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Life after Death: the Afterlife in Greco-Roman Antiquity

The New Testament arises from a specific cultural context. Since we live in a post-New Testament world, it can be difficult to imagine that words like “afterlife” or “resurrection” might be understood differently before Christ’s resurrection. But Jesus was born into a world with a myriad of established views about life after death.

In The New Testament in Its World, N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird examine the various views about the afterlife among the Greeks, Romans, and Jews. This post is adapted from their work and focuses on the greco-roman perspective.

Jesus was crucified; no historian doubts that. But it was not the end of the story: according to early Christian testimony, God raised him from the dead. The God of Israel resurrected Jesus; he did not merely revive him back to mortal existence, but transformed him into a glorious and bodily mode of existence. But what does resurrection mean? How does resurrection fit into Jewish hopes for the future? What did the apostles and evangelists mean when they told stories about Jesus coming back to life? What historical value can we give to their accounts, and how best can we present that case? And what differences might it all make for the way we think about mission, discipleship, and human flourishing?

Ancient religions and the afterlife

To begin with, beliefs about death and what lies beyond come in all shapes and sorts and sizes. Even a quick glance at the classic views of the major religious traditions gives the lie to the old idea that all religions are basically the same. There is a world of difference between the Muslim who believes that a Palestinian boy killed by Israeli soldiers goes straight to heaven, and the Hindu for whom the rigorous outworking of karma means that one must return in a different body to pursue the next stage of one’s destiny. There is a world of difference between the Orthodox Jew who believes that all the righteous will be raised to new individual bodily life in the resurrection, and the Buddhist who hopes after death to disappear like a drop in the ocean, losing his or her own identity in the great nameless and formless Beyond. And there are of course major variations between different branches or schools of thought in these great religions.

The same sort of diversity existed in antiquity. The three quotes at the start of this chapter illustrate just how diverse were the ancient views of the afterlife. The first, about the permanence of death and the impossibility of resurrection, is drawn from Greek theatre. In Aeschylus’s play Eumenides, Apollo speaks at the foundation of the Athenian high court, the Areopagus, and declares that death really is the end: ‘there is no resurrection.’ That is why justice must be done. The second quote is from Apollodorus’s account of Hercules’ ascent into heaven. There Hercules mounts his own funeral pyre, and, while it is burning, he is assumed into heaven accompanied by a thunderclap. This scheme has obvious affinities with the heavenly assumptions of Enoch and Elijah (Gen. 5.24; 2 Kgs. 2.11), and also shaped the Roman tradition that emperors experienced apotheosis at death, that is, they were received into heaven and translated into celestial beings, ‘divinized’, if not, perhaps, fully ‘divine’ (here opinions differ). Third, we have the martyrdom story from 2 Maccabees about the Jewish youths who defied the Syrian tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes by refusing to abandon their ancestral religion. The story focuses on a mother and her seven sons, who refused to eat the unclean food of the pagans, and were tortured one by one. As they went to their various gruesome deaths, several of them made specific promises to their torturers about their future vindication. One of the sons declared to his tormentors that ‘the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws’. The youth was defiantly saying that his loyalty to the covenant would be rewarded and that the torturers’ brutality would be punished by the God of justice.

When viewed together, the three accounts are striking for their differences:

  1. Death is permanent
  2. Heroes get translated into heaven without dying
  3. The faithful who die are returned back to life!

There were, then, multiple options about what death was, and how to live beyond it. We will explore these perspectives further by surveying greco-roman and Jewish views of life, death, and the world beyond.

Greco-roman views of the afterlife

In this section we shall describe the range of options for belief about the dead that were available in the greco-roman world of late antiquity—roughly two or three hundred years either side of the time of Jesus. This explains graphically why the news of Jesus’ resurrection appeared sheer foolishness, even though some found that it stirred a strange new hope in their hearts.

Witless shadows in a murky world

The ancient Greek author Homer, whose significance for antiquity is perhaps akin to that of the King James Bible and Shakespeare in our own day, provides a window on ancient views of life after death. In his work, the dead become shades (skiai), ghosts (psychai), or phantoms (eidola). They are certainly not fully human beings. They may sometimes look like them; but the appearance is deceptive, since one cannot grasp them physically. Theirs is a shadowy and wispy existence in an underworld abode, even though they may occasionally appear to the living.

A good example comes from a scene in the Iliad where Achilles is confronted with the shade of his recently killed friend, Patroclus. Patroclus has been killed in battle, but remains unburied while Achilles goes off to get revenge for him by killing the Trojan prince Hector. Only then does Achilles return to the task of mourning the now avenged Patroclus. He addresses the corpse as now a resident in Hades, telling him of his vengeance, and he makes preparation for the funeral the next day. That night, however, as he slept:

There came to him the spirit of hapless Patroclus, in all things like his very self, in stature and fair eyes and in voice, and in like raiment was he clad withal; and he stood above Achilles’ head and spake to him, saying: ‘Thou sleepest, and hast forgotten me, Achilles. Not in my life wast thou unmindful of me, but now in my death! Bury me with all speed, that I pass within the gates of Hades. Afar do the spirits keep me aloof, the phantoms of men that have done with toils, neither suffer they me to join myself to them beyond the River, but vainly I wander through the wide-gated house of Hades. And give me thy hand, I pitifully entreat thee, for never more again shall I come back from out of Hades, when once ye have given me my due of fire . . . ¹

In response, Achilles tries to embrace his old friend:

Achilles held out his arms to clasp the spirit, but in vain. It vanished like a wisp of smoke and went gibbering underground. Achilles leapt up in amazement. He beat his hands together and in his desolation cried: ‘Ah then, it is true that something of us does survive even in the Halls of Hades, but with no intellect at all, only the ghost and semblance of a man; for all night long the ghost of poor Patroclus (and it looked exactly like him) has been standing at my side, weeping and wailing, and telling me of all the things I ought to do.’²

Achilles then arises from his sleep, and completes the elaborate funeral.

From the context, it seems that Achilles had nurtured doubts as to whether the dead had any existence at all; but now this ghostly vision has settled the matter, though hardly in a pleasing manner. Who is Patroclus now? A ghost or spirit. Where is he? On his way to Hades, but unable to cross the River Styx and find his proper place of rest until the appropriate funeral has been held. What’s wrong? Patroclus is no longer properly human, just a gibbering and witless phantom. What’s the solution? There is none. He can be helped on his way to Hades, but he will not find a full or enriching existence there, and he will certainly not return. The drama proceeds on its way, but Patroclus is gone for good, and Achilles himself will soon be joining him in gloomy Hades.

So what of the dead according to Homer? They are in Hades, under the eponymous rule of the underworld’s god and his dreaded wife. They are sorry both to be where they are and about much that happened in their previous human existence. They are sad at their present subhuman state. In some cases they are tormented, as punishment for particularly heinous crimes. For the most part, Hades holds no comforts, no prospects, but only a profound sense of loss. The inhabitants of Hades remain essentially subhuman and without hope.

Disembodied but otherwise fairly normal

Some cherished the hope that, despite the gloomy Homeric picture, there would after all be elements of normal life. In many ancient cultures it was common to bury the deceased with the kind of household goods that one was accustomed to: furniture, adornments, charms, toiletries, even toys for deceased children. There was still a life, of sorts, beyond the grave, and burial helped to prepare for it.

While that might seem odd, the stories that were told of the dead frequently involved a life similar to the present one—albeit with not much to do, no hunter-gathering or similar tasks, and hence more time to gossip and mope. Many believed that they would meet old friends again. With the ancient Greek poet Pindar, the Homeric gloom has chinks of light: riding, gaming, gymnastics, and especially drinking-parties feature in writing, painting, and other decorations illustrating the life of the dead. We should not try to reconcile this picture of a fairly normal life with the Homeric one; nobody was looking for consistency in these matters, and though it is possible that the illustrations in question were really designed to evoke memories of the deceased’s happier hours, it may well be that, as in our own world, all kinds of contradictory beliefs swirled around cheerfully alongside one another in popular culture. Certainly, though, Socrates envisaged conversing with the famous dead as something to look forward to in the life to come. There is even evidence that people supposed marriage and sexual activity might be possible. We should, however, remind ourselves that most of the written evidence comes from poetry and other writing clearly not intended as literal description. There is little evidence that anyone except very tough-minded philosophers ever took these suggestions so seriously as to face death, their own or that of another, with real composure.³

In many cases, despite widespread fear of a gloomy Hades, some practices, pictures, and stories indicated the hope for a continuing life not too different from the present.

Souls released from prison

If Homer functioned as the Old Testament for the hellenistic world—which by the first century included the entire middle east—its New Testament was unquestionably Plato. In contrast to Homer, the Greek philosopher Plato had a very different conception of human existence, its place in the cosmos, and the post-mortem destiny of the individual.

Plato, building on the work of other philosophers like Socrates and Pythagoras, believed that the essence of a human being was a soul, which was non-material. Bodily life was full of delusion and danger; the soul was to be cultivated in the present, both for its own sake and because its future happiness would depend upon such cultivation. The soul, being immortal, existed before the body, and would continue to exist after the body had gone.

The soul would therefore not only continue after bodily death; it would be delighted to do so. If it had known earlier where its real interests lay it would have been longing for this very moment. It would now flourish in a new way, released from its enslaving prison. Its new environment would be just what it ought to have wanted. Popular opinion might lean towards bringing the dead back, if that were possible, but that would be a mistake. Death was frequently defined precisely in terms of the separation of soul and body, seen as something to be desired. The fact that all this sounds quite familiar in our world shows the extent to which modern western culture has been affected by Platonism.

As far as Plato was concerned, then, Hades was not terrifying. It offered a range of pleasing activities—of which philosophical discourse might be among the chief, not surprisingly since attention to such matters was the best way, during the present time, of preparing the soul for its future. The reason people did not return from Hades was that life was so good there. They would of course want to stay, rather than returning to the gloomy and distracting shadows of the world of space, time, and matter.

It is hard to overestimate the importance of Plato for the later and wider world into which there burst the phenomenon we know as Christianity. For the Roman author Seneca, the immortal human soul had come from beyond this world—from among the stars, in fact—and would make its way back there. Though one might hold that it simply disappeared, it is more likely that it would go to be with the gods. Death was either the end of everything, in which case there was nothing to be alarmed about, or it would be a process of change, in which case, since the change was bound to be for the better, one should be glad. The soul, in fact, was at present kept as a prisoner within the body, which was both a weight and a penance to it. One should not, then, fear death; it would be the birthday of one’s eternity.

Platonic thought provided the tectonic plates for much Christian thought well into the middle ages. The second-century Christian apologist, Justin, was an eager Platonist (though he firmly believed in bodily resurrection). The second-century ‘heretic’ Marcion was well and truly steeped in Platonic ideas, regarding the human body as a ‘sack of excrement’ unfit for God to incarnate himself in, with the corollary that salvation must mean deliverance of the soul from this body, rather than the body’s resurrection.⁴ This divergence has continued among Christian teachers to this day.

Becoming a god (or at least a star)

‘Oh dear,’ the emperor Vespasian is reported to have said on his deathbed, ‘I think I’m becoming a god.’⁵ He was neither the first nor the last to think such thoughts, though perhaps the only one to put it so memorably. From early Greek writings onwards we find hints that some heroic mortals would not just find their souls going into a state of bliss; they would actually join the Immortals themselves, the gods of the greco-roman pantheon. When it became first possible and then fashionable for Roman emperors to see their predecessors as divine—and for less reserved subjects to accord the same honour to the living emperor—the idea was hardly new. It was, rather, a fresh mutation within a long line of speculation.⁶

In Greek mythology, one could distinguish between gods and heroes, though in some cases the lines were blurred. For instance, Hercules, after his proverbial labours, was admitted not just to the bliss of a righteous Platonic soul, but actually to the company of the gods themselves. Other less well-known heroes were sometimes accorded similar status, among whom we should mention Dionysus, the heavenly twins Castor and Pollux, and the healing god Asclepius. Within the Roman world, similar mythological founding heroes like Aeneas and Romulus may have managed to break the normal taboo against humans becoming divine, though even in these cases things are not straightforward. They may simply have been identified with already existing gods.

The possibility that a human being could become a god developed from these mythological beginnings through to the divinization of hellenistic rulers, particularly notable in the case of Alexander the Great (356–323 bc). At least as early as 331, Alexander had begun to represent himself as a son of Zeus, and to put himself alongside Hercules, expecting divinization (apotheosis) after his death. Encouraged by the adulation of his Persian and Egyptian subjects, for whom worship of rulers was quite normal, he requested actual worship in Greece and Macedonia.⁷ His Greek subjects were not so eager to comply,⁸ but after his early death his cult was quickly established and, though imitated by his less well-known successors, outlasted them all, providing both a model and an inspiration for the Roman imperial cult four centuries later.

By the early Christian period similar beliefs were widespread throughout the Roman world. Just as Augustus had his adoptive father Julius Caesar declared a god, so Tiberius did the same for Augustus in his turn. Although living emperors were never officially worshipped as part of the Roman state cult, they were venerated in private cults, family shrines, and various associations in Italy. Temples to the emperor and his family were built across the provinces, and imperial images were revered throughout the empire. This ‘divinity’ was not merely fictive or political; it was real religious devotion. The emperors, deceased and living, were worshipped because they provided benefaction and benevolence to their subjects. They, in turn, lavished gratefully upon them the highest honours possible, climaxing in divinity and cultic worship. This imperial ‘divinity’, however, was (in our terms) relative rather than absolute. The emperors were not gods in the same way that Jupiter or Zeus was supposed to be. But this distinction was lost on most people. What mattered was that they were the gods of the Roman state which—so ran the propaganda!—had conferred such blessings on its empire.

The expectation of divinization, and the normal process by which it was accorded, were well established in the early empire. Witnesses were made to swear that they had seen the soul of the late emperor ascending to heaven, a theme made famous by Augustus’s interpretation of the comet that appeared at the time of Julius Caesar’s death. The system was already sufficiently established to be lampooned by Seneca on the death of Claudius in his famous book about the Pumpkinification of Claudius. So useful was the emperor’s divinity to the Roman empire and its stability that the practice continued through successive centuries. A detailed description of apotheosis is given by Cassius Dio, himself an eye-witness of the funeral rites of the emperor Pertinax in ad 193.⁹ We smile wryly when Bishop Eusebius, with a pious tear in his eye, describes the coin that was struck after the death of his beloved Constantine, representing the emperor as a charioteer, drawn by four horses, being received up into heaven.¹⁰

Stories on returning to life after death

[This post] surveyed greco-roman beliefs about the state of the deceased. Within this world there were several different perspectives about the possibility of the dead crossing back over the chasm into the land of the living.

First, necromancy—communication with the departed—has a long and varied history. Most cultures and most historical periods offer stories of the living establishing contact with the departed, or indeed the departed taking the initiative and appearing unbidden to the living. From Patroclus’s appearance to Achilles onwards, ancient literature has plenty of such incidents. Some of the classic encounters between the living and the departed occur in dreams, as with Achilles and Patroclus. Sometimes the dead appear to be summoned back for such visitations by grieving relatives, especially women. Sometimes, in such scenes, the dead have wisdom to offer the living about the realities of which they are now aware; sometimes they come to guide, or to warn, at a particular moment of crisis. Even the Old Testament, where such contact was anathema, furnishes one classic example.¹¹ These visions and visitations were not, however, cases of people ceasing to be dead and resuming something like normal life. They were precisely about the dead remaining dead, and being encountered as visitors from the world of the dead, without any suggestion that they would then resume the kind of life they had earlier possessed.

There were, however (second), mythic stories of actual returns from the underworld. We have, for instance, Homer’s famous tale about Odysseus’s visit to Hades. While in Hades he converses with his old friends Agamemnon and Achilles, and even the ghost of Hercules (the ‘real’ Hercules is feasting with the immortal gods, married to Hebe, the daughter of Zeus and Hera, but even this does not prevent his shade from living in the house of Hades). But soon after, Odysseus has to flee before the goddess Persephone finds out he is there and sets the Gorgon on him.

Another familiar story is the myth of Alcestis. In the legend, Alcestis is the wife of Admetus, king of Pherae (Thessaly), to whom Apollo has been enslaved as a punishment. In return for Admetus’s hospitality, Apollo tricks the Fates into granting Admetus the privilege of escaping death on condition that someone else should die in his place. The only volunteer is his beloved wife Alcestis. After her death and burial, she is rescued by Hercules, who fights physically with Death (Thanatos, a character in the play), beats him, and restores Alcestis to Admetus.¹² These stories are fascinating, but they scarcely provide any parallel with resurrection. Odysseus did not die to get to Hades. Alcestis did indeed return from the dead to bodily life (in the legend and in Euripides’ play), but she would presumably die again, like Lazarus in John’s gospel. In any case, intelligent pagans contemporary with early Christianity knew about such stories, and dismissed them as mythic fictions. A fifth-century Athenian audience would not have regarded such narratives as in any way realistic. A tale in which Apollo and Death appear on stage as speaking characters, and in which Hercules arrives as a guest and displays his extraordinary powers, is hardly good evidence for what ordinary people believed happened in everyday life.

Third, there was one belief, widely held by philosophers, according to which the dead did indeed return to some kind of this-worldly and bodily existence. This was the theory of metempsychosis, the transmigration or reincarnation of souls. The classic statement of this is found in Plato, who developed the idea from the work of the sixth-century Pythagoras; but belief in transmigration was also fostered in the Orphic cult, and continued among philosophers and cult practitioners thereafter, though without ever gaining much popular adherence.¹³ Plato’s basic scheme is reasonably straightforward: after death, the souls of all humans wait for a period, whereupon they are given the choice of what sort of creatures they will become in their next existence (such as a swan, a lion, an eagle, or indeed another human). The souls then proceed through the Plain of Oblivion, drink from the River of Forgetfulness, and so pass into their next existence, unaware of who they have been, or even that they have been anything at all. Since for Plato, as for the Hindu and Buddhist schemes of the same type, return to embodied existence means that the soul is once more entering a kind of prison, the ultimate aim is not simply to choose the right type of existence for one’s next life, but to escape the cycle altogether. We are here not far from one version of Hinduism and other doctrines of karma.

In any case, from Plato’s point of view, to come back into this life at all is clearly to have failed in the soul’s ultimate destination. It is to return to jail. By contrast, for believers in resurrection—that is, many Jews and virtually all early Christians—the new embodied life is to be looked forward to and celebrated. It is not part of a cyclic movement, going round and round between life and death. As some Jews glimpsed, and as the early Christians emphasized, resurrection life was a matter of going through death and out the other side into a newly embodied life beyond. Transmigration offered a far more interesting prospect for the future life than the gloomy world of Homeric Hades. But Homer’s basic rule remained in force. Nobody was allowed to return from Hades and resume the life that he or she had once had.

Conclusion: death as a one-way trip

Clearly there was a diversity of greco-roman perspectives about the afterlife. The dead might have some kind of shadowy existence in Hades. They might experience a positive form of disembodied existence, putting off the prison of the body and living as immortal and disembodied souls. They might even aspire, in some cases, to divinization (though whether Roman emperors, who knew they would be ‘divinized’ after their death, took this seriously as a personal hope, rather than a political gambit, is open to question). Stories of ghosts and journeys to the underworld were entertaining, but no-one took them seriously as prospects for themselves. The transmigration of the soul was a possibility that some hoped for, while others disdained it as a return to the same mortal drudgery experienced in the previous lifetime.

What everyone knew was that in principle the road to the underworld ran only one way. Throughout the ancient world, from its ‘Bible’ of Homer and Plato, through its practices (funerals, memorial feasts), its stories (plays, novels, legends), its symbols (graves, amulets, burial-goods), and its grand theories, we can trace a good deal of variety about the road to Hades, and about what one might find upon arrival.

As with all one-way streets, there is bound to be someone who tries to drive in the opposite direction. One hears of an Alcestis who got out for a while. But the road was generally well policed; Hades, like a lobster pot, was easy to enter and impossible to leave. The apparent exceptions were known to be myths. Nobody expected they would come true.

Whatever the philosophical speculation about the afterlife, in the greco-roman world death was felt as a grievous loss both to the dying and to the bereaved. Rare indeed were those like Socrates and Seneca who could overcome such feelings. Some such people were able to welcome the escape from the prison-house of the body. But if that was seen as a problem—as it obviously was by the vast majority of people, as witnessed by tomb inscriptions and funeral rites throughout the ancient world—there was no solution. Death was all-powerful. One could neither escape it in the first place nor break its power once it had come. The ancient world was thus divided into those who said that resurrection couldn’t happen, though they might have wanted it to, and those who said they didn’t want it to happen, knowing that it couldn’t anyway.

LEARN MORE: Stream the New Testament in Its World series on MasterLectures.

  1. Homer, Iliad 23.65–76 (tr. Murray [LCL]).
  2. Homer, Iliad 23.99–107 (tr. Rieu [2001]).
  3. One possible exception is the world of Egypt where the dead were thought of as continuing into a still very complete life.
  4. Tert. Adv. Marc. 3.10.1.
  5. Suet. Vesp. 23.
  6. See Gradel 2002; Koortbojian 2013.
  7. See Arrian Anabasis 3.3.2; 4.10.6–7; 7.29.3; Aelian Hist. Misc. 2.19.
  8. Alexander’s demand that Greece recognize him as a god was met with derisive complicity, with the Spartan Damis laconically stating: ‘Since Alexander wants to be a god, let him be a god’ (Plut. Mor. 219).
  9. Dio Cassius Hist. 75.4.2—5.5.
  10. Eus. Vit. Const. 4.73.
  11. See the story of Saul using the ‘witch of Endor’ to summon the prophet Samuel in 1 Sam. 28.
  12. Eurip. Alcest. 1144–6.
  13. Properly speaking, the theory of transmigration of the soul exists in at least two distinct forms, one holding that the soul passes into another body immediately upon death, the other that the soul waits for a longer or shorter period before entering another body.
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