Where Did Heaven
Come From?

The idea that Christians go to heaven upon dying isn't found in the oldest books in the New Testament, such as the letters of Paul and the Gospel of Mark. In this excerpt from the new book The Evolution of God, Robert Wright suggests that early Christianity adopted the idea from a competing religion in the Roman Empire.

BY: Robert Wright


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Why is it Luke, not the roughly contemporary Matthew, who makes this pivot? Maybe because Luke is a more "gentile" gospel. Whereas Matthew often seems to be trying to convert devout Jews to the Jesus movement, stressing its compatibility with traditional Judaism, Luke is focused on winning "pagan" converts. And if he is going to compete with pagan religions, he'd better make sure that Christianity can match their most popular features.

And one of those features was a blissful afterlife. Though the official gods of the Roman state offered no such thing, the empire had been besieged by foreign cults that, by filling this void, had won followings. These religions of salvation came under a variety of brands. Persian cults talked of souls migrating through the planetary spheres to paradise, and Greek cults offered bliss in Hades, the Greek underworld that had once offered only a humdrum existence for the average soul but now featured lush subdivisions. Many rivals of Christianity seem to have been thriving in part by offering eternal bliss.

Am I saying that Luke stole his afterlife scenario from a competing religion? Not with great confidence, no. But if you wanted to indict him on this charge, you would not be wholly lacking in evidence. The evidence would focus on the Egyptian God Osiris. Osiris bears a certain resemblance to Jesus as Christians would later come to conceive him; Osiris inhabited the afterworld and judged the recently deceased, granting eternal life to those who believed in him and lived by his code. But Osiris was doing this a long time before Jesus was born, and meanwhile he had migrated to the Roman Empire, where he had developed a following.

Certainly that story in Luke about the rich man and the poor man in Hades has Osirian overtones. At the time Luke was writing, a written copy of an Egyptian story about the afterlife was circulating in the Roman Empire. It was about a rich man and a poor man who die and go to the underworld. Both are judged at the court of Osiris.

The rich man's bad deeds outweighed his good, and so he was consigned to one of the less desirable stations. (Specifically, the story explains: the "pivot of the door" to the underworld is "planted in his right eye and rotating on this eye whenever the door is closed or opened." Understandably, his "mouth was open in great lamentation.") In contrast, the poor man, whose good deeds outweighed his bad, got to spend eternity in the company of the "venerable souls," near the seat of Osiris. Plus, he got the rich man's clothes: "raiment of royal linen". (The rich man in Luke's story wore "purple and fine linen".) The moral of the story, "He who is good upon earth they are good to him in Amenti (the underworld), while he that is evil they are evil to him."

Luke's story about the rich man and the poor man seems to have no precedent in earlier Jewish or Christian tradition. So there is indeed a chance that Luke heard or read the Egyptian story and adapted it for Christian use. But we'll probably never know, and anyway, that isn't the point. The point is that, whether or not Luke borrowed this particular story from Egypt's heritage, this theme—immediate reward in the afterlife—must have come from somewhere, and the likely source is one of the religions with which Christianity competed in the Roman Empire.

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