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Issue Date:  March 11, 2005

By Alan F. Segal
Doubleday, 866 pages, $37.50
The afterlife is an eternal theme

Reviewed by WAYNE A. HOLST

What happens after we die? Do we begin another life? If so, what form does that life take?

Human beings have always asked these questions. Even in the secular West, we continue to ask them.

Alan F. Segal, professor of religion and Jewish studies at Barnard College, Columbia University, claims that even though the afterlife is beyond the purview of science, belief in life after death is older than the existence of Homo sapiens if ancient Neanderthal burial studies can be trusted.

This book is an extensive social history that traces the development and comparative cultural impact of a religious idea.

The author has studied the development of religious belief over 5,000 years of human history. He has mined rich insights about the afterlife from research into many ancient Near Eastern mythologies, rites and rituals. More recently, he has investigated the subject in Islam and compared life-after-death beliefs in the three great Abrahamic faith traditions.

After navigating challenging thought-currents with Mr. Segal for more than 800 pages, we come to recognize that all religious belief, whatever the tradition, has evolved and taken new forms over time. On this subject, there seems to be nothing new under the sun.

Ultimately, Mr. Segal is concerned about how this matter impacts our lives today. His Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion reminds us that even though we can neither prove nor disprove the existence of heaven or hell, many of us tacitly accept what some pagan philosophers of late antiquity were saying. Their teaching, in a nutshell, is that our souls, not our bodies, are immortal. Everyone will ultimately be saved. It will just take some souls longer than others to attain their salvation.

One pragmatic question keeps surfacing at various transitions in his inquiry as the author seeks to put modern concerns into some form of historical perspective. He wonders what people at various times and places would hope to gain from such a belief. He keeps asking, formally and informally: “To whose benefit is this belief in the afterlife?”

“Every religious tradition interprets the afterlife to speak of the ultimate reward of the good,” writes Mr. Segal. That can be said for the Egyptians, for whom over time heaven became a less elitist and more inclusive place. It could be said for the Persians who contributed to the Hebrew perspective the sense of a “beatific afterlife” instead of an eternal dead end. Islam viewed resurrection as something very literal and material. Heaven was a place where, for example, supernatural sexual delights would be available (at least to males).

Resurrection of the body and immortality of the soul are the two major historical patterns emerging from millennia of religious history to describe comparatively what happens when we die. These two motifs thread their way through the entire study.

The former represents a belief that surfaced from within Judaism and early Christianity. The latter came from Hellenism and various antecedent traditions. Islam basically picked up and elaborated upon ideas inherited from the Judeo-Christian heritage.

Mr. Segal extensively documents the interaction of these core and distinct beliefs. He shows how one dominated, then the other. How integration was achieved and then lost again.

Traditionally, many religious faiths were convinced about the truths they claimed to possess and elitist about who should receive the benefits of the afterlife. Their respective faithful were assured of heaven while those who did not share their beliefs would go to hell.

Now, many have grown unsure of old verities. Exclusivism is unpopular with large numbers of sensitive and thoughtful people. They are not much inclined to consider the afterlife in spatial terms. They are less ready to acknowledge that God speaks only to them and more inclined to accept that God sends differing revelations to different people. All attempts to define life after death are, at best, approximations of what may actually happen.

Mr. Segal concludes with hope for people of various religious traditions, or none. Our “immortal longings” are mirrors of what all humans find valuable and worth holding in common. Since all the major faiths have borrowed from each other in the past, he believes that should continue. As a result, human understanding will evolve and mature.

The afterlife can serve as a motif for drawing us all together.

Wayne A. Holst is an adult educator at St. David’s United Church, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary.

National Catholic Reporter, March 11, 2005

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