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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
    Scott  October 13, 2016

    I would be interested in what the psychological effects of the differing views of the afterlife were (Sheol to Hades) and what psychological needs might have driven the development of new iterations of the afterlife. Most of those on this blog would probably agree that belief in heaven assuages fears of death or that a focus on hell can make embattled groups fell better about the future of their “enemies”. Are there signs in antiquity that different takes on the afterlife were used by ancient groups in similar ways?

  2. Avatar
    samkho  October 14, 2016

    As part of the Heaven and Hell doctrine is the concept of Satan as a devil. It is not in the Old Testament but how did it begin to come about and appeared in the New Testament. Since God is so powerful, how can HE not destroy Satan long ago and instead allowed Satan to cause people to sin such that God had to send His son to redeem the sinners. Strange logic but lots of Christians believe in Satan.

  3. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  October 14, 2016

    I don’t where I got this idea but it would make sense to me that, for the most of their history, Jews (and probably many other ancient peoples) did not believe in an afterlife partly because they didn’t have as strong of a sense of individuality as developed later in history. Instead, people thought of themselves less as individuals and more as parts or members of their tribe/nation/ethnic group, etc. Therefore as long as their group survived and prospered, that was enough of an afterlife for them. And children and continuation of their line were an especially important aspects of this.

    So I’d be interested in whether there is a correlation between a stronger sense of individuality and a greater interest in an afterlife.

    Or, to put it another way, is there a correlation between alienation/anomie in society and interest in an afterlife?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2016

      Good question! I don’t know what I think about it yet.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  October 15, 2016

      The earliest burials we have from about 24,000 years ago, I think, include artifacts that suggest that those who buried the person thought they’d be useful to the buried in the next world. If humans have ever thought of themselves less as individuals and more as a piece of a group it was in these small bands and tribes of early humans. Yet, these groups seem to have believed in an afterlife.

  4. Avatar
    Adam0685  October 22, 2016

    This topic might be discussed in light of the larger context of early Christian views of death. I haven’t come across a good trade book on early Christian views of death. It seems to be a big theme. The book may include discussions around: Why did they think humans die in the first place in light of their view of God as creator (God created humans to die?!). How/why did the view of resurrection of the dead start? In their view, why did Jesus’ DEATH have be be part of God’s plan? And before that, the death of animals according to the requirements of the Torah. Why did Paul personify death in Romans? What did the early Christian martyrs say about death? How did the idea of death and afterlife develop over the course of early Christianity?

  5. Avatar
    David.Cheshire  October 25, 2016

    Surely the Egyptians invented the idea of the afterlife? As well as circumcision.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 26, 2016

      I don’t think there is any way to know.

    • Avatar
      Newbhero  October 29, 2016

      There are independent cultures that have circumcision. It probably came to be as a tool to make sex easier, especially since humans are polygynious. Some uncircumcised men experience pain during sex. This probably means that it would have been more painful/difficult to go around and impregnate several women from the losing tribe if they all needed vast foreplay to make it painless for the male, unless they were circumcised.

  6. Avatar
    Elquijote  November 15, 2016

    I think that this book is a great idea. Probably the idea of an afterlife is the main reason why many people is still religious today. It would be very interesting to see how this idea developed.

  7. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  December 6, 2016

    Some things I’d like to know about for your next book:
    Which idea came first–heaven or hell?
    Which idea was written about more in antiquity?
    Apostle Paul wrote about Judgement and everlasting destruction, but did he ever use the word, “hell?” I’m thinking he didn’t, so what did he mean by God’s wrath and destruction?
    After rereading the post, I’m a little confused about the focus of the book. Your original idea was the Christian notion of hell. That was extended to include heaven. Then, it went further to include several other things, so I’m just wondering if the main focus is still on the Christian ideas of heaven and hell or is it a book that will be tackling the topic in a much broader sense? Considering the suggested title, I’m curious to know if the editor’s ideas are suggestions for a more broad-spectrum book?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 7, 2016

      Ah, these are some of the questions I’m asking myself now! I’ve had opinions over the years, but now I’m trying to find out what I really think based on a hard examination of all the available evidence.

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  December 7, 2016

        When this post was made, I got sidetracked when you mentioned NDE, so I forgot the other things that would be interesting to know. I realize now that I only have a vague sense of the origins and ideas of heaven and hell from antiquity. I’d like to know more about Sheol, Gehenna, and Hades. I cannot sort out Gehenna, Hades, and hell in my mind. I’ve read that Gehenna is actually hell, but here you say it’s a place.

        Jesus spoke about the Kingdom of God which I took to mean that the Davidic Line would be restored, but in other places, Jesus says that heaven and earth will pass away. This sounds like two competing concepts. I’d like to know, specifically, what were the NT authors thinking when they wrote about the Kingdom of God. When I used to attend church, heaven was synonymous with the Kingdom of God. Although, the former pastor always referred to it as a spiritual state of being because of the scripture that says the kingdom of God is within you.

        When I was still a believer, I used to research end-times prophecy and the millennial reign of Christ all the time. I ran across some information about the reinstatement of animal sacrifices during Christ’s reign. As a believer, that disturbed me to no end and was one of the things that caused me to doubt the divine inspiration of the scriptures. I think it might be important to point out that heaven and/or the millennial reign of Christ is not always a description of happiness and perfection. Biblical heaven is flawed. How comfortable will some Christians be with that information? For me, it was detrimental to my faith. I’m not articulating that very well, but I suppose that’s why you’re the one writing the book and not me.

        • Avatar
          Pattycake1974  December 7, 2016

          I don’t think I was very clear about my questions for the kingdom of God:

          Did Jesus see it as a restoration of the Davidic Line?
          Was the Kingdom of God considered heaven?
          Is it a physical place or a spiritual state of being?
          I don’t understand the scriptures referring to heaven and earth passing away. God’s kingdom appears before this happens? After this happens? Where did *that* idea come from– that heaven and earth must pass away?

          Something interesting I happened upon by accident is the idea of a cold, frozen hell called Naraka. Maybe that’s where the phrase “when hell freezes over” came from! Ha!

          • Bart
            Bart  December 8, 2016

            My sense is that it was to be a genuine kingdom here on earth after the current world and all its evil forces are destroyed. But I have to work through, now, what I actually think he meant — something I haven’t thought rigorously about for about twenty years! (Though I’ve thought non-rigorously about it a lot!)

        • Bart
          Bart  December 8, 2016

          I’m going to start a thread on this soon…

          • Avatar
            Pattycake1974  December 8, 2016


  8. Avatar
    haartman  December 13, 2016

    I’m a little late to the party on this post, but I feel this subject is so ripe for a critical treatment. The more I talk to people the more reveal to me that it is fear of Hell that keeps them practicing a religion they otherwise are highly skeptical of. I think any subject approached from an emotional, gut reaction-only point of view is begging for a rational counterpoint, and I can think of few writers who can offer that to as wide of an audience as you can, or with the authority and skill it deserves.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 13, 2016

      Yes, it’s very much that way in my world, the American South.

  9. Avatar
    Esko  December 28, 2016

    Here’s a question that I would like to find an answered in the book:

    Many believe that Jesus died to save us from Hell and that Jesus died in vain if Hell does not exist. What did the disciples believe was the function of Jesus’ death and resurrection assuming the doctrine of Hell was developed later by other Christians.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 29, 2016

      It showed that the end was near and the Kingdom of God was soon to arrive.

  10. Avatar
    dking  May 4, 2019

    Do we have any evidence that Gehenna was actually a trash dump? Seems like that notion has been challenged a lot recently. It was definitely known for a place to dispose of bodies after a judgement. Not so sure about the trash dump info though.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 5, 2019

      No, in fact the idea that it was a trash heap did not appear until the early thirteenth century CE (in a commentary on the book of Psalms written by Rabbi David Kimhi)

  11. Avatar
    dking  May 4, 2019

    I’m also working on a book, ‘Hell is Not Real’. It’ll be explaining the hell passages from a Full Preterist point of view. Note we NEVER see the apostles nor Jesus EVER ask anyone if they know where they’re going in the afterlife. It was always about their soon coming judgement in ad70.

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