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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



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    stokerslodge  October 6, 2016

    The threat and the fear of hell fire loomed large in the religious tradition that I grew up in. Even now as an adult, it fills me with a sense of dread. For this reason I would like to know the history of the development of this doctrine.

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    godspell  October 6, 2016

    It would be interesting if you talked about the Celtic vision of the afterlife–which was somewhat comparable to the Hindu idea, in that they believe in reincarnation, but also quite distinct. They believed in the Otherworld, and you go there when you die no matter what kind of life you lived, or what kind of beliefs you had. You spend time there, before you are reincarnated in a new form. The Otherworld is a place of limitless possibilities, whereas the mortal world is very limited. It can be beautiful, or frightening, or just endlessly strange. All that is good or evil comes from it, all mystical power, all authority, even love. It exists alongside our reality, and you can reach it through various access points while still alive, or by sailing west over the ocean. Also, the border between the Otherworld and our world can grow thin at certain times of year–such as the feast of Samhain, or as we call it now, Halloween. All kinds of things, good and bad, can slip in and manifest themselves to us at that time. Trick or treat. 🙂

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    Stephen  October 6, 2016

    A fascinating subject, and a good idea to broaden the focus.

    I am interested in how the ideas of the early church changed as it went from being predominantly Jewish to being predominantly gentile. How were Jewish apocalyptic concepts redefined into a gentile cultural framework? Specifically, how did the idea of the Kingdom of God (on earth) become the idea of Heaven (in an afterlife)?

    Also I’m fascinated by the idea of the “Judgment”.

    thanks and good luck!

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    jdmartin21  October 6, 2016

    Thanks for the opportunity for input. I would love to see – to read about – the “evolution” of belief in an afterlife. I’m thinking a chronology – a logical progression – of belief from Greek philosophers through the Jewish tradition, early Christianity (Jewish Christians and Pagan Christians, apocalyptic and non- apocalyptic) and on to the present day, with stops along the way to hear from key individuals who influenced the direction the evolution followed. Perhaps a review of what, if any, external (non-Christian) thought influenced the evolutionary path of Christian belief in an afterlife and how/why that happened. Did the Protestant Reformation affect the belief in an afterlife and if so, how/why? I suspect that in modern Christianity there is not one universal afterlife belief. There are probably nuanced differences between Catholic and Protestant afterlife beliefs (purgatory?) and even differences between different Protestant denominations. Also, since cultural backgrounds influence religious beliefs, there are no doubt differences between how Haitian Christians view afterlife vis-à-vis African Christians vis-à-vis North American Christians, for example. It would be interesting to learn how those variants developed. Wow! Quite a shopping list!

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    Pattycake1974  October 6, 2016

    I think your editor is right on both accounts: including the concept of heaven in the book and using the suggested title because of its implication.

    I am extremely fascinated with NDEs and have been reading about them for years. In fact, when I come across someone who has had an NDE, I find them on FB and friend them! The topic is massive and can really push people’s buttons both for and against their validity. Some things to consider for your book:

    What exactly is a near death experience (NDE)?
    Who was the first person we have on record as having a nde and what was the nature of the experience?
    Do children have nde’s? Are they about the afterlife and are they associated with their parents’ beliefs? Who is the youngest person recorded to have a nde and what did it entail?
    What studies have been conducted on nde’s? Is there any validity to them?
    What causes nde’s?
    How long do nde’s last?
    Are there certain medical conditions (ex. cardiac arrest) that are associated with a nde more than others?
    What’s the percentage of nde’s that are about the afterlife versus something else?
    What’s the ratio of heavenly experiences compared to hellish-type experiences?
    What do we know about group or shared nde’s?
    Are nde’s primarily associated with the person’s religious background? In other words, will a Christian see Jesus during a nde and a Muslim see Allah? An atheist–nothing?

    Alex Tsakiris has a website called Skeptico: http://skeptiko.com/about-alex-tsakiris/about-skeptiko/. He is very one-sided on the subject, but what might be valuable are his interviews. Anytime someone publishes a study, article, or writes a book about NDE or the afterlife, he tries his best to conduct an interview with the researcher/author. They can be watched as videos or read as transcripts.

    Here are 3 major websites about the subject just to get an idea of how huge the topic is–

    Your brain might explode if I include more than what’s here.

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      Pattycake1974  October 6, 2016

      I almost forgot: Has the concept of the afterlife changed in modern times? What is today’s general consensus about what the afterlife will be like? From what I’ve read about NDE’s, the idea of heaven and hell has evolved into something entirely different from what it used to be.

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      Wilusa  October 10, 2016

      I admit I’ve never been particularly interested in NDEs – probably because (1) I accept the idea that consciousness can exist outside the body, don’t need to be convinced of that; and (2) I assume most of the content of NDEs is hallucinatory, based on what people expect or hope for. I “died” and had to be resuscitated twice, more than twenty years ago, and didn’t recall any NDEs. But I think we may have them and forget them, just like dreams.

      Here’s what I want to tell you. Re Jim B. Tucker’s books on the *past-life memories* of children: most of the children don’t mention anything *between* lives, but some do. And they run the gamut! Some remember having been in “Heaven” and met “God.” But others remember just having “hung around” in their old neighborhoods, invisible to others. Observing their funerals…somehow choosing and following their future parents…all kinds of things! My guess is that these experiences are comparable to NDEs: mostly hallucinatory, but occasionally based on *real* observations by a disembodied consciousness.

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        Pattycake1974  October 10, 2016

        I have a friend who said he distinctly remembers being in a war plane during WWII and being shot down. He said that he was always terrified of joining the military because of that *memory*. I’ve had my own experiences (not with reincarnation) that can’t be explained as well.

        I used to teach severe/profound cognitively delayed boys, aged 9-22. A lot of them had feral-type behaviors that they were either born with or had resulted from neglectful, abusive parents. Some of the abuse was absolutely vile. What is the point in all that? It doesn’t make sense to me. Some of those boys rarely, if ever, experienced happiness or pleasure. They didn’t seem to have the capability for it. Some of them were continually miserable or in constant pain. That is a pointless existence…they had no idea what day it was, or the season of the year, or that they were on a planet called earth.

        So, I do see that there’s more to our existence combined with a complete pointlessness to it. All in all, I’d say I’m bumfuzzled.

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    RonaldTaska  October 6, 2016

    Wow! I love this book idea and the tentative title. The idea of heaven is “the” crucial idea that makes Christianity run. Without it, the church would die in a heartbeat. But this concept is never mentioned in the Old Testament so where did it come from? Clearly, it meets wishes we all have, but how did it get so entrenched in us with so little evidence? Do we think that Jesus actually said that He was going to prepare a place for us?

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      Lee Palo  October 10, 2016

      I’d have said the Kingdom of God is the crucial idea that makes Christianity run. Unfortunately some folks have literalized the author of the Gospel of Matthew’s name for it that was originally just meant to respect the divine name, and assumed it was all about Heaven rather than all about God’s reign in the here and now.

      My guess as to how it got so entrenched is because it is a cheap way to evangelize. You don’t need to explain the what and how of following the will of God. All you need to get people to sign on was to convince them they don’t want a scary afterlife. It is a far more simple sales pitch. You still see it on tracts today.

      For some with an ultra-high view of scripture, any teeny-tiny text counts as the inerrant, infallible, Ipsissima Verba of God, so for them, they can legitimately make a mountain out of a mole hill. You can really see this modus operandi in works like Bruce Wilkinson’s books “The Prayer of Jabez,” and “A Life God Rewards.” And since most of those who adhere to such views of the Bible have never been able to conceive of another worldview/perspective on the Bible, they are legitimately clueless as to how ridiculous it sounds to those who aren’t Fundamentalists. So if heaven is mentioned once, it is good enough for them.

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    mbaretich  October 6, 2016

    A couple of weeks ago I was out backpacking with some friends — all middle-aged men; all Christian (most of them Catholic); all intelligent people. They know I’m an atheist (former Catholic). One night, to balance our typical good-old-boy banter, I asked what they thought heaven was like. I was surprised that they could not come up with more than a few words about it being some sort of mysterious condition, a condition that none of them described in desirable terms. I was expecting to hear some standard notions about eternal happiness, but … nothing. I pointed out that it was a fundamental idea in Christianity that heaven was a reward for good behavior on earth and, therefore, something highly valued. They had literally no response, which is rare in this bunch. When I tried to lighten the mood by asking if dogs go to heaven, they all enthusiastically said yes. So a topic you might explore in the book is how people envision heaven and whether that vision serves as motivation for leading a good life.

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    Epaminondas  October 6, 2016

    I have a suspicion that the concept of hell evolved from the desire to regulate the tribe. Partially because the behavior of some individuals created problems in the tribe, or perceived problems in the relationship between the tribes and their god(s) de jour. I am curious about the motivations behind the history.

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    prairieian  October 6, 2016

    This concept is central to Christianity – many other religions seem to focus on right living. That is, how one might strive to live with one’s fellow inmates on Planet Earth. Much of the Christian message is on the same theme. The focus on an afterlife is one of the major points of departure of Christianity from other traditions. You have pointed out a number of times, for example, that pagan beliefs did not include any notion of an afterlife. The cultural importance of the development of this belief, with scant Biblical support it would seem from your notes today, is hard to exaggerate.

    For me, I think the aspect that I find most interesting about this widespread concept of an afterlife (for good or ill, of heaven or hell), is why the belief exists given the absence of evidence. There is none that anyone can put a finger on outside a basic hope that there is something beyond this vale of tears in which we exist. Hope is not evidence. Answering that question is worth a chapter or two. From there you can examine why so many Christians are apparently OK with the notions of eternal damnation for non-believers, when the majority of the human beings who have ever lived have never had the benefit of getting the message, or who have an extremely naive view of the tenets of the religion. I do know this issue motivated many a missionary over the centuries, but nonetheless the basic fact remains the case. Why would Christians believe a loving God would do this to his creation? Or, if there is some sort of special dispensation for ‘good pagans, good non-believers’ then why the need for Christianity at all? (C.S. Lewis struggled with this, I seem to recall, with some sort of resolution as I have sketched above in his final Narnia book.) All to say, it appears to me that a basic motivation for following Christian belief is fear of punishment. That is worth another chapter or two. What has that meant for our civilisation? Or, our habits of mind. Another chapter… Then the willingness to find heresy and to punish with truly hell on earth punishments in order to protect the ‘true faith’. How does that square with a loving God? And on it goes.

    This will be an interesting endeavour if you go for it.

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    smackemyackem  October 6, 2016

    My prediction…this will out-sell all of your other books!

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    obrienma  October 6, 2016


    It would also be interesting to compare different Christian groups’ interpretations of the afterlife (assuming they are different). What are the entrance criteria? What about non-Christians being admitted (perish the thought)? And what was limbo all about?!?!?!

    If I didn’t like your idea for a second book so much, I was hoping your follow-up bestseller to ToC would be Evolution of Christianity. I would love to read your views of how you think Christianity might evolve over time (decades? centuries?) as more people gradually accept historical analysis and conclusions about the Bible and Jesus. Will many of the debates of the first three centuries be rekindled with a different orthodox outcome? Or will the number of adherents simply dwindle?

    Love your books and the blog!

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    Tempo1936  October 6, 2016

    Your book should include the Pharisees and Sadducees views of the afterlife and a physical resurrection and how it affected Paul’s evangelism to the gentiles
    I recall a sermon where the pastor said the major dispute between the two groups was that the Pharisees believed in the afterlife. So Paul being a Pharisee was was drawn to Jesus’ resurrection story and sold it with zeal to both Jews and gentiles.

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    Hume  October 6, 2016

    Take my money now, I would buy this in a heartbeat.

    1. Did Jesus mean the physical place Gehenna (outside Jerusalem) or was it a metaphor using Gehenna as an example?
    2. Purgatory. What? Why?
    3. Is Hell and Heaven derived from other religions. I read they came from Zoroastrianism when the Persians conquered the Jews.
    4. Morality: Can one actually repent one’s sins on their deathbed and enter into heaven after a life of immorality?

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      Hume  October 7, 2016

      5. Satan’s transformative role as official ‘tester of faith’ to enemy of heaven and humanity.

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    quiringwalt@gmail.com  October 6, 2016

    What about the “After Life” after we have become “un- Born Again” here on earth- like in the rest of our lives?
    I understand that your main interest in Development of the New Testament . Hoever I also understand that your life experience and scholarship gives you exceptional insight into our innate capabilities for both good and evil.
    I understand that I’m requesting moral input. What should we teach our children and grand-children? Please give direction to both believers and unbelievers in creating a more just and compassionate community and country and world. Use your preacher /teacher abilities and teach us how to think and to connect to thinking (not necessarily believing) communities. I am a have-been Mennonite who has been un-born-again at 77 years of age. I am with you when you say you have left the Church ‘kicking and screaming’. Me too. Love,
    Walter Quiring

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    Keith  October 6, 2016

    Since you’ve expanded the concept to include heaven as well as hell – which I think is a great idea – what about including at least a brief discussion on the idea of purgatory? Sort of a non-fiction answer to Dante’s Divine Comedy.

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    rbrtbaumgardner  October 7, 2016

    I don’t know if it would be helpful to you, Bart, but Ernst Becker’s The Denial of Death is a good place to start from a modern perspective. I love his use of the term “immortality project” to refer to the belief systems we use to reassure ourselves of our continued existence after death.

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    nacord  October 7, 2016

    This book idea excites me a great deal! Perhaps an interesting angle to cover would be how views on the afterlife have affected the course of human history… Crusaders in search of immortal glory? Suicide bombers destined for a more bountiful afterlife? Reformed heathens living in fear of hell? In the words of John Lennon, “imagine there’s no heaven…” how might it affect the course of human history?

  18. Terianne
    Terianne  October 7, 2016

    “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?”
    This particularly interests me. What were the popular beliefs about the afterlife at the time Christianity developed? What did people believe, or did they think there was any kind of afterlife? Certainly the Egyptians and others made sure their dead were well stocked up for what came next. There were thousands of years of religious beliefs before Christianity, so is there any basis there for the afterlife beliefs that developed in Christianity? Any pattern of evolution? I would buy a book that did a good job of delving into this/

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    Jayredinger  October 7, 2016

    Hi Bart, this might be related and something else to consider in your book, where does the notion of sacrifice come from, particularly the notion that something has to be killed in order to appease the gods? This concept seems rather
    strange to modern man.

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    Monty  October 7, 2016

    I would be interested in a study of why and when certain Jews began to believe in an afterlife, why others didn’t and some don’t to this day. With respect to early Christianity, I’d like to see how, when and why the idea that the Kingdom of God would be established on earth was abandoned (by most, but not all Christians) for the more abstract idea that heaven is a really cool place for reasons that are not entirely obvious, and what Greco-Roman influences, if any, facilitated this transformation in concept. I would also like to see how popular ideas about heaven and hell have developed through the centuries, and how they have been influenced by extra-biblical sources like Dante’s Divine Comedy, and even movies. My guess is that people are generally agreed on what they think hell is, but heaven seems a much more esoteric concept when you abandon the “kingdom of God on earth” version. It would be interesting (if not particularly scholastic) to see what heaven means to individuals on a personal basis today. My admittedly anecdotal experience is that most Christians think they know exactly where they are going, but are not nearly so sure about what actually awaits them on the other side of the bright light at the end of the tunnel.

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