Five Ways Gods and the Afterlife Change a Fantasy Setting

Castiel with shadow wings from Supernatural

Sure, he could completely change human society, or he could fight monsters.

Ever since I wrote about how high magic should logically change a fantasy setting, people have been asking me how the proven existence of divine beings and life after death would change a society. This has been a much harder task; at least magic imitates existing technology in most settings. Gods and the afterlife have no such parallel, so theorizing about them requires more guesswork. But after much thought and contemplation, I’m ready to highlight just a few of the ways a verifiable divine presence could change a setting.

First, let me explain my frame of reference. While many people in the real world believe in the divine,* it’s important to draw a line between what we experience in real life and what happens in fantasy settings. In many fantasy settings, the divine is easily provable and an undeniable part of everyone’s life. This provable divine often takes the form of spectral communication, godly manifestation, and resurrection, just to name a few. It occurs in RPG settings like D&D and Legend of the Five Rings, novels like The Craft Sequence, and TV shows like Supernatural. In those settings, there’s no question about gods or what happens when a person dies: it’s right there for anyone who cares to check.

1. Death Is Optional

Gandalf the White meeting the remains of the Fellowship after his resurrection. Most Middle-Earthers don’t come back to life with a cool new outfit, just the wizards.

Resurrection doesn’t always come bundled with gods and the afterlife, but it’s a common enough trope to be worth addressing. If resurrections in your settings are cheap and widely accessible, they would lead to an effectively deathless society. However, most settings limit resurrections to deaths by injury or disease and then slap a high material cost on them for good measure, be that a valuable gemstone or a requirement that you journey into the underworld to reclaim the deceased’s soul.

In this scenario, only the rich and powerful can routinely afford resurrections, and resurrections can’t be used to escape the reaper forever.* This has obvious benefits for the rich and powerful; namely that they aren’t at risk of premature death. But how does it affect the rest of us?

First, the upside: we’re unlikely to lose celebrities before their time. That can mean a real benefit for the arts, as many talented creators die young. Resurrections also reduce the viability of assassination as a political tool. That means we don’t have to deal with the political instability that often accompanies a murdered leader. Perhaps more importantly, resurrections would be a major boon to advocacy movements. One need only look at the American Civil Rights Movement to see how often prominent advocates are the victims of brutal violence. In a world of resurrections, Dr. King and Malcolm X could have been brought back to continue their fight for justice.

Unfortunately, there are downsides to these expensive resurrections: namely that they increase the gap between rich and poor. Even in the real world, the rich live longer because they have better access to medical care, giving them more time to amass knowledge and influence. In a world where the rich literally cannot die before their time, this difference in life expectancy will be far more pronounced. If the resurrection was based on technology, it might eventually get cheap enough to filter down, but it’s not likely that the underworld will lower its requirements anytime soon.

This affects everyone’s day-to-day life because as a group, rich people tend to want things that are good for rich people, regardless of how it affects everyone else. The wealthy often advocate for tax cuts for themselves, reductions of public services, the erosion of democracy,* and even waging wars where soldiers are recruited mostly from the lower classes.

2. Death Is Another Country

Harry and Dumbledore in the afterlife. “So, should I still be sad when people die, professor?”

Resurrections might be too expensive for regular folk, but I’ve never seen a setting where only rich people go to heaven.* That means in a world with a proven afterlife, everyone has to grapple with the same weird paradigm: dying doesn’t really kill you. We generally consider death to mean a permanent loss of consciousness, and if the setting has an afterlife, consciousness isn’t ever lost. A person closes their eyes in the living world and wakes up in the world of the dead, usually with a functioning copy of their own body.

That means dying is akin to making a permanent move. Saying a person is “dead” is the equivalent of saying they’ve moved to France. Would people even still be sad when a loved one passes? Probably, but not to the same degree. I’ve certainly been sad when someone dear to me moved away forever,* but I wasn’t heartbroken the way I’d have been if they died. This is assuming the afterlife is mostly the same as the living world, but that’s not the only option.

If the afterlife is notably worse than the living world, it puts a real pall over the setting. It’s like knowing no matter how good a person you are, one day you’ll have to move to a place where everything is on fire. Including you. Forever. In this scenario, the measures taken to avoid death would be even more extreme than in real life. Entire organizations would likely spring up with the goal of keeping people from entering the afterlife, even if it meant the permanent destruction of consciousness. I know I’d prefer oblivion to an eternity in most mythological bad places.

If the afterlife is notably better than the living world, that creates its own weirdness. For one thing, it means people are far less likely to be sad when a loved one dies. Instead of moving to another country, the loved one is now moving to Disneyland, and everyone else will get to join them someday! A positive afterlife would also change the way people live since planning for the future is no longer a big priority. Might as well party it up here in the mortal world, and when your liver fails at 40, the party can continue forever.*

3. Knowledge Accumulates

Miguel and Hector in the land of the dead from Coco So how do we send these sweet tunes back to the land of the living?

Most settings with a proven afterlife allow for communication with the deceased. Not only can messages across the veil take the sting out of your loved ones moving to the world of the dead, but they can also be invaluable for the pursuit of knowledge. History is the most obvious benefactor. No longer would historians have to depend on a handful of fragmentary accounts; they could call up witnesses from the appropriate time and ask them what happened. This is particularly useful for learning the history of people whose records were destroyed by their enemies.

But historians aren’t the only ones who would kill for the ability to communicate with the dead. Just about every scientific field would benefit from such a system. The accumulation of knowledge is vital for scientific advancement, since you can’t study influenza antibodies if you don’t know what a virus is. Unfortunately, knowledge often suffers setbacks as records are destroyed in disasters both natural and artificial. If you can talk to the dead, that’s no problem. Just ask ghostly librarians what was in that scroll collection the invading horde burned down.

Even more importantly, scientists could continue their work after they die, sending their results back to the living world. Not all of them would want to, but it only takes a small faction of ghostly researchers to build up over time. Imagine if the likes of Archimedes, Marie Curie, and Ernest Everett Just had been able to continue their work indefinitely. Humanity’s pool of knowledge would increase far faster than it did in real life, likely heralding more rapid technological advancement as well.

There is a potential downside to all this ghostly information exchange: literary stagnation. Even in the real world, it’s extremely difficult for new authors to make a name for themselves in the face of established favorites. Name recognition is so important that even when a well-known author starts putting out inferior work, their popularity rarely suffers. Now imagine those authors stick around forever, putting out work that will always have an edge over their younger competition. Some of the old masters will adapt with the times, but others will keep on doing what they’ve always done. It would certainly be cool to have Shakespeare’s lost play, but I’m less excited about every young writer having to compete with the Bard for the rest of time.*

4. Behavior Is Divinely Enforced

The Spanish Inquisition from Monty Python Our first weapon is literally having an evil god on our side!

Human behavior is a complex thing, influenced by countless factors we are only starting to understand. Why do people generally follow societal codes of behavior? Is it because we fear the consequences of breaking the rules, or is it because we’ve been socialized on how to act in our society?* I don’t know the answer, but I do know that in a world where gods are proven to exist, divine judgement would be a whole new factor in motivating human behavior.

Of course there are plenty of real people who believe in divine judgment, but as a rule, they don’t behave much differently than atheists. I think we can all agree that it’s one thing to be taught about gods, and quite another to have one of those gods physically manifest in a pillar of golden light, expounding that any who wish to avoid damnation must follow a specific set of rules. There would be no guesswork or uncertainty: everyone would know the consequences of straying from their god’s path.

There’s no parallel for this in real life, but I’m confident it would get most people to follow the divine commandments most of the time, since the severity and certainty of consequences are both high. If the setting has multiple gods, each with their own codes, then there would still be a wealth of behaviors, and extremes of both good and evil would be common. In real life, murder is generally committed out of desperation, hatred, or for economic gain. In a fantasy world with Baal, the Lord of Murder, killing your best friend is literally the way to heaven. At the same time, gods with more reasonable codes of conduct would still likely have the largest followings, since it’s hard to have a society where everyone is constantly murdering each other. Wars between these more reasonable gods would be terrible indeed. No one would ever stop to ask, “Wait, why are we fighting?” Everyone would know it was a matter of eternal salvation.

If a setting has just one divine code of behavior, which might or might not mean just one god, then things are even weirder, and possibly very bleak. Every society in real life has people that violate its code of behavior, both in harmful ways like murder and in harmless ways like nontraditional gender expression. Unless the divine code is extremely open-minded or mutable, it’s likely to punish people who aren’t doing anything wrong. At the same time, harmful deviations would also be extremely rare, since there’s no god of murder to beseech, which makes conflict harder to generate. This is one reason most fantasy settings go for the polytheistic approach with proven gods. A world with just one divine presence is typically only useful for creepy surrealism, as characters puppet the movements of good behavior to avoid divine wrath.

5. Faith Is Entirely Political

Kira consults the Orb of Time from Deep Space Nine Kira knows the Profits exist but isn’t always sure they know what’s best for Bajor.

Religion is often highly political in the real world, for both good and ill, but there’s an element of spiritual uncertainty as well. Faith in a god requires the belief that said god exists, despite the absence of proof. In the fantasy settings we’re discussing, proof is available in spades. However, I don’t believe that proof of the divine would eliminate faith. Rather, it would shift faith from spiritual to political, in the same way people in real life often have faith in their leaders.*

If the gods are involved in human affairs, even indirectly, then they aren’t that different from a president or a prime minister. They’re just far more powerful and far more pervasive. Putting your faith in a god would be an act of political allegiance, proclaiming that you believe the god’s code is the best way to run a society, along with any divine goals the god might have. If the gods derive strength directly from their followers’ faith, another common fantasy trope, this political act is also a literal transfer of power.

Just like in real life, there would be debate and argument over each god’s merits, and it’s likely those discussions would be even more lively than they are for us. The tangible is always easier to criticize than the theoretical, just like it’s easier to criticize a politician after they’ve taken up their post than it is on the campaign trail. People would happily vent about their chosen gods, even as they went on worshiping, unless the god in question had “no critiquing” as part of their divine code, and I doubt such a god would attract many followers.

In this kind of world, states and other forms of human authority would have little meaning, except as an extension of divine will. It might be convenient for a god to have structures in place to carry out their will, but there’d be no need for humans to hold any power independently. Unless gods are limited by distance, borders as we think of them would be meaningless. Instead, the setting would be a patchwork of areas where different gods hold sway. Multiple gods might even hold sway within the same area, depending on what aspects of society they were interested in. Faith in gods would not be static, and people would likely find themselves changing the object of their worship to better match what they personally believe.

As with any political system, there would be those who reject the status quo. These anti-theists would have a difficult time of it, but they would persist. They might be noble freedom fighters who face the gods and walk backward into hell, or they might be power-hungry villains looking to become gods themselves. They might be both at the same time!

The entries on this list are just a few of the ways gods and the afterlife could change a fantasy setting. The divine presents an existential question to worldbuilders, one that is very difficult to conclusively answer. It’s perfectly acceptable for your setting to present gods the way they are in real life, with plenty of devoted believers despite no proof of divine existence. This is certainly the easier path and leaves you more energy to work on the rest of the story. But if you want to get really deep into the cosmological workings of your setting, then this is a path worth exploring.

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  1. Dave L

    Surprised you didn’t mention Discworld, where Dorfl the golem is an outspoken atheist, because he’s immune to thunderbolts

    • Cay Reet

      Not to mention his ‘either all days are holy or none are, I haven’t decided yet’ attitude. I love that golem.

  2. JXMcKie

    Many good and interesting points on this list, and some of them could rather easily be extended into a Sci-Fi setting. Just replace Gods meddling in mortal affairs, with highly advanced AI constructs manipulating human society and history (Dan Simmons Hyperion Cantos novels, and the Deus Ex and Mass Effect games storylines spring to my mind). With regard to the effects of immortality, the novels in Dan Simmons “Hyperion Cantos” delivers some convincing philosophical arguments, for why immortality might actually be a destructive/disruptive technology, rather than a beneficial one. Also Peter F. Hamiltons “Commonwealth Saga” and “Void trilogy” explores a Sci-fi universe in which digital “immortality” and Godlike AI constructs have a significant impact on society and its forms.

    • Dave L

      In Ferrett Steinmetz’s novel The Uploaded, humanity’s figured out how to upload our brains into servers at the moment of death

      “The good news is that we figured out how to build Heaven.
      The bad news is that we forgot to afterlife-proof our politics.”

      • Leon

        Sorry, that ended up in the wrong place. I was going to talk about my book but then thought better of it.

        • Leon

          I need coffee.

    • Leon

      You didnt mention the most profound differance. In this world “dead men tell no tales”. If the victoms of crime (not just murder but dangerous practices, neglect, nepotism and incompitance) can speak from the grave, or divine messangers can speak for them, then nobody would be able to escape justice. This would drastically alter the dynamics between workers and the elite, who would actually be accountable for their actions (the only exception would be if communication between heaven and earth were limited to clergy, in which case the elite would want to control the religion.)

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        I actually considered that and decided against including it, despite the common spec fic trope. This is of course a highly theoretical subject, but I don’t believe that being able to speak with the dead would greatly change the world of murder investigation.

        Eye witness testimony is already highly unreliable, and I don’t think that would change for a murder victim. The spec fic stories where this plays out always just happen to involve a scenario where the murder took place in a bright room and a crime that occurred slowly enough for the victim to get a good look at their attacker.

        Beyond that, we already have plenty examples in real life where there’s overwhelming evidence of what happened, and the case is decided more on legal technicalities steeped in social prejudice. This is how white men get away with killing black people so easily. There’s little reasonable doubt as to what happened, but that’s not all you need for a conviction.

        • Chakat Firepaw

          Even allowing for the unreliability of eyewitnesses, the ability to question victims would be a massive benefit.

          To begin with, it eliminates most questions about time and place of death. It also largely clears up the issue of the deceased’s actions leading up to the death.

          So no need for all that legwork to find out she was meeting her boyfriend at the Happy Trees Motel. She might even be able to tell you that the reason he isn’t answering his phone is that he’s still with her, (perhaps a word should be had with the husband).

          Even without a good look at the attacker and with the fallibility of human perception, the late witness can still give you a lot. “I was looking out the door at the parking lot when I was grabbed from behind,” implies that you are looking for someone who was already in the room when she got there.

          And, of course, it might just serve to avoid some false accusations/convictions. “Murder? What are you talking about? I slipped down the stairs because of Fido’s (exp.del.) ball.”

  3. Michael Campbell

    “expounding that any who wish to avoid damnation must follow a specific set of rules. There would be no guesswork or uncertainty: everyone would know the consequences of straying from their god’s path. ”
    The Israelite nation saw seven plagues (all foretold) and saw the waters of the red sea parted (possibly the reed sea) so that they could escape pharaoh’s army. And yet it was a matter of days before they forged a golden calf to worship.

    Never underestimate the human ability to witness actual miracles and then to choose not to believe.

    • Alverant

      Except the whole “exodus” thing didn’t happen. For example, there are no records of all the firstborn male children across Egypt suddenly dying one morning to make the pharaoh feel bad.

      Never underestimate the human ability to claim miracles where there are none.

      • Michael Campbell

        I’m not sure about first born sons but there are precisely zero hieroglyphic records of Egyptian defeats so a lack of any hieroglyphic record of Pharoh’s army being destroyed in the Red sea would be exactly what one should expect.

      • American Charioteer

        You are correct that there is only one source for the Exodos. But Hebrew scriptures were also the only record for the Hittite people, and the absence in the archaeological record of an entire nation was cited as evidence that Hebrew records were mythologized.

        Then, in 1876, archaeologists uncovered evidence of the Hittites. Since then, we have learned that they not only existed but were a powerful and expansive kingdom that even challenged Egypt at the height of the New Kingdom. I would be very careful in making any claims about the historicity of the Torah or Tanakh; the rabbis have had the last laugh before.

        • Adam Thaxton

          The Egyptians record plenty of failures. In fact, new kings were the first to record the failures of the last king, often literally writing over the top of records of success. Every Egyptian dynast leader was the subject of character assassination of the last one. Aten is my favorite, every king after him did nothing but complain about him.

          We know for a fact that Exodus didn’t happen and that Moses didn’t exist as described (he is the combination of three previous fictional characters from the Babylonian region). We have slaughterhouses designed to feed the pyramid builders at the cost of over a thousand goats a day. We have entire villages built merely to process the garbage and human waste produced by the building of the Great Pyramid, and Egypt is the most intensely studied region on Earth. If there were evidence for a couple hundred thousand Jews living there, we’d have found them by now. Not the least of which one king would have posted “lol enslaved a bunch of hebrews” on his damn wall, considering that it wasn’t him that lost them.

          We would have also found clear and obvious evidence of a couple hundred thousand people wandering the desert for forty years. They leave behind trash. They have to poop. They have to build camps. They have to move rocks. They have to process their food. There would be mounds of garbage.

          Exodus is just a story, it is not a good metric for how real people would react to a situation. You can bet your ass if a leader had clear, obvious magic powers, him disappearing for a month on pilgrimage wouldn’t make anyone lose faith in him. Did you know that the North Koreans believe that Kim Jong Il’s birth was foretold by a lightning bolt carving his name in stone? That after his death, he resurrected and turned into a literal magic crane that is physically wrecking America’s shit right now? And that’s today, with cell phones and TVs and the internet and an active rebellion dedicated to sneaking western media into the country.

          Also, the majority Jewish community will he perfectly happy to tell you that Exodus is allegory. Nobody with any sense thinks Exodus is anything more than a story.

          • American Charioteer

            How many devout Jews have you spoken too? All three major branches of Judaism typically support the literal Exodus. Many Jews believe that Judaism cannot exist without a literal Exodus.

            I’m not convinced personally that there is anything close to conclusive evidence either for or against the Exodus, any more than there is conclusive evidence for or against God. The argument “we would have also found clear and obvious evidence of a couple hundred thousand people wandering the desert for forty years” is a weak one. People wandering in a desert don’t exactly leave ruins that will last three millennia. All they could possibly leave are written records, which we happen to have.

            Remember, this is just a few hundred thousand wandering slaves. There was a time when archaeologists somehow missed the entire Hittite Empire, which lasted roughly four centuries, spanned Asia Minor, almost certainly had a population in the millions, was the most important rival of New Kingdom Egypt, and ushered in the Iron Age. The only place it was recorded was in the Tanakh, and the in the end the Tanakh proved to be a faithful record of literal history.

          • Cay Reet

            With forty years in the desert, however, they must have made camps – and regularly frequented oasises. It’s highly unlikely there were no pregnant women among them, for instance, not if we’re talking about several thousand people and a length of forty years. At least they camped at Mt. Sinai while Moses got the Ten Commandments, so there should be traces of a big camp there – not to mention that golden calf.

            I agree that archaeologists might have missed traces of them – although sand is extremely good at preserving things. But the fact alone that they needed forty years to find their way through the desert is strange. Forty months, that would work, though (and sometimes years in the bible are moon years – meaning a month, not a year).

          • American Charioteer

            My knowledge of Hebrew tradition is a little rusty, but Numbers 13:1-33 seems to imply that they didn’t *need* forty years. Twelve scouts were sent into the promised land, ten of them returned and persuaded the Isrealites that the land was too fortified to invade. Wandering for forty years was a punishment.

            It wouldn’t surprise me if months could be an alternative translation. But because out of that whole generation only the two faithful spies (Joshua and Caleb) lived long enough to enter the promised land, forty years seems more likely.

          • Cay Reet

            Still, from an unbeliever’s point of view, there are quite some questions about 40 years in the desert. First of all, it’s a desert, which means it’s hard to get water and food. Since I don’t belief in regular mana, they needed to get it from somewhere. They needed to find oasises to get water from, meaning they needed to know where those places were. They needed to rest regularly. They needed protection from either the night’s chill or the day’s heat while resting (depending on whether they walked by day or by night – travelling by night and resting by day would have been wiser in their case). They can’t have moved 24/7. There is a lot of logistics to moving a group of several thousand people through a desert for 40 years (or even just 40 months, which would translate into a little under 4 years) and that’s why I find it hard to believe in that.

          • Adam Thaxton

            Just because the Hittites existed does not make the rest of the Tanakh valid.

            Just because Mohenjo Daro is a real place doesn’t mean we can trust the books in which it is described at its height that say it was destroyed by a blue spaceman with a conch shell laser gun.

            Just because New York is real doesn’t mean Spider-Man actually exists.

            Exodus gives us an account of around 600,000 MEN. Because they didn’t count the women or the children. So that number is probably closer to a million and a half (which is funny, that’s probably the entire population of Egypt during the Early Dynastic period). During the time of Emperor Augustus, Rome had a population of ~1 million in 210 AD.

            So you’ve got more people wandering a tiny section of the desert than the city of Rome had during the time in which there was so much garbage piling up outside the walls that people wanting in to the city could literally walk up the mounds of trash, and you don’t think they’d have left ANY evidence behind? No animal bone pits, no massive latrines, no grave sites, nothing? No broken tools or campsite materials washed down to the edges of the flood plain? Nothing?

          • E. H.

            I’m actually more curious about the later conquest narrative. Is there any evidence that the Israelites were actually a people who invaded and conquered much of the Holy Land in a relatively short time period after the alleged wandering in the desert?

            If so, it seems to me that there would be quite a lot of evidence of this if it was true. It would be as noticeable (on a smaller scale) as the Spanish and Portuguese conquest of what became Latin America.

            There would be archeological evidence of these massive battles and destruction of cities. When new cities were built or older ones rebuilt, the architectural styles would probably be very different than what was there before.

            Even when a conquering group adapts much of the culture of the conquered (the Mongols and Manchurians for example) there is noticeable alteration.

            I humbly apologize for any offence to anyone’s religious beliefs, but wanting evidence for historical claims is reasonable if the source material is to be taken more or less literally.

    • SunlessNick

      One interpretation of the golden calf was that it was an idol to represent Yahweh himself.

    • Porphyre

      “Video meliora proboque deteriora sequor” (I know what is best and approve it, yet I do what is worse).

      Some points are valid, but I found the assumption that a definite proof of an afterlife would be a sufficient incetive for people to behave puts to much faith in human wisdom.
      After all definite, scientific proof that tobacco causes cancer, strokes and respiratory failure hasn’t eradicated smoking.
      After all, one could argue that humanity actually has lived for centuries maybe without proof but with the certitude that Heaven and Hell were real places for the Afterlife, yet past History is not just made of Saints – far from it !

  4. Michael Campbell

    “But historians aren’t the only ones who would kill for the ability to communicate with the dead. Just about every scientific field would benefit from such a system.”
    It’s important to recognize that divine (and magical) are not automatically as dependable as science. I’ve often said, the difference between magic and science is…reproducible experiments.

    If you could channel the spirit of the dead; but there was an 85% chance that you’ld actually be communing with a demon masquerading as that deceased person:-
    Would scientists and historians be willing to use such an trustworthy research tool?

    Similarly, if 25% of your resurrection attempts work and 66% actually convert to reincarnations with the final 9% being total failures.
    People would still feel that it’s imperative to get things done in this lifetime.

    • Julia

      Also that would be assuming that material properties are the same in this life and the afterlife.

    • Adam Thaxton

      “the difference between magic and science is…reproducible experiments.”

      Science is only looking for reproducible observations.

      Magic in any fictional context is just as observable as a sunrise. If someone chucks a fireball and it blows something up, it leaves behind evidence. Finding evidence for mind control might be a little harder (due to the Scotsman clause – you can’t tell anyone what they actually think and believe) unless you first establish that some kind of accurate mind reading exists.

      If there was a chance you’d be communing with a demon, well, we’d do what we do now – come up with a series of control questions to establish who you’re talking to. There’d be a beautiful war of encryption going on that requires agents to die on the regular in order to keep fighting it.

      “if 25% of your resurrection attempts work and 66% actually convert to reincarnations with the final 9% being total failures”

      Then it would be a matter of figuring out WHY it does that. We use safety features nowadays that only have a 25% success rate, but you know what? That makes things 25% safer, and that’s enough for the public to not care. Reincarnations are the majority? How’s that work? Let’s figure that out.

      You do not give civilizations enough credit. We’ve moved thousand-ton blocks for things we merely believe strongly. If we have actual evidence? We’d move mountains. We have before.

      • Michael Campbell

        ““if 25% of your resurrection attempts work and 66% actually convert to reincarnations with the final 9% being total failures”

        Then it would be a matter of figuring out WHY it does that. ”
        Well if you could figure out WHY for that kind of event then you could figure out WHY for a roulette wheel and wouldn’t your efforts generate more profit figuring out why the roulette wheel will come up on a particular result and reliably use that to increase your wealth.
        Quite simply some things are still beyond the ken of modern science, so figuring out why might not be possible.
        This article is built on the idea that gods can not be capricious nor fickle nor chaotic. And in some fantasy universe, they will be.

        • Adam Thaxton

          Well, sure, we know how to make the ball land on whatever number we want on the roulette wheel. Put your hand on the wheel, put the ball on the number you want.

          Because the roulette wheel is a spinning mechanism on a table. We can study everything about it. We can study how the game works. We can do probability assessment tables. And once we know the properties of the wheel itself – i.e. it’s made of matter, it’s run by this mechanism here, etc.

          Well, it’s just a matter of learning to rig the fucking table.

          • Michael Campbell

            Then go down to your local casino and rig the friggin’ table. You be lucky if you get thrown out with no broken bones.

            If a being with intellect has power over the roulette wheel and set up rules to stop you tinkering with their roulette- wheel without their permission.
            Then I suspect a divine being with intellect has already set up rules to stop you rigging Its resurrection mechanism.

          • Adam Thaxton

            “If a being with intellect has power over the roulette wheel and set up rules to stop you”

            Oh, it’s an intellect. Great. Now we can debate it. Engage it in discussion. Potentially overthrow it. But that’s the thing – if it’s been set up by something, we can build models of it. That’s my point. We could potentially build our own damn casino, and if the establishment wants to get rough, well.

            You can ask any number of kings how that worked out. You’re not giving civilization enough credit.

          • Michael Campbell


            Treating gods like vending machines is not the same as treating magic like a vending machine because magic has no intellect with which to vex your machinations.

  5. American Charioteer


  6. Recursive Rabbit

    (Formerly Bronze Dog)

    The people who wrote FAITH could have used this article, from the sounds of your earlier review.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      They definitely could have. I think a much better model for what they wanted to do is Pillars of Eternity, where the gods are real, you can talk to them, and it causes all kinds of havoc. Not a perfect game but a good execution of that concept in any case.

  7. Tifa

    Another great article!

    I’ve noticed that in many books [and video games, and so forth] in which some benevolent force exists seem more vaguely spiritual or even agnostic than outright religious.

    What’s weird to me is that in FFVII, there’s the Lifestream, which matches that, but then at one point Cid mentions God, and I was thrown for a loop, as it were, when I got to that scene. It just seemed to come out of nowhere and was never mentioned again.
    I mean, sure, there’s Aeris’ church, but nowhere else in the game is there a church and no one seems to worship anything.
    I suppose that could be easily attributed to the trend in anime and video games to have vague religious symbolism for no reason at all.

    Building on #4 and #5, it would beg the question: ‘how do you define a god’ as well as ‘is it really so simple as belief vs proof’.

    I’m suddenly imagining a world where gods exist treated like sports teams. “In the news today, Team Odin is winning by a landslide, thanks to his all-seeing eye, but Team Zeus has far more fans, so it’ll be close! Likewise, Team Susano-wo is neck and neck with Team Loki!”

  8. Alverant

    The thing about the rich gaining an afterlife was part of the plot of Immortality Inc. First science discovered there was an afterlife. Then it found out only certain people got to go there. Then it found an (expensive) way to ensure a person got to go there. They didn’t dig deep into that if you saw the movie Freejack.

  9. Tifa

    That’s an interesting question. Theoretically, how exactly would science be able to prove the existence of an afterlife? Hyper advanced quantum physics?

    • American Charioteer

      Quantum physics is misunderstood. There is nothing mystical about it; it just describes how matter and energy behave at the most fundamental levels we can test. It makes no metaphysical predictions (though the string theorists might disagree ).

      Based on this article, people returning from the dead is a straightforward way to learn about the afterlife. There actually has been research into the topic, and a book on the matter:
      I don’t necessarily recommend that book as the author’s methodology has been criticized.

  10. Joe

    I feel this is a…very atheistic account of what would happen if gods were real? Which I guess you admitted, but still wort.

    Most noticeably, it is very dependent on the idea that Gods are /bad/, that their codes are arbitrary and that they are just humans with superpowers. Which is one way of putting it, but in both religion and fiction not the only one. n religious person might characterize 3 and 4 as a world where the right thing to do is objectively demonstratable, and politics is replaced by a clear path to the divine, which would lead to a very different world to the one you are portraying.
    And that’s ignoring the changes if we took, say, animistic nature spirits or primordial titans or enlightened humans or any of the other various global concepts of the divine as the gods in question.

    I dunno, it just struck me the wrong way, kind of along the lines of an account of how politics would affect a world that only describes police states and described them as inherent results of politics.
    It seems to have inherently skipped over any idea that God or the Gods could be the benevolent higher powers of actual religion- or even people but good people- instead hewing entirely to the idea of arrogant tyrants with superpowers, which is only really found in misinterpretations of other people’s faiths. Even in most fiction, the gods aren’t assholes.

    • Joe

      it’s also arguably the case with the afterlife, there are few actual religious systems where the afterlife is just “earth but somewhere else (most noticeably, this article ignores reincarnation as a concept completely) but that is how it works in most fiction so I’m less bothered by that.

      • Dvärghundspossen

        Yeah I had a problem with the afterlife point too. Even IF the afterlife is very similar to life on Earth, it’s MUCH more dramatic than moving to France. If we don’t have resurrection, for instance, or at least not unless in extremely rare and exceptional circumstances, death is PERMANENT, and the only way you could ever visit your dead loved ones would be to make the same PERMANENT move yourself. Granted it might be difficult to keep in touch with someone who moved to France, or at least it was in the days before internet and cheap flights, but it’s still a huge difference.

        Also, if the afterlife is NOT just the same as Earth, that also makes a huge difference from just moving to France. Maybe people don’t really know what happens after death, even though they know there’s an afterlife. This could be plausible if the afterlife being so different from life on Earth makes it hard to even grasp what it entails.
        I think most writers, movie-makers etc who show a dead person show up in a vision or the like, in their regular old body, doesn’t intend for this to be evidence that the dead person is really living a regular, embodied life on the other side.

    • Tifa

      I say the article is good to point out the implications of ‘I demand total obedience or else!’ and ‘only the chosen will prosper, who cares about everyone/everything else’ mentality that is prevalent, and often ignored [especially when it comes to the Bible]. It’s almost [abusive]–‘I care and love everyone unconditionally–but only if you please me/don’t do x, y, z, whatever’. This warped idea is so ingrained in human culture; from religion to law to the general way society works, and even education sometimes, it’s a little scary.

      I rather expect the comments section will take up most of this page by the end of the week.

      • Julia

        The unconditional love vs expectations is kind of like parenting: I love you, kid, but I also expect you to learn potty training/don’t draw on the walls/get good grades.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Hey Tifa, just an editor’s note that I removed “schizophrenic” from your comment because we have a policy of not using mental illnesses to describe bad behavior. This is something we’re still learning, as it’s pretty ingrained. Right now I’ve replaced it with “abusive” because that seems to fit what you were saying but if there’s another word you’d prefer, just let me know.

    • American Charioteer

      Stories need conflict, which is why Oren noted that a setting with only one god would usually have to rely on creepy surrealism for conflict (or perhaps transcendent surrealism, as in video games like “Journey”).

      Perhaps Oren didn’t describe systems with clearly good and evil gods because there are already so many like that. There are also plenty of stories that have a psuedo-Abrahamic system of a good God and antagonists who rebelled against a perfect order; where the heroes can triumph by aligning themselves either implicitly or explicitly with good divine beings. These include “The Lord of The Rings” and “The Chronicles of Narnia.”

      What Oren is describing towards the end of point 4, saying “wars between these more reasonable gods would be terrible indeed”, is actually quite similar to human history. Christianity and Isham don’t have radically different ideas about morality, nor did Hellenistic and Roman paganism or Sioux and Pawnee animism. The most notable theological difference in all three conflicts is which group of people God/gods/spirits favor. Note that the religious dividing line in all three cases are essentially the same as geographic, ethnic, and political divisions; thus religion was not actually a major cause of Christian-Islam, Hellenistic-Roman, or Sioux-Pawnee conflict but simply another part of how people knew who was on their side. I think Oren is positing a similar situation; except that if we can all see the gods then religion becomes the ONLY meaningful way to determine who is on your side.

      • SunlessNick

        The Roman army frequently worshipped the gods of the people they were attacking (bribing them, essentially – “side with us, we can worship you a lot better than these losers”).

    • Prince Infidel

      So…I’m real late to this party. I feel that Oren was trying to describe a world defined by the types of gods & powers we see in fantasy fiction. If you look at this article as describing the effects of having gods from most your average high fantasy novel or Dungeons & Dragons, then it might seem far more likely. And in those contexts, yes sometimes the gods are assholes.

      The article also doesn’t go into much of what the actual gods or powers that be are like. Just how Oren predicts people would respond to proven/actively interventionist deities.

  11. Tifa

    Belief is a powerful thing, but so is disbelief. Funny how that is.

  12. Julia

    If the subject of gods directly involved in human society interests anyone here, check out City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett. It’s about a world where on one continent people had gods involved in their daily lives who would adapt to what they believed their followers wanted. These people in turn subjected folks on another continent who had no gods – until one they they developed a technical means to kill deities. Then the tables were turned and the formerly suppressed country is ruling the former “chosen ones.” The main character is investigating why there seems to be some traces of miraculous events happening in an old city.

  13. Alex McGIlvery

    Interesting reading, but all your suggestions involve a thin veil between one stage of existence and the next. If we look at scripture simply as representative of society under a known divine being. We’ll take the wandering in the desert for forty years, since all those people would have a direct memory of the parting of the sea.
    They didn’t have resurrection. I would make a difference between resurrection and resuscitation. I think what you are talking about is the latter, as in D&D and other systems the body must be present, and most notably, any wounds on it must be able to be healed before the person is brought back. Imagine if every code blue ended successfully and that could be extended to wounds and injuries. It would still expand the gap between rich and poor, but not to the same extent, as rich people tend to be in fewer accidents.
    Resurrection is the return of a person in the absence of a body, not the reviving of the old body. Even in D&D it is rarer and harder. One must be a pretty high level cleric to accomplish it.

    The next world is interesting. You covered good and bad outcomes, what about an afterlife which is beyond comprehension? Words are inadequate. It would also make all that communication between life and afterlife much trickier as the participants would be speaking past each other.

    The few times we see into the divine in that 40 year period, The very strong implication is it is inexplicable. The few people who are resuscitated don’t bring back memories from the after life. I don’t recall any instance of a visit to heaven in which the person can make a coherent report. Paul says directly he can’t put it into words, and the writer of The Revelations of St. John has to put his vision into code. Note, both of these are visions too, not actual visits.

    The political part describes exactly the situation in the polytheistic world before monotheism caught on. Wars were seen, not as battles between armies, but battles between gods.

  14. Deana

    On point 2 there is an old (and by old I mean 1950s old) volume of Analog magazine that had a story by L. Ron Hubbard that did precisely that: heaven is only for people who have enough money to get in.

    Ironically, the same volume that included this story criticized CS Lewis for starting a new religion with the Narnia books which for the Christian fiction of the time have an atypically inclusive heaven.

  15. Dave P.

    You do realize that many people believed in a proven afterlife for most of history, and it did not present the way you are suggesting it would. Which tells me that this is pretty farfetched. Frankly many people today believe in a proven afterlife.

    • Cay Reet

      Apart from the fact that I would like to see some proof on that afterlife…

      This is mainly about the way corporeal gods or divine powers would change a world.

      • Dave P

        Right, but the thing is that historically people BELIEVED that there were corporeal gods and divine powers in the world. So there is likely little difference in how that would affect things than how things actually developed. Additionally, there are plenty of people who DO BELIEVE in genuine divine power, the world would only be fundamentally different here if you presume that they are wrong.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Fun fact: There’s a world of difference between sincere belief and observable proof.

      • Dave P

        Fun fact, that difference DOES NOT exist for people who share that sincere belief. My faith in a divine being is the exact same because I believe it to be sufficiently proven to me. This is a distinction most people miss about faith, for people who believe it is as real as anything else that they happen to think is real.

  16. Tifa

    I think I’ll stick with Zen. It’s a lot simpler that way.

    PS Sorry, Oren, I got too caught up in what I was writing. The only other word I could think of at the time was ‘loop-de-loop’ and that sounds ridiculous.

    • Michael Campbell

      Chaotic. Frantic. Manic. Panicked. Random. Arbitrary. Craven. Two-faced. Capricious. Erratic. Frivolous. Inconsistent. Irrational. Subjective. Unreasonable. Dictatorial. Extrajudicial. Biased. Prejudiced.

  17. Richard

    Points 1 and 3, taken together, are similarly arguments AGAINST practical immortality. The people who get the extended lifespans are likely to be the exact sort of people you DON’T want to have it. Dictators and rich assholes. I don’t think I need to give an example.

    • Michael Campbell

      So the same bunch of people who would be strictly restrained from accessing/developing atomic weapons.

      Indeed society has trouble handing down the death penalty for actual murders.
      Handing out what amounts to a death penalty (perhaps it’s an oblivion penalty) because you’ve been a total douche-bag in the past and this time around you won’t change:-
      That one’s going to be hard for society to hand down.

  18. White Wolf

    In reply to Cay Reet’s comment above:

    Moses ground the calf into powder. You’re not gonna find it.

    • Cay Reet

      As much gold powder as you’d get from a massive golden calf approximately realistic in size would still be traceable in the sands of the desert.

  19. Scott S

    Oren’s point 2 ends with two paragraphs of motivation related, respectively, to whether the afterlife is worse than or better than the present world. However, the portrayal of those motivations assumes (which could be the case in a fantasy setting) the existence of only one form of afterlife.

    Taking a real-world portrayal of the afterlife, such as what the Bible portrays, would include the existence of both a worse and a better state, but the final destination depends on a person’s actions before transitioning to that “other country,” actions in relation to a God (or gods, depending on the fantasy setting) standards that determines that outcome. If such were the “proven” state of affairs in a fantasy setting, then contrary to Point 4, “Behavior” would not be “Divinely Enforced,” but the final consequence for behavior would be so enforced.

    In such a case, people might conform to that which is deemed good by the God/gods (to gain the better place) and shun that which is evil (to avoid the worse). But that would also depend on how the fantasy setting defined at least two things.

    First, the nature of the mortal people within the setting: Do they consistently act rationally? Do they have an inherent good nature or evil one (to conform or rebel, but see the second point below …)? What level of knowledge do they have of the consequences to motivate them? (The premise of the article is that the state of affairs is proven, but that does not mean everyone knows it or believes it.)

    Second, the nature of the God/gods within the setting: Is the God wholly good, wholly evil, or some mix? (For that matter, what defines good/evil, the God/gods or some higher principle?) Is the God/gods rational or not? In a polytheistic setting, does each god choose the consequential destination only for their worshipers and based off their personal, divine principles of what qualifies to send one to the better/worse place? (In that case, what seems good to one god may be evil to another, but some combination of how the people interact with a particular god would determine destination.) And what if worshipers worship more than one god: who decides which destination to go to?

    So without a single destination in the final afterlife, many complexities (as in real life) would manifest in how a person should/would behave in that fantasy setting, based on a number of factors on how one answered the above questions (and other questions) related to that fantasy world. Indeed, if one allows for a larger than binary set of destinations for the afterlife, then where one ultimately ends up becomes increasingly complex, and so behavior of people would be increasingly complex.

    But in short, even if the God/gods and the afterlife were knowable, provable things in the fantasy setting, human behavior and moral variations could, and in many cases likely would, mirror the reality of the diversity we see around us in our real world.

    This is in part because many people in the real world who have faith in a God/gods and an afterlife, believe there is proof to back up that faith (in some cases those holding it do not consider it blind faith, nor faith based on reproducible proof, but rather proof on the level of legal evidence, in many cases based on believed eye witness testimony); whereas many people in the real world who lack faith don’t accept the evidence as proof or don’t see it as admissible evidence (or have some other cause to reject believing).

    But I think one can see that, even if God/gods and an afterlife in this fantasy setting was “proven” (via some form of evidences more tangible than what the real-world offers), given how the nature of the mortals might be in that setting, there would still be those rebelling against the evidence, lying to hide the evidence, or otherwise causing doubt in some, making a mixed bag of those who follow after the God/gods to seek the better life and those who do not. And this does not account for a case where the gods were at odds with one another, or a singular god was irrational or capricious, and so people following or not would be a mix not necessarily because of their nature, though that may be part of it, but also the diversity/instability of the divine being(s) they are trying to appease to gain the better.

    In any case, it is the diversity of possible afterlife destinations that in part is what drives diversity in mortal behavior. Otherwise, a singular, known destination irregardless of behavior would tend to lead to a more singular way of behaving similar to what Oren depicted (though still maybe not, depending on the nature of the people in the setting).

  20. Bubbles

    Some extra things to think about:

    No matter how much definite evidence there is for the existence of a god or gods in any particular world, there will probably always be a few people who don’t accept reality. Think of some of the crazy conspiracy theories in our world, such as: political leaders are shapeshifting reptilians, the Earth is flat and NASA is trying to hide the truth, or Jews control the world. There is a small minority who will probably never be convinced by any amount of evidence, and confronted with direct proof of the divine or an afterlife, they will think it’s an elaborate hoax.

    About the idea that just one divine code of behavior means everybody will act the same, that’s probably only true if the god/gods are truly omnipotent and omniscient. However, despite what a lot of monotheism in our world says, there’s no a priori reason that the divine would need to be all powerful. They could just be very powerful, but there might be some limitations on their power (such as restrictions on what or how much they can influence). One interesting idea I’ve had for a world is that the original creator used up most of its power in creating and maintaining the universe in the first place, explaining why, although it’s still extremely strong, it’s possible for mortals to threaten it.

    About the afterlife: If there’s a pleasant afterlife that the heroes know they will reach, it can be difficult to maintain a sense of threat. Ways to get around this problem: the afterlife isn’t pleasant, there are ways to prevent someone from reaching it, or there are ways to harm someone in it.

    Although gods and the afterlife tend to be associated with each other, again, there’s no a priori reason they need to be. If there are gods but no afterlife, interaction with gods will focus on how they can interfere with life in this world. People and gods may be sad that there’s no afterlife, happy about the same thing, believe there’s an afterlife without direct proof, focus on improving or extending life in this world, or try to create an afterlife. If there’s an afterlife but no deities, things get interesting as the afterlife’s inhabitants may have to shape it with whatever powers they have and wonder whether there are deities or not.

    Another story idea I had was about someone with extremely powerful psychic abilities discovering that there was no afterlife (as far as he could tell), so he used his abilities in a way that would create an afterlife (later called the Net of Souls). However, it wasn’t perfect, as there were things that could destroy souls and potentially the afterlife itself. Also, some beings considered it a blasphemy that trapped souls, keeping them from the true afterlife. I’m not sure whether I will ever use this idea, because it depended on a system of psychic powers (basically magic) that deviated from our physics in specific ways, but I’m not sure whether there’s a way to make the interaction logically consistent without things such as time travel or destroying the universe. If I find a way, I’ll probably use it.

  21. Xandar The Zenon

    “The wealthy often advocate for […] the erosion of democracy (Or ‘mob rule’ as authoritarians call it)…”
    Well, that’s hardly fair. A pure democracy puts every minority at the whims of the majority, which is exactly what mob rule is. Which means you’re falsely equivocating anyone who supports individual rights with an authoritarian. I can agree that the wealthy often try to control the masses, that the principles of representation in government are precious, or even that wealthy people sometimes support taking away representation from groups of people, thereby becoming more authoritarian. However, authoritarian rulers can also begin to come to power by moving countries via emotional arguments far enough towards pure democracy that all structure falls apart. It takes a very small scale for a democracy to be effective.

    I do like the article as a whole though, I thought that the main message of the piece was well thought out and articulated.

    • Michael Campbell

      IIRC it was Winston Churchill who said; “Democracy is the worst form of government with the exception of…all the others.”

      And I recall it was Mrs Thatcher who said; “the best form of government was a benevolent dictatorship…but you can’t find any of those.”

      I’m not sure if that makes you feel any better but it’s worth noting.

  22. E. H.

    If gods are introduced as active characters in fantasy I’d prefer them to be demonstrably real but not too “activist.” In Biblical terms more along the lines of the book of Judges or the books of Kings than the Exodus.

    If anyone who offend them is instantly burned alive or suffer similar fates of an obviously supernatural nature it’s boring dramatically. Only fools would rebel and they are quickly dealt with.

    But miracles, prophesies and anointed heroes scattered throughout the story would be fine. I’d prefer it too if any active gods were not easily moved to intervene. They’d reward great acts of devotion, punish serious, repeated impiety on a regular enough basis to establish them as real. But they’d be inactive enough of subtle enough that their actions wouldn’t dominate the entire culture.

    In other words avoiding divine wrath and seeking divine favor wouldn’t negate all personal ambition, loyalty to rulers or family, or realistic economic issues. The will of the gods might not even be clearly known in every situation. Prophesies might be vague. They might prefer work through people rather than directly most of the time. Being immortal, they might be playing a long game, not reacting to every human action immediately.

  23. Vknight

    So a few questions.

    What if death is hard to come back from?
    I.e. powerful magic which can fail rendering future castings as unable to work.
    Communication with the dead in direct and concrete means involves traveling to an after life. I’m thinking of Earth Sea as an example where you can go talk to X but to leave is harder as an example. My own setting for books entering the afterlife when its not your time is hard, it gets harder if you don’t worship the good in question and their is always a chance that persons soul got reincarnated rendering the journey moot.
    Combine this with the empirical fact some people don’t like the idea of lose of continuity and the deal that fiends offer of an eternal life as a fiend becomes more compelling.

    On the Divine Judgement thing a fair number of the conquistadors did 100% believe it was gods will and that he showed it in their conquest, and the spoils they came across. Not in blinding light shows but the guiding benevolence leading them to in their minds the godless heathens of the new world.
    Which raises a question for me.
    God X is evil but is a god of medicine and heals us but he states other stuff the locals do not like but his priests heal your wounds would you care? Especially if you still go to the church of the sun goddess and are not harmed by the healing said sun priests provide when you need it?

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