My summer reading program has essentially concluded with two recommended volumes that together cover much of the same ground. Bruce D. Chilton’s Resurrection Logic: How Jesus’ First Followers Believed God Raised Him from the Dead (Baker, 2019) was followed a year later by Bart D. Ehrman’s Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife (Simon & Schuster, 2020). Both books explore ancient notions of what happens to people after death.
People have wondered about, been afraid of, and looked forward to what happens after death since before recorded history. The very earliest textual remains, the Middle Eastern epic Gilgamesh account, tells a four-thousand-year-old story about a super-human demigod who sought, and ultimately failed, to find immortality in a life-giving herb. Along the way he encountered dead friends and family who lie without hope in the dust.
Over a thousand years after Gilgamesh visited the realm of the dead, the semi-legendary Greek author Homer similarly conceived of the afterlife as bleak and dreary in his two major works: the Iliad and the Odyssey. According to Homer, once the life breath is gone, disembodied souls with no hope of return live out an existence offering neither pain nor pleasure. Notably, however, semi-divine offspring, including Hercules, might expect to exist forever among the gods. Three other men who had angered the gods are damned to eternal torture in Hades. Starting to sound familiar?