After Lives: A Guide to Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory

After Lives: A Guide to Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory

After Lives: A Guide to Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory

After Lives: A Guide to Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory


One of the most profound, deeply affecting questions we face as human beings is the matter of our mortality--and its connection to immortality. Ancient animist ghost cultures, Egyptian mummification, late Jewish hopes of resurrection, Christian eternal salvation, Muslim belief in hell and paradise all spring from a remarkably consistent impulse to tether a triumph over death to our conduct in life.

In After Lives, British scholar John Casey provides a rich historical and philosophical exploration of the world beyond, from the ancient Egyptians to St. Thomas Aquinas, from Martin Luther to modern Mormons. In a lively, wide-ranging discussion, he examines such topics as predestination, purgatory, Spiritualism, the Rapture, Armageddon and current Muslim apocalyptics, as well as the impact of such influences as the New Testament, St. Augustine, Dante, and the Second Vatican Council. Ideas of heaven and hell, Casey argues, illuminate how we understand the ultimate nature of sin, justice, punishment, and our moral sense itself. The concepts of eternal bliss and eternal punishment express--and test--our ideas of good and evil. For example, the ancient Egyptians saw the afterlife as flowing from ma'at, a sense of being in harmony with life, a concept that includes truth, order, justice, and the fundamental law of the universe. "It is an optimistic view of life," he writes. "It is an ethic that connects wisdom with moral goodness." Perhaps just as revealing, Casey finds, are modern secular interpretations of heaven and hell, as he probes the place of goodness, virtue, and happiness in the age of psychology and scientific investigation.

With elegant prose, a magisterial grasp of a vast literary and religious history, and moments of humor and irony, After Lives sheds new light on the question of life, death, and morality in human culture.


Beliefs held almost without question for centuries, and enforced by the authority of venerable institutions, can unpredictably evaporate. For almost nineteen centuries the great majority of Christians had accepted, even embraced fervently, certain doctrines about man’s final end. These beliefs were at the center of the Christian imagination. Among Protestants in Northern Europe there had been some dilution of belief among intellectuals and the growth of liberal theology; but this did not begin to affect the masses until the early twentieth century. The Roman Catholic Church preserved the orthodox teaching on heaven and hell with energy and rigor until the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), after which the deliquescence of serious belief in damnation (heaven remained an attractive, if vague, possibility) was astonishingly rapid. Although the doctrines remained officially in place, they were played down and lost most of the resonance they used to have with the faithful. It could be that the new model army of enthusiastically orthodox priests, which emerged during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II (1978–2005), will eventually reconvert Roman Catholics to a lively terror of the possibility of damnation—but at the moment that seems unlikely. You will rarely meet a Catholic who believes (to use Browning’s words) that God watches him “As he believes in fire that it will burn, / Or rain that it will drench him.”

Yet in the nineteenth century, and even in the twentieth, people converted to Roman Catholicism in the conviction that by this means, and this only, could they save their immortal souls. Gerard . . .

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