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

Alan F. Segal


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Throughout recorded history, people of all cultures have been forced to deal with the issue of death, which is a universal and inevitable aspect of the human condition. For those persons who are able to find happiness and positive meaning to life, realization of its temporary quality can be depressing and even terrifying. In ancient preliterate cultures, art and burial practices often give indications of hope for some kind of continued existence. Evidence exists that the Neanderthals, who almost certainly had significantly less intellectual capabilities than modern humans, buried their dead in ways that suggested some conceptualization of an afterlife. It is known that nonhuman primates, especially chimpanzees and gorillas, appear to grieve when their family members and associates pass away, even though it is highly unlikely that they have any understanding of the significance of death.

Although many books and articles deal with the history of Western ideas about an afterlife, Alan F. Segal's Life After Death is probably the most comprehensive account ever published. Based on more than a decade of research and study in both original and secondary sources, Segal's mammoth work provides both a balanced synthesis and many new insights into Western beliefs and human behavior. It is a remarkable achievement that encompasses a great diversity of ideas, including those found in ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, and Persian cultures as well as those in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions.

Segal recognizes that concepts about the afterlife always emerge and develop within a historical context and that there are many reasons people within a particular culture choose to imagine the afterlife in a specific way. He writes: “I see the afterlife as a mirror of our selves, so in constructing afterlife, people are really making a statement about what is important in their lives.”

Segal begins the book with brief but interesting observations about modern views of an afterlife. Based on data from the General Social Survey (GSS), he observes that the percentage of American adults who believe in life after death has been growing, especially among certain groups. Jewish belief in the afterlife, for instance, rose from 17 percent among those who were born between 1900 and 1910 to 74 percent among those born in the 1970's. Such belief by Protestants, in contrast, has remained more constant at about 85 percent.

While many Americans continue to speak of the “resurrection of the body,” Segal observes that they are usually referring to a belief in the immortality of the soul. The majority of Americans have come to view the concept of Heaven as “a virtual democratic entitlement.” Belief in the threat of Hell or a future punishment, in contrast, has become much less common. With optimistic expressions like “he has gone to a better place,” modern Americans tend to speak of Heaven as the final destination for the souls of those who have behaved morally, without reference to their religious beliefs or rituals. Television programs and films about helpful angels and Heaven reinforce such a perspective.

Segal emphasizes that “an afterlife belief is not necessarily the essence of religion,” and that some religions, such as early Judaism and the religion practiced in ancient Mesopotamia, do not even appear to be concerned about whether individual consciousness continues to exist after death. In spite of such examples, however, Segal is still convinced that “the afterlife is one of the fundamental building blocks of religion.” The specific beliefs, of course, vary greatly from society to society. In some traditions, souls are reincarnated in different life-forms, while other traditions teach that ancestors survive to become observers and protectors of family descendants. Some conceptions of the afterlife are strictly individualistic, whereas others are more communal, with the individual spirit merging into a kind of universal spirit.

The reader should be forewarned that Segal takes great delight in writing about the details of a large number of relatively obscure mythologies in the ancient Middle East. The vocabulary and names of so many ancient languages can be rather intimidating. He uses terms such as “Second Temple Judaism” without defining its period of time. In addition, he makes frequent references to scholarly articles about obscure texts, especially when he discusses relatively lesser-known cultures, such as those of ancient Canaan. Segal likes complexity and sometimes does not express his ideas as clearly as the reader might like. Segal presents so many references to individual trees that it is easy to lose sight of the larger forest. Most readers of Life After Death will likely find themselves skimming some of the sections that they find uninteresting.

The chapter on ancient Egypt is certainly one that is worth careful reading. When analyzing the religion of the ancient Egyptians, Segal emphasizes that their obsession with an afterlife was influenced by a combination of factors, including geography, the need for stability, and the dominant social forces of various periods of time. During the Old Kingdom, construction of the pyramids for the survival of the divine Pharaoh likely had the function of promoting unity and minimizing ethnic conflict. During the New...

(The entire section is 2176 words.)