Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife
Bart Ehrman. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2020.
What happens to us after we die? One of life’s oldest mysteries, the question of the afterlife is one that has started wars, formulated new philosophies, and spawned religions. There have been countless answers through the ages. In the West, the most familiar version of the answer follows along a line something like this: “Good” people (or believers in Christ) experience eternal bliss in heaven and “wicked” people (or non-believers) experience never-ending torment in hell. We who are familiar with this general line of argument have likely never given much thought to its origin.
In Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife, Bart Ehrman (professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) sets out to place the beliefs about heaven and hell that pervade modern Christianity in some historical context. Far from being an “attack on Christianity” (as one reviewer called it) Heaven and Hell seems a carefully thought out, although necessarily brief, historical survey of Greek, Jewish, and early Christian writing on the afterlife. Indeed, there is no sense that Ehrman is in any way trying to disabuse the faithful of any hope they have in the afterlife. Instead, the book provides a way forward as an explanation of how Christians came to hold views of the afterlife dramatically divergent from their Jewish ancestors and from most of the New Testament itself.
Ehrman’s study begins in the pre-Christian world where belief in life after death was consistently held and just as consistently not to be preferred. The underworld (Hades) was a place of sad existence, a pitiful and dull reflection of the living world. Achilles’ lamentation in the Odyssey sums up the feeling, “I’d rather slave on earth…than rule down here over all the breathless dead.”
In the Jewish scriptures, Ehrman reveals a variety of afterlife views. The opinion most common in the oldest parts of the Old Testament narrative was of a postmortem existence termed Sheol, which like the Greek Hades was not something to be sought. But, through its history of intense violence and oppression, the Israelite conception of the afterlife evolved into a notion of a final national restoration of the nation. The prophets, in particular, tell the story of a nation punished and vanquished (“killed”) but also a nation restored (“resurrected”). Further evolution occurred towards the end of the Old Testament period with the advent of apocalypticism, which favored individual death and resurrection as a measure of divine justice – a reward for the righteous and punishment for the wicked. It is important to note, however, that the punishment of the wicked was not eternal torment but the lack of participation in new life (i.e. the lack of existence altogether).
The apocalyptic worldview is the one Jesus would have been born into and it is just the sort of teaching on the afterlife that Jesus would have preached. Ehrman notes that
Jesus subscribed to a thoroughly apocalyptic worldview…Concerned with that great act of God that was coming soon with the appearance of a cosmic judge from heaven, the Son of Man, who would destroy the evil powers in control of this world and establish a great, utopian, and eternal kingdom.Heaven and Hell, 166-167
Ehrman contends that Jesus did not teach that when a person died they would go to heaven or hell. Instead, he taught the apocalyptic tradition of an eternal reward for the righteous and destruction (non-existence) for the wicked. The popular notion of the soul floating away to the great by and by is not grounded in the apocalyptic tradition of Jesus.
When approaching Paul and other New Testament writers (especially Luke), Ehrman does resort to two unfortunate fallacies (in my opinion). First, he creates a false dichotomy that sets Paul’s message of faith in opposition to Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God. Second, he seems to want to create a problem where there isn’t one in regard to the nature of the resurrected body in Luke and Paul. These are unfortunate fallacies because they are not necessary to Ehrman’s overall point that the concept “of the afterlife…
…that so many billions of people in our world have inherited, emerged over a long period of time as people struggled with how this world can be fair and how God or the gods can be just. Death cannot be the end of the story. Surely people will receive what they deserve.”Heaven and Hell, xxii
While Ehrman is perhaps less conclusive than we would like, he writes like a storyteller and his presentation is endlessly fascinating in scope and in detail. And, in the end, he does get us to his thesis: Heaven and hell weren’t handed down on stone tablets but rather evolved from a variety of ancient worldviews (Greek philosophy, gnosticism, Jewish apocalypticism, and early Christian persecution).
Now, I would be remiss if I did not address the “Afterword.” After concluding the line of argument, Ehrman offers his own views on the afterlife. He writes,
I’m completely open to the idea and deep down even hopeful about it. But I have to say that at the end of the day I really don’t believe it either. My sense is that this life is all there is.”Heaven and Hell, 294
Rather than being a source of anxiety, however, Ehrman insists that while it makes him sad to have to leave this life (an echo of Socrates perhaps) it is ultimately a
“motivation to love this life as much as we can for as long as we can, to enjoy it to its utmost.”Heaven and Hell, 296
I respect Ehrman’s thoughtful response, which is certainly well-considered and examined from his own personal journey. I, of course, tend towards belief, though if I’m honest, such belief is often tested. I do concur with Ehrman regarding torment after death: “Even though I have an instinctual fear…I simply don’t believe it.” As for paradise or bliss or reward or whatever it may look like, I will refer to Saint Paul:
“If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”1st Corinthians 15:19