Professor Ellen Muehlberger’s most recent book, Moment of Reckoning: Imagined Death and Its Consequences in Late Ancient Christianity, traces how Christians in late antiquity thought about death and the impact those ideas had on their conceptions of culture, violence, and the future. Professor Muehlberger sat down with History staffer Chloe Thompson to talk about Moment of Reckoning and how the futures we imagine for others affect how we treat them in the present.
Can you tell me a little about the book?
Moment of Reckoning focuses on a thing that seems hard to trace, which is how people between about 300 and about 700 CE anticipated what their deaths would be like.
The main argument is that once a particular way of thinking about death is made popular, it ends up changing how people think about a lot of different things. Once people thought of death as a terrifying judgment, they were more willing to force other people to convert to Christianity. Even though this is specifically a book about late antiquity and early Christianity, it has an argument about the unintended consequences of ideas that we introduce into culture.
So the ways people thought about death changed the way they thought about other people, which then changed what was acceptable to do to other people.
If you think about the interventions we make on other people’s lives, every day, in our culture, we justify a lot of things based on the future that we imagine for that person. A pretty prevalent example from when I was writing the book in fall 2017 is the beginning of the #MeToo movement.
Up until that point, there had been a lot of discussions about if a young man is accused of sexual assault—especially if he’s a white young man and he’s rich—the conversation turns into, “Well, what about his future?” And we’re entirely willing to think about a rich white man accused of sexual assault differently than a poor Hispanic or Black man accused of the same crime. Our legal system does not imagine the same future for those people. One has a future ahead of him to protect, the other needs to be punished for a crime.
The case of the Stanford swimmer has always been in my mind. In fact, the judge in that case talked about that kid’s future as being important. It was maddening, because we don’t do that with most people who enter the legal system. It got me thinking: The future that we attribute to people we interact with every day, whether we’re involved in that future or not, informs our estimations about how we should treat each other.
I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to see what people anticipated for the future of others, and whether that changed how they were willing to treat people? The answer was it really did. Once late-antiquity Christians had a sense that your actual death was going to be a moment when you’d find out whether you’d been good or bad—and be very frightened if you were bad, it was far easier to think about making even a violent intervention in someone’s proximate life, because “I’m saving you from this other thing.”
In the book, you note that the popularization of martyrdom becomes more widespread and more common at the same time Christians gain access to imperial power. Do you think that’s a cause of or a reaction to this change, or both?
It could be both. It could also be just the fact that when Christianity is legitimized after that point, there’s actually a lot more evidence that gets preserved. But earlier sources really tend to focus on death as release, the moment you get to be relieved of the misery of this world. It’s a moment that should feel like a liberation, rather than a trial. The sources I looked at from the later period, however, started talking about it more intensively as a trial. They also started talking to audiences in ways that would induce the audience members to imagine themselves on trial when they died.
This is a thing we do to people now, too. To try to persuade someone who’s not acting as we think they should be, we present them with an imagined future scenario in which they will wish they had done what we wanted. Once you see that people do this—I confront you with your future self that’s going to want you to do what I say you should be doing—you notice it everywhere.
Did you go into the book thinking you wanted to talk about that argument?
Absolutely not. I had no idea where it was going to end up when I started. I knew I wanted to do a book about death in the time period I study. Pretty quickly, it became clear to me that there were a lot of scholars writing about that who had expertise that I just didn’t have, like people with training in material culture studying funerary objects, or art historians working on grave portraits and textiles. So, I thought: All of this is interesting, but what room is left for me to think about?
I started noticing that the depictions of death were so dark. And far more frightening than you would have imagined, especially in sermons, which we usually think of as uplifting and consoling. I started coming across sermons that were terrifying and quite disturbing to read. I started thinking, if these texts as they’ve been preserved were actually preached at people, what would the effect of that be? That started me down the road of thinking about the effect of thinking about one’s future, and how it was meant to change people’s behavior.