Bookmark This is a feature that highlights new books by College of Arts & Sciences faculty and alumni, published the first week of each month.
Q: Can you give us a brief synopsis of your book?
A: A recent Pew research poll showed that seven out of 10 Americans continue to believe in a literal heaven and nearly six in 10 in a literal hell. When a person dies, their soul goes to paradise above for eternal reward or to hell below for eternal punishment. Most people who hold these beliefs are Christian. But my book argues that these views are not found anywhere in the Old Testament and are not what Jesus himself taught. Then where did they come from?
My book tries to explain by sketching a history of the afterlife from our most ancient sources such as Homer’s Odyssey and the Hebrew Bible, up to Jesus and then his followers in the centuries after his death. I argue that like all ideas, beliefs and understandings of our world, conceptions of heaven and hell came into existence in particular times and places in response to certain situations and human needs, evolving over time. Even in the Bible we find competing understandings of the afterlife: the view of the Psalms is not the view of Jesus or, say, the book of Revelation. After the Bible was completed, Christians continued to develop their views into what we think of as heaven and hell today.
This history of the afterlife cannot provide a decisive answer to the question of what happens at death, but it can help people think more intelligently about the ultimate big question as they contemplate their own mortality.
Q: How does this fit in with your research interests and passions?
A: The afterlife has long been important to me personally — from my youth when I simply took the realities of heaven and hell for granted; through my young adulthood when, as a very conservative evangelical Christian I was convinced I was going to heaven but most people were going to hell; until today, when I think, realistically, none of us can possibly know for certain what happens at death.
But the book was equally driven by my academic expertise. There are well over 2 billion Christians in the world today. As a scholar of the Bible and the history of early Christianity, I have long been interested in how the religious views so many Christian people have developed over time, and how many beliefs that people have today — despite what they think and say (often insistently!) — are not actually the views of the Bible, the historical Jesus or his earliest followers.
Q: What was the original idea that made you think: “There’s a book here?”
A: I have to admit, I have always thought there was a book there! Most of the other books I’ve written for a broad, general audience are about topics I’m interested in but most other people have never given much thought to. In these books I have to explain why the issues are interesting and do matter, even for readers who have never realized it. That was not the case with this book. The afterlife is a topic that everyone is interested in. No one needs any prodding. What will happen to me when I die?
Q: What surprised you when researching/writing this book?
A: I changed my mind on several important topics, even though I had been thinking about them, literally, for decades. I came to see, for example, that Jesus did not believe in “hell” — that is, a place of eternal torment. Neither did Paul nor the author of the book of Revelation. Part of my book involves showing that they didn’t and explaining what they believed instead. That strikes me as both interesting and important!
Q: Where’s your go-to writing spot, and how do you deal with writer’s block?
A: I much prefer writing in a quiet space — in my study at home, usually — with my headphones on playing classical music (only instrumental; I can’t concentrate with voices in my ear). When I’m writing “in the zone” the world disappears; I don’t look at my email, I don’t answer the phone, and when I finish it’s like coming out of a trance.
Weirdly enough I have never had writer’s block. I’m extraordinarily lucky that way (I never tell my friends and colleagues; it’s like telling an insomniac that you slept like a baby last night). But I think at least in part it’s because of how I go about writing. I organize my thoughts and ideas so thoroughly ahead of time, and make such long and detailed outlines about what I want to say, chapter by chapter, section by section, subheading by subheading, that I never have to think about the content of what I am trying to write while at the keyboard, only the organization and the prose itself. Even though the research and planning can take years the writing itself always goes very fast. But even so, by far the most stressful part of writing a book is producing the first draft, no matter how long it takes.