Are People Interested in the Afterlife?

Editor’s Note: This Clergy Project member, Religious Studies professor and best-selling author broaches a subject of particular interest to me. This is because, at some point, I realized that it was only the hope for an afterlife that was keeping me nominally religious. He’s writing a book on the subject, which I will get as soon as it’s published. I’m guessing that if it had been available while I was making my study of religion, it would have hastened my transition. I am very curious about how non-believing clergy and other readers here feel about the afterlife and I know the author is too! I will alert him that I have re-posted his essay here.   He has already given permission to re-post any of the “public” posts on his blog.

======================

By Bart Ehrman

As an author (such as me, for example) thinks ahead to the next book, he has a number of worries, concerns, and anxieties that crop up.  This is all part of the process – deep and cutting anxiety is what ends up inspiring quality.  Otherwise, we would just dash off books without a care in the world, and they would be completely mediocre, not-well thought out, uninteresting, not grappling with the really complex issues in ways that are clear and easy to understand.

Wait a second.  That’s how most books are!

Seriously, one has to grapple with innumerable problems, issues, and concerns from virtually the beginning of a book project.  Some of these concerns are small, but at the outset they tend to be large, big-scale.  Then, the more one works on a book, the smaller (and more specific) the issues get.  These small ones are of huge importance, because it is getting the small things right that makes an OK book good, a good book really good, and a really good book fantastic.

I’m still at the early stage of my book on The Invention of the Afterlife: A History of Heaven and Hell (as I am tentatively calling it; who knows what the thing will actually be called?  At this stage, the title is the least of my concerns.  Whatever I end up suggesting to the publisher will be taken under advisement, before they start floating other, probably better, titles and subtitles. )  Anyway, I’m at the early stage.  And right now, as of this week [early September], I’m having one very major anxiety.   I’m beginning to wonder if people are interested in reading about the topic.

Jesus_ascending_to_heaven

I’m not saying that people aren’t interested in the afterlife.  Most people think a lot about death, and about what comes after – even people who have very clear ideas about the matter.  My mother, for example, is in a facility where the very elderly spend most of their time thinking about it, and – given its geographical and social location – many (most?) of them are firmly convinced that when they die they’ll go to heaven and have a one-on-one with Jesus.

Other people are convinced that when they die, the lights will go out, and that will be the end of their personal existence.  But they still think about it, and wonder a bit, and try to convince themselves that it will be OK.

Yet other people, of course, have a wide range of views.  And some (many?) don’t really give it much thought, even if the rest of us think they should.

So that’s a given in my thinking.  But that’s not the issue I’m concerned about.  I’m concerned about whether people really want to read a book about it.  I know that some people love the new and popular genre of the Near Death Experience Account.  Lots of books like that sell well.  But are people interested in knowing where the much more widespread views of heaven and hell came from?

The reason I’m wondering is rather personal.   I’m noticing a lot less traffic on my blog since I’ve started talking about the issue.   There is not as much controversy, not as many objections, not as many people commenting at all, not as much interest, so far as I can see.  I take that as a bad sign.  Is this one of those topics that people think about but don’t want to *have* to think about, and certainly don’t want to spend their time reading about?

I’ve had this experience before.  A few years ago I was gung-ho about writing a book on the origins of anti-Semitism, where I would try to show that its roots are actually Christian, that before Christianity appeared on the scene there was never any widespread opposition to Jews for being Jews (I do know the notable, possible, exceptions, of course!  Think, Antiochus Epiphanes.  But even that was a bit different….).  The idea that Jews were enemies of God and needed to be opposed originated with Christians.  I think that’s terrifically interesting, and I think it’s demonstrable.  And I wanted to write a trade book about it.   But my publisher insisted that even though people are very deeply concerned about issues connected with anti-Semitism, they find the topic a real downer and simply don’t want to be reminded about how horrible it is by reading about it (nearly as much, for example, as reading about amazing Near Death Experiences!).  So the publisher suggested I try something else.

I may at some stage do the anti-Semitism book (I know a number of people on my blog want me to), but that’s not my point here.  My point is that sometimes an author is really interested in something that other people aren’t interested in (in fact, that is *generally* the case!); and other times the author is really interested in something that other people are indeed also really interested in, but they just don’t want to read about it.  And I’m anxious about whether that’s the case here.

I’d be interested in your opinion.  Now would be a good time to give it!

==================

Bart Ehrman, Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Bart Ehrman, Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Bio: Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He came to UNC in 1988, after four years of teaching at Rutgers University. At UNC he has served as both the Director of Graduate Studies and the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies.

A graduate of Wheaton College (Illinois), Bart received both his Masters of Divinity and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, where his 1985 doctoral dissertation was awarded magna cum laude. Since then he has published extensively in the fields of New Testament and Early Christianity, having written or edited twenty-six books, numerous scholarly articles, and dozens of book reviews. For more detail, read here.

>> Photo Credits:  John Singleton Copley [Public domain], https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AJesus_ascending_to_heaven.jpg

By Dan Sears – Dan Sears UNC-Chapel Hill, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41276400

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  • Kevin K

    It kinda goes along with the history of god-belief, doesn’t it? Or maybe not. It might be interested to compare-and-contrast the after-death beliefs of animists, non-deistic religions, etc, with the deistic religions, and give a sense of how the whole thing started and how they evolved over time.

    Honestly, though, the after-death beliefs of the Abrahamaic religions are a crushing bore, so maybe that’s the push-back you’re sensing.

    I’m reading The Swerve: How The World Became Modern” by Stephen Greenblatt right now, about the rediscovery of Lucretius’ On the Nature Of Things. Fascinating.

  • carolyntclark

    I’d have some curiosity and academic interest in the subject. It seems that there are three distinct but connected topics.
    1. the origin of belief in an immortal soul. 2. the history of the notion of hereafter. 3. the invention of heaven and hell.

    Was #1 or #2 the earlier concept ?
    #1 makes #2 necessary with #3 being only an option
    #2 needs #1, but not #3
    #3 needs #1 and #2

  • MJ Hoop

    kevin called it. “Crushing bore.” People are so egotistical they can’t imagine a world without themselves. They think themselves so special that a world without them (in some form or other) is just not imaginable. Or maybe they are just so scared by the idea of being stuck in the ground in a box or turned to ash that they must believe in an afterlife. I think about the money the old church got from the wealthy just so they could assure themselves of “eternal” life. Talk about one big scam! The urge to be “special” makes folks do weird things. We are no more special than a tree or a rock. Good idea to get used to that and live as good a life as one can, just because. it’s better than being a miserable jerk, anyway.

    • Linda_LaScola

      In my case it was not egotistical. It was a desire — and a promise given from my earliest memories — to keep on living – as long as you followed the rules. After a while, though, my concept of heaven became very personalized. It really had nothing to do with the church rules. I had given those up long ago. I was certainly good enough — as were most people, in my opinion. I never thought about it much as an adult. Looking back on it, it was a wish more than anything and ultimately it was very easy to give up. I think once I grew up, I knew at some level that it was just a wish.

      • MJ Hoop

        I used to think living longer/forever might be a good deal. Then I got older and nothing that didn’t include new knees, better hearing, better eyesight, better bladder control, and fewer wrinkles had to come with the deal or I was not interested. Now, I will settle for just dying before i turn 90.

        • Linda_LaScola

          Ha! – But in heaven, everyone is young, beautiful and healthy, right? I sort of thought of it that way.

          Except for my grandmothers — they would be old ladies and just as loving and eager to please me as they were when they were on earth.

      • Jim Jones

        Being fooled by adults is a good lesson in skepticism. I’ve gone all the way from Sunday school to a Billy Graham revival (when he was in his 40’s) and have yet to see one true thing that religion produces.

    • Jim Jones

      “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” – Susan Ertz

  • mason

    Bart,

    It’s sounds like your blog readers are acting like a rather valuable litmus test. “The Invention of the Afterlife” … That is such a vast subject that would need to cover all the human cultures and religions, and be thicker than a New York phone book in 1950. :)

    “Is this one of those topics that people think about but don’t want to *have* to think about, and certainly don’t want to spend their time reading about?” They don’t want to think about it much at all, and if they do there’s plenty of religious opium for the people dealers nearby to sell them a fix. I agree with your publisher on the origin of anti-Semitic book idea too. I don’t think the public cares much about origins, and those are subjects usually covered by NOVA or Cosmos. How about a book on the subject of the malignancy of Evangelical fundamentalism and how it’s members dehumanize non-believers? Maybe think in terms of expose’?

    On the subject of afterlife; My atoms will have an afterlife and that’s good enough for me. :) The idea a human goes on into an afterlife is IMHO the universal product of ancient human ignorance, and the height of human ego-centrism and greed. The academic study of how various religious cultures have had this fantasy (Egyptian pharaohs, American Indigenous peoples, Christians etc. etc. etc., is interesting to me, but that humans still believe the nonsense today is quite tragic, as these irrational beliefs create all types of completely unnecessary division. I don’t think there’s much of a large book buying market that cares about the invention of the idea; maybe anthropologists, theologians, and sociologists, for an academic limited market textbook.

    Britannica says they “currently don’t have an article on the topic” so that might be seen as an indication of how much interest there is. https://www.britannica.com/topic/afterlife-religion

    “Religion and Zombies” would have a bigger market I’m sure. Here’s my favorite bible verses on the zombies subject, that seems to be to creepy and deliberately ignored by believers.

    Matthew 27:51-53
    51 At that moment the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth quaked and the rocks were split.

    52 The tombs broke open, and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised.

    53 After Jesus’ resurrection, when the dead had come out of the tombs, they entered the holy city and appeared to many people.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/c6ca1fd5423554469e3536d84505ee53510da4ca926464689abc8c50586ce19f.jpg

  • Mark Rutledge

    Google “historical origins of belief in afterlife” and you get a pretty good guide to what might be some chapter titles along with accompanying articles. Historians of world religions might be interested–a specialty subset. I recently posted here a set of ten topics comprising my personal “credo” and while there were lots of comments, not one referred to my non-belief in an afterlife.

    I lean toward thinking the topic itself might not be interesting to many people, and yet because it would be written by a well known and exciting scholar like Bart, the book might generate some interest from that alone. And the topic might once again become widely thought about and debated. On the other hand I would advocate for it simply because I think it might help to reduce the high level of religious ignorance among the American public

    • Linda_LaScola

      Interesting insight, Mark — that no one referred to your non-belief in an afterlife in your credo. Hmmm.

      I also agree with your analysis of people buying the book because Bart wrote it. I hope it works out that way. And that he gets a lot of interviews and reviews so more people are forced to think about it.

  • trog

    Could this also be a matter of marketing and how you frame the topic? I, for one, would be interested in what the Bible •really• says about heaven and hell and how the concepts evolved within Christianity.

  • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

    I would be interested in times when the concept of heaven and hell changed significantly, that few people realize. For one thing, I personally think that Milton’s poem Paradise Lost greatly influenced how people understand the story the bible is telling – who Satan is, what hell is, why Satan hates humanity, ect. What other things in the culture or history shaped the view of the afterlife? Did average church goers go along with the narrative clergy taught, or was the average Christian pushing back in some way against the official line?

  • ctcss

    While I can support the idea of Ehrman researching this topic and reporting on what he has found, I wouldn’t find it especially interesting to me unless he could show a direct relationship between what he found and what my religion actually teaches regarding the subject and why. (While there are certainly many religions out there that people can choose to explore, I have already chosen the one that intrigues me and am fully occupied in exploring it.) In essence, humans have always speculated about the world around them and wanted to understand things. But just because some humans entertained ideas about a particular subject doesn’t mean that their musings necessarily formed the basis for later thought by different individuals or groups.

    For instance, humans have always been interested in flight and created many myths about flying. But while the Wright brothers might have been exposed to such stories and might have enjoyed them, their own journey seems to have been formed by their fascination with the mechanics of flight and the various devices that helped illustrate and demonstrate these principles, finally ultimating in their own success at flying.Thus, a direct link between earlier human musings about flight and their efforts doesn’t really seem to exist.

    So Ehrman’s research might be interesting from a wide academic and historical point of view. But unless he was doing some very in-depth exploration of my specific religion (it’s history, development, and practice), I don’t think a book like this would help me in informing and improving my own exploration and practice of it.

    My 2 cents.

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    I’d be interested in this book! There’s a bunch of questions in that area that I’d want to know more about (preferably from someone who knows there stuff.. like.. say a scholar of early Christianity!)

    How did the idea of sheol form and how did it morph into heaven?
    Where did the idea of Hell come from? Was it invented by Christianity or predate it?
    Whats the origin of purgatory? What about limbo?
    What’s the deal wit the resurrection of the dead?
    It seems like nowadays a lot of Christians want to absolve God from hell and we are seeing more versions of “Hell-Lite” where its not really so bad, or that people put themselves there on their own.

    It probably won’t be another “Misquoting Jesus” but I’ll buy it!

    • mason

      I think the origin of this religious fantasy stuff started as soon as our early human ape brains possessed an imagination capable of inventing and expressing (drawings, artifacts, sounds) incredulous ideas, in lieu of having any valid scientific understanding about anything. Over many thousands of years, some “religious” organization started circa 50,000 years ago, the tales became codified and highly cultured, and now as you point out, the tales are being modified to try and preserve the number of dwindling adherents. (Paleolithic Venus of Willendorf, thought to be a religious artifact)
      https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/07e6eae0aaf30dbb05d1ee96ef97002d6140911c030a0412e12d423b002a57cd.jpg

      • Martin Zeichner

        If I were to speculate, which is what people do in the absence of reliable information, I might go as far as to say that legends of heaven and hell bight have been derived from travelers’ tales. Your mention of ” incredulous ideas” reminded me of Baron Münchhausen.

        • Jim Jones

          Check out http://pocm.info — it lists many of the sources of Christianity.

          Go to http://pocm.info/getting_started_pocm.html and scroll down to “Let’s start thinking about Christian origins by asking a simple question:”

    • http://musingsfromacorneroftheuniverse.blogspot.com/ Michael

      I can’t say on every question, but I’m pretty sure hell has many predecessors. You find it in Greek myth, Hindu belief, etc. Or rather “hells” in some cases. In some cases it is not permanent. So that may be a bit more like purgatory. Resurrection may specifically come from Zoroastrianism (it also has hell as temporary). That apparently influenced Judaism, and thus Christianity.

  • alwayspuzzled

    Since the discussion will be using empirical parameters, it will probably be interesting and useful for potential readers who conceptualize the putative afterlife as included in or an extension of empirical reality.
    Potential readers who conceptualize the putative afterlife as part of an extra-empirical reality will probably find a discussion reliant on empirical parametrs less interesting and useful. For many potential readers, the attitude may simply be “Whereof one cannot speak, …”

  • Linda_LaScola

    I found this posted on The Rational Doubt Blog facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=1439189082865936&id=563465993771587&comment_id=1439607549490756 and copied it here.

    By Gerhard Jason Geick September 25 at 10:02pm

    Since you ask!!!! I have to wonder, who is your target audience? There are many religious books about the afterlife. I read a great one when I was a Christian, by the wife of Billy Graham. I wish I could remember the name of it, but there are many books like it, and that audience is not yours. That audience wants the comfort of fiction. I think your audience is the secular, the post Christian, the brights, who may still have an interest in the histerosity of Christianity, but Are probably not so interested in the the afterlife to the extent that they would be willing to dish out $38 to explore it with you. Yer still my homeboy though.

  • Jim High

    Yes, I would be very interested in Bart’s book on the origins of the human concepts of Heaven and Hell. When you get right down to the bottom line, religion is about the Afterlife. When you come to understand the truth that we have only this one life, you can begin to live your life to its fullest. You make your own meaning to life instead of being assigned the task by your religion of getting accepted into a Heaven at death. And it is only by knowing how these false concepts arose that we can begin to turn the tide of understanding that is necessary for all humans to think rightly about their fate at death, which is nothingness. Something you need not fear or waste one second thinking about.

    • Childermass

      “…religion is about the Afterlife.”?

      This is an over-generalization: There have been religions that believe in a God and/or the supernatural but don’t believe in an afterlife.

      • Jim High

        Buddhism has no God or Afterlife. Not sure about what Nirvana is other the ultimate peace and contentment. Which religions are you thinking of.

        • http://musingsfromacorneroftheuniverse.blogspot.com/ Michael

          Buddhism has no afterlife? What about reincarnation? If you don’t get enlightened, you’re going around again. Not to mention they have heavens and hells which karma can send you to. Nirvana is something of a transcendent blissful state as I understand it. Sounds like an afterlife too. Or do you mean that Buddhism isn’t a religion? I think it qualifies.

      • Martin Zeichner

        Are you describing Judaism?

      • Jim Jones

        > “…religion is about the Afterlife.”

        Religion is an effective set of lies that can persuade many people to believe in delusions without any proof. Some religions use threats and promises as part of this.

        Example: Scientology uses threats and promises in this world, not the next. Mind you, not a single promise made has ever come true: none of the followers has ever demonstrated the slightest improvement in abilities.

  • Papalinton

    I would certainly buy the book, as the focus of the topic is one of the quintessential propositions why religions, in the main, persist. And it would explain a lot why such a belief is the hoary old chestnut that it is. The supernatural superstitious belief in an afterlife is humanity’s last major impediment to intellectually and properly understanding the reality of the human condition, that is, living a relatively short evolutionarily prescribed life span. It is a “tragedy of cognition”, an inherent human existential fear religions have been able to almost effortlessly operationalise in their quest to optimise, if not capitalise on, the advantages it provides for egregiously propagating its highly problematic and unfounded supernatural message. Fear works.

    I would also add that a thesis on Christianity as the principal initiator anti-Semitism, would be a significant, perhaps seminal work, even if it should happen to fail as a commercial exercise. I urge you to complete that work as it is too important to simply let slide. Again, I would buy that book too.

  • Rennyrij

    I’m a woman in my mid-70’s. Having read several of your books, I appreciate that researching and putting together all that information in a form that is accessible to us who are “the laity”, must be exhausting! Yes, do write the books. In my family, mostly Methodist and some Baptist, the afterlife was never mentioned as a subject for discussion. We were all of a “live and let live” mentality. We were free to form our own ideas of what the afterlife might be. And proselytizing was considered sort of “beneath us” – we “didn’t do” such things. It might be interesting to find out what, and how deeply, other people think about these subjects.

  • Laurance

    Well, that does it! Time for me to join Bart Ehrman’s blog! I’m an old fart, 76 years old with one foot in Death and the other on a banana peel. I do think about these things and would like a chance to discuss them, especially with Bart Ehrman moderating.

    I don’t know that I fear Death. So far (and I’m a lifelong atheist who has nevertheless been subject to the opinions of the religious people beyond my family around me) I don’t have a problem being dead (other than what Hitchens said about having to leave the party, and the party will go on without me, or something to this effect), but it’s getting there that’s the problem. My Sweetheart is in a nursing home now, and I see all these super old people in such terrible condition! So old, and medicine and treatment trying to prolong life a while longer, but for what????? How much suffering is involved here?

    So for me it’s the dying process that is the problem here, It’s the suffering for months and perhaps years that’s the problem.

    Okay, gonna pay the small fee and join Bart’s blog,

    • Clancy

      FYI, it’s a paid subscription, but he contributes every bit of the proceeds to charity.

  • evodevo

    Yes … I would buy ANY book Bart wrote…but then I’m only one customer lol. On the subject of Heofan, I am always interested to see an analysis of how our current concepts developed historically, and how the current popular understanding of afterlife jibes with the actual scriptural underpinnings (harps, halos, etc.) Mark Twain wrote an essay on the logic of heavenly beliefs in his day – “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven” – and it is still very relevant.

  • Steven Watson

    I’d only be interested if someonone else wrote it. After the insult to reason that was ‘DJE?’ I won’t be trusting anything this bloke writes ever again.

  • Brendan Reid

    Hi Bart,
    I’m sure your book will be a fascinating and detailed history and well worth a read.
    However, doesn’t it all boil down to some pretty straightforward points?
    1. We humans fear death.
    2. We are prone to wishful thinking and would like to live forever.
    3. Priests exploit this to create a sales pitch to gain control over the flock and get supported without having to get a real job.
    4. Add in hell to keep the flock in line in the here and now.
    Looking forward to your take and expansion on these points!

  • Jim Jones

    The Christian “heaven and hell” seem like a combination of a Nigerian 419 scam and a chain letter full of threats. Surely the LDS fantasies of post death planet ruling are sufficient to dispel all claims.