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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 the afterlife.

The Apostle Paul provides but one notable test case for Segal. For Paul, like many of his Jewish contemporaries, the (real) body would be raised indeed, but (somewhat in contrast to the views of many of those same contemporaries) the raised body would be a "spiritual body." Though Segal does not adequately expound the paradigmatic passage in 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, focusing instead on 1 Corinthians 15, his study of the nature of the resurrection body in Paul provides an opportunity to explore a sociological hermeneutic for an Apostle who seems to be "between two worlds": the apocalyptic Jewish world, where the resurrection of the body is real and earthy, and the Greek (post-Platonic) world, where instead the focus is on the immortality of the soul. In Segal's reading, Paul's theological background among the apocalyptists and his missionary drive to speak to Greece created the need for both sorts of lives after death: in the intermediate state one has immortality of the soul until the final state, where one is granted the resurrection of the body. And here Segal points us to the correlation between one's vision of life here and now and warrants for that life in the afterlife. In short, his book presses us to ask this question: Is the Church's witness to redemption in Christ simply an illustration that, in the words of the Peruvian savant Mario Vargas Llosa, "societies have the religions they require"?2

We should pause to note that, a year or so before Segal's book appeared, N. T. Wright published his massive tome The Resurrection of the Son of God, in which he charged contemporary biblical scholars with smuggling their own preoccupations into the text, turning "resurrection" into a metaphor for "life after death." Wright drove the point home that both the Testaments witness to a belief instead in re-embodiment or, as Wright so cleverly put it, "life after life after death." Scholarship, Wright argued, needs to alter its view. For Segal, in contrast, the mischief of viewing life after death "from below" is inevitable, all we really can do, and ultimately a good thing. In our projections we discover who we are. Perhaps we need to hear this more clearly, even as we dissent from Segal's conclusions. Doesn't much of what we think heaven will be like—the heaven of popular imagination—boil down to what we'd like heaven to be, what we need in order to justify our present life?

No other book does for us what Segal's book does. It takes our eschatologies and turns them around to face us; in the act of looking anew at them we discover (to our shame) not so much what the Bible says but our projections. Segal does this by contextualizing ancient beliefs about life after death in the day-to-day life of the societies that gave rise to them. I wondered—I couldn't avoid the thought—what the Left Behind series is attempting to justify for a life in this world through its confident images of the future. I also pondered the many who don't believe in life after death and how that might establish a set of warrants (or lack thereof) for life in a postmodern world.

Segal has neither the hopefulness of many Christians nor the despairing irony or cynicism of a radical postmodernist. But he offers few consolations to the one who wants to know "what will happen when we die?" His sociological hermeneutic is quietly presented in a discursive, rather than argumentative or polemical style. Nevertheless, his judgments are unambiguous. The afterlife is not empirically verifiable; notions of that afterlife correlate (too) highly with social structure, social power, and social strivings to be accidental. These notions are worthy of attention, for something can be learned from each culture's vision of life after death about what was most important to that culture. Behind each, he concludes, we find the human yearning for transcendence. And maybe little more.

Segal refuses to engage with the long history of Christian discussion and debate over the resurrection of Jesus Christ. An adept when it comes to religious "experience," he thinks the "resurrection of Jesus" was a genuine experience on the part of early Christians. But we are not treated to a serious historical analysis of whether or not Jesus' resurrection happened in the traditional sense that the early Christians believed and that Christians today affirm each time they join in the Apostles' Creed.

Why not? Ultimately, it doesn't matter to Segal. Why? I think the following quotations tell us why. But let me preface this battery of statements with the observation that Segal is himself a person of faith, that he in no way means to demean other faiths, and that of all the Jewish scholars who work also in Christian texts few have matched his sympathy. Still, his hermeneutic leads to an afterlife "from below":

Not surprisingly, we have seen that every group in society normally searches for a transcendent justification for its religious position, lifestyle, and political position. Each group within the society develops an afterlife doctrine to parallel and legitimate its own position, taking the elements of its position from the historical past of the society and attempting to argue that its interpretation is the truest representation of it. This combination of functions and structures, we are used to calling religion. … It is the afterlife that provides the answer to every unbalanced equation.

One is reminded here of Dante, who wrote about hell, purgatory, and paradise and assigned people to various stations. And this is how Segal sees all of us: he who fashions the story assigns the glory. Nothing more clearly epitomizes Segal's view than this claim, after considering Shakespeare's 18th Sonnet:

But is not culture a kind of drama in which we play ourselves and give ourselves lines and then judge ourselves as the audience? So perhaps that is how, in the end, we must treat our religious values—as a script for the performance of a life—that is, as very important and meaningful lines to us because they are beautiful, true, and enduring in their own way, even if they are fiction [italics added].

It comes as no surprise, then, that Segal's final chapter makes a flourishing appeal for American pluralism and tolerance.

This leaves us in an unappealing position. Whatever we believe, whatever canonical or eclectic views of the afterlife we hold, we must face the surety that all are, at best, but approximations of what may await us. Maybe nothingness awaits us all. We have no real way of determining which view, if any, is right. From our social context within a specific culture, the best we can do is articulate what appeals to us most.

Unless, of course, it is true that Jesus was actually raised from the dead—in which case we come face to face with one person's life after death on earth.

Segal's is one of the most challenging books I've read in some time. What it has done for me is not what Segal intended (or maybe he did): it has made me much more conscious that I am a Protestant who believes in sola scriptura and an Anabaptist who thinks that what Jesus had to say about life after death is where we ought to begin.

Scot McKnight is Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University. He is the author most recently of The Jesus Creed (Paraclete).

1. Robert Benson, Between the Dreaming and the Coming True (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), pp. 60-61.

2. Mario Vargas Llosa, "Trench Town Rock," The American Scholar, Vol. 71 (2002), p. 56.

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