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The Invention of the Afterlife: Request for Ideas!

Toward the end of this post I will be asking for your opinions and ideas.   So I hope you get that far!

Now that I have sent my manuscript on The Triumph of Christianity off to my editor, and before she gets back to me for revisions and edits, I am turning my thoughts to the next book.  The reality is that I am not 100% certain what it will be.   That still has to be worked out, negotiated, and approved by the publisher.  I’m committed to Simon & Schuster for this next book, as well as Triumph (we originally negotiated a two-book deal), so that part is set.  But in our contract deal, the next book was more or less called a “player to be named later.”   Now it is time to figure out what it will be.

I do have a strong preference, and hope to sell the publisher on the idea.  So far they are receptive.  But we’ll see.

I started out with a vague idea, that has now evolved into a bona-fide concept.  My original idea was that I was interested in exploring in a book where the Christian notion of hell as a place of eternal torment came from.  In my head I was calling the book “The History of Hell.”   The short story on the notion: the idea of hell did not come from the Old Testament, where there is little sense of eternal punishment for those opposed to God.   The most common view in the Hebrew Bible is that everyone who dies goes to a place called “Sheol,” a kind of shadowy place for departed souls, good and wicked.

Some authors of the Hebrew Bible deny even that much of an afterlife.  The books of Job and Ecclesiastes directly indicate that the end of life is the end of the story: no post-mortem existence.

The New Testament suggests a variety of ideas about punishment after death.  Jesus speaks about people going to Gehenna – a reference to the refuse heap outside of Jerusalem where trash was burned.   There was always a fire going.  People who were opposed to God would go there, to the never ending fire.   And so later in the book of Revelation we learn that everyone who will not inherit the eternal kingdom of God will be cast (along with the Devil and everything opposed to God) into the eternal “lake of fire.”   It won’t be pleasant.  For eternity.

On the other hand, Jesus speaks of people rejected from the kingdom being “cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  That too is very bad.  Here though it is not a place of awful light/fire but a realm of darkness.

My sense is that nowhere in the Bible is the common Christian view laid out, that a person dies and then their soul goes to heaven or hell.   For the authorities of the Bible – Jesus, his followers, Paul, and the other NT writers who speak about such things – the afterlife was to be a physical event, in the body.  The idea that the body and soul could somehow be separated is only rarely suggested in the Bible.

But Christians today think of heaven and hell as places that your soul, not your body, goes.  At the same time, they think that there will be physical punishment.  How can there be physical punishment without a physical entity (the body)?   My sense is that people somehow think that the current body dies but then a person is given some other kind of corresponding body (looking like this one) (at which age?) for eternal rewards or punishments.  But where did the idea of the soul leaving the body for reward or punishment come from?

That was what I was planning to deal with in my book.   A few weeks ago I talked with my editor about it, and she was excited about the possibility.  But she thought – and as soon as she mentioned it, I agreed – that a focus on hell is not only too negative but also too narrow.    Why not make it about heaven and hell both, the entire afterlife?  About where the idea of afterlife came from.   Are there roots in other ancient thought?  For example in ancient Greek and Roman philosophers and literary texts?  In other religious traditions?  Does it emerge from the popular imagination?  Where and when and why?

And my editor suggested a better tentative title:  “The Invention of the Afterlife.”  I loved it.  Still love it.  I think this is what I want to do next.

I have started accumulating bibliography: books on the views of the afterlife in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and other religious traditions both ancient and modern.  Books on Near Death Experiences (there are tons of these!) to start reflecting on how many modern people think about such things. And … well, books on other related things.

So here is what I would like from you: ideas!  What would you most like a book like that to cover?  What issues?  What developments?  What beliefs?  What practices?  What questions?  What … ever?  What would you be most interested in with a book like this?  What would make you want to buy it?  To read it?  To refer it to others?

I’ve never posed this kind of question to readers of the blog before.  But I’d be interested in your thoughts and ideas.  So let me have them!

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Why Don’t I Call Myself a Christian? Mailbag: October 8, 2016
How I Learned To Write for a General Audience



  1. Avatar
    herculodge  October 6, 2016

    Your book on hell is an obsession of mine and explores questions that have haunted me since I was a teen. I suppose you’re familiar with Alice K. Turner’s The History of Hell. She writes in her intro that she is exploring hell as someone who does not believe in eternal perdition or any variation thereof.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 9, 2016

      Yup, I know the book!

      • Avatar
        herculodge  October 10, 2016

        I should add that because of your mentioning Dale Allison, I read his book Night Comes, which has chapters on Near Death Experiences and two chapters on heaven and hell. It’s one of the most profound books I’ve ever read. Thanks for mentioning him a while back.

        • Avatar
          Pattycake1974  October 10, 2016

          Another book to add to my list!

  2. Avatar
    Adam0685  October 6, 2016

    Some questions I find interesing is not only why the belief in heaven and hell started but also why continues to be held today. Fear? How are the early Christian view(s) related to the views of other before it (Egyptian, Greek, etc). What made the early christian views different? How did the views of the Christian church develop to today?

    I wonder how belief in hell and heaven affected other Christian beliefs or how other Christian beliefs affected hell and heaven. I’ve wondered how Christianity would have developed if it did not hold to the beliefs of hell and heaven.

  3. Avatar
    bellar1  October 6, 2016

    I particularly like the analysis of how it all came to be, how the Jewish Old Testament concepts morphed into the distinct notions of heaven and hell that many Christians have today. With specific examples of an evolving set of beliefs– The Evolution of the Ever After.

  4. Avatar
    flcombs  October 6, 2016

    I suppose the scope could easily get out of hand and need to be bounded, but certainly with your expertise and background first emphasis would be on the evolution (pun intended) of afterlife beliefs from Old Testament and Christianity. You would probably include the beliefs of the cultures around Jews-Christians and how they were likely influenced by them. These would all easily be in your area.

    Of big interest for completeness as you alluded to would be discussion of “human experiences” and how they could affect beliefs. You mentioned “near death experiences”, and certainly dreams and visions could cause people to think there is an afterlife. I’ve also read about such things as infra-sound and other things which can cause weird actual effects on people. Things such as frequency resonances around the size/wavelength of eyes which can cause the nerves to have fleeting false images (“I know something is in the room…”). Could places of historical oracles or “ghosts” actually be places of real effects caused by wind blowing through with unusual infra-sound vibrations (ever drive with one car window down and get odd sounds, open another to balance pressure and gone?) or other phenomena? You could probably write whole books on many of these. But at least addressing key ones or even pointing out that many things people claim to experience may actually be “real” per science, just not what they think it is. Again, probably far to big of a scope in detail, but useful to address for those that would reject your main theme by claiming “But I had this personal experience so I know…”.

  5. Avatar
    Radar  October 6, 2016

    I have been looking at times for a book on the development of hell in particular. Which of the resources you’ve gathered seems the most useful analysis of that question?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 8, 2016

      I haven’t read them all yet! So I’m not sure which will be most useful.

  6. Avatar
    twiskus  October 6, 2016

    Alright, this is exciting! Sorry if this is lengthy. For me as a formal fundamental, evangelical, Bible-believing (not Bible literate, mind you, but believing) Christian, I have a perspective that I know I will share with many on this topic. Lets face it; the afterlife is CLEARLY a major topic and motivator for evangelical Christianity and also many other major religions. “Hellfire & Brimstone” sermons were quite the norm for me while growing up. I personally feel that the indoctrination into young children that they are bad, sinful people from the moment of conception who have an eternity of torture and punishment awaiting them if they aren’t saved is basically child abuse. So, hell is an extremely effective tool to “win souls”. Taking the time to spell out how this human invention came about, I believe, is paramount in helping people out of the guilty trap they have either been raised in or heard about. I think many evangelical Christians never stop to think that hell is not unique to their religion. That should raise questions immediately. Consider the fact that you have 1.5 billion Muslims in the world who profess Allah as God and that without believing in him and following the Quran, you are damned to hell (sound familiar)? Does it not strike Evangelicals as odd that they don’t lose a wink of sleep when they are told this? Why is that? It’s because, more than likely, they were not a product of Muslim geography when they were born. If they had been born in say, Tehran, they would be indoctrinated the same way. My point is that the idea of hell is an indoctrination that is not only man made, but one that is man made across the religious spectrum. Although the religions are all different, they all use eternal damnation as a strong motivator. I think if you can show effectively show that hell is man made (and dang near unbiblical…both because it is very shady in the bible and because its a part of other non biblical religions) you may get across to many people that may this “reality” they have been so convinced by, is no reality at all and that they can live incredibly free, moral lives with no condemnation for not following a specific religion that teaches them that hell awaits. Just as in your other books, if you can effectively (as you do) get across the HISTORICAL hell and the THEOLOGICAL hell, you will no doubt make great strides. All you have to do is change everything I said about torture into eternal bliss and I think you can explain heaven (more said about heaven than hell in ancient literature I’m sure?). Maybe use some of your research in Jesus Before the Gospels to show how memory and near death experiences of heaven and hell work in the mind would be great as well (think the book Heaven is For Real).

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  October 9, 2016

      “Although the religions are all different, they all use eternal damnation as a strong motivator. ”
      Neither Judaism nor Buddhism (among others) do this.

  7. cadmium
    cadmium  October 6, 2016

    Love the title and can’t wait for this book!!

    Having come from a Fundamentalist/Charismatic background, and having frequent interactions with that people group, I think that the idea of the afterlife is a “given and factual” inevitability while virtually no consideration is given to the actual history of the idea. Couple of things that I think would make this book interesting and worthy of purchase (as if any of your books “are not” worthy):

    1- Going from Hebrew thought of a nebulous Sheol to Dante’s Inferno, why the need for the increased severity? Economic, political, societal…
    2- How has the idea of the afterlife shaped modern Christianity?
    3- How did the implementation of this idea get disseminated in the written history?

    These are just a few that come off the top of my head.

  8. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 6, 2016

    An immediate thought: I *don’t* like the title “The Invention of the Afterlife” – because it *takes for granted* that there *really* is no such thing. Even among potential readers who agree – or can be convinced – that the *Christian concept* of the afterlife is an “invention,” there will be many who believe in some other form of survival (the most likely, reincarnation).

    I’d like to see you delve more deeply into the subject, and deal with *all* known traditions about types of survival.

    • Avatar
      Monarch  October 9, 2016

      My response to the title was the same; it sounds like it’s going to be a polemic, or at least, it seems to presuppose that the afterlife does not exist. This may make it a turn-off for many (thinking in particular of the bookstore browser unfamiliar with Bart and his work.) Title-wise, I would lean more toward something like, “The Idea of the Afterlife: Its Origins, Development, and Evolution,” or, “The Afterlife: The Idea’s Origins, Development, and Evolution.”

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  October 9, 2016

      I think it would intrigue at least as many prospective readers as it might put off. It would set them to wondering if it was invented and whether the author can make the case. I appreciated in Hyam Maccoby’s title, “The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity.”

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  October 10, 2016

      I think the title is just fine, even presuming there could be an afterlife. I don’t know who first quipped it, but it’s no more confrontational than, “God created man in his own image, then man returned the favor.”
      Personally, I see no possibility of life after the death of the body, in any sense that we would understand as life or individuality. But the profound sense of “I-ness” humans experience in self-awareness made it all but inevitable, in my opinion, that we would at some point invent the concept of the immortal soul.
      But enough about what I think. What I should like to know, if you can search it out, is why Christianity and other religions conceived of a separate place for our disembodied souls to carry on their existence, whether Sheol, Hell, or Heaven. Could we not as well continue to float about invisibly in this world, appearing to our friends and loved ones as needed – like Jacob Marley? Related to this might be the question, why the Jesus of the canon spoke more about hell than heaven (a factoid I remember from my Bible classes at North Greenville College). Is this a smoking gun that suggests the afterlife was more about social control than eternal hope?
      Thank you, Bart, for allowing your readers this chance to have input into your writing process!

  9. Avatar
    gwolke  October 6, 2016

    The early jewish response to the “Christian” view of the after life. Since christians used jewish scripture there had to be a rift between the groups.

  10. Avatar
    Boltonian  October 6, 2016

    Therevada Buddhism (and Mahayana too, although I know less about this) is big on re-incarnation and carrying forward good/bad deeds into the next life. Eventually, after many lives, one achieves Nirvana (the end of all one’s suffering; liberation; complete nothingness). It would be interesting if any of these ideas, perhaps transmitted through trade, had an influence on early Christianity. The Buddha (Gautama Sidhartha) is supposed to have live around 500 BC and the Pali canon began to be written down 200 to 300 years after that, so it is certainly possible from the timescale perspective. We also know that there had been trade between the sub-continent and the West, at least since Alexander’s time, and possible well before that.

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  October 9, 2016

      But if reincarnation itself (minus the dogmas) is a *fact* – and there are good reasons for believing it is – the idea didn’t have to be “spread” in normal ways. Very few people have spontaneous memories of previous lives. But some do; so people in many parts of the world may have discussed their memories with others.

  11. Avatar
    dtwchu  October 6, 2016

    The Invention of the Afterlife – I think it is a wonderful idea and I would definitely interested in the book. What I would like to get out of this book is the various historical developments leading to the idea that there is an afterlife with perspectives from both western and eastern traditions. However, I would love to know why the psychological need to cling to these ideas. So, if possible, it would be best if you can examine the sociological impact of heaven and hell, and afterlife in shaping western civilization as in the vein of Dr. Harari’s “brief history of humankind”. Thanks again for all the wonderful posts.

  12. Avatar
    UCCLMrh  October 6, 2016

    It is certainly amusing that those Christians who base so much of their appeal on fear of hell, which doesn’t appear in the Bible, are the same ones who claim to be entirely Bible-based.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  October 9, 2016

      Also, one does not find the notion of the Fall or a figure named Satan who is the incarnation of evil in the Hebrew Bible.

  13. Avatar
    Jimmy  October 6, 2016

    A book on the afterlife will be your bestselling book to date. Just about every single person who has lived from the beginning of time has thought about it and has some kind of view on it. Who wouldn’t want to read the book! Even people who would not touch your other books would be tempted to purchase it.

    The one thing I would like to see in your book would be an epilogue on your personal view of the matter.

    Thanks for your other books and this blog. I really appreciate them.

  14. Avatar
    crucker  October 6, 2016

    I really like the idea of a book on the origins of hell when you first brought it up, and I really like the idea of expanding it to include heaven and afterlife in general. I just hope it doesn’t take too much away from the discussion on hell. Would it focus on the idea of “eternal conscious torment”, or also discuss ideas of universalism or annihilationism? What about Purgatory? I don’t think I would want too much of the book discussing those ideas as it might take away from the bigger purpose, but it would be interesting to hear a little bit on those too if you think you can fit it in.

  15. Avatar
    spartymanjb  October 6, 2016

    Great idea for a book.

    I would be particularly interested in the development of hell as an idea. I have heard theories of it coming from zoroastrianism and others that the modern day concept lies with Dante. Also curious where the concept of purgatory came from.

  16. Avatar
    VaulDogWarrior  October 6, 2016

    Your next two books sound very exciting.

    I would love you to do at least a chapter on what the Ante Nicene Christians believed about the after life. You are probably already aware that they had very different views than modern Christians do.

    They believed that the faithful did not go straight to heaven but rather resided in Abraham’s Bosom in the center of the earth (think of the rich man Lazarus) until the Resurrection of the dead at the end of time.

    David Bercot has recorded a message on it that I found very interesting. It can be found here: http://www.scrollpublishing.com/cgi-bin/sc/ss_mb.cgi?storeid=*10aa1248a706bb410f4e&ss_parm=Afea52bec1d909cc8afa92dbeb3d14034

    He has also edited a Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs that you may find a helpful point of reference for further reading. It can be purchased on his website or any online bookstore.

    On your point about hell being a place of fire/light or darkness. I once heard a sermon that said that sulphur burns invisibly. So that hell truly will be a place of fire and darkness. Others spiritualize the fire and the darkness and suggest that these are figures of speech referring to the minds and consciences of the doomed.

  17. Avatar
    paulpinos  October 6, 2016

    I really like the general idea of addressing “Biblical” notions of the afterlife, from a historical context. Particularly Hell, Heaven, and The Satan. In fact, my friend and I were hopping you’d tackle this very idea!

    He wrote a book review/blog post about “Biography of Satan: A Historical Exposition of the Devil and His Fiery Dominions” by Kersey Graves.There were some good ideas in it, and some that weren’t that great, so we both thought you’d be perfect for this sort of thing.

  18. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  October 6, 2016

    Hi Bart,
    This sounds like and excellent book and one that also interests me greatly. In my talks with Fundamentalists I have discussed with them the beliefs of Judaism and how they are in conflict with Christian beliefs. For example, on a website, Judaism101.com, it teaches that Salvation (being pardoned for earthly sins so one can live in Heaven after death) is a foreign concept to Judaism:

    “Salvation from What?

    The concept of salvation from sin as it is understood in Christianity has no equivalent in Judaism.

    Salvation from sin is unnecessary in Judaism, because Judaism does not believe that mankind is inherently evil or sinful or in need of Divine Intervention in order to escape eternal damnation. In fact, Judaism does not even believe in eternal damnation.

    Judaism recognizes that people have sinful impulses, but Judaism also recognizes that people have an inclination to do good and to be good, and that people are able to choose whether to follow the evil inclination or the good inclination.

    It is within our ability to be righteous. The Torah itself says, “The word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.” (Deut. 30:14). And if we miss the mark, when we fail to fulfill the good laws that G-d has provided for us, then we can obtain forgiveness through prayer, repentance and good deeds.

    When the Torah speaks of G-d as our Salvation or our Redeemer, it is not speaking of salvation or redemption from sin; rather, it speaks of salvation from the very concrete, day-to-day problems that we face, such as redemption from slavery in Egypt, or salvation from our enemies in war.”

    Fundamentalists have said that ancient Judaism always taught a theology that is consistent to Christian theology of where mankind has sinned and salvation via a blood sacrifice was needed to enter the afterlife. Therefore the above teaching from Judaism is not what the ancient Jews believed (I always find it funny that Christians seem to knew more about Judaism than Jews themselves) and is a new teaching from reformed Judaism. My question is, is the Christian view of Judaism accurate and did ancient Judaism teach a theology about how to get to the afterlife that is similar to Christian view or is the Christian view of salvation, heaven and hell their own creation?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 8, 2016

      I’ll be dealing with all this on the blog!

    • talmoore
      talmoore  October 8, 2016

      The Rabbinical Judaism of today believes these things, yes. But the Judaism of Jesus’ day was definitely more diverse, including, among others, Jewish groups who believed the “unrighteous” and the “wicked” would be damned to the eternal fire. The Dead Sea Scrolls show the Jewish Essenes believed this. On the other end of the spectrum, Jews such as the Sadducees didn’t even believe in life after death, let alone salvation and condemnation to Heaven and Hell, respectively.

  19. Avatar
    Lee Palo  October 6, 2016

    In the small group Bible study I lead on Tuesday nights, the topic of Biblical interpretation came up. I mentioned the Wesleyan concept of the quadrilateral, specifically how church tradition we have learned as children has influenced how we read the BIble as adults. The afterlife is absolutely one of those concepts that people have had handed down to them, but it is not a significantly developed concept in the Bible itself. Does Milton and Dante influence our understanding of the afterlife more than the Bible?

    Rob Bell in his book “Love Wins” tackled the question of what the Christian faith is to be about, at least as far as the Bible can support. He asserts that with the Bible the afterlife is not anywhere as significant as this life, and points out just how few verses in the Bible actually deal with Hell. What verses supposedly deal with Hell do not address what many people think they do (he also mentions Gehenna as the trash heap outside Jerusalem, Sheol, etc.).

    For my part, I get frustrated that many of those who supposedly hold the Bible in the highest regard have so little respect for what it actually says in its original context. Why was Rob Bell’s book controversial? He is just doing some basic exegesis, noting how little is said about the topic of the afterlife, and suggesting that the church should be about addressing the “hells” people experience in this life. Why does the “New Perspective” on Paul get so much derogatory criticism from some folks today? These are efforts (by Rob Bell, N.T. Wright, E.P. Sanders,etc.) to read the Bible in its original context, and if the resulting messages do not align with later theological developments in the Christian tradition, then so be it. Perhaps it is time to reconsider certain Christian traditions of interpretation. But there are some who just don’t want to give up on their traditional readings of scripture.

    A book addressing where our contemporary understandings of Heaven and Hell have come from and comparing them with what the Bible actually says can be of great value to a Christian like me. I am forever explaining to some folks where the idea of the rapture came from (John Nelson Darby) and how old the concept is (Nineteenth Century). Both obsessive end-times speculation and an over-emphasis on the afterlife have kept many Christians from doing justice, walking humbly, and helping widows and orphans in their distress.

    Your proposed book would be very welcome to me and others like me who want the church to help people in the here-and-now, and not just sell them “fire insurance.”

    • Avatar
      HawksJ  October 8, 2016

      The world needs more Christians like you, Lee. Well-said!

  20. Avatar
    groucho  October 6, 2016

    I would like to see an examination of the POLITICAL developments of the afterlife. Seems to me that the concept would have been expropriated by rulers who saw fusion with religion as both a way to achieve a stamp of divine legitimacy on their rule (i.e. Constantine’s victory at the Mulvian Bridge), and as a tool of societal control, as in “If you disobey your king I may not catch you or be able to make you pay but you will in the afterlife of torment.” This fusion of temporal and spiritual is at its apogee, of course, with the growth in power of the Catholic Church. So how did the concept evolve in the earliest years of Christianity to become both a religious AND political doctrine (The Divine Right of Kings)?

    (ex-seminarian, VERY long ago)

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