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My Upcoming Writing Plans: The Afterlife and the Afterlife

As some of you know, I sometimes try to work on two books at once.  I’ve actually tried *writing* two books at once, but doesn’t work too well.  (Writing part of one one day and part of the other another.  Yuk!)  But I can be doing research and planning two books at once, if they are on a related topic – one a popular book for a general audience and the other a scholarly book for academics.   That’s what I did about ten years ago now for my books Forged (trade book for general readers) and Forgery and Counterforgery (hard-hitting scholarship decidedly not for general readers).

Last summer I mentioned on the blog that I was thinking about doing that again, and now it’s for real – I’m doing it.  I wasn’t sure if I would because I needed to get a sabbatical from teaching to pull it off.  But I have now learned that I’ve been given a fellowship for all of next year at the National Humanities Center and so I will be on leave from all teaching and administrative responsibilities in order to work on the scholarly book.

My idea is to have the popular/trade book written first, before I start at the Humanities Center.  I will then spend the year doing intense research for the scholarly book.  Both will be on similar topics: ancient Christian understandings of the afterlife.

First: the National Humanities Center.   This is a wonderful – in fact, absolutely fantastic – institution.   It receives some funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and also raises private funds.   It has a number of functions, but the most visible and relevant to me is their fellowship program.

Every year the give about twenty fellowships to scholars from around the United States and around the world who are working in the humanities (everything from History to Philosophy to Literature to Art History to Musicology to Classics to … Religious Studies!) in order to free them up for a year to do research for a scholarly project (not for trade books or textbooks!).   They get hundreds of applications and have a rigorous winnowing process to choose the annual fellows.

Each fellow is provided with an office with phone, computer hook-ups, desk, table, chairs, book cases – and an amazing library service.  If a fellow wants a book or an article, the library staff gets it from a local university library and brings it in to the Center.  Most fellows get literally hundreds of books and articles over the course of the year, scarcely having to lift a finger for them.

The only requirements for fellows are that they do their work (at the Center) and have lunch with the other fellows every weekday.  That’s it.  Otherwise fellows are free simply to do their research.  (There are other things that one *can* do: public lectures to give and attend; reading groups; social occasions.)   But it’s absolutely fantastic, a year to do nothing (basically) but your own work.

Most of the fellows fly in and spends the year in local housing – going to the Center every day to read, think, and write.   As it runs out, though, the Center is located in the Research Triangle Park.  It’s twelve minutes from my driveway.

I had a fellowship there in 2009-10 and it was amazing.  I got so much done I still can’t believe it.  This was when I did all the research for Forgery and Counterforgery.  As with all scholars who work in my field, it meant spending masses of time working through Greek and Latin texts from antiquity and reading what scholars have said about them in English, French, and German.  Hard core work that people like me thrive on and *love*!

It is really hard to get one of these fellowships.   I’m unbelievably lucky now to have gotten two.  (One of my closest friends and colleagues, Elizabeth Clark at Duke [who works in Christianity in Late Antiquity], got three – but to my knowledge she’s the only one in the history of the place to pull that off; my wife Sarah [who works on Shakespeare] has also had two, so I was completely envious until now).

The popular book is the one I’ve talked about before on the blog – I was doing a long thread on it before I got sidetracked and then sidetracked from my sidetrack and then ….  Well it was months ago.  I’m going to be returning to the thread now soon, possibly next week.  I’m tentatively calling the book “The Invention of the Afterlife.”   It will deal with the question of where the Christian views of the afterlife come from, that when a person dies their soul goes to heaven or hell.  That’s not in the Old Testament, and it’s not what Jesus taught, so … why is it what everyone thinks?  (OK, not everyone: but traditionally in Christianity it’s what everyone has thought – for many many centuries. But why?)

The scholarly book will be on the early Christian accounts of people who were given glimpses of, or even guided tours of, heaven and hell.   I’ve also talked about that a bit on the blog – but I’ll say a few more things about it before returning to my general blog on the invention of the afterlife.   For now I’m just sharing my now-written-in-pen writing plans: first the trade book then intense research for a year on the scholarly book.  I’m totally thrilled!

My Scholarly Project on the Afterlife
Reading The Triumph of Christianity at Quail Ridge Books



  1. Avatar
    Rita Gomes  March 11, 2018

    In women we were the pillar of the Christian, but we can not use that.
    We had to be content with only apendeices

  2. Avatar
    Tempo1936  March 11, 2018

    Congratulations 🎉🎈

    Future debates with conservative evangelicals will be a blast. The “ticket to heaven” has been an attractive and easy sell for The church for centuries. Now You are Going to really stir up the base with these books. .

  3. Avatar
    BrianUlrich  March 11, 2018

    What happens if, during your research in the Humanities Center, you determine you were wrong about material in your trade book?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 11, 2018

      Ha! As I said to anothe rquestion: My academic book will actually be on a topic that I’ll only be touching on in the trade book, so it won’t be a problem. I didn’t run into a problem with Forgery either. For the most part that’s because I do all the *major* reading even before the trade book. The academic book is based on much more specific and detailed issues that would not be particularly relevant for a general audience.

    • Avatar
      JohnMuellerJD  March 11, 2018

      What an absolutely fantastic question!!!

  4. Avatar
    Westscholar  March 12, 2018

    Congratulations on the fellowship! I very much look forward to a book on the afterlife. I know your research will be superb, but please look into the influence of Persian Zoroastrianism on the concepts of Heaven and Hell. For nearly 200 years after their return from exile in Babylon, the Jews were part of the Persian Empire, and the language of the Empire was Aramaic. So, there was plenty of time and opportunity for Persian culture to infiltrate later-developing Judaism, which got transferred to Christianity..

  5. Avatar
    Jana  March 16, 2018

    Yes Congratulations! And also thanks for your blog membership availability … it’s such a blessing to learn from genius.

  6. Avatar
    melchizedek  March 18, 2018

    I’m eagerly anticipating this work. Thanks for your hard work. The fellowship is incredible. I couldn’t help thinking that if Dan Brown is reading this, he may have found the setting for his next book.

  7. Avatar
    deputydog  March 23, 2018

    I am really looking forward to reading this book. What a great topic!!!

  8. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  June 4, 2018

    I am wondering if your upcoming trade book about the Afterlife will include a consideration of Eternity as a state in which time does not pass. For if it were to pass, to what End? Doesn’t seem like that is a construct that would be compatible with Christian belief.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 5, 2018

      I won’t be dealing with what I think the afterlife *really* is, so much as where the common ideas of heaven and hell came from. Probably the extent of my personal comments will involve reflections on whether it makes sense to think of God as morally more perverse than the most horrendous Nazi torturer (to put it in crass terms)

  9. Avatar
    mrhaines  November 7, 2018

    I am really glad you are writing this. I have been a non-literal christian for about 30 years and I have always held that the bible does not clearly teach a theology of eternal torment or that”believing in Jesus before you die is the mechanism to avoid eternal torment. I was reading through Luke the other day and got to the Rich Man and Lazarus and the first thought that entered my head was “this doesn’t sound like Jesus at all”. I wasn’t surprised that you are going to be writing on this since it is one of the key pieces of Christian theology that doesn’t seem to have a lot of biblical support.

    I am not an academic in any sense of the word but it seems to me that many Christian teachings that were built into the gospels were actually caused by the cultural influence of the Greeks and Romans of the time. Perhaps the writers of the gospels (who were greek) inserted some of their own perspectives into the gospels? Is there an easy way or a guide online somewhere that makes it easier to parse out what Jesus likely said and what he didn’t say that could be used when reading through the gospels?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 9, 2018

      Yes, you’ll be interested in my book, since I cover all that there. But as to what Jesus said: the problem is that there are lots of scholars with lots of different views — no one set answer to the qeustion. To see my views you might look at my older book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

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