Afterlife Essay

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Beliefs  about   the  afterlife   have  informed   how people  allocate   scarce  resources   and  how  they think  about  choices. From  the grave goods  taken to  the  underworld to  the  bargains   for  material advantage in this life at the expense of salvation  in the  next,  the  afterlife  has  helped  people  imbue their economic relations  with meaning.

Abundance  And Scarcity

The art of ancient  Egypt and Etruria, the home of the  Etruscans   of  central   Italy,  told  the  believer what  happened in  the  afterworld. The  evidence from   Egypt  continues   to  fascinate   humans.  In 1922,   the  British  archaeologist Howard  Carter discovered   the  tomb   of  the  forgotten pharaoh Tutankhamun. Although  only  a  minor  pharaoh, Tutankhamun had a tomb that  excited worldwide attention.  The   diversity   and   number   of  grave goods  were astonishing. The Egyptians  clearly believed that  you could  take  all your  possessions with  you. This  thinking  seems to  imply  that  the rich enjoyed the afterlife more than commoners because  they  had  so  much  more  with  them.  All this  wealth   testified   to  Tutankhamun’s  exalted status  on earth  and in the afterworld.

The Egyptians  believed that  everyone had a ka, what  one might call a soul today. The ka survived death  and was reborn  in the afterworld. Egyptian art demonstrated the belief that  people worked  in the  afterworld, often  tending  crops  or  livestock. The Egyptians may have believed that  the afterlife was abundant, containing all that was necessary to sustain  humans. In the  afterworld, there  was  no hunger,  drought, or  scarcity.  The  afterworld contained  slaves, who toiled on the lowest rung of the economic  ladder.  One  wonders  whether  the afterlife was pleasant  for them.

But if the afterworld was abundant, why was it necessary to take grave goods? Were these items necessary  to  remind  the  gods of one’s status?  Or did  the  Egyptians  believe  that   the  dead  needed food  and  water  on  their  journey  to  the  afterlife? The Egyptians  may have believed that  in its early stage,  the  afterlife  was  not  as  abundant as  the tomb  paintings  seemed to indicate.

The   notion   of  scarcity   was   familiar   to   the Greeks. About 405 b.c.e., the playwright Aristophanes wrote The Frogs, in which Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry, disappointed with the quality of drama, went to Hades, the afterworld, to bring  back  the playwright Euripides.  On  his visit to Hades,  Dionysus  came to realize that  he could bring  back  the dramatist Aeschylus. The problem was that  Dionysus could choose only one of them. When   faced  with   scarcity,   humans   must   make choices. To pursue  one path  is to exclude another.

The Economics Of Rationality

Economists   believe  that   humans   make   rational choices. An increase  in wages may prompt one to seek a new job. A discount may coax another to buy a new jacket.  And  early investments  in retirement (or life after retirement) will pay off in the long term.

Many  people who believe in an afterlife think  of it  as  a  duality:  heaven  and  hell.  Christianity and Islam share this duality. Islamic heaven is a place of abundance. The  dead  will have  all the  things  they lacked in life. In Islam, as in ancient Egypt, heaven is a  copy  of  earth,   though   scarcity  does  not  exist. Elysium,  the  afterworld of  the  Greeks,  is likewise abundant. Humans who choose rationally will choose heaven, and this choice follows the dictates of the economics of rationality. The choices one makes determine  where  one  spends  eternity.  A traditional cost-benefit  analysis of the choice to lead a virtuous life is complicated   by  the  fact  that  the  benefit  of heaven cannot be experienced in this life. Because the duration of life is brief, the assumption of bearing the short-term costs of behaving  well must  be weighed against the long-term  benefits of heaven.

People  as  divergent  as  the  Greek  philosopher Plato  and  the  writer  and  Nobel  laureate  Albert Camus   acknowledged  that   humans   are  free  to choose. Both believed that actions have consequences,  though   as  an  atheist,   Camus   did  not believe in heaven as a reward  for good actions. The Italian  writer  Dante  went  even further,  suggesting that  those  who refused to make choices ended  up in hell. Zoroaster, Jesus, and Muhammad all emphasized  the importance of choice. Jesus, in particular, had a deep distrust of wealth. According to the Gospel  of Matthew, Jesus remarked that  a camel could more easily pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man enter heaven. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus put Lazarus, a beggar, in heaven and the rich man  who  neglected  him in hell. The fires of hell tortured the rich man, who begged Lazarus to bring him one drop of water. The patriarch Abraham, who  cradled  Lazarus,  refused  the  rich man’s request.  He had  lived for himself on earth, disregarding  the  welfare  of the  poor.  Now  Satan was punishing  him for his selfishness. Taking Jesus at his word,  one wonders  whether  the possession of wealth  bars one from heaven.

The notions  of choice and rationality, central to economics,  are important to any consideration of the  afterlife.  The  Socrates  of  the  Apology is  an agnostic.  Death  could  be nothing  more  than  eternal darkness,  but who has not had the pleasure  of a night’s sleep without dreams? On the other hand, an  afterlife   may  exist,  in  which   case  Socrates would choose to question  the denizens of Hades in an  attempt to  find  someone  with  wisdom.  The Greeks and the Etruscans  believed that the afterlife was full of athletic contests. One supposes that the winners   received  some  reward,  some  economic gain. The myriad  activities  in the afterlife  impose choice on the dead. In this case, time is presumably the scarce resource  because  one cannot  do everything. If, however, one exists for eternity, then time ceases to be a scarce resource.

Supply And Demand

Humans have  long  had  a  strong  desire  to  learn what they can about the afterlife. This creates a demand  for knowledge,  which someone  must supply. After all, people pay mediums  for information about  the afterlife. For the price of a Ouija  board, people  can  explore   the  afterlife  for  themselves. According  to  legend,  Dr.  Faustus  formed  a  pact with  Lucifer in which  Lucifer agreed  to give him all knowledge,  including  a glimpse of the afterlife, in exchange for his soul, a Faustian  bargain  and an economic  exchange.  In a bizarre  circumstance, in 2001 a man tried to sell his soul on Bids rose  to  $400  before  eBay ended  the  transaction, for what  tangible  thing  was really for sale? How could a buyer actually  secure someone’s soul?

For the price of a copy of The Divine  Comedy, Dante  promised   to  describe  heaven  and  hell  in detail.   Near-death  experiences   also   purport  to supply  information about  the afterlife. Some people who  have  experienced  this state  have  written books that became best sellers, proving the strength of the demand  for information about  the afterlife. Today,  15 percent  of Americans  claim to have had a near-death experience. Most have reported pleasant   experiences,   but   others   were  terrified, leading some to suppose that the first had experienced  heaven  whereas  the second  were tortured  in hell. An even higher  percentage,  21  percent,  believe  that   mediums   convey  information about   the   afterlife.   Some  mediums   use  Ouija boards.   Others   favor  automatic  writing.   In  the Middle  Ages, the Japanese  believed that  the blind were gifted with the ability to see the afterlife, and so their services were in demand. In ancient Egypt, the  dying  paid  priests  to  read  passages  from  the Book  of the Dead. The Tibetan  Book  of the Dead has served the same function.

In  Christianity, Saints  Augustine  and  Thomas Aquinas  elaborated their  visions  of  heaven  and hell. The fact that  these writings are still intriguing testifies to the demand  for information about  the afterlife.  In some cases, however,  the marketplace for information about  the afterlife did not function according  to the laws of supply and demand. The ancient  Chinese  believed that  the  soul visited  the afterworld whenever  the body  slept. Dreams  thus provided   information  about   the   afterlife.   The ancients   of  Papua   New   Guinea   believed   that people could visit the afterlife anytime they wished, perhaps  through the  imagination. In these  cases, there  was no need to pay for information. It was free.

One of the most overt connections between economics   and   the  afterlife   arose   in  the  medieval Church. The Church  believed that  it had the power to grant indulgences, intangible  units of forgiveness.

Those  who  received  indulgences  had  a portion of their sins forgiven and so would  spend less time in purgatory, awaiting  promotion to  heaven.  By the end  of  the  Middle  Ages, the  Church   was  selling indulgences.  It appeared that  one could  buy  one’s way to heaven, a position  that  contradicted Jesus’s emphasis on poverty. The selling of indulgences infuriated many churchmen and led to the Reformation. A  chastened   Catholic   Church   still sells  masses  for  the  dead,  and  an  unscrupulous count paid Wolfgang Mozart to compose a requiem that  he intended  to pass off as his own.

To   the   extent   that   a  married   couple   is  an economic  unit,  the Norse  included  couples  in the afterlife. Living in a military society, the Norse worshipped their  warrior elite. Any warrior who died in battle  gained immediate  access to Valhalla, the Norse  afterworld. A wife could  join her slain husband in Valhalla,  but  only after  killing herself. Both husband and wife, therefore, paid the highest price for admission  to Valhalla.


  1. Bookman, Milica Z. Do They Take  Credit Cards in Heaven? Economics in the Afterlife.  Charleston, SC: CreateSpace,
  2. Felix, Joseph L. It’s Easier for a Rich Man to Enter Heaven Than for a Poor Man to Remain  on Earth. Nashville, TN: Thomas  Nelson Publishers, 1981.

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