In the 27th century BCE, the Egyptians began building pyramids. These monuments, testaments to the belief in an afterlife for the king, are among the most easily recognizable structures in the world. Shaped to reflect the primordial mound that first emerged from the watery mass that existed before the world, the pyramid was more than a tomb. Pyramids were the key to everlasting life. In the Old Kingdom of Egypt this was limited to the king, but since the king represented Egypt nobody seemed to mind too much. Inside the pyramids were spells and incantations to help the king make it through to the next world. His success in this venture was of national importance.
During later periods of Egyptian religion, notably during the breakdown in centralized authority during the First Intermediate Period, the idea of an afterlife became democratized. Citizens who could never aspire to kingship desired an afterlife as well. The official theology of the day bent to the will of the masses and allowed a “ba” or, very loosely considered “soul,” to be assigned to each person. Those who could afford mummification and a Book of the Dead could make it to the afterlife as well. The preserve of the royalty had been breached, and the afterlife was open to all. Interestingly, the Israelites, many centuries later, did not seem to accept this idea. It is only very late in the Hebrew Bible before we get inklings that an afterlife was being anticipated. Living la vida Torah was reward enough.
It seems almost impossible in today’s world of religion for eternal consequences to realize that the original monotheistic religion was largely unconcerned with the afterlife. Once the idea caught on, however, there was no turning back. What is the motivation for religious belief if an eternal reward is lacking? Metaphorical pyramids continue to be erected. Would monotheistic religion still exist if it returned to its original outlook? Would politicians, television stars, and sports players give God the glory if it all ended at death? It hardly seems likely. Once a pyramid has been constructed, it is almost impossible to take it apart again.