A brief history of the afterlife

What happens to us when we die? Will we recognise ourselves? Will we be re-united with those who have gone before? Since the time of the ancient Greeks and Hebrews, people have searched for answers to these questions – and others – about the afterlife. Here, historian Philip Almond investigates…

Dante's ‘Inferno’. (Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images)
Dante's ‘Inferno’. (Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images)

In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Venerable Bede tells us of King Edwin of Northumbria, in the year AD 627, contemplating acceptance of the Christian faith and discussing it with his friends and counsellors. One of his chief men eloquently expressed our ignorance of our final destiny: he likened it to a sparrow flying into a lighted hall at one end and out at the other. While inside the hall, it is safe from the wintry tempest outside. But after a short time it disappears, “passing from winter into winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while,” he declared, “but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all”.

That we all die, we know. But of what may lie beyond our deaths we remain, like Edwin’s adviser, completely ignorant. And yet, since the time of the ancient Greeks and Hebrews, there has been a long and complex history of our imaginings about the afterlife, both after our individual deaths and after the end of history; a history of attempts to answer a series of perennial questions with which we have always grappled: Do we ‘survive’ death? Will we recognise ourselves? Will we be re-united with those we have left behind or those who have gone before? Will our actions in this life be punished or rewarded? Will we have an opportunity after death to make amends or change our ways? Will our lives continue immediately after death or do we have to wait for a final end to history? What kind of body might we have? Where will we be?

For all we know, one, some, or none of these imaginings may be true. But whatever, the history of the afterlife is the history of our hopes that there will be something after death and of our fears that there will be nothing. And, granted that there is something rather than nothing, the history of the afterlife speaks to our dreams of eternal happiness, of our nightmares of eternal punishment, and of the myriad ways in which these have been inflicted over the centuries.

Whether in Greece of the seventh century BC or in the ancient Israel of the same period, the fate of the dead was the same whether they were good or evil – a shadowy half-life in Hades beneath the Earth or its Hebrew equivalent Sheol. But by the time of the Christian era, there were two foundational narratives about the afterlife in western thought already weaving in and out of each other. In both cases, the vice or virtue of the deceased determined their fate. On the one hand, there was a narrative built around the anticipation that life will continue immediately after the death of each of us. At the point of death, it was thought, the soul will be weighed in the balance, be judged according to its virtue or vice and be sent to the bliss of Abraham’s Bosom (paradise) or be cast into the pit of Hades. 

Papyrus from the 'Book of the Dead' depicting the weighing of souls. (Photo By DEA/G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images)

On the other hand, there was another narrative, one that was driven by the expectation that our eternal destinies would be finally determined, not at the time of death, but at that time when history ends – when this world will be no more and when Christ returns to judge both the living and the dead on the Day of Judgment. Early Christians were less interested in life immediately after death and more focused on the imminent expectation of the return of Jesus in judgment. And then, there will be only two possible destinations for us. For Christ will bid the blessed among us to enter an eternity of bliss in heaven and will throw the damned among us into the everlasting fires of hell. And of the latter there will be many more than the former.  

With these two narratives in place, the history of the afterlife within the west became the history of a constantly fluid series of negotiations, contestations and compromises between these two versions of our futures after death. The majority held to the necessity of both. As the Christian tradition gained in social prestige and political power, the expectation of the imminent return of Christ faded into the background and the emphasis fell on life immediately after death. For those socially, politically or economically disenfranchised, the expectation of the imminent return of Christ remained at the forefront. When Christ returned, the oppressed would then receive their reward and the wicked their eternal comeuppance. 

But what of resurrected bodies? To the non-Christian Greek intellectual elite of the first four centuries AD, the notion of the resurrection of the body on the Day of Judgment was absurd. Thus, St Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–430) had to deal seriously with a set of questions that he believed rightly were intended by Christianity’s cultivated despisers to ridicule his faith. Would aborted foetuses rise from the dead? What would be the size of resurrected foetuses and children? Would the bodies of the monstrous, the disfigured and the deformed be made perfect? What was the fate of those devoured by beasts, consumed by fire, drowned, or eaten by cannibals? What gender would the resurrected be?


St Augustine of Hippo. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

How much of any individual was needed to reconstitute ‘him’ on the Last Day was a question with which Thomas Aquinas was grappling in the 13th century and Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, was still wrestling in the 17th. Drawing on the biblical vision of the resurrection of the valley of bones (Ezekiel 37.1-14) and his own chemical experiments on the stable and long-lasting texture of bones, Boyle surmised that skeletal remains would ensure the identity of the post- and pre-resurrection bodies, God adding such other parts as he saw fit to restore the bodies.

From the beginning of the third century, the Christian tradition adopted the Greek tradition that individuals were composed of a mortal body and an immortal soul. This enabled sense to be made of the tension between the fate of the individual after death and after the Day of Judgment. It was the soul, it was argued, that survived between death and the Last Day, and it was the body that was resurrected on the Last Day and re-united with the soul. Thus, the history of the afterlife was also the history of the conflict between the body and the soul as the essence of what it is to be human; sometimes of the necessity of both, occasionally of the acknowledgement of the one to the exclusion of the other.

The Last Judgment, 1600-25, by Cornelis de Vos. National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen. (Photo by PHAS/UIG via Getty Images)

This opposition between body and soul was intellectually difficult to sustain. The distinction between body and soul was sufficiently fragile for the one to be likely to collapse into the other and the difference between the two made effectually redundant. The soul was given a ‘bodily’ status and the body a ‘spiritual’ one. On the one hand, it became necessary to accord to the soul the sort of ‘bodiliness’ that allowed it a geographical location after death either above or below the earth. As a result, it took on physical aspects – the soul was gendered, had rank and status. 

On the other hand, it was crucial to ‘spiritualise’ the body – to resurrect it not as it was at the point of death but in an ‘ideal’ form most suited to its enjoyment of the delights of heaven or to its suffering of the pains of hell. A ‘spiritual’ body at least had the virtue of avoiding difficulties inherent in the notion of a resurrected physical body. From the middle of the 19th century, a ‘spiritual’ body overtook the physical body as the preferred form of afterlife vehicle.

And heavenly needs, along with heavenly bodies, also changed over time. From the early modern period onwards, there was a tension between the idea of eternal life as one centred on the love and worship of God to the exclusion of human relationships to one focused on human relationships to the virtual exclusion of God. Thus, from the middle of the 17th century, there was a gradual transition from a heaven focused on the vision of God with much playing of harps and casting of crowns upon glassy seas, to heaven as a place of ongoing activities, moral improvement, travel and reunion with family, friends and pets – a kind of ethereal Club Med. At the same time, by the middle of the 19th century, hell, with its dark fires and gnawing worms, its tormenting and tormented demons, was becoming marginalised in the European mind, in part no doubt the result of the diminution of the public spectacle of punishments, torture and pain in the secular sphere.


The Hell, c1545. Found in the collection of Staatliche Museen, Berlin. Artist Henri de Patinier. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

The story of life after death is also part of the history of the human demand for justice. It reflects the belief that there is a need for justice on the other side of the grave, since there is precious little of it on this side. So it speaks to the recognition that, because virtue is not obviously its own reward, the best solution to the injustices on this side of death was to ‘even them up’ on the other side. Thus, a moral economy demanded the creation of places after death where the righteous would receive their just recompense and the wicked their just deserts, and of punishments and rewards proportionate to vices and virtues.

But by the beginning of the fifth century AD, it was clear that, while the really wicked deserved instant and eternal hell, and the really good instant and everlasting heaven, most of us, occasionally good but not very good at being really bad, deserved a place between the two. Thus we find that between the 5th and 11th centuries, the development of the idea of Purgatory, a place between heaven and hell where the not too wicked could be purged and purified in preparation for Heaven after the Day of Judgment. The Protestant Reformation in the 16th century was to throw Purgatory out, leaving our options after death either only heaven or hell.  

That all said, the ultimate destiny of the dead lay in the hands of God. It was he who would reward the good and punish the wicked, who would weigh up souls at the moment of their death and who would determine their eternal destiny. God rewarded the good and punished the wicked in different ways at different times in the history of the afterlife, according to various measures of his goodness, his justice and his righteous anger.

That said, it was accepted for the most part that God would save or damn in accordance with the virtues or vices of the dead. But it was also argued (by Augustine in the fifth century, for example, and later by John Calvin in the 16th), that God apportioned eternal happiness or everlasting torments merely as the arbitrary act of his own sovereign will, regardless of any person’s virtues or vices. This was to become a central feature of reformed thought about the afterlife from the time of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.


John Calvin. (Photo By DEA/ G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images)

In short, God could do whatever he liked and, it was argued, he did just that. For those of a libertine turn, this was a view conducive to eating, drinking and merry-making in the here and now; for those more puritanically inclined, it was an incentive to piety, sobriety and accumulation of wealth as proof of election to salvation. God’s power was emphasised – although, for many, it was at the cost of his goodness and justice. 

Our imaginings about the afterlife, both after death and after the end of history, are a testimony to the hope that many have had, and still do, for an extension of life beyond the grave. They speak to the desire for light beyond the darkness of death; for ultimate goodness beyond present evils; and for final justice over earthly inequities. They give voice to the faith that the drama of history, and the minor role that each of us has played in it, has an ultimate meaning and purpose, one that is discernible from the vistas of eternity if not from our present perspective.

For good and ill, these imaginings have enormously influenced how we have understood how we should think about life in the here and now and how we should act until life is no more. At the end of the day (or the world), they result from our being members of a species, each member of which knows that he or she will die. This is both our triumph and our tragedy.

Philip Almond is Emeritus Professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland and author of Afterlife: A History of Life After Death (I.B.Tauris, 2016). 

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