Death’s Door

Podcast 18 considers the perceptions of the world of the dead, according to Ancient Near Eastern sources. Specifically the question addressed is can the dead return from the underworld, based initially on the story of Samuel’s return from the dead in the Bible — this leads to a description of the underworld based on ancient sources. The Zoroastrian connection is encountered in the development of the realms of heaven and hell.

6 thoughts on “Death’s Door

    • Steve Wiggins

      I have tried to put them on iTunes via PodBean. It turns out, however, that I reached their free size limits the first time I tried to upload some files. You can download the files from; and I am still trying to figure out how to get the remainder on iTunes. If you go to the iTunes store and search for “sawiggins” you’ll find a few of the podcasts there. I hope this helps!


  1. This, along with the two previous lectures, are my absolute favorites so far. A lot of really interesting ideas that will turn out to be, I think, much more important than we tend to think of them as. Especially after your insightful blog comment in “Our Myth of History”, I’ve gone back to McLuhan and Thomas Kuhn especially to try and better understand, in operational terms, how this thing we call “science” has replaced the thing that we called “religion”, both as a believer/consumer and as a priest/scientist. The image in this lecture, of a person contemplating the terror of seeing the body they buried a week ago rising up, bloated and leaking maggots, is a powerful one, whether the person lived fifty thousand years ago or today. The psychological needs of people have likely changed very little over the millennia but the paradigms (in Kuhn’s sense) within which we fulfill those needs have certainly come and gone.

    Here’s the opening salvo of Kuhn’s *The Structure of Scientific Revolutions*:

    ‘History … could produce a decisive transformation in the image of science by which we are now possessed. That image has previously been drawn, even by scientists themselves, mainly from the study of finished scientific achievements as these are recorded in the classics and, more recently, in the textbooks from which each new scientific generation learns to practice its trade. Inevitably, however, the aim of such books is persuasive and pedagogic; a concept of science drawn from them is no more likely to fit the enterprise that produced them than an image of a national culture drawn from a tourist brochure or a language text. This essay attempts to show that we have been misled by them in fundamental ways. Its aim is a sketch of the quite different concept of science that can emerge from the historical record of the research activity itself.’


    • This is a very good point. Scholars of religion have often relied on Kuhn’s paradigm-shifting view of science. At the heart of it, the study of religion is scientific, but the subject doesn’t lend itself to the kinds of empirical study that the physical sciences do. People often mistake the study of religion for a glorified version of Sunday School or CCD, in a Christian context. Scholars, however, use scientific tools to try to understand. There have been a number of paradigm shifts in the field, but they don’t always make their way to the general public.

      Thanks again for the dialogue!


  2. Your observations—of how late in the Biblical period this belief in a resurrection and judgement arose, of how it likely came from interactions with Persian Zoroastrians, and how it is not universally accepted in Judaism even today—are totally blowing my mind. The afterlife looms so large in today’s Western religions, with atheists compelled to write books on how they can act morally without this carrot and stick… argh!

    Thinking about it a bit more, reincarnation and karma are fixtures in even ancient Hinduism. The Buddha seemed indifferent to the whole idea—from what I gather, he likened reincarnation (should it exist) as a candle that is lit by a first candle: there is some kind of a link between lives, but ultimately your next life’s got nothing to do with this one. Nonetheless, in most Buddhist traditions today, from Sri Lanka to Japan, reincarnation plays a similar role as heaven and hell plays in Christianity and Islam.

    (I hope there’ll be a renewed interest in this scholarship among the general public. I can’t help but think, if believers knew this, they would… would what? Probably would do nothing special 🙄.)


    • This is mind-blowing stuff. We tend to think that current day beliefs reflect what people “have always believed” but the study of religion shows that that is simply not true. Yes, we can trace the origins of heaven and hell. Interestingly, “Hinduism” was strongly influenced by Zoroastrianism as well. Many of my Hindu students noted the similarities when I lectured on Zoroastrianism.

      I too wish people would show more interest in this. Things could be so much more reasonable if they only would.


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