I suppose it is appropriate for a book on eternal life to be long. Given the ground Alan Segal, a professor of Jewish studies at Columbia University, covers, Life After Death had to be long. Ten years in the making, Segal’s book explores the development of belief in the afterlife in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Canaan, Israel, Iran and Greece. He continues the story by examining the period of the second temple in Jewish thought, the rise of apocalypticism and millenarianism, sectarian life in New Testament times, New Testament views of afterlife, pseudepigraphic literature, the Church fathers, the early rabbis, and Muslim views of the afterlife..
Through the course of this investigation, the author appears to discuss nearly every ancient text that has anything of interest to say about afterlife in the cultures that he covers. And to illumine these ancient texts, Segal examines modern apocalyptic movements as well as contemporary literature on mystical experiences, near-death experiences and the like. By any measure, this book must be recognized as an extraordinary achievement.
The author’s professed aim is to produce a work of social history. Early on he writes: “We will not ask theological questions so much as the basic question of a historian: ‘cui bono’? To whose benefit is this belief in the afterlife?” However, readers are clued in right away that this book is not concerned simply, or perhaps even primarily, with answering questions about ancient history. On the first page, after a brief look at Hamlet’s reflections on revenge and suicide, Segal turns to consider the Muslims who perpetrated the tragic events of September 11, noting that in the minds of some they will receive special rewards in heaven for their uncommon piety and commitment.
The intersection of belief in life after death and political activity, dramatically illustrated by September 11, is not foreign to American culture. As Segal observes, the return to religion and church membership by baby boomers in the 1980s corresponded to a dramatic upswing of political action by conservative religious groups. Intimately involved in these political controversies are beliefs about life after death. As our author puts it, “Asking about an afterlife still defines a crucial and very conflicted battlefield in American life, one that challenges our political as well as religious convictions.”
More Americans say they believe in life after death than say they believe in God, and there is a fundamental divide over how Americans conceive of the nature of resurrection and life after death. Liberal believers hold either to the immortality of the soul or, at best, a spiritual resurrection, but others, including Christian evangelicals and Orthodox Jews, insist on a bodily resurrection. Indeed, Segal suggests, the “distinct line” that divides conservative believers from liberal ones is “the big story in American religion at the beginning of the twenty-first century.” It seems clear that he intends his book to address this divide and its practical implications, not the least of which are social and political.
Segal finds the story of the afterlife in Egyptian history particularly telling, because there is a clear record of change and development. Initially, it was only the pharaoh who was believed to be blessed with immortality, but over the centuries, as social circumstances changed, more and more people were included in the Egyptian vision of the afterlife. Segal takes this as vivid support for his thesis that views of the afterlife invariably mirror the values of the society producing them. Another interesting example is the difference between the social contexts where belief in immortality of the individual soul thrived as opposed to the social contexts where belief in bodily resurrection was dominant. “Immortality is the ideology of the rich” contends Segal, because it “valorized their intellectual pursuits.” Belief in resurrection, by contrast, flourished in a context of persecution and deprivation, appealing particularly to activist groups by giving martyrdom a transcendent justification.
Segal thinks it likely that the notion of resurrection was originally a Zoroastrian idea, but he is cautious in his judgments about how different religions influenced each other (because of difficulties in dating various documents), and he suspects that there was cross-fertilization among Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity. Jewish adaptation of the idea of resurrection took distinctive shape as a tool to explain the martyrdom of righteous persons: “The doctrine of judgment and rewards and punishments in the afterlife was first articulated because it was necessary that the doctrine develop to help people understand the implications of their faith. Wherever the idea comes from, it was tailored to Jewish sensibilities by the time it appeared in Jewish culture.”
Some of Segal’s historical judgments are tendentious. For instance, traditional Christian readers will take exception to the wedge he attempts to drive between Paul’s account of the resurrection and that of the gospel writers.
He spends an entire chapter on Paul and argues at length that he was a mystic whose witness to the resurrection was based on his visions of Christ in Heaven. “In flat contradiction to Paul, the Gospels (when they discuss the process of resurrection at all) strongly present a physical, fleshly notion of Jesus’ bodily resurrection.” Moreover, Segal asserts, “neither body of writing gives us what actually happened.”
Despite his professed intention to provide a social history and to avoid theological questions, Segal ventures squarely into philosophical and theological territory in the afterword to his book. There he offers his reflections on our prospects for knowing the truth about the existentially vital and inveterately controversial matter of life after death. The prospects as he sees them are not good. Moreover, this is a good thing.
First, he rules out the possibility that religious belief can be confirmed in anything like the scientific sense. Rather, belief in God and the afterlife are human ideals that give meaning to our lives, and as such they exist in our minds more than in the objective world. This does not make them less important for Segal, but it does mean that God and the afterlife should not be taken as literal truths.
Next, he contends that history cannot show the truth of the afterlife. The conflicting claims among different religious traditions necessarily relativize all such claims and underscore his central thesis that “afterlife notions are mirrors of our cultural and social needs.” Moreover, diversity within the canonical tradition of the various religions—such as the alleged contradiction between Paul and the Gospels—shows that someone must be wrong, and we have no way to determine who is right. Indeed, Segal contends that “history is, in fact, a construction of our minds, as redactors and editors of all the reports.” This makes it extremely dubious that we could ever get at what “actually happened.”
Finally, Segal dismisses the suggestion that we might be able to know the truth about the afterlife through divine revelation. “God may be sending revelations but we are talking to ourselves when we interpret our scriptures.” Apparently our hermeneutical biases are such that we have no more hope of getting straight a divine revelation than we have of getting an accurate picture of past history.
So where does this leave us? Here is Segal’s answer: “Either we must view the beliefs selectively, taking seriously only the one that appeals most to us, convert, and become true believers of that religion—any religion—or we must face the surety that all are, at best, but approximations of what may await us. Or maybe nothingness awaits us.” Notice, for Segal, it is a “surety” that all religions are at best approximations of what may await us, even if that is nothingness. We can be sure that no religion gives us a true account of God and the afterlife and if anyone is sure of the opposite, they have a faith that is not properly chastened by doubt. As Segal puts it in a nutshell, “Doubts complete faith and keep it from becoming fanaticism.”
He is prepared to go even further. In the last pages of his book, he returns to Shakespeare and suggests that our religious values should be understood “as a script for the performance of a life.” As such, they are important and meaningful and even true “in their own way, even if they are fiction.” Fictional faith, or faith completed by doubt, are Segal’s antidotes to fanaticism.
While perhaps most will agree that fanaticism is a bad thing, Segal’s recipe for avoiding it requires true believers to invert what we can be sure about. If there is no God and nothingness awaits us, then Segal is surely right that we are hardly in a position to be sure about either God or the afterlife. But if there is indeed a God and He has revealed to us the crucial truth necessary for eternal salvation, then it is much more likely we could know this and even be properly sure of it.
Moreover, if the Christian revelation is true, we can know that God forbids murder and requires us to love even our enemies. Such knowledge, I would argue, is a better antidote to fanaticism than pervasive doubt that God even exists. In any case, it remains to be seen whether those who are sure that the truth about God and the afterlife eludes us will be more tolerant of those who insist otherwise, than the latter have been of them.
Jerry L. Walls is professor of philosophy of religion at Asbury Theological Seminary.