It may seem rather strange that eternal life would be a unique feature of Christianity, but that’s exactly what it was. The uncertainty and futility of life often left people with a general hopelessness about life and death in the ancient world, so the virtue chased after in life by Greeks and Romans alike was glory. Pretty much a great theme of most Greco-Roman literature is the pursuit of glory by a hero or extraordinary human. There were, of course, other motives, but glory was certainly near if not at the top of that list. Christianity taught that eternal life was given through Christ Jesus, but the Greco-Roman religions taught something akin but with a greater degree of uncertainty. They lacked the blessed assurance guaranteed in Christ. However, Christianity wasn’t the first to propose eternal life.
Centuries earlier, Plato wrote the Apology (“Defense”) of Socrates, and once Socrates received a death sentence in his trial, the latter said, “Death is one of two things. Either it is annihilation, and the dead have no consciousness of anything; or, as we are told, it is really a change: a migration of the soul from this place to another” (40c). Socrates likely heard this from Orphic teaching.
Orpheus was a mythical singer, and the son of Apollo and a Muse. The earliest art about the myth of Orpheus dates to 550 BC, but the religious texts date to the fifth century BC.
Orphic teaching modified the old Greek tradition and introduced distinct departments into the underworld. The resultant Greek view (cf. Ps.-Plato, Axiochus 371A–72) passed to the Romans and is seen in developed form in Virgil’s Aeneid, Book 6 (1).
While the older tradition was not as evolved as at the time of Virgil (c. 70–19 BC), the Orphic teachings provided more of a concrete dogma through its esteem of sacred literature rather than oral tradition (2).
Since Greek thought came in part through Egyptian theology, and since Israel was formed from Moses who was reared an Egyptian, the connection between the two is noteworthy.
It helps our perspective if we note the view of Moses put forward by the Hellenistic Jewish apologist Artapanus. He says of Moses: (1) He was the teacher of Orpheus (Eusebius, Praep. ev., 9.27, 4). Since Orpheus is said to have transferred the birthplace of Osiris to Thebes (Diodorus of Sicily, 1.23), Artapanus’ claim makes Moses responsible, indirectly at least, for both Greek culture and the shape of an Egyptian cult. (2) He was called Musaeus by the Greeks (Eusebius, Praep. ev., 9.27, 3). Since Musaeus was equivalent to the Egyptian Hermes-Thoth, this claim is tantamount to making Moses into one of the gods of Egypt … (3) He was regarded by the Egyptian priests as worthy of being honored as a god. Indeed he was called Hermes (Eusebius, Praep. ev., 9.27, 6) (3).
The effect Moses had on Egyptian and, by extension, Greek culture is a worthy investigation on its own unrelated to this study. Nevertheless, that Moses might have had an influence in shaping Greek culture may speak to the later Greek and early Jewish belief of Hades as not an evolved, but inspired, teaching.
Hades was a subterranean realm where the dead were punished (Il. 3.332–33; Rep. 366a), but also where the good were rewarded (Rep. 2.363c; cf. 3.386b–d). It was a place where the scales of justice were balanced, and though humanity could elude justice in their life, they could not elude it in Hades (cf. Aesch. Supp. 228–31). Hades’ multi-headed dog, Cerberus, admitted new arrivals but also prohibited anyone from leaving by devouring them (Theog. 769–74).
While the preceding description sounds like an afterlife that makes one think of eternal life, there’s more to it than how a person is treated in the afterlife according to Greek theology. To put it simply, the dead were “mere shadows of their former selves (4).” Their state was akin to sleep (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:13–15). In such a sleep, the Greeks believed that the dead lost their personalities—something totally contrary to the Christian belief in the afterlife as evidenced by the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31).
It’s almost as if the dead, according to Greek belief, were catatonic or had a lobotomy. A person’s soul existed in the afterlife, but Christianity taught that the resurrection resulted in the Christian receiving a glorified body (1 Corinthians 15:35–49). Therefore, the afterlife of Greek theology wasn’t so much an afterlife as it was merely where one’s soul went devoid of the person’s wits. To be sure, however, there were varying degrees of belief in the afterlife in antiquity. Without going into all of the varying beliefs, we’ll look at a few closely before the advent of Christ to better understand the pagan thought on death.
A rather common belief about a person when they died in the first century was that they merely ceased existing. Paul’s writing to the Thessalonians about the resurrection (1 Thessalonians 4:9–18) was to correct a certain misunderstanding. The brethren feared that their dead loved ones would miss out on eternal life when Christ returned, so Paul had to correct their misunderstanding. However, where did such a view on death derive? Well, it seemed to be a rather commonly held truth that once a person died, nothing more could be done for them. What’s apparent is that the Thessalonians worried that those who had died before Christ returned might be left behind, quite literally. Paul wanted to eliminate their fears, so they were to “comfort one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:18).
As Paul reasoned with those in the marketplace in Athens, two groups approached him about his teachings. The first were the Epicureans and the second were the Stoics—two prominent schools of philosophy. We’ll begin with them in the order in which they’re listed in Acts 17:18.
Lucretius (c. 94–55 BC) was an Epicurean poet who, in keeping with Epicureanism, taught that death was the end. The major work that he produced was called On the Nature of the Universe, and in it he discussed his belief that the mind was mortal, and as such, there was really no need to be concerned with an afterlife or what happened after death. One simply ceased to exist. “Death is nothing to us and no concern of ours since the nature of the mind is now held to be mortal (5).” Was there not any hope? Not really. Lucretius believed that a person’s body broke down into atoms which flew off into the air and became a kind of immortality in that state, but that was about as far as it went.
The person to whom Lucretius addressed his work, Memmius, was, a politician of Rome. Memmius was closely associated with the poet, Catullus (c. 84–54 BC). Catullus produced many poems. In one of them, he too expressed the commonly held belief that death was the end.
When once our brief light sets,
There is one perpetual night through which we must sleep. (5.5–6)
He used the language akin to Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4; however, Paul did not mean to see one’s sleep as the end, because the resurrection awaited. Paul also did not intend to convey that death as sleep meant a lack of consciousness or awareness as the Romans understood it, nor did he mean soul-sleeping as some have suggested. From the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus alone, there was an evident consciousness and awareness on the part of the Rich Man while he was in Hades. The Rich Man knew who Abraham and Lazarus were, and also was aware that he was being tormented by the flames. Just because Paul used language similar to pagan writers doesn’t mean that he adopted their definition of those same terms. Christianity had a habit of using rather popular terms within a greater context of Christian theology to convey sound doctrine.
Turning now to the Stoics, we look at the teachings of a contemporary of Jesus who also happened to be the tutor and, later, political advisor to the Roman Emperor Nero (c. AD 54–68), Seneca (c. 4 BC–AD 65). He wrote of death, “What is to come is uncertain (6).” Seneca, like many of his contemporaries, believed in transmigration of the soul, or reincarnation. However, he also held that there might have been a place that awaited the dead.
Yet none of the people who malign [death] has put it to the test. Until one does it’s rather rash to condemn a thing one knows nothing about. And yet one thing you know and that is this, how many people it’s a blessing to, how many people it frees from torture, want, maladies, suffering, weariness. And no one has power over us when death is within our own power (7).
As I’ve already noted, some saw despair in death, and others, such as Seneca, viewed it with a bit of optimism but uncertainty. It was not until Christianity came on the scene with the divine revelation that the uncertainty went away for many. Those who likely responded positively to Paul’s sermon in Athens were Stoics because of their views on death versus the Epicureans. Paul would write to the Corinthians, “O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?” (1 Corinthians 15:55).
There were several in the first century AD who didn’t believe in a resurrection: Sadducees, some Athenians, and some Corinthians. However, Abraham (Hebrews 11:19), Daniel (Daniel 12:2), and Jesus (John 5:28–29) believed in the resurrection. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that if they didn’t believe in the resurrection, then Christ had not been raised (1 Corinthians 15:13, 16), their faith was in vain (1 Corinthians 15:14), his preaching was a lie (1 Corinthians 15:15), that all were still in sin (1 Corinthians 15:17), and we have no hope (1 Corinthians 15:18–19). Because the resurrection gives us all hope, it was in stark contrast to the pagan ways that pervaded the thinking of the time.
Paul’s creedal statement that Christ died and rose again in 1 Thessalonians 4:14 was meant to assure the Thessalonian church that their dead loved ones (Christians) were not hopeless. The resurrection was, in fact, the point of the Christian’s hope. It was this fact that was assurance for all who believed in Christ as Lord and obeyed the gospel.
Those who are without hope are those without Christ (Ephesians 2:12; cf. Hebrews 2:15). However, we Christians have the assurance of something rather contrary: “Knowing that He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and will present us with you” (2 Corinthians 4:14). Therefore, Christian’s shouldn’t grieve over fellow Christians passing away as they might over an unbeliever.
Even after the apostles taught and preached the resurrection, later evidence still shows a common uniformity of the belief that death was the end. In a letter from the second century AD that was discovered in Egypt, the writer expressed their condolences to a couple whose son had died. The author wrote, “I sorrowed and wept over your dear departed one as I wept over Didymas … but really, there is nothing we can do in the face of such things” (Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 115).
By the second century, many were becoming quickly informed about points of Christian teaching. Lucian of Samosata, who was born around AD 120, was a satirist who attacked Christianity in his writing, Peregrinus. In this work, he poked fun of the Christian belief in the resurrection when the namesake of his work was being put to death. “The poor wretches have convinced themselves, first and foremost, that they are going to be immortal and live for all time, in consequence of which they despise death and even willingly give themselves into custody” (Pereg. 13) (8). Lucian’s derision of Christian belief reflected a widely held Greco-Roman sentiment expressed toward the Christian notion of eternal life.
There were, to be sure, other religious systems whose messages included soul-survival after death, viz. Orphic and Pythagorean cults. However, initiation into those groups entailed financial resources only possessed by affluent people. The result was that their views were not widely held, unlike Christianity. Hurtado writes, “Certainly, the Christian belief in the resurrection was in that period ‘the most spectacular religious doctrine regarding the body,’ and among Greeks and Romans ‘this was an unthinkable idea (9).’” Paul’s sermon in Athens noted how God had overlooked times of ignorance, but things had changed. Beginning then, God commanded all to repent, because a day was appointed when He would judge the world (Acts 17:30–31). Initiation into Christianity held similar features to initiation into other cults, but it too had a unique feature when contrasted with the Greco-Roman world. Dues were not collected, but one had to have faith in Christ as God’s Son, and they were initiated through one baptism rather than a lifetime of washings and ablutions. This was the beginning of one’s journey toward a transformed life on earth, and eternal life afterward.
- Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 249 (cf. pp. 554–55). Cf. George Norlin, “The Doctrines of the Oprhic Mysteries, with Special Reference to the Words of Anchises in Vergil’s Sixth Aeneid 724–51,” The Classical Journal 3, no. 3 (Jan. 1908): 91–99.
- See. A. D. Knock, Conversion: The Old and the New in Religion from Alexander the Great to Augustine of Hippo (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 26–32; and Richard Thomas Aquinas Murphy, “Orphism and the New Testament,” Catholic Bible Quarterly 8, no. 1 (Jan. 1946): 36–51.
- Charles H. Talbert, “The Concept of Immortals in Mediterranean Antiquity,” Journal of Biblical Literature 94, no. 3 (Sep., 1975): 419–36. See footnote twenty-eight on page 423.
- Robert Garland, The Greek Way of Death, 2d. ed. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), 12.
- Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe (London: Penguin Classics, 1994), 87; cf. pp. 75–81.
- Seneca, Letters From a Stoic (London: Penguin Classics, 1969), 209.
- Ibid., 161.
- For a greater reading on how Christians were viewed, the reader might have an interest in reading Robert Louis Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 2d. ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).
- Hurtado, Why on Earth?, 128.