Theology WebSite: Church History Study Helps: Death and the Afterlife in Greco-Roman Religion

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     Death and the Afterlife in Greco-Roman Religion

Death and the Afterlife in Greco-Roman Religion

Death was defined as the separation of body and soul. Two strands of thought were present in reference to the location of the dead. On one hand, the remains (whether buried, burned, or exposed) were localized in a particular place, important as the spot where the loved ones took their leave of the dead and where honor was appropriately shown to them. On the other hand, there was the possibility that the departed passed into a new plane of existence. The belief that the departed lived on in the tomb is reflected in giving it the name "eternal house," in constructing tombs and the interior of sarcophagi to resemble a home, and in the offerings of food and drink placed in the tomb. Quite widespread among Mediterranean peoples was the belief that the dead gather in a great cavity under the earth; the Hebrew sheol, Greek hadis, and Latin inferi were basically the same conception. In earliest times no differentiation was made among the dead, who continued in a shadowy prolongation of human life in the same circumstances they had in human society. The "shades" (rephidim) of the Old Testament are similar to the "souls" in Homer. Orphic teaching modified the old Greek tradition and introduced distinct departments into the underworld. The resultant Greek view passed to the Romans and is seen in its developed form in Virgil's Aeneid, Book Vl.

The souls or shades of the deceased are led by Hermes to the depths of the earth and in a provisional abode await a decision concerning their eternal lot. They cross the river Styx, conducted by the boatman Charon, and come to the court that judges them. The guilty are sent down the road to the left, which leads to dark Tartarus, the place of punishment (Cf. 2 Pet. 2:4); the pious are led down the road on the right to the Elysian Fields where all is bright and beautiful. The Orphics and Pythagoreans gave the specific content to these two places and assigned everyone to one place or the other.

Philosophical thought combined astral religion with the transfer to the abode of souls to the celestial regions to enjoy immortality in the regions of the moon, sun, or stars. The persistence of the idea of punishment and a separation of the virtuous from the wicked divided the upper atmosphere into upper and lower regions so that the whole of the (former) subterranean world was now conceptualized as located above the earth's surface. Virgil (Aeneid VI) also refers to this philosophical modification of the old eschatology into a purification of souls and their ascent to the celestial realms. Cicero in the "Dream of Scipio" located the abode of blessed souls in the zone of the constellations.

A compromise was finally reached between these views. The celestial world became the home of the virtuous, whose spirits arose through the planetary spheres to the Supreme Being to dwell in luminous bliss, and the nether world became the abode of the wicked, who were cast down to subterranean darkness in order to suffer eternal chastisement. An interme.diate purgatory provided a posthumous purification for those stained with pardonable transgressions. The bliss of the righteous was commonly depicted under one of three images: repose or rest, a celestial banquet, or the vision of God. The threefold division of the universe and of souls was transmitted by antiquity to the Christian Middle Ages, providing the framework for Dante's Divine Comedy. Apart from some Jews and the Christians, the only people of the ancient world to believe in a resurrection of the flesh were the Zoroastrians of Persia. Their typical teaching included the appearance of the good or evil conscience after death, the passing over a bridge, the ultimate resurrection of the flesh and the kingdom of righteousness.

Sources utilized in these pages may include:
  • Everett Ferguson's: Backgrounds of Early Christianity
  • Walker's: History of Christianity (out of print)

    (These links will take you to book detail pages at

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