Thursday, September 02, 2004

A leading Jewish scholar offers the latest on the afterlife

The Associated Press
September 01. 2004 8:11PM

Western religions that believe in the one God traditionally teach that after the present life, individuals will exist eternally in resurrected bodies. Eastern religions believe the soul is embodied in either human or animal forms in numerous past and future lives.

Now comes Alan F. Segal of Barnard College in New York with the latest if not the last word on the Jewish, Christian and Muslim concepts: "Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion" (Doubleday). As one of the leading Jewish analysts of first-century Judaism and Christianity, Segal is admirably equipped to produce a 731-page blockbuster on this central, powerful theme of civilization.

He tells how Christianity borrowed and reshaped the Jewish belief in a mind-plus-body afterlife and carried it to many nations, and how Islam did the same with the Christian belief. But before the Jews, resurrection was being taught by Zoroastrians in pre-Islamic Persia (Iran), the forebears of India's present-day Parsees.


In modern times, belief in bodily eternal life has faded among Segal's fellow Jews and he shares some of that skepticism. But the concept, long an essential Jewish tenet, remains a pillar of Jewish Orthodoxy.

Segal says many modern Christians have retreated to the ancient pagan belief in which the body gets little attention, our souls are immortal by nature and all will be saved. He says it's a very appealing message to Americans.

Segal concludes that belief in eternal life seems to be an essential human need and ideal.

This concept, he writes, "exists in our minds rather than the world and gives a sense of meaning to our lives. Like beauty and justice, life after death is no less important for being unverifiable."

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