Thursday, September 22, 2016

Philip C. Almond's "Afterlife: A History of Life after Death"

Philip C. Almond is Associate Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences (Research) and Professorial Research Fellow at the Centre for the History of European Discourses at The University of Queensland. He is the author of many books, including The Devil: A New Biography; The Lancashire Witches: A Chronicle of Sorcery and Death on Pendle Hill; Adam and Eve in Seventeenth-Century Thought; and Heaven and Hell in Enlightenment England.

Almond applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Afterlife: A History of Life after Death, and reported the following:
On page 99, I discuss William Tyndale (1494?-1536) and his New Testament collaborator John Frith (1503-33) as the only two English writers to endorse soul-sleeping in the sixteenth century. Following the lead of Martin Luther, they rejected the notion that the individual had a conscious life immediately after death. Rather, they believed, between death and the Last Judgement the soul slept. On the Last Day, the sleeping soul would awake, be united with its resurrected body and then be judged by God for eternal happiness or eternal punishment. The doctrine of the sleep of the soul enabled these early Protestants to ‘cut off at the root’ what they thought to be all the mumbo jumbo that went with Catholic doctrines associated with conscious life immediately after death – the saints, purgatory, prayers to the dead and for the dead, in fact, the complete Catholic economy of the afterlife.

Their concerns reflect one of two central themes of this book – the existence of the immortal soul and the problem of its consciousness immediately after death. Afterlife: A History of Life after Death explores this and the other foundational narrative within Western thought about the afterlife. On the one hand, there is a narrative built around the anticipation that our lives will continue immediately after the death of each of us. At the point of death, the soul will be weighed in the balance, be judged according to its vice or virtue and be sent to the bliss of Heaven or be cast into the pit of Hell. On the other hand, there is another narrative, one that is driven by the expectation that our eternal destinies will be finally determined at that time when history ends, when Christ returns to judge both the living and the dead. In some cases, the narrative of the Final Judgement becomes irrelevant and the emphasis is all on the immediate afterlife, in others (as on p.99) the emphasis is on the Last Judgement and conscious life immediately after death is radically rethought through the sleep or the death of the soul. For the most part, the history of the afterlife is a complex set of negotiations and contestations between these two narratives.

Modern histories of the afterlife in the West have focused on one or other of these narratives. This book, by contrast, is shaped by the interplay, tensions and conflicts between them both within a history that tells the story of each of them.
Learn more about Afterlife at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue