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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 eBay.com. 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.
- Bookman, Milica Z. Do They Take Credit Cards in Heaven? Economics in the Afterlife. Charleston, SC: CreateSpace,
- 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.