Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion

Front Cover
Crown Publishing Group, Jun 23, 2010 - History - 880 pages
A magisterial work of social history, Life After Death illuminates the many different ways ancient civilizations grappled with the question of what exactly happens to us after we die.

In a masterful exploration of how Western civilizations have defined the afterlife, Alan F. Segal weaves together biblical and literary scholarship, sociology, history, and philosophy. A renowned scholar, Segal examines the maps of the afterlife found in Western religious texts and reveals not only what various cultures believed but how their notions reflected their societies’ realities and ideals, and why those beliefs changed over time. He maintains that the afterlife is the mirror in which a society arranges its concept of the self. The composition process for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam begins in grief and ends in the victory of the self over death.

Arguing that in every religious tradition the afterlife represents the ultimate reward for the good, Segal combines historical and anthropological data with insights gleaned from religious and philosophical writings to explain the following mysteries: why the Egyptians insisted on an afterlife in heaven, while the body was embalmed in a tomb on earth; why the Babylonians viewed the dead as living in underground prisons; why the Hebrews remained silent about life after death during the period of the First Temple, yet embraced it in the Second Temple period (534 B.C.E. –70 C.E.); and why Christianity placed the afterlife in the center of its belief system. He discusses the inner dialogues and arguments within Judaism and Christianity, showing the underlying dynamic behind them, as well as the ideas that mark the differences between the two religions. In a thoughtful examination of the influence of biblical views of heaven and martyrdom on Islamic beliefs, he offers a fascinating perspective on the current troubling rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

In tracing the organic, historical relationships between sacred texts and communities of belief and comparing the visions of life after death that have emerged throughout history, Segal sheds a bright, revealing light on the intimate connections between notions of the afterlife, the societies that produced them, and the individual’s search for the ultimate meaning of life on earth.

From inside the book

What people are saying - Write a review

We haven't found any reviews in the usual places.

Common terms and phrases

Popular passages

Page 636 - And they saw the God of Israel : and there was under his feet, as it were, a paved work of a sapphire stone, and as it were the body of heaven in his clearness. And upon the nobles of the children of Israel he laid not his hand : also they saw God, and did eat and drink.
Page 111 - For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, Shall remain before me, saith the Lord, So shall your seed and your name remain.
Page 396 - But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them. In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die: and their departure is taken for misery. And their going from us to be utter destruction: but they are in peace.
Page 740 - Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade, When in eternal lines to time thou growest : So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this and this gives life to thee.
Page 157 - For we must needs die, and are as water spilt on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again ; neither doth God respect any person : yet doth he devise means, that his banished be not expelled from him.
Page 573 - You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.
Page 446 - We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
Page 163 - And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it, and he cried, My father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof!

About the author (2010)

ALAN F. SEGAL is Professor of Religion and Ingeborg Rennert Professor of Jewish Studies at Barnard College, Columbia University. He is the author of Paul the Convert, Rebecca’s Children, and Two Powers in Heaven, as well as numerous scholarly articles.

Bibliographic information