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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 be at all funny, even though it does have its amusing moments.  One of the episodes is particularly germane to my current interest in the developing Christian views of the afterlife.

The merchant who had purchased Thomas as a slave and brought him to India brings him to to a local king…

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My Major Anxiety for my Book. Are People Interested in the Afterlife?
What Did the Angels Tell the Shepherds? It Depends. Mailbag Sept. 10, 2017



  1. Avatar
    RevJoni  September 11, 2017

    I think the Protestants got over that idea fairly quickly. Except for a few Catholic religious who lived rather humbly (St. Francis and Clare) it’s a long forgotton phenomenon.

    • Avatar
      godspell  September 12, 2017

      One might argue that’s because we have such typically long lifespans and so many diversions in the present day world (particularly if we are well-off) that we think much less about the afterlife, something Bart is worrying about himself at present, in terms of how his prospective book would be received. I’d argue that this means we’re in a better frame of mind to look at beliefs about the afterlife critically. Well, some of us. Honestly, I look at some of the most vocally devout Christians (and the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican gives us a hint about what Jesus thought of people always bragging of their religiosity), and I find it very hard to believe any of them worries much about heaven and hell. They want to enjoy this life, and part of how they enjoy it is to use religion to feel superior to others, and to get more power and wealth for themselves.

      Most evangelical Protestantism in America descends to some extent from Jean Calvin, and Calvinist-tinged Christianity, according to Max Weber in his famous essay on the Protestant Work Ethic, came to the conclusion that since we’re all predestined to be saved or damned before we’re ever born, the only way to know who God favors is to see who has prospered materially. Wealth itself doesn’t prove you are saved, but the good habits that were believed to lead to great wealth–hard work, frugality, etc–were. Of course there were satisfactions other than spiritual involved in this, and ultimately they became paramount.

      I don’t think it’s a forgotten phenomenon. And I don’t think it was just Catholics. Or just Christians, for that matter. But I do agree with Bart that Christianity gave birth to philanthropy.

  2. Avatar
    ardeare  September 11, 2017

    What would Jesus do? Thomas seems to be right on the mark.

  3. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  September 11, 2017

    So giving away wealth is morally superior– did the novel idea affect the behavior of the wealthy in the early Christian church?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2017

      Some, very much so. Others, not so much….

      • Avatar
        godspell  September 12, 2017

        She said ‘very early’, which is a bit undefined, but in the era before Constantine, what would be some examples of wealthy Christians going on behaving the same way as wealthy people had in the past?

        After Constantine, of course, it’s really hard to say who is a Christian because the gospel message struck some responsive chord, and who’s just going along to get along.

        Just as nowadays it’s hard to say who’s an atheist because they believe in science and rationality, and who just thinks it’ll get them liked on Facebook. 😉

        • Bart
          Bart  September 14, 2017

          I”m afraid I don’t have any names for you!

          • Avatar
            godspell  September 14, 2017

            I’d be surprised if you did.

            I know enough about early Christianity now to realize how disorganized and diverse it was, but the one thing that must have united nearly all of them in the era before Constantine was that they were serious about it. You had to be. Even if there was no organized persecution going on.

            There’s some very good fiction written about English Catholics–not Irish immigrants who formed communities, as so many Catholic immigrants do now, here and elsewhere–but people, often of high birth, who decided to remain faithful to the old church, after it became not only unfashionable but downright dangerous to do so. When it could be interpreted as treason.

            And you see that they do behave differently than Protestants of their class. They have a stronger than average sense of devotion, and a desire to live up to the tenets of their faith, as they interpret them. This is not always a good thing. I’m not actually a huge fan of English upper class Catholicism, and Evelyn Waugh is very far from being my favorite British novelist. However, it did give us Lord Acton. Power tends to corrupt. And being in a minority makes you more sensitive to the tyranny of the majority (though the tyranny of the minority can be even worse sometimes).

            So I certainly agree that once being a Christian became the safe fashionable thing, a lot of the iron went out of it, as happened when Protestantism became The Established Church (though there were always Protestant dissenters in the mix).

            But it must have been a very brave thing for any wealthy Roman to stand up and say ‘I am a Christian” before Constantine did it (with a few mental reservations, maybe that’s where that grand old Catholic tradition came from.)

          • Bart
            Bart  September 15, 2017

            It’s mainly because I can’t think of the names of many wealthy Christians before Constantine. I suppose Marcion would qualify. And Ambrose, the patron of Origen. But who else? I’ve never tried to come up with a list. The legendary Thecla gives up her wealth. There are other legendary figures in the fiction. But historical figures? I really don’t know.

  4. Avatar
    Judith  September 11, 2017

    What a wonderful post, Dr. Ehrman, and the invitation to join is funny.

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 12, 2017

    I assume that, like with the Gospels, what we have here are copies of copies of copies of a story about Thomas. When do we start having original copies of writings?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2017

      I suppose we don’t start getting originals of anything until fairly modern times. But even with, say, Shakespeare, or Milton, or whoever, there are big disputes about the “original” texts of their writings. In most cases we have printed editions only; and if we have their handwritten texts, often these have corrections in them. So what is the original?

  6. Avatar
    Pattylt  September 12, 2017

    Similar to Pattycake’s question… I know the early church did do a considerable amount of charity but they also began to accumulate an enormous amount of wealth. I’m sure some churches were more generous than others. Do we know when the church became “wealthy” and do we have any evidence that this wealth was opposed as hypocritical or heretical? Even by the early Middle Ages it seems horrific to me how appallingly most people lived compared to the Bishops and clergy.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 14, 2017

      YEs, after Constantine converted the churches started receiving imperial support, and lands, and structures, and wealth.

  7. Avatar
    TheologyMaven  September 12, 2017

    I’m not sure if Christianity is that different from Judaism. I think of Isaiah 58:10
    if you offer your food to the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
    then your light shall rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be like the noonday. (good things will happen during your lifetime or perhaps later?)

    Being rich (and not generous?) was not good according to Amos 6:4, they were the first to go into exile. But perhaps in the first century/as Christians came about- the prophetic warnings of “bad actions mean Israel will be taken over” changed to “bad things will happen in the afterlife.” This seems to have made the responsibility more individual and less collective. Perhaps that makes sense after the Diaspora.

    Anyway I’m curious about how far or not Christian beliefs were from Jewish beliefs of the same time period..

  8. Avatar
    John Uzoigwe  September 12, 2017

    any correlation between Jesus in the Talmud and Jesus in the gospel

  9. talmoore
    talmoore  September 13, 2017

    “There simply were no other religions that claimed it was morally superior to give away all your wealth.”
    That’s not quite true, Dr. Ehrman. The Indian religions around this time did, indeed, preach this very thing.
    However, in the case of the Indian religions (Buddhism, Jainism, some sects of Hinduism) the reward was not wealth in the afterlife but the afterlife itself — namely, liberation from Samsara, or re-incarnation. For these religions, you would be reborn into a new body after death, and the type of body you re-incarnated into depended on your Dharma or the deeds you performed in this life. This is the weighing of your soul that we call Kharma. If your Kharma is good, you are reborn into a better creature, like a member of the warrior caste or a cow. If your Kharma is bad, you’re reborn into a lesser creature, like an Untouchable or a dog.

    However, these religions promoted a challenging method for breaking the cycle of Samsara so that your soul is not reborn, but rather your soul becomes one with the universe, like an angel or a god. In Hinduism, this is called Moksha, and in Buddhism, Nirvana. One path for reaching Moksha or Nirvana is to go the way of the ascetic, which literally means giving away everything you have and living a profoundly austere lifestyle (in Buddhism this is called letting go of attachment for things). And upon death one becomes worthy of breaking away from Samsara and reaching Moksha/Nirvana, where one lives like a god (in the case of Hinduism) or as an enlightened being (in Buddhism).

    This is why I think you can only properly tackle this vast subject by expanding your research into other religions.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 14, 2017

      Sorry — I was referring to the religions in the Roman world out of which Christianity emerged. Should have been clearer! I (almost) never make claims about all religions of the world, since I don’t know enough…

      • talmoore
        talmoore  September 14, 2017

        Fair enough, but you cannot neglect Cynicism, which — though not, technically, a religion — was a philosophy that did, indeed, advocate giving away all your wealth.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 15, 2017

          Yes, that’s part of my bigger point. IN antiquity, philosophy and “religion” (= cult) were distinct from one another.

          • talmoore
            talmoore  September 15, 2017

            Paul himself writes that he would argue with philosophers (not just other religious apologists), which pretty much contradicts your notion. Just saying.

          • Bart
            Bart  September 17, 2017

            Where does he say that? In any event, that was a typo on my part (well, a mistake): I was trying to say ethics and religion, not philosophy and religion. Philosophy of course had a lot to do with religion, since philosophers taught about how to understand the divine. Ethics, for the most part, not so much (with obvious exceptions: such as patricide)

          • talmoore
            talmoore  September 17, 2017

            Acts 17:18, which, I’ll admit, is not Paul writing in his own hand. But that image of Paul arguing with Greek philosophizers sounds exactly like the arrogant Paul we find in his letters. I’ll grant you that philosophy, religion and ethics had a very fluid, somewhat tenuous relationship at the time. Religion, as we would think of it, had more to do with ritual and cultic practices, while philosophy had more to do with thinking about the nature of the world as a whole, including how human beings should act overall. But I think your attempt at drawing a clear distinction between them is going to get you into trouble.

            I’m reminded of how Josephus regularly refers to Moses has the “legislator” of the Jews, in comparison, for example, to Solon and Lycurgus. Solon and Lycurgus weren’t religious figures. They were secular authorities. So why would Josephus be making a comparison between them and a clearly religious figure like Moses? Well, probably because to the Jewish mind of a guy like Josephus that distinction was not so distinct. The fact that Moses proclaimed ritualistic practices along side day-to-day “ethical” behavior is irrelevant. For Josephus, laws are laws, regardless of whether they are cultic or mundane. I image Paul thought similarly. I think you’re drawing a distinction that Paul never made nor intended to make — nevermind Jesus himself.

  10. Avatar
    Tempo1936  September 13, 2017

    In the movie the case for Christ, claims of Eyewitness accounts of the risen Christ leads the author to believe. In john 20 Thomas actually places his hand inside Jesus’ wound And later the disciples eat with Jesus.

    Were these extreme claims always accepted just because some unknown author (who never knew Jesus or any of the disciples) wrote a story 80-90 years after Jesus died?

    Without these claims there isn’t any Proof?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 14, 2017

      well, 50-60 years later anyway. And yes, that’s the “proof” — the claims made in our later sources.

      • Avatar
        Tempo1936  September 14, 2017

        Would someone questioning these claims In the first 300 years of Christianity Be viewed as an heretic and be subject to harsh punishment?

        In most churches today you would be asked to leave if you question these claims.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 15, 2017

          I suppose then, as now, it would depend what kind of church you were in.

  11. Avatar
    Jana  September 29, 2017

    Intriguing story Dr. Ehrman. It’s inherent in Eastern theology that it is/was inherently moral to give away wealth and serve God. I’m reading several texts now and will post the dates. T

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