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.
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?
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!
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