My new book is coming out next week – March 31. Very exciting, even if it is coming out at the absolute worst time in modern history to publish a book that is not about either Donald or Disease. But still, I’m excited. And very oddly (I just checked) (OK, really, I don’t check every day; it’s been some weeks), it is now the top new release on Amazon on the topic of “reincarnation”! HA!! What a scream.
OK, there’s not a lot of competition there in the reincarnation market, and even more odd, there’s not a lot about reincarnation in the book. But there’s *some* –and not in places you might expect. Plato!! He was the first to popularize the view, at least in our written record. And in the most famous and important theologian of the first Christian centuries, Origen. But it never caught on in the Christian tradition – even though one constantly hears that it did. It didn’t. But still, Origen’s views are really interesting. Among other things, he argued, with pretty clear and important logic, that in the *end*, everyone would be saved. Even the devil. Really, it’s a pretty compelling argument (if you grant his premises). But it’s one of the things that ended up getting him declared a heretic a couple of centuries later…..
My publisher has urged me to publish a couple of excerpts from the book to show what it will be like. I won’t deal with reincarnation here, but will instead show that the book is really mainly about. Here is the very beginning, the opening part of the Preface, where I get completely personal for a bit, including an anecdote some of you have heard before. I hope it whets your appetite.
When I thought about God as a child I thought about the afterlife. I obviously had no understanding of death. But I did believe that after I died I would go to heaven or hell. And I was bound and determined to make it one and not the other.
Looking back, the afterlife later helped motivate me to be become more deeply involved in my Episcopal church, participating in worship, saying prayers, confessing my sins, singing hymns, learning the creeds, becoming an altar boy, and on and on. Naturally I worshiped God and tried to live the way I thought he wanted because I thought it was the right and good thing to do, but also, at least in part, it was because I knew full well what would happen to me if I didn’t.
I am also sure that hope for heaven and fear of hell played a large role when later, as a mid-teenager, I had an even deeper spiritual experience. Some of my high school friends were committed Christian kids who believed it was necessary to make an active, specific spiritual decision in order to have a right relationship with God and – as they explicitly claimed — to be on the right side when judgment day came. My active involvement in the church wasn’t enough. I needed to make a personal commitment and to “ask Jesus into my heart”. They finally convinced me and as a fifteen-year-old I became a born-again Christian.
From that point on, I was convinced without a scintilla of doubt: I was going to heaven. I was equally convinced of the corollary. All those who had not made this commitment – namely, most of the billions of other people in the world – were going to hell to be tormented. Forever. I tried not to think I was being arrogant about it. It was not as if I had done something better than anyone else and deserved to go to heaven. I had simply accepted a gift that had been offered me. What about those who hadn’t even heard about the gift, or who had never been urged to consider it seriously? I felt sorry about them. Deeply pained, actually. They were lost, and so it was my obligation to convert them. Believing this made me a Christian on a mission. It’s not at all unlikely that I was more than a little obnoxious about it.
These views were confirmed for me in my late teens, first at Moody Bible Institute, the fundamentalist Bible college I attended after high school, and then Wheaton, the evangelical Christian liberal arts college where I finished my undergraduate degree. Afterward graduating I chose to pursue the study of the New Testament more seriously, and went for various reasons to the decidedly non-fundamentalist Princeton Theological Seminary. It was there I started having doubts about my faith. In part the doubts were caused by my studies, as I began to realize that the Truth I had believed since high school was actually rather complicated and even problematic. My scholarship led me to realize that the Bible was a very human book, with human mistakes and biases and culturally conditioned views in it. And realizing that made me come to wonder if the beliefs in God and Christ that I had held and urged on others were themselves partially biased, culturally conditioned, or even mistaken.
These doubts disturbed me not only because I wanted very much to know The Truth, but also because I was afraid of the possible eternal consequences of getting it all wrong. What if I started doubting or even denying that the Bible was the inspired word of God? Or that Christ was the unique Son of God? Or even that God existed? What if I ended up no longer believing, and then realized, too late, that my unfaithful change of heart had all been a huge blunder? Wouldn’t my eternal soul be in very serious trouble? Was I getting into unbelievably hot water? Or … fire?
There was a particular moment when these worries hit me with a special poignancy. It involved a late night sauna.
In order to pay for my graduate school, I worked a part time job at the Hamilton Tennis Club outside of Princeton. Most days of the week I was on the late night shift. Members of the club with busy lives would schedule their tennis matches deep into the night, and I worked the desk taking reservations and sweeping the courts afterward. One of the benefits of the job was that I could take advantage of the facilities, including the sauna in the wee hours when the place was shut up.
The evening in question I had been sweeping the courts and thinking about everything I had been hearing – and resisting – in my biblical studies and theology courses at Princeton, pondering just how different my professors’ points of views were from what I had been taught to believe as a conservative evangelical Christian in my high school and college years. These new views were very liberal from my former point of view. I was hearing, and starting to think, that the Bible was not a consistent revelation whose very words came From God, that the traditional Christian doctrines that I had always held as obviously true (e.g., the Trinity) were not handed down from heaven but were formulations made by very fallible human beings, and that there were lots of other views out that – even Christian views — that did not jibe with what I had long believed. I was doing my level best to figure it all out. Whatever I decided to believe and think, I wanted to be right; I was willing to change my views if necessary, but I didn’t want to leave a faith I loved, especially if it should turn out I had been right in the first place and had simply begun to backslide down the slippery slope that leads to perdition.
After sweeping the courts I decided to have a sauna, and, as was my wont, I cranked up the heat as high as it would go, stripped down, and went in, for a good after-work sweat. As I sat on the upper wooden bench, all alone, late at night, perspiring profusely, I returned to my doubts and the questions I had about my faith and the fears I had for the possible outcomes of pursuing them – fears not just for my life, but even more for my afterlife. Then I started realizing: Wow. It sure is hot in here! Oh man is it hot in here! It is really, really hot in here! And then, naturally, the thought struck me. Do I really want to be trapped in massively overheated sauna for all eternity? And what if the sauna is many, many, many times hotter than this? Do I want to be in fire forever? Is it worth it? For me, at that moment, that meant: do I really want to change my beliefs and risk eternal torment?
It is funny to me now, but at the time I realized that this brief moment in the sauna encapsulated the dilemma I found myself in. I was determined to believe what was true, rather than simply hold on to beliefs I had drilled in me as a teenager; but I was afraid of the potential result.
I don’t need to discuss my long transition here. Suffice it to say that I eventually did begin to change and over a number of years I moved into a liberal form of Christianity that cherished questions and thinking more than belief based simply on what others told me. Finally I left the faith altogether. As a friend of mine, a Methodist minister, sometimes jokes, I went from being born again to being dead again.
And yet I continue to be fascinated by the question of the afterlife – not so much because I fear it anymore, but because I think it is such an important topic. From the purely academic perspective – the one I hold these days – beliefs in the afterlife are of abiding significance, since heaven and hell are central to much of our early Christian literature. Moreover, knowing where ideas of the afterlife came from, how they developed, and how they changed can tell us, historically, a lot about how Christianity came to be an important and dominant religion.
But these ideas are even more important for non-academic reasons. Traditional Christian beliefs in the afterlife continue to be widely held in our society. A recent Pew Research Poll showed that 72% of all Americans (of every stripe) agree that there is a literal heaven that people go to when they die; 58% believe in an actual, literal hell. These numbers are, of course, down seriously from previous periods but they still are impressive. And for the historian, it is important to realize that prior to the modern period – think, for example, the Middle Ages, or, for that matter, the 1950s — in the Christian West, virtually everyone believed that when they died, their soul would go to one place or the other (or to Purgatory in painful preparation for ultimate glory).
One of the surprising theses of this book is that….