What’s next?

James Wood

  • After Lives: A Guide to Heaven, Hell and Purgatory by John Casey
    Oxford, 468 pp, £22.50, January 2010, ISBN 978 0 19 509295 0

Last year, my father-in-law died. He was a complicated, difficult, intelligent man; the obituary-ese would be ‘colourful’. On occasion, when he was alive, I wanted him to go to hell. But when I sat at his deathbed, and looked at the body from which life had ebbed, I couldn’t help marvelling at the longevity, persistence and garish exuberance of the concept of the afterlife. How could anyone think that his soul was now flying off to an eternal judgment? There he lay, in his frailty and banality, his body the register, the lined book, of his 79 years. The corpse was so palpable in its morbidity, so finished. But for centuries, people believed the book would be opened again. In a late 15th-century mural in Albi Cathedral, in the Midi-Pyrénées, you can see the damned writhing below in chaotic torture, while above them the saved line up in lucky order, presenting the books of their lives to the presiding angel, like anxious immigrants at a border checkpoint. And what would your book look like? My father-in-law drank too much, argued too much, did not always show loving-kindness, did little in the way of charitable works, did not go to church (he was a Frenchman, a lapsed Catholic with little formal faith), and fiercely loved and protected his small family with a patriarchal passion, clearly Mediterranean in origin and display. An ordinary sin-set; forgivable fallibilities. But in the eyes of his own Church, until quite recently, those failings condemned him either to purgatory or to eternal punishment in hell.

No one believes in eternal punishment any more (except for Islamic fundamentalists and those Christian evangelicals who think Christopher Hitchens will go to hell), but the concept of an afterlife is still hard to throw over. The other day, my parents told me of an ageing friend who had recently abandoned his lifelong atheism and become a Christian. He told my parents, both churchgoing Christians, that he is now ‘no longer afraid to die’. I do not believe in God, but sometimes a terror still comes over me that I will wake up after death trapped in a tightly confined space, rather like the narrator of Beckett’s Company. Not, perhaps, as divine punishment, but because that is simply how one’s attenuated consciousness might persist after death (I can hear nasty Svidrigailov, in Crime and Punishment, teasingly wondering if heaven might just be a small, sooty room, like a village bathhouse, with spiders in the corners). In What Jesus Meant, Garry Wills, a sophisticated Catholic liberal, tells a story about comforting his young son, who had woken in the night, afraid that, as the nuns at school had taught, he would go to hell if he sinned. ‘There is not an ounce of heroism in my nature,’ Wills writes, ‘but I instantly answered what any father would: “All I can say is that if you’re going there, I’m going with you.”’ It is a touching line, except that the more heroic protection would have been to assure his son that hell did not exist. But Wills seemingly cannot quite do this, despite his liberalism and his intellectual sophistication, and his inability tells us much about the mind-forg’d manacles that keep some of us bolted to obvious untruths.

The afterlife, of course, is not so much an obvious untruth as a truthful untruth. It encodes our fears and longings. Immortality, as Feuerbach puts it in The Essence of Christianity, is religion’s last will and testament, in which it declares its final wishes. Feuerbach points out that if, elsewhere in religious thought, we seem to make our existence dependent on God, when it comes to immortality we make God dependent on us, because we tend to argue that ‘if there is no immortality, then there is no God,’ which is really a way of saying: ‘If I am not immortal, then there is no God.’ Thus heaven, Feuerbach says, is the true God of man: ‘As man conceives his heaven, so he conceives his God.’ A history of the afterlife will then be a history of our conceptions of God, as well as a history of our self-conceptions, of our utopias and terrors, and this is what John Casey provides. Casey is in many ways an ideal guide. He is bracingly conservative about the writing of cultural history, meaning that he likes texts, and chronology, and evidence. He has taught English at Cambridge for many years, and his book has about it the relaxed obsessiveness of the magnum opus, a life’s happy gathering of knowledge across different literatures and languages, especially strong in its command of Latin and Greek texts, and of the stacked drawers of internecine Christian theological dispute.

All this, one might expect from the cofounder (with Roger Scruton) of the Conservative Philosophy Group. But Casey is not only conservative (and, besides, presents the interesting spectacle of a man who has been getting steadily less conservative with age). He was educated at a provincial English grammar school by the Irish Christian Brothers, ‘in an austere, puritanical, Augustinian version of Catholicism’, and the experience seems to have turned him against the Church’s cruelties and illogicalities. He is a sympathetic analyst, but he writes like a non-believer – like a pagan, in fact. He shows a decided preference for Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Greek notions of the afterlife over later Christian or Islamic ones. The dustjacket has a photograph of the author, who surely gave some thought to its semiotics: the elegant old cicerone, dressed in flat cap and silk scarf, with immaculate cufflinks glinting, is reclining, travel guide in hand, on an old wall, in a parched and sunlit southern landscape, amid sandy ancient ruins. His book is appealingly personal, and if it represents a great gathering of knowledge, it also feels like something that had to be pushed out, got rid of, confessed. I found myself watching out for Casey’s regular moments of dyspepsia and irritation, usually brought on by some especially indigestible doctrine.

His introduction reveals his hand, just because it is not a cool academic preface but a passionate intervention against the idea of hell. He notes that the stronger the belief in personal immortality became, the stronger the terror of hell (as in Islam and Christianity), and he recalls Father Arnall’s horrifying sermon in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Father Arnall tells his schoolboy audience how the great numbers of the damned will confine the victims, how the walls of this prison are four thousand miles thick, the stench intolerable, and, most famously, how eternity in hell can be imagined as a mountain of sand a million miles high, from which, every million years, a bird removes a single grain. Casey adds:

Not a single image is new. Many of the images can be found in English Protestant writings of the 17th and 18th centuries (including the mountain of sand – an especially popular trope), in the psychologically vivid sermons of baroque, Counter-Reformation Catholicism, in the church fathers of the early Christian centuries. The images of the unbearable stench of hell and of flames that burn but give no light go back even earlier – to the apocryphal New Testament scriptures.

The Mesopotamian, Greek and Roman conviction that we are mere shades in the underworld may seem a bit pessimistic, Casey writes, but at least the ancients didn’t spend all their time fearing hellfire:

They did not in general fear an eternity squashed into a stinking sewer of rotten guts, burning in a huge mound of bodies, overcome by an intolerable stench, and tormented by devils so hideous to behold that St Catherine of Siena, rather than look upon one again, would prefer to walk until the end of her life along a track of red-hot coals.

It wasn’t until comparatively late, around the second century after Christ, that a belief in immortality and personal bodily resurrection became widespread. In the earliest periods of Egyptian life, only the pharaoh and his family could rise to the heavens, while commoners went to the underworld. By the time of the Middle Kingdom (2055 to 1650 BC), a democratisation of the dead had opened up the possibility of universal resurrection in the kingdom of Osiris. The wall paintings in the tombs of Menna and Nakht, in the Valley of the Nobles near Luxor, seem to show an idealised next world, the Land of Reeds, a place like Egypt but improved, with plenty of bread, wine, cakes and crops. In other texts and drawings, the blessed enjoy pastry, good beer and even wine. ‘They will even be seven cubits broad in their buttocks.’ Living in accord with ma’at – being wise, prudent and kind, and looking after one’s fellow men – might bring these heavenly rewards. A tomb inscription from Aswan, dated to about 2300 BC, features a nobleman defending himself thus:

I dug a lake, and I planted trees. The king praised me. My father made a will for me, for I was excellent – a man beloved of his father, praised of his mother, whom all his brothers loved. I gave bread to the hungry, clothing to the naked, I ferried him who had no boat.

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