Out From Under the Umbrella

playing in the rain


Freezing Out Hell, Part the Second

The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Belief in myths allows the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.

~John F. Kennedy

Ancient Greek Views on the Afterlife

The ancient Greek conception of the afterlife and the ceremonies associated with burial were already well established by the sixth century B.C. In the Odyssey, Homer describes the Underworld, deep beneath the earth, where Hades, the brother of Zeus and Poseidon, and his wife, Persephone, reigned over countless drifting crowds of shadowy figures—the “shades” of all those who had died. It was not a happy place. Indeed, the ghost of the great hero Achilles told Odysseus that he would rather be a poor serf on earth than lord of all the dead in the Underworld (Odyssey, 11.489–91).

The Greeks believed that at the moment of death the psyche, or spirit of the dead, left the body as a little breath or puff of wind. The deceased was then prepared for burial according to the time-honored rituals. Ancient literary sources emphasize the necessity of a proper burial and refer to the omission of burial rites as an insult to human dignity (Iliad, 23.71). Relatives of the deceased, primarily women, conducted the elaborate burial rituals that were customarily of three parts: the prothesis (laying out of the body (54.11.5)), the ekphora (funeral procession), and the interment of the body or cremated remains of the deceased. After being washed and anointed with oil, the body was dressed (75.2.11) and placed on a high bed within the house. During the prothesis, relatives and friends came to mourn and pay their respects. [1]


Ancient Egyptian Views on the Afterlife

The after-life of the ancient Egyptians was known as the Field of Reeds and was a land very much like one’s life on earth save that there was no sickness, no disappointment and, of course, no death. One lived eternally by the streams and beneath the trees which one had loved so well in one’s life on earth…To reach the eternal paradise of the Field of Reeds, however, one had to pass through the trial by Osiris, the judge of the dead, in the hall of truth.

In The Egyptian Book of the Dead it is recorded that the soul would be lead before the god Osiris and recite the forty-two negative confessions beginning with the prayer, “I have not learnt the things which are not” meaning that the soul strove in life to devote itself to matters of lasting importance rather than the trivial matters of everyday life. The forty-two negative declarations which followed the opening prayer went to assure Osiris of the soul’s purity and ended, in fact, with the statement, “I am pure” repeated a number of times. It was not the soul’s claim to purity which would win over Osiris, however, but, instead, the weight of the soul’s heart.

The `heart’ of the soul was handed over to Osiris who placed it on a great golden scale balanced against the white feather of Ma’at, the feather of truth, of harmony, on the other side. If the soul’s heart was lighter than the feather then the soul was freely admitted into the bliss of the Field of Reeds. Should the heart prove heavier, however, it was thrown to the floor of the Hall of Truth where it was devoured by Amenti (a god with the face of a crocodile, front of a leopard and the back of a rhinoceros) and the individual soul then ceased to exist. There was no `hell’ for the ancient Egyptians; their `fate worse than death’ was non-existence. [2]

Ancient mesopotamianviews on afterlife

The Mesopotamians, a civilisation existing in and around modern day Iraq around the same time as the time of Pharaohs of Egypt had a very different view of death. For them, death was something to be feared. In the Mesopotamian tradition, humans were created from clay mixed with the blood of a sacrificed god. Thus, being partly immortal, the spirit did not die after death but lingered on to suffer a dismal afterlife. While retaining all the needs and emotions of the living, after death the soul would live a dark and subterranean existence eating only dust and clay in a place deprived of drinkable water. The only respite from this existence was the food and offerings of their descendants. This meant that the confiscation of an enemy’s body from the care of the family was a terrible punishment. [3]

ancient hebrew views on afterlife

There is a reality to the biblical notion of death, a directness that recognizes the physical process is undeniable. “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return,” Genesis 3:19. “We must all die; we are like water that is poured out on the ground and cannot be gathered up,” II Sam.14:14.

In the biblical mind, death is final. After death, one is not expected to return to this Earth. In the Book of Job we read, “If a man dies, can he live again?” The biblical answer is no.

Yet the ancient Israelites did not fully accept the notion of a total dissolution; rather they spoke of a place called Sheol, where the dead dwell. Sheol is referred to in the Bible as “the ditch,” “the pit,” “the realm of death,” or “the land of darkness.”

It is clearly a place to which one descends after death, where one meets up once again with relatives who have died before us. In Sheol, the dead live a shadowy existence. They are refayim, shades, who are without strength, freed from the sickness of the flesh, and God can hear their voices. Though dreary, Sheol is not seen as a place of punishment. Every living being, without regard to moral character, goes down to Sheol at the time of death. The concept of Hell developed much later. [4]

This is certainly not an exhaustive look at the views of ancient peoples about the afterlife but having studied, somewhat, the views of each it is easy to see both similarities and differences.  The striking thing about them, though, in my opinion is their similarities.  All of these ancients believed in some sort of shadowy existence, at least for a time, for all of the dead.  It becomes apparent that some beliefs and practices were borrowed from others.

That certainly played into my thoughts on the afterlife and a hell when I was doubting.  None of these refers to anything close to the Hell of Christianity.  Either one passes judgement and proceeds on to a paradise or is annihilated.  Or there is no paradise, only a shadowy, gloomy existence beyond the grave for every dead person. No reward and no punishment; merely existence.

It is worth mentioning that the ancient Hebrews, at first, did not particularly speculate about the afterlife.  They believed that it had not been revealed and as such was not for them to know.  They did not ponder questions of cosmology nor the afterlife.  They placed emphasis on this life. However, since the Torah does mention an afterlife, but no details of such, there is plenty of room for speculation and as is human nature, inquiring minds want to know.  Hence, the Jews seemed initially to incorporate the views of the ancient Babylonians – that everyone went to one dark, shadowy place when they died.  It was nowhere to be excited about.  (Job 14:10-12, Job 17:16, Ecclesiastes 9:10, Psalms 30:9, etc.)

Later, after the Jews were Hellenized, heaven and hell seemed to take on more meaning.  For instance some Jews believed individuals were made to suffer in this life precisely so they would have a grand next life.  [5]

Are all of these peoples worshiping the same god unawares?  Or are all of these merely to be regarded as myths?  I guess it’s hard to suffer your whole life long and then think the end is all there is.  What a travesty.  At any rate, most Christians would write any and all of this off as myth.  Only the Christian version is the correct version of the afterlife.  It’s ironic that people can dispel every myth but one.