the Jews are always doing the wrong thing and always opposing the true ways of God.

If you don’t belong to the blog yet, JOIN!!!  It won’t cost much, you get 5-6 posts a week in return, and every penny you give goes to charity.  So DO IT!!!  You’ll be so glad you did, and so will we!