Views of the afterlife in the ancient world, d’après Tertullian

Relief of Roman Mithras (CIMRM 2257), discovered near village Kreta, Pleven Regional Historical Museum, Bulgaria. Courtesy of Flickr / Carole Raddato under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) licence
Relief of Roman Mithras (CIMRM 2257), discovered near village Kreta, Pleven Regional Historical Museum, Bulgaria. Courtesy of Flickr / Carole Raddato under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) licence

In the opening chapter of his treatise ‘On the Resurrection of the Flesh,’ the Christian writer Tertullian (c. 145—220 A.D.) gives us a brief survey of the views prevalent in his day concerning the afterlife. The range of views — Christian and pagan — which he presents still sounds surprisingly modern.

On the Resurrection of the Flesh was written around A.D. 208. Just over a hundred years after this, Christianity would be officially recognized by the Roman Empire;[1] by the end of the fourth century it would be the official state religion.[2]

“In the age of Tertullian, the Roman Empire seemed far from such a radical turnaround. The syncretic, idol-worshipping paganism of the Greek and Roman world was still the official religion, and throughout the third century Christians could be — and often were — persecuted fiercely for refusing to appear in public and endorse the State’s official gods.”

But in the age of Tertullian, the Roman Empire seemed far from such a radical turnaround. The syncretic, idol-worshipping paganism of the Greek and Roman world was still the official religion, and throughout the third century Christians could be — and often were — persecuted fiercely for refusing to appear in public and endorse the State’s official gods.

It was also an age of philosophical ideas, as well as an increasingly significant proportion of Christian believers. Tertullian himself defiantly declares in his Apology,

If the Tiber rises as high as the city walls, if the Nile does not send its waters up over the fields, if the heavens give no rain, if there is an earthquake, if there is famine or pestilence, straightway the cry is, “Away with the Christians to the lion!” What! shall you give such multitudes to a single beast?[3]

Here, then, is his survey of views of the afterlife in his day:

Tertullian, ‘On the Resurrection of the Flesh,’ ch. I.

The resurrection of the dead is the Christian’s trust. By it we are believers. Truth compels us to believe this [article of our faith] — that very truth which God reveals but the crowd derides, who suppose that nothing will survive after death.

“Truth compels us to believe in the resurrection of the dead — that very truth which God reveals but the crowd derides, who suppose that nothing will survive after death. And yet they honour their dead — and that in the most expensive way!”

Tertullian, ‘On the Resurrection of the Flesh,’ chapter 1

And yet they honour their dead — and that in the most expensive way! [For they do it] according to the [deceased’s] bequest, and with the finest banquets which the seasons offer, on the presumption that they whom they declare to be incapable of perceiving anything still have an appetite!

But I for my part will deride the crowd yet more. Especially when they burn up the dead with most severe inhumanity, only to pamper them immediately afterwards with gluttonous feasting; using the same fires both to honour them and to insult them!

What kind of piety is it which mocks its victims with cruelty? Is it sacrifice or insult that the crowd offer, when they burn their offerings to those whom they’ve already burnt?

But the ‘wise’ also sometimes join with the crowd in their vulgar opinion. According to the school of [the philosopher] Epicurus, there is nothing after death. After death all things come to an end, even death itself — as Seneca likewise says.

However, it is satisfying that the no less important philosophies of Pythagoras and Empedocles, and of the Platonists, take the opposite view, declaring the soul to be immortal. Moreover, they affirm, in a way which most closely approaches [our own belief], that the soul actually returns into bodies. Although this is not the same bodies, and sometimes not even the bodies of human beings. Thus [the soul of] Euphorbus is supposed to have passed into Pythagoras, and [the soul of] Homer into a peacock.

[These philosophers] firmly pronounced that the renewal of the soul was in a body, considering it more tolerable to change the quality [of body] than to deny it altogether. They, at least, knocked at the door of truth, although they did not enter through it. Thus even the world, with all its errors, does not ignore the resurrection of the dead.[4]

Thus, in Tertullian’s brief survey, we have four distinct views on the afterlife expressed:—

  1. The superstitious or ‘folk’ atheism of “the crowd” (i.e., the majority). He points up the logical inconsistency of this view with the statements, “The crowd derides, who suppose that nothing will survive after death. And yet they honour their dead!”
  1. The ‘logical’ atheism of Epicurus and Seneca (two famous philosophers).
  1. The belief in (i.) the immortality of the soul, and (ii.) the ‘transmigration of souls’ between bodies during successive lifetimes — not necessarily always between human bodies — as taught by Pythagoras, Empedocles and the Platonists.
  1. The orthodox Christian view, the resurrection of the body.

These divergent views on the afterlife are reinforced a little farther on in Tertullian’s treatise, in chapter 3:

“But when the pagans say, ‘What has undergone death is dead,’ and, ‘Enjoy life whilst you live,’ and, ‘After death all things come to an end, even death itself;’ then I must remember… that the very ‘wisdom of the world is foolishness.’”

Tertullian, ‘On the Resurrection of the Flesh,’ chapter 3

I may therefore make use of the opinion of a Plato, when he declares, “Every soul is immortal.”  I may also make use of a nation’s conscience, when it bears witness to the God of gods. In like manner, I may, in like manner, make use of all the other intelligence of our common [human] nature, when it pronounces God to be a judge. “God sees,” they say; and, “I commend you to God.”

But when they say, “What has undergone death is dead,” and, “Enjoy life whilst you live,” and, “After death all things come to an end, even death itself;” then I must remember both that “the heart of man is ashes” [Isaiah 44:20], according to the estimate of God, and that the very “wisdom of the world is foolishness,” as the inspired word pronounces it to be [1 Cor. 1:20; 3:19].[5]

Again, some of this sounds surprisingly modern. “What has undergone death is dead.” “Enjoy life whilst you live” (or, as I have on occasion seen in the rear windows of cars: “One life. Live it.”).

“Perhaps it is worth reflecting, after all, that the atheism which is the default position of many people in Western society today is not so modern a discovery as we like to think.”

Perhaps it is worth reflecting, after all, that the atheism which is the default position of many people in Western society today is not so modern a discovery as we like to think. And if the historical ‘folk religion’ of the West is looked down upon with such contempt by many moderns, it is equally worth reflecting that one of the beliefs it replaced in mediaeval Europe was ‘folk atheism.’

Just a thought.

 

 

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[1] https://www.pbs.org/empires/romans/empire/christians.html

[2] https://www.dw.com/en/christianity-becomes-the-religion-of-the-roman-empire-february-27-380/a-4602728

[3] Apology, ch. XL (emphasis mine). In Tertullian, The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. III: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian (T&T Clark, Edinburgh; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 1997), 47. The Apology was written circa A.D. 198.

[4] On the Resurrection of the Flesh, ch. I. I have retranslated the passage based on the translation of this chapter found in Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. III, 545.

[5] On the Resurrection of the Flesh, ch. III. I have retranslated the passage based on the translation of this chapter found in Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. III, 547.

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