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Scot McKnight

Last Things

A history of the afterlife.

Contemplating death and judgment, many have come to the conviction of that Southern writer on things Christian and spiritual, Robert Benson, who recalls a conversation with a priest who spoke about the all-inclusive and conquering love of God:

One of us who was listening asked Father Kelly what that sort of thinking did to his concept of heaven and hell. "Oh, I believe there is a hell all right," he said, flashing his grin again, as though he had heard this question before, and from some folks who were more theologically imposing than we were. "I just do not believe there is anyone in it."1

Of course there are those who suspect mischief behind the grin of the priest; indeed, at least since Dante, many have already taken the opportunity to tell us who will be where. And then there are others—the majority today, probably—who prefer evasive tactics. But not Alan Segal, who meets the subject head-on in Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in the Religions of the West (the subtitle appears in a slightly different form on the dustjacket). Segal, the Ingeborg Rennert Professor of Jewish Studies at Barnard College (Columbia University), asks straightforward questions: Is heaven (or hell) merely the projection of our own hopes and fears? Is all our talk about the afterlife a justification for this present life and a warrant to get others to fall in line? Is it merely rhetoric for expressing our moral values?

Life After Death is a wide-ranging, massively erudite, but readable survey of ancient views of the afterlife, with stops in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Canaan, ancient Israel, Iran, the classical world (mostly Plato), and then a long stop in the Second Temple period with serious looks at Daniel (where we are treated to mini-soliloquies on stars and angels), the apocalyptic writings, and early and patristic Christianity, followed by long stops with the rabbis and Islam. At each stop Segal works to show the correlation between values on earth and their warrant in ...

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