|Scene from the Egyptian Book of the Dead where
the individual’s heart is weighed to see if that person
was righteous during his lifetime. Photo is in public domain.
A View About the Afterlife, Made in the USA
Graeco-Roman Antiquities & the New Testament
There are things you can tell about an entire ocean even if you have only one cup of water from it. Naturally a scientist would like to have as many cups and as broad a sampling as possible, but even a single cup is of some help. The same is true when investigating the world of the New Testament. You can learn something even from one ancient document, though the explorer of the ancient world would like to have as many documents as possible.
Many, many cultures of the ancient Mediterranean Basin have left us documents or artifacts that reflect their respective views of the afterlife. It should come as no surprise that thinkers from various cultures have views about the afterlife. The Book of Ecclesiastes (3:11) affirms that God himself put the idea of eternity into all humans, perhaps because we all are created in his own image, and he wants us all to know that death is not the final word.
In any case, what a culture says and does not say about the afterlife tells us a lot about their values regarding this life and even larger realities of the next life. I am thinking specifically of the reported experiences of different Americans, both male and female, both adults and children, and both believers and atheists who have been declared “dead,” but who have come back with a report of the afterlife. An overview of these experiences and their interpretations can be read at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Near-death_experience. What makes this American view of the afterlife so peculiar is that it talks about light, peace, unconditional love, etc., but says very little about the existence of those whose post-mortem experience is painful and wretched.
Why is it that great cultures like Egypt produced, before the time of Moses, the Egyptian Book of the Dead with its picture of both rewards and punishments in the afterlife? Why is it that Plato (Republic book X), one of the greatest philosophers of the Western World, reports the story of a man from Pamphylia in Asia Minor named Er who also returns from the dead (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myth_of_Er) with an engaging report of both rewards and punishments in the afterlife? Why is it that Vergil (Aeneid, book VI), the eminent Latin poet of the early Roman Empire, reports the visit of Aeneas into the underworld, who returns with stories of rewards (Elysium) and punishments (Tartarus) in the afterlife?
So, why is it that the popular Near Death Experience reports that make it to American TV talk-shows eschew pain and punishments in the afterlife, while leading thinkers and writers of great cultures viewed reality so differently? Why would Plato point out that some of those receiving the greatest punishment in the afterlife were bad politicians, while most contemporary talk-shows, either day time or night time, would refuse to locate corrupt officials in the realm of eternal punishment?
I am positive there is no single factor to explain “afterlife made in the USA,” but certainly one part of it is the difficulty that American culture has with letting people “reap what they sow,” although Paul calls it self-deception to think otherwise (Gal. 6:7-8). Another reason may be that many Americans, including “Christians,” probably think it would be too judgmental to picture folks being punished in the afterlife; or, perhaps they believe that none of us are really that bad after all, no matter how egregious our sins and crimes have been.
The historical and spiritual fact that should challenge all serious Christians who have caved in to the “afterlife made in the USA” is the reality that Jesus of Nazareth himself spoke more about punishment in the afterlife than any other figure in the New Testament. One cannot marginalize this perspective about the afterlife by attributing it to Paul or Luke or James. And time after time Jesus sees people in eternal punishment because of their callous hearts, their disbelief, and the choices they made in this life. Red-Letter Christians would certainly have to embrace this truth about Jesus and his teachings. What an irony that on this point Jesus has more in common with Plato and the author of the Egyptian Book of the Dead than he has with so many American cultural Christians, those committed to “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” and/or “Cafeteria Christianity” and who share little with historical Christian faith on these Near Death Experiences.
Sites to consult: