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Smith-Pettit Lecture – The History of Heaven and Hell

Here is a webinar that I did on July 29th, 2020, as the Smith-Pettit lecture for the Sunstone Digital Symposium sponsored by Sunstone Education Foundation.  It was on the "History of Heaven and Hell."  It was an unusual event for me: Sunstone is an independent organization located in Salt Lake City, Utah.  Sunstone does not have any official ties to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but it does serve mainly them, bringing together traditional and non-traditional Latter-day Saints, promoting an atmosphere that seeks to value faith, intellectual, and experiential integrity. Moderating the event was Karin Franklin Peter, president of the Fifth Quorum of Seventy, who serves on the Council of Presidents of Seventy with the Community of Christ.  This is a branch of "Mormons" that split from the LDS over polygamy in the 19th century.  She received a bachelor of science in psychology and a master of arts in Christian ministry from Community of Christ Seminary at Graceland University, Independence, Missouri. I was introduced by Lindsay Hansen Park, an American Mormon feminist [...]

2020-08-21T18:56:40-04:00August 21st, 2020|Afterlife, Book Discussions, Public Forum, Video Media|

Life after Death in the Bible and Beyond: Webinar with Oxford Press

On April 20, 2020, I did a webinar for Oxford University Press.   I have published three textbooks with Oxford and the textbook division has started hosting these events, principally for college and university professors and their students, but anyone is welcome to sign up and join in.   When they asked me if I'd be interested, I thought it sounded like a great idea; and when they asked what I'd like to do it on, I told them the afterlife.  Of course!  It's what I've been thinking about and doing all my research on for the last four years or so -- not what *really* happens in the afterlife (for that I would need more experience, and I'm not eager to have it at this stage of existence, since, well, it will be my last experience and I won't be able to write about it -- but about where the ideas of the afterlife came from, especially those that have been prevalent for most of the past 2000 years.  They entitled the event "Life after Death [...]

2020-05-03T10:02:19-04:00May 3rd, 2020|Book Discussions, Public Forum, Video Media|

The Not Old Better Show – Heaven and Hell Book Interview

On April 1 I did a podcast interview with Paul Vogelzang, the host of Smithsonian Associates "The Not Old Better Show," aired on Soundcloud (Washington DC). The podcast focuses on the issues or particular relevance to the 50+ crowd (nence its name) but obviously lots of the topics it hits are on the minds of everyone else as well. The interview was on my new book on Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife.   I read an excerpt from the book int he interview but mostly it's question and answer. I've done the show several times now, and have always found Paul to be an unusually perceptive and generous interviewer.  Here 'tis. Please adjust gear icon for 720p High-Definition: 

2020-04-23T21:14:18-04:00April 22nd, 2020|Book Discussions, Public Forum, Video Media|

Did Jesus Mean that Literally? Rewards and Punishments in the Afterlife

I return now to my thread dealing with the teachings about the afterlife in the New Testament.  One question that can naturally be asked is whether what is said about the afterlife in this, that, or the other passage is meant to be taken literally.    For example, I have discussed the famous passage of the “Sheep and the Goats” in Matthew 25, where the Son of Man at the end of history sits on his throne and divides the nations (or gentiles?) into two groups as a shepherd would separate his sheep and goats.  The sheep are given eternal life and the goats are forced to go to eternal punishment. But isn’t this all symbolic?  After all, people are said to be farm animals, when in fact people are human.  So isn’t the whole thing symbolic?  Isn’t it, for example, a kind of parable? I may change my mind on the matter, but my sense at this stage of my thinking is that the passage is not a parable.  Here I’ll give several reasons. First [...]

2020-04-03T01:52:49-04:00November 3rd, 2017|Afterlife, Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus, Public Forum|

The Sheep and the Goats

Jesus’ teaching about the “separation of the sheep and the goats” is found in only one place in the New Testament, Matthew 25:31-46.  It is easily one of my favorite passages of the entire Bible, and as I have pointed out, in my view, it is a teaching of Jesus himself (not something put on his lips by Matthew or by Matthew’s source, M, or by an early Christian story-teller).  I think in fact, it well encapsulates Jesus’ entire proclamation.  There is a judgment day coming and those who have lived in an upright way, loving others, showing compassion on those in need, helping those in dire straits, will be given an eternal reward; those who fail to live in this way will be severely punished. The passage is sometimes called a “parable,” but I don’t see any strong indication that it is meant to be taken metaphorically.  As far as I can tell, it was meant as a literal description of what would happen at the end of this age when the judge of [...]

2020-04-03T01:54:02-04:00October 25th, 2017|Afterlife, Historical Jesus, Public Forum|

Jesus, the Sheep, and the Goats

I have been talking about the criterion of dissimilarity for one ultimate reason: wanted to show why, in my opinion, a particular passage in Matthew’s Gospel goes back to the historical Jesus, the man himself.  I.e., it does not involve words put on his lips by later followers, but is something he himself actually said.  If you’re a little fuzzy on how the criterion of dissimilarity works, please read the preceding two posts. The following has been taken from my undergraduate textboo on the NT.  In it I give two examples of how this particular criterion can be applied to the teachings of Jesus.  It is the *second* example that I will be most interested in, but the first can help get you into the swing of things about how the criterion works. ********************************************************** In some respects, there isn’t a whole lot that we can say about the various apocalyptic teachings ascribed to Jesus in our Gospels from the standpoint of the trickiest of our criteria to use, the criterion of dissimilarity. Most of his [...]

2020-04-03T01:55:22-04:00October 18th, 2017|Afterlife, Historical Jesus, Public Forum|

Reviewing the Afterlife

I want to return now to the main thread that I left off a couple of months ago about developing views of the afterlife in ancient Judaism and then in early Christianity. I didn’t actually leave that thread – I simply moved deeper into a specific aspect of it.  If you’ll recall, the broader thread is simply about where the modern notions of heaven and hell came from; the specific aspect I’ve been covering involved the “otherworldly journeys” that you find in pagan, Jewish, and Christian traditions.  These journeys are of particular interest to me, since I am planning to write a scholarly discussion about them.  And while I was thinking through how I wanted to frame my study, I decided to devote a number of posts to the issue.  But enough of that!  I’m ready to return to the main thread. For that thread, here’s the deal.  In our own world ... To read the rest of this post you need to belong to the blog.  It won't cost much to join, but it [...]

2020-04-03T02:00:29-04:00September 18th, 2017|Afterlife, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Public Forum|

Too Much Money and the Afterlife

In a previous post I talked about the very funny satirical dialogue of the second-century pagan Lucian of Samosata, “Voyage to the Underworld” in which an unbelievably wealthy tyrant became incredibly miserable after death, because he realized that all his power, influence, and massive wealth had been stripped from him, and would be, for all eternity, whereas a poor cobbler who had lived a miserably impoverished existence was rather pleased that he no longer would starve and freeze nearly to death ever again. The point of the dialogue is pretty obvious.  If you are deeply attached to the material things of this life, you are courting your own disaster.  That’s not what you should be living for. At about the same time as Lucian was writing an anonymous Christian author produced a book known as the Acts of Thomas.  This is the first legendary account we have of the apostle Thomas, famous for (allegedly) being the first missionary to take the gospel to India.  Unlike the work of Lucian, the account is not meant to [...]

A Satirical Lesson about the Afterlife

One of the things I’m planning to emphasize in my scholarly book on voyages to the afterlife, is that the overarching point of most of these narratives is not only (or even primarily) to reveal what will actually happen to people after they die, but to encourage them to live in certain ways now, while they can.  This is true not only for the Christian accounts but for pagan ones as well. One of the most hilarious authors from Greco-Roman antiquity is Lucian of Samosata, a second-century CE author who wrote numerous satires that we still have, poking fun at philosophers, religious leaders, tyrants, and most anyone who he thought led a ridiculous life or had ridiculous views.  A number of his works portray fictitious journeys to the realms of the dead. One of them is often simply titled “Voyage to the Underworld.”  It is about the stark contrast between a fabulously wealthy tyrant named Megapenthes and a dirt-poor cobbler named Mycillus.  The contrast is not so much between their ultimate fates – they both, [...]

2020-04-03T02:02:21-04:00September 7th, 2017|Afterlife, Greco-Roman Religions and Culture, Public Forum|

Looking at Hell

I have been talking about different views of what the afterlife entails.  In the broadest terms, some ancient people believed that everyone at death had the same fate: they lived on, not in their body but in their soul, in some kind of netherworld where nothing much ever happened.  It was a dreadfully banal and boring existence, that went on forever, the same for everyone. Some ancient authors who had that view described visits to the underworld by the living, where they encounter the souls of the dead, who tell them how awful it is – not just for sinners but for everyone.   The point of these otherworldly journeys is crystal clear: you should avoid death for as long as you can, since once it happens, you have a hopelessly insipid future ahead of you, which will stretch for all eternity.   Stay alive as long as you can! This is one of the main points of the otherworldly of Odysseus, in Homer’s Odyssey.  And it stands very much at odds with the view set forth [...]

2020-04-03T02:02:31-04:00September 5th, 2017|Afterlife, Christian Apocrypha, Public Forum|

The First Recorded Visit to the Realm of the Dead (in Western literature)

The first account we have of a living human making a trip to the realm of the dead in Western literature is in the Odyssey of Homer.  The Odyssey is about the ten-year attempt of the hero, Odysseus, to return home to Ithaca after the (also ten-year) Trojan war.   Many adventures and mishaps meet him en route.  At about the half-way point of the narrative, in book ten, he is on the island of Aeaea where he has encountered the witch-sorceress Circe. At the end of his stay there he pleads with her that he desperately wants to get home.  She instructs him that he must first travel down to the “House of the Dead” and to the “awesome one Persephone” (i.e., the goddess who rules the underworld, with her husband Hades).   There he needs to consult with the ghost of Tiresias, a famous blind prophet, who has retained all his wits and prophetic powers in Hades.  This is an important point: the other dead (in other words, everyone else who has ever lived) do [...]

2020-04-03T02:03:32-04:00August 29th, 2017|Afterlife, Greco-Roman Religions and Culture, Public Forum|

Journeys to Heaven and Hell: A Sketch of My Project

As I indicated in my previous post, I’ve decided to write a scholarly book on tours of heaven and hell in ancient Christian texts.  I am tentatively calling the book “Observing the Dead: Otherworldly Journeys in the Early Christian Tradition.”   I decided last week to come up with a 1000 word sketch of what I am thinking so far, about what the book would be and why it is needed.   This is just a draft for my own thinking, written for scholars more than for layfolk.  But it’s pretty clear and understandable I think, and can indicate how/what I’m thinking in the broadest terms at this point.  Tell me what you think! ******************************************************* My project entails an exploration of early Christian texts that narrate voyages to the realms of heaven and hell, depicting, often in graphic detail, the ecstasies of the blessed and the torments of the damned.   My overarching goal will be to elucidate not only various conceptions of the mysteries of the beyond, but even more to explore how such afterlife journeys embody [...]

2020-04-03T02:03:42-04:00August 27th, 2017|Afterlife, Book Discussions, Public Forum|

My New Scholarly Project

I have a lot more to say about the development of the views of the afterlife in ancient Jewish and Christian thinking – specifically, about how we got from an understanding that there would be a resurrection of the body (the view I’ve been discussing) to the idea that when a person dies, their soul (not their body) goes to heaven or hell --  the view most (not the *vast* majority, of course) people have today.   It’s a good thing I have a lot more to say about it, since, well, that’s what my next book is about! But I want to introduce at this point a thread-within-the-thread, about a related topic (involving the afterlife and my larger understanding of it) that I am more fervently passionate about at just this time.   And to explain just why I’m passionate about it, I need to take a brief detour into my personal life. I think that a good while back (last year at this time?  I don’t remember) I talked a bit on the blog about [...]

Physical Persecution and the Physical Resurrection of the Dead

In this post I’m thinking out loud rather than making a definitive statement.   A question occurred to me a week or so ago that, since I am on the road and rather unsettled just now, I have not had a chance to look into.  Maybe someone on the blog knows the answer.  Prior to the persecution of Jews by Antiochus Epiphanes in 167 BCE, do we have a record of *any* group of people in the entire Mediterranean world being violently opposed precisely for their religious practices? I can’t think of any, with the (partial) exception of the Roman suppression of the Bacchanals in 186 BCE (it was a partial exception because they were suppressed for their illegal and dangerous social activities that allegedly involved ritual sexual violence and murder). There was, of course, lots and lots and lots of violence in the ancient world.  Most (all?) of the “world empires” – Assyria, Babylonia, (Persia?), Greece, Rome – throve on violence.  Powerful dominance was the accepted, promoted, and assumed ideology; it was not (as for [...]

Why I Find the Story of Job is Disturbing

In yesterday’s post I summarized the narrative of Job (the story that frames the book, chs. 1-2 and 42, which come from a different author from the poetic dialogues of Job and his “friends” of chs. 3-41), with a few words about its view of why a good person might suffer.  Life’s miseries could be a test from God to see if a person will remain faithful, not just when he is thriving but also when he is in the midst of dire hardship.  Does this person worship God for what he can get out of it (wealth, prestige, stature) or because God deserves to be worshiped no matter what? When I was a Christian I was drawn to this story and thought that it taught a valuable lesson.  It was important to be faithful, even when times were hard.  Suffering might simply be a test to see if I truly loved God and wanted to serve him, no matter what. I no longer see the story that way, but instead find it disturbing on [...]

2020-04-03T02:26:49-04:00April 12th, 2017|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Public Forum|

The Two Books of Job: A Blast from the Past

I have been arguiong that there are different views of the afterlife in the Hebrew Bible.  The dominant view is that all people go to Sheol when they die -- either they stay in the grave or there is some place that they all gather, a completely uninteresting, dark, dreary place where nothing really happens.  Some authors, though, suggest there is no afterlife at all.  Ecclesiastes, in one or two places, seems to suggest this, as does the book of Job. Before looking at the relevant passage in Job, I need to say something about the book as a whole, since it is one of the most misunderstood books of the Bible, in part because most readers don't realize that the book comes from the hands of two different authors, living at different times and places, with very different points of view.  Here is how I explain it all in a post I made over four years ago, in the context of a thread dealing with how biblical authors deal with the problem of suffering. *********************************************************** [...]

2020-04-03T02:27:28-04:00April 10th, 2017|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Public Forum|

The Afterlife (or not) in Ecclesiastes

In my previous post I provided some comments on one of my favorite biblical books, Ecclesiastes.  Here I will continue my comments, with some remarks on the topic of the thread, the view of the afterlife in the book, a view unlike what you find in *most* of the Hebrew Bible.  Again, this is taken from my book God’s Problem. ****************************************************************** For the author of Ecclesiastes “traditional” wisdom (such as one finds in the book of Proverbs) was inherently flawed -- another reason I like him so much.  It simply is not true (as Proverbs insists) that the righteous are rewarded in life and the wicked perish.  As the author of Ecclesiastes states:  “In my vain life I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evil doing” (7:15); “there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous.  I said [...]

2020-04-03T02:27:46-04:00April 7th, 2017|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Public Forum|

Ecclesiastes and the Meaning of Life

As I have been arguing, *most* of the authors of the Hebrew Bible who have anything to say about life after death believe that people go to Sheol – whether they are good or wicked, faithful or unfaithful.  It is the fate of all.  Different authors may have different views of what Sheol entails, but nowhere is it a place or reward or punishment for what one does (or believes) in this life. A major exception seems to be the book of Ecclesiastes, which does not subscribe to an afterlife of any kind.  Looking back over the posts of the blog from the past five years I’m surprised to see I haven’t said much about Ecclesiastes – surprised because it is one of my favorite books of the entire Bible.  I’d like to give a bit of an overview, and that will take two posts.  I have lifted these reflections from my book God’s Problem. ************************************************************** Ecclesiastes has long been one of my favorite books of the Bible.  It is normally included among the “Wisdom” [...]

2020-04-03T02:27:57-04:00April 5th, 2017|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Public Forum|

Life After Death According to Samuel

  Before getting sidetracked with other things, I was discussing the intriguing story of 1 Samuel 28, where the king of Israel, Saul, illicitly consults a medium in an attempt to communicate with his now-dead advisor and predecessor, the prophet Samuel.  This is the only case of necromancy in the entire Bible.   In this post I want to consider what the author of the passage seems to think about those who go to Sheol after death. Recall the story: Saul is experiencing both internal turmoil (his rival David is on the rise and there is civil war) and external threat (from the warring Philistines).  He wants advice about how to proceed, but there is no one to turn to.  So he takes on a disguise and resorts to a medium (after having, as king, outlawed mediums!) to call up Saul from the realm of the dead. She does as he asks.  As Samuel “comes up” from the ground, the medium realizes that it is Saul who is her client and that she’s in big trouble [...]

2020-04-03T02:28:05-04:00April 4th, 2017|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Public Forum|

Returning from the Dead in the Hebrew Bible

In thinking about Sheol and death in the Hebrew Bible, it is worth reflecting on passages where the dead come back to life or are contacted by the living.  This does not happen much at all – a couple of instances of resuscitation and one of necromancy. Probably the most famous resuscitation – the bringing back to life of a dead person – involves the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 17:17-24.   Elijah has been helping an unnamed widow from the town of Zarephath, miraculously providing her and her son with food during a divinely-mandated drought/famine (which the prophet brought to teach the wicked King Ahab a lesson).   But the boy dies.  The widow is understandably distraught – the prophet was supposed to be helping her and now her son has died.  Some help. Elijah takes the boy, though, and raises him from the dead.  The woman responds appropriately, declaring him Elijah a man of God who speaks the word of God. In 2 Kings 4:32-37 a similar story is told about the prophet Elisha – [...]

2020-04-03T02:30:27-04:00March 30th, 2017|Afterlife, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Public Forum|
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