- 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.
The punishment of the wicked was envisaged as ‘a reversal of the natural order’. In the underworld, the damned would walk upside down, drink urine and eat excrement. But the Egyptians did not believe that the soul was inherently sinful, and the lists of possible transgressions ‘never suggest the doctrine of total human depravity that we find in some central Christian traditions’. Hell was frightening, but spells and petitions stood a good chance of saving you. ‘On the whole one can expect to be received into the loving arms of Osiris. The wicked are not punished eternally. Rather, they cease to exist,’ Casey writes. It may be that we need the afterlife because of our fear of death and our longing for justice; on this, a believer like Adam Smith (in The Theory of Moral Sentiments) and a non-believer like Freud (in The Future of an Illusion) pretty much agree. But Casey makes the nice point that it would make little sense to argue that Egyptians longed for eternal life because they feared death. ‘For they consciously feared death, feared it in a way that makes that fear the expression of a way of living, a set of ethical values and an imaginative response to nature itself.’ Compared to this subtle, practical culture, ‘it is later belief systems that could, by comparison, seem primitive, or, at least, simplifying.’
Saner still, and positively heroic in the context of this book, Mesopotamian and early Judaic cultures seem not to have needed the assistance of resurrection, or feared the hiatus of eternal judgment. Gilgamesh teaches its eponymous hero that he, a king and a warrior, cannot achieve immortality. A tavern-keeper tells him that when the gods created mankind, they dispensed death and kept life for themselves. Gilgamesh’s great comrade, Enkidu, dies and descends to the netherworld, a dusty place where even priests and kings lie in darkness, ‘clad like birds in coats of feathers’. Death is merely the negation of life, not a judgment on it. Again, Casey admires the pre-Christian healthiness of this vision:
It clearly rebukes the belief in immortality that can be seen as springing merely from fear or wish-fulfilment … from the author of Gilgamesh to Nietzsche there is a line of thought, often submerged, which holds that a belief in immortality contradicts the values that make an admirable human life possible, and should thus be regarded with contempt. It is a philosophy that radically opposes much that springs from late Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Despite Job’s claim that ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ (a line mistranslated, and then appropriated, by Christianity, appropriated so violently by the librettist of Handel’s Messiah that it is made the near culmination of the Christian story), he is much nearer the Judaic mark when he concedes, at an earlier moment in his tribulations, that ‘man lieth down and riseth not: till the heavens be no more, they shall not awake, nor be raised out of their sleep.’ Until the late book of Daniel, there is little mention in the Hebrew Bible of the afterlife as anything other than Sheol, a dark, cheerless place under the surface of the world (similar to the dusty place that Enkidu discovers in Gilgamesh), often translated in the King James Bible as the ‘pit’. It was not until around the time of Christ that the Pharisees (but not the Sadducees) became believers in personal immortality, St Paul being their most famous Christian convert.
Casey admires the ‘unflinching realism’ of Sheol, precisely because it is ‘the fate we could least hope for’, and thus places the human emphasis on life in this world. I think that what he likes about Mesopotamian religion, about Judaism, and about Homer’s Greece, is that in all these worldviews he sees life pushing away the afterlife, making it small and unimportant, as good health makes sickness seem unlikely: the afterlife, and the whole apparatus of judgment associated with it, falls away into comparative irrelevance, and the emphasis is on cultivating what we have rather than preparing for what we don’t have – practical ethics rather than spiritual hoarding. Casey is not especially drawn to the Plato who would so influence Christianity, the Plato who goes against the Greek idea of the afterlife as a shadowy and half-real place; nor does he much care for Pericles’ rather chilly ideal of civic devotion as eternal life. Instead, he notes with approval that Achilles, in the Iliad, tries to grasp the ghost of his dead comrade Patroclus, ‘yet clasped him not; but the spirit, like a vapour, was gone beneath the earth, gibbering faintly’. In a celebrated passage in the Odyssey, Odysseus tries to console the spirit of Achilles with the thought that he is eternally honoured by the Argives, and now rules over the dead. But Achilles rejects the solace: ‘Do not try to persuade me to make light of death, Odysseus. I should choose, if I could live on earth, to serve as the bondsman of another, of a man with no property, rather than be lord of all the dead who are no more.’
Casey’s book quotes some beautiful Greek and Roman epitaphs, most of them clinging to the fading present, or sceptical of the unrecorded future. This one is Greek:
Do not pass by my epitaph, wayfarer,
But stand, listen, and when you have heard, go on your way.
There is no boat in Hades, no ferryman Charon …
All of us who have died and gone below
Are bones and ashes, nothing else.
One Roman epitaph records, with what Casey calls ‘poignant exactness’, the death of a child, but with none of our modern consolation about ‘an angel called home early to heaven’ or the like: ‘We … have acquired this funerary edifice for our sweet son Titus Aelius Saturninus, who lived 6 years, 8 months, 16 days and 6 hours.’
Given Casey’s love of classical sanity, it is strange that he doesn’t mention Pliny’s categorical rejection, in his Natural History, of all belief in an afterlife:
But wishful thinking prolongs itself into the future and falsely invents for itself a life that continues beyond death, sometimes by giving the soul immortality or a change of shape, sometimes by according feeling to those below … These imaginings are characteristic of childish gibberish and of mortal men greedy for everlasting life. Similar also is the vanity about preserving the bodies of men and Democritus’ promise of coming to life again …
A plague on this mad idea that life is renewed by death! What respite is there ever for new generations if the soul keeps sensation in the upper world and the ghost in the lower? To be sure this sweet but naive view destroys nature’s particular boon – namely, death – and doubles the sorrow of one about to die by the thought of sorrow to come. For if it is pleasant to live, for whom can it be pleasant to have finished living? How much easier and much surer a foundation it is for each person to trust in himself, and for us to gain our pattern of future freedom from care from our experience of it before birth!
That Pliny needed to make such an assertive counter-argument (probably sometime in the middle of the first century AD) suggests how widespread, even in the ancient world, the hope of an afterlife was becoming. Pliny’s argument is interesting, because it isn’t just the dismissal of an obvious delusion; it also suggests that a healthy life needs the termination that death offers, because eternity would possibly be a state of constant nostalgia for the life we used to have – an idea reprised by Chekhov, in his cunningly blasphemous story ‘The Bishop’, whose dying protagonist fondly remembers his happiness as a little boy and wonders if in heaven he will have the same nostalgic relation to his life on earth as he now does to his childhood.
Paul is the pivotal figure in Casey’s history. Jesus, after all, is contradictory about heaven and hell; in the Gospels, he speaks of the gnashing of teeth and of separating the sheep from the goats, but at other times appears to be thinking of a heavenly kingdom that is within one’s heart (there must be a change of attitude, a spiritual rebirth), here on earth (there must be a change of behaviour, in politics and ethics), and imminent. An actual restoration of the kingdom of Israel was of course consistent with Jewish Messianism. But Paul etherealises Jesus’ Messianism. Paul also believed in an imminent Last Judgment, but for him resurrection would be not national but individual, and it would involve physical and spiritual immortality. We shall be resurrected as bodies, but as uncorrupted, renewed bodies, free of sinful flesh: spiritual bodies. This optimistic fudge – Paul working both sides of the ontic street – was not new; the Egyptians had practised mummification in order to keep the corpse from decaying, so that it could be reunited with its soul in the afterlife. Paul’s dark novelty was to argue backwards from the death and resurrection of Jesus: we have been saved from death by Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection; therefore we must all have been cursed to death long before Jesus’ decisive intervention; therefore we have all been sinners from Adam: ‘For as in Adam all die, even in Christ shall all be made alive.’ As Casey argues, this bolting of the Saviour God onto the Messiah idea makes Christianity very different from Judaism or Islam.
The Jewish Messiah might have rescued the Jews from Babylon or driven the Romans out of Palestine. Or he might have come – as the Gospels suggest – in the entirely unexpected form of a humble man calling to repentance and preaching that the kingdom is within us. What he would not have been was a divine being who would overcome an ancient curse by suffering death. Paul preached that.
Paul’s other great contribution, probably responsible for more terror and death than any other doctrinal invention in Christianity, is the teaching that we gain entry to heaven not by our deeds but by faith alone; and that God freely chooses whom to reward. Paul’s image for this is God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, when Moses was trying to persuade him to let his people go from Egypt. God chose to make Pharaoh stubborn, just as he will choose to save you or me. After all, as Luther later argued, no one had been more undeserving of salvation than Paul, former persecutor of the Christians, and Christ’s greatest enemy. ‘Hatched, matched, dispatched’ used to be the Home Counties slogan for the Church of England’s (fairly minimal) involvement in one’s baptism, marriage and funeral; but what would you say of a religion that condemned you to original sin and then condemned you to lifelong impotence in your attempt to escape from that original sin? Tricked, trussed, fucked?
Thus mounted on its fearsome troika of original sin, salvation by faith alone, and predestination, Christian doctrine went forth into 1700 years of bloodshed and dispute. Some of Casey’s most pungent pages are consumed by this doctrinal warfare, and it occasions his most biting commentary: ‘Tertullian is a writer without charm. Much of De Spectaculis reads like the rantings of a Scotch Covenanter who has fallen surprisingly in love with the riches of Roman forensic oratory.’ He is too careful to choose heroes, but they emerge anyway. The early church father Origen is one, anathematised by the Second Council of Constantinople for arguing that hell would not be eternal, because eternal suffering was incompatible with a merciful deity. The British monk Pelagius, who taught in Rome in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, is another. Pelagius did not like Augustine’s Pauline emphasis on our helplessness before God’s gift of salvation. Faith, Augustine said, is crucial for salvation, but faith itself is God’s free gift. ‘The choice of believing does not lie in the human will “because in the Elect the will is prepared by the Lord.”’ We are all guilty, as inheritors of Adam’s sin, and none of us deserves salvation.
Pelagius rejected all this. Adam’s sin, he said, was not genetic but merely a bad example, something we might be tempted to mimic. Man can contribute to his salvation by the exercise of his free will. The passions and appetites are not in themselves evil; it depends on how we use them. Augustine reacted with ferocious condemnation to Pelagius’ decency, and fired off bitter polemics. The Pelagians ‘were, in effect, humanists and sprang from a great pagan tradition’, Casey writes, and against Pelagius’ ‘Roman stolidity, the sinuous eloquence of Augustine takes on some of the character of fanaticism’. Pelagius lost the battle but won the war, because the great majority of Christians are now Pelagians without knowing it. Human depravity is downplayed by today’s Church, and the effect is thus to ‘attenuate the fear of hell that has been central to Christian practice throughout the centuries’. Yet Augustine’s prison-house worldview triumphed for the next thousand years, and the Church was condemned to make repeated attempts to get away from it: Erasmus, who had argued for a very modest Pelagianism, fought with Luther, a strong Augustinian with ‘an almost psychotic sense of sin and of personal impotence in the face of the perfection of God’. Calvin, absurdly enough, felt that Augustine had not gone far enough, and espoused a doctrine of total depravity, and ‘double predestination’: ‘God not only determines some souls, before their creation, to eternal bliss but also consigns others, in the unsearchable counsel of his own will, to everlasting torment.’ (In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie the teachers at Marcia Blaine School for Girls walk down the corridors saying good morning ‘with predestination in their smiles’.)
Augustine’s appalling doctrine, succinctly summarised in the title of Leszek Kolakowski’s book on the subject, God Owes Us Nothing, was so terrible that eventually the Church had to repudiate it. When the same battle flared up again, between the Jesuits (broadly, Pelagians) and the Jansenists (Augustinians), Pope Clement XIII issued a bull in 1713 that condemned Jansenist theology as heretical and thus effectively condemned the Church’s founding father, Augustine. This would be as good a date as any to mark the beginning of the decline of belief in hell, and in the afterlife more generally, and thus in God’s supernatural powers and promises.
Casey is not without his own excellent Pelagian stolidity, and original sin and total depravity bring forth his most stirring denunciations. He happily lays into Augustine and Calvin (and folds the cheerless Cardinal Newman into the mix). As he rightly complains, the very idea of depravity ‘depends on our being able to think of some actions and motives as being better than others’. We know that there are small sins and large sins, but if we acknowledge this for practical purposes, while continuing to add, ‘but it is not strictly true, for we are helplessly depraved,’ then that remark, as Casey puts it, becomes ‘simply a sort of incantation or a cog unattached to a wheel. It would be like saying “I have no real belief in the solidity of physical objects” while unconcernedly sitting on a chair.’ And if we make moral distinctions in practice but deny them in theory, we are denying that evidence can be brought to bear on the issue. Indeed, ‘Augustine based his belief in human depravity not primarily on experience but on revelation.’ Yet ‘even revelation cannot make the idea of total depravity ultimately intelligible if it does not answer to our experience, and, indeed, if it conflicts with it.’
Paul is important in the development of the Christian afterlife because, even though he seems not to have believed in the notion of hell, his harsh emphasis on the saved and the unsaved – on the absoluteness of salvation – effectively created the necessity for hell. Where would all the unsaved go? And if they were condemned by original sin, then surely there should be some appropriately morbid punishment? Sure enough, not long after Paul’s writings, the first detailed depictions of the Christian hell appear. In the Apocalypse of Peter, an apocryphal text from perhaps the early second century, the damned, as in Dante, receive bespoke punishments: blasphemers hang by their tongues, adulterers by their genitals and so on. The history of this iconography, Dante notwithstanding (and Casey is a subtle and admiring analyst of the Inferno), makes for much bitter comedy. Among these rich pages, full of Casey’s dry humour, we encounter Jeremias Drexel (1581-1638), a Bavarian Jesuit who tried to calculate exactly how tight things might get down there: he thought a hundred thousand million damned would be squashed into one German square mile: penned like pigs, squeezed like grapes in a press. English literalism often circled around questions of location; Tobias Swinden concluded that hell could be found in the sun, the only place with enough fire for eternity. Bunyan thought that red hot pincers would pinch off our flesh in little pieces for two or three years. Christopher Love, a grim Puritan divine, wrote a book called Hell’s Terror, ‘the companion piece to a (sadly) much slimmer volume, Heaven’s Glory’. In the former, Love imagined God laughing at the punishment of sinners, a joy also envisaged by Jonathan Edwards, both of whom seem to have got the idea from Thomas Aquinas, who thought that one of the pleasures of heaven would be the opportunity to see the condemned suffer (not, you understand, because we would enjoy such visions, but because the operation of God’s justice is so very pleasing).
Unlike Egyptian visions of beer and pastries, Christian heavenly visions rarely seem more appealing than life itself. One admires the mild Erasmus (another of the book’s heroes), who thought that heaven would be full of conversation and sociability, with noble and famous souls wandering around, as if on a celestial college campus. In this vein, Isaac Watts suggested that various dead fellows of the Royal Society would be made available to give lectures to the younger spirits. But Watts also thought that there would be no night in heaven, that we would be eternally awake up there, which is a little close to the battery farm. And in Dante’s heaven, there is no room for recreation, sociability or even motion; it is blissful to be perfectly still (as in the Talking Heads song ‘Heaven’, where ‘nothing ever happens’). Probably the most extraordinary imagining of the afterlife belongs to Emanuel Swedenborg, who, in London in 1745, had a vision that allowed him to see heaven and hell. Swedenborg’s heaven is quite attractive: it is very hospitable, and fairly easy to get into. If you have loved your neighbour, you will become an angel when you die. Swedenborg said that he met these angels, and was received by them into their fine homes, full of gold and precious stones (‘like some favoured reporter from Hello! magazine’).
Nowadays, if we are all Pelagians, then we are also all Swedenborgians. Casey plausibly argues that the Victorian craze for spiritualism – séances, ghostly visitations, automatic writing and the rest – was unconsciously Swedenborgian in its theology: there are angels, but there is no hell. Arthur Conan Doyle, for instance, an ardent spiritualist who lost a son in the First World War, decided that there was no fall, atonement, redemption or original sin. Mormonism’s idea of heaven, I learned from this book, is even more literal than Swedenborg’s: God has a fine mansion in the Celestial City; animals will be resurrected, and marriage is allowed. Indeed, the Mormons have a religious service in which married couples can be ‘sealed’, so that their bonds survive them after death. Children can be similarly ‘sealed’ to parents, so that the entire family can stay intact.
Casey is an acute historian, but less impressive as a theorist or philosopher of the concept of the afterlife. Curiously for a teacher of English, he neglects most of the literary dimension after Milton, despite the enterprising speculations of many novelists and poets. To choose just from those writers with a pronounced theological emphasis, there is no mention here of Dostoevsky, Rilke, Kafka, Bataille, Patrick White, Beckett, Nabokov, Bellow, Spark, Marilynne Robinson, Saramago or Coetzee (whose novel Diary of a Bad Year has several paragraphs on the afterlife). Nabokov’s work is shot through with a persistent mysticism; in Pnin, the author imagines the dead watching us as ‘a democracy of ghosts’, sitting in continuous session. Bellow’s work, especially Humboldt’s Gift, was strongly influenced by Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy, which teaches, among other things, that we can communicate with the dead, who are all around us in the ‘spirit world’.
Casey says that his book effectively ends at the beginning of the 20th century, an age that ‘added nothing theoretically to the concept of evil’, but surely there is more to be said about modern literalisations of hell than a single sentence about the last century having been ‘fruitful in producing earthly hells’. This is the book’s only mention of the death camps, yet they could be seen as the culmination, not the anticlimax, of Casey’s terrible history: systematic incarnations of hell, produced by a Northern European culture steeped in centuries of infernal visions, both theological and pictorial. (Eugen Kogon’s book about Buchenwald, The Theory and Practice of Hell, stresses the quasi-theological nature of the punishment meted out to Jewish victims.)
One effect of Casey’s lack of interest in the literary record is the impression he gives that meaningful discourse about the afterlife came to an end when people stopped seriously believing in heaven and hell, in the early 19th century. Not only does this elide theology with all other thought, but it skews the discussion towards Christianity, which perhaps explains why the Buddhist afterlife makes no appearance in this book. It is striking that the period between 1800 and the present is represented in Casey’s account only by spiritualism, Mormonism and those American burial practices mocked by Evelyn Waugh in The Loved One: all forms of kitsch, amusingly disdained by Casey. And illogically disdained too: why is the tombstone of an enthusiastic American bowler, who died at the age of 31, and which is marked with the motto ‘scoring in heaven’, any more absurd than Isaac Watts’s idea that we can attend heavenly lectures by fellows of the Royal Society?
But un-kitsch thought about the afterlife has of course persisted, even in, or perhaps because of, the absence of absolute belief in the afterlife. Casey never mentions John Stuart Mill’s great, calm essay ‘The Utility of Religion’, which is peculiar, because it treats, from an unillusioned, secular perspective, many of the themes of this book. Mill separates what he calls Paulism from Christ’s fairly ambiguous teaching (Paulism involves, he says, the doctrine of fall, atonement and redemption), and he lucidly examines the ways in which heaven and hell have been used as an ideological threat, ‘a more cunning sort of police’, in order to keep the masses in line. He concedes that heaven will be harder than hell to abolish, because life is so short, and in the future life ‘each hopes to find the good which he has failed to find on earth.’ But if individual life is short, Mill writes, the life of the species is not, and we can cultivate what he calls ‘the Religion of Humanity’, a state in which people feel their lives ‘prolonged in their younger contemporaries and in all who help to carry on the progressive movement of human affairs’. Such people would ‘live ideally in the life of those who are to follow them’. Mill adds that history suggests that ‘mankind can perfectly well do without the belief in a heaven’; the Greeks and Romans pretty much did so, he says, and the Buddhist idea of heaven is not immortality but a form of ‘annihilation’ (nirvana). He concludes with the optimistic thought that, in time, if all goes well, ‘not annihilation but immortality may be the burdensome idea.’
It isn’t surprising that the late 19th century, a period of prosperous secularisation and confident optimism, began to produce a secular discourse about the afterlife not unlike the Greek and Roman classicism that Casey so admires, in which we prolong our lives by merging them with a large, vague futurity; it is a long way from orthodox Christianity, of course, but then Mill is consciously looking backwards to a pre-Christian humanism.
Among 20th-century writers, Kafka is surely the most ironic interrogator of the concept of the afterlife, because he sees that heaven’s existence is dependent on its impossibility: a slightly blasphemous idea that lurks, in unblasphemous form, in both the Old and New Testaments. When John, in Revelation 21, says that in the New Jerusalem God shall ‘wipe away all tears from their eyes, and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain’, the passage is so moving because of the vastness of what it holds out, an amnesty that seems to go beyond divine capability, so that heaven becomes a visionary utopia, an unreachable place, a promised land so different from our lives that it is almost impossible to imagine. (‘It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required,’ Marilynne Robinson says of it in Gilead.)
Kafka understands that heaven must really be Eden, since Eden was our first paradise. But Moses’ inability to reach the promised land was suggestive, to Kafka, of the impossibility of our returning to this paradise. Moses, he wrote in his diaries, ‘fails to enter Canaan not because his life is too short but because it is a human life’. In one of his Zürau aphorisms (written in the Bohemian town of Zürau, in 1917-18, just after he learned he had TB), Kafka wrote: ‘The expulsion from Paradise is eternal in its principal aspect: this makes it irrevocable, and our living in this world inevitable, but the eternal nature of the process has the effect that not only could we remain for ever in paradise, but that we are currently there, whether we know it or not.’
Paradise is eternal, but our expulsion from it is also eternal. Because of the eternity of this loss, how could we ever know what paradise was like, and therefore how could we ever know that we are not, in fact, inhabiting paradise right now? (And by the same token, there might be a God, but how would we ever know?) This could be seen as optimistic, if it weren’t for that cruel, Gnostic flick of ‘whether we know it or not’. To most people, a condition of paradise’s being paradisiacal would be our awareness that we are indeed in paradise, and anything less than that would seem an immense deception (a word Kafka uses repeatedly in these aphorisms). If ‘Our Father, who art in heaven’ promises a parental consolation, then Philip’s childlike counter-cry to Jesus, ‘Lord, show us the Father and we shall be satisfied,’ has always seemed to me the truly human response, and the most poignant: in its anxious uncertainty, its request for the finality of proof, for the solace of the literal, the desire to change ‘whether we know it or not’ to ‘since we know’. As Kafka understood, in the gap between those two states of knowing is a great border crossing, at which we all queue, holding up the books of our lives to an absent deity.