The question of what would come before this life and thereafter was among the decisive ones, not only in this conversation. But what did Christianity have to offer that Paganism had not?
This question is a difficult one, since information about paganism in Anglo-Saxon Britain is more than scarce. Graham Caie leans on J.R.R. Tolkien when he says that 'it is to Scandinavia and particularly Iceland that we look for examples of the heroic concept of the after-life, because,..., their views were "fundamentally the same" as the English'. I follow Caie in this assumption.
Imagine an Anglo-Saxon ealdorman and a monk sitting together in a hall, warming their cold bones by the fire. The Anglo-Saxon has heard about these men and their new religion, but has never spoken to one of them. Is their new doctrine really better than the traditions of his fathers? He hesitates a moment longer before curiosity finally wins.
Anglo-Saxon: "So you are one of those who came to tell us about your God. We have more than enough gods already. Why should we accept a new one?"
The monk, always eager to save a lost soul, answers willingly: "Our Lord will be there for you, give you strength and security if you are faithful to him. He will guide you and aid you. - What about your 'gods'? What can they offer you?"
Anglo-Saxon: "They might give us better harvest, if we revere them enough, or they might aid us in war, or they might leave us alone..."
Monk: "Might? Is there no security, no promise?"
Anglo-Saxon: "Well, they have enough problems of their own. They cannot look after us little mortals all the time."
Monk: "So you basically are alone in this hard and miserable life, unsure of your place in this world..."
Anglo-Saxon: "No, I know my place in this world. From the time when the world was made out of Ymir, the frost giant, until Ragnarök, when this world will end and only the gods will see that which comes thereafter, the place of man is Middle-Earth, which is linked to Asgarð by the rainbow bridge."
Monk: "Only the gods will see what comes thereafter? But what about man? Is this sad life all that you hope for?"
Anglo-Saxon: "People think differently about what comes after this life. There is 'hel', a dark place outside of life, were existence itself is lifeless. Some say that 'hel' is the burial ground, haunted by the ghosts of the ancestors, who will come to the living if they are not duly revered. The hamingja and the fylgja are spirits passed from one heir to the next, guarding their family. The battle-hero has a more favourable fate. He will live on in his reputation as long as he is remembered. Some stories tell that he is taken to Valhalla to sit at Odin's mead-bench, if he dies in battle. Nothing remains for the majority, but even the few will cease to exist when this world ends to make place for the next."
Monk: "Then listen to what my God has to offer: Your 'gods' cannot help you, because they are subject to wyrd (fate) themselves. They have to die before they can return in the next world. They are part of creation. The Lord, on the other hand, is all-powerful. He is the father of creation. It is he who rules wyrd itself. He is the 'essence of purity and goodness'. When he created man, he allowed us to share in his dom (glory), but Adam fell and was banned from the light of the Lord. But God has shown mercy and offered forgiveness and salvation through Jesus Christ, his son. By sacrificing himself, Christ saved us. And by swearing loyalty to him through baptism we can partake once more in the glory of God. This is our first resurrection. At the end of this world then, men will be resurrected a second time, and all will be judged. Those who remained faithful to the Lord and his laws will from then on live in the heavenly kingdom and partake in the glory of God for eternity. But the doomed will suffer for ever. So beware, for the moment of death is when the fate of your soul is sealed. And this moment can be now. But rejoice also, for God himself has given us the doctrine. God will guide him who is willing to follow. He who is faithful and follows the doctrine will gain a sure reward."
Anglo-Saxon: "So you tell me that he who stands on the wrong side, will suffer eternally, even after this world has ended. The faithful Christian though, who follows the rule of your Lord, can be sure of salvation and glory for eternity. My gods, on the other hand, only offer insecurity and final doom. It seems better to stand on the right side, the side of your God."