Heaven and Hell

  • By Bart D. Ehrman
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 352 pp.

A bold, brash, sometimes problematic look at "the end."

The very subtitle of Bart D. Ehrman’s new book, Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife, will rankle his longtime fundamentalist Christian antagonists and amuse his typically liberal and secularist devotees.

But this will surprise no one. After all, the University of North Carolina professor — who was raised in fundamentalism himself and grew up to become perhaps the most famous atheist in the field of biblical studies — has made a career of unsettling pious minds.

“How can heaven and hell have a history?” these critics will doubtless ask when happening upon the book for the first time, a question the subtitle clearly invites.

Ehrman’s response is simple:

“There was a time in human history when no one on the planet believed that there would be a judgment day at the end of time. At another time, people did believe it. It eventually became a standard Christian teaching and is accepted as orthodox truth by many millions of people today. Between the time no one believed it and many people did, someone came up with the idea. That is, it was invented. So too with every idea of the afterlife. That doesn’t make the ideas wrong. It just means that they were ideas that once did not exist and then later did.”

Those familiar with Ehrman’s reputation but not his work might be struck by the final two sentences of this paragraph. Despite being viewed (in the pleasantly snarky words of Michael Bird) as a “bogeyman” by conservative Christians and a “godsend” by secularists, he aims at something quite different in Heaven and Hell than disabusing the faithful of any hope they had in the hereafter.

Instead, Ehrman sets out to explain how Christians came to spend the last 1,500 years holding views of life after death that diverge dramatically from those in the Bible itself.

That’s right. Unless you want to include obvious metaphors, pearly gates and red devils with horns and pitchforks never even make a cameo in the Scriptures, and they are especially far-removed from the teachings of Jesus.

The Old Testament view of postmortem existence was termed Sheol, a shadowy existence that bore more than a passing resemblance to Hades. The promise held out for Israel by God was not some Platonic heaven; even the resurrection of the body confessed in the New Testament and the Church’s creeds is barely hinted at in the Hebrew Bible.

Rather, Ehrman writes, the first “obsession” of ancient Israelite thinkers, formed during intense periods of political violence and foreign oppression, was “the national restoration of Israel.”

The Jewish and (later) Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the dead first appears in such dark times. What about those who die too early to see God’s salvation? “What will happen to me when I die?”

Such questions, at least from our viewpoint, seem almost inevitable. “These contexts,” Ehrman writes, “helped pave the way for the view that at the end of time, God would reassert his sovereignty over the world and judge the righteous and the wicked, individually at the resurrection of the dead.”

Jesus preached just this sort of message. As Ehrman puts it, “Jesus did not teach that when a person died they would go to heaven or hell. He taught that the Day of Judgement was soon to come, when God would destroy all that is evil and raise the dead, to punish the wicked and reward the faithful by bringing them into his eternal, utopian kingdom.”

Not, in other words, that my soul floats away to the great by and by when I die. That view would come later as a result of the Platonic and gnostic exaltation of the soul, which, in contradistinction to the body, came to be seen as immortal.

Ehrman guides the reader along strange, circuitous routes not covered by recent books like Philip Jenkins’ Crucible of Faith, moving from Homer and Job to Jesus and even to the writings of Augustine at the twilight of the empire.

On the way, one encounters Jewish apocalyptic writings like 1 Enoch, little-read non-canonical gospels, and surprising insights from the Bible itself, all of which illuminate the development of the West’s ideas about the hereafter. The history that results is a hell of a ride (yes, pun intended) both for those well-versed in the relevant literature and those coming to the subject for the first time.

Nevertheless, missteps are inevitable on such difficult paths. Despite his qualifications, Ehrman’s reading of Paul falls into the hackneyed habit of opposing Paul’s message of faith (as cognitive assent to doctrine about Jesus of Nazareth) to Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom of God, a habit endemic to Paul scholarship in generations past.

Today, scholars have largely moved beyond this false dichotomy. Ehrman also seems overly eager to divide Luke’s views from Paul’s on the nature of the resurrected body of Jesus, a reading that likely creates more problems than it solves. Thankfully, Ehrman rarely falters otherwise, and the rest of the journey is not only instructive, but downright fun.

In the afterword, however, we come upon what might be the moral of Heaven and Hell’s story, a moment where only a few of the most sanguine secularists will be able to follow Ehrman.

After this masterful book, Ehrman offers his personal view on life after death: “I’m completely open,” he writes, to the notion of a happy afterlife, 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.”

But anxiety about death is completely unnecessary. According to Ehrman, life’s brevity is “a motivation to love this life as much as we can for as long as we can, to enjoy it to its utmost,” not a reason to get hung up about what happens after we’re gone.

Socrates went peacefully when he drank the hemlock. So have others who had no faith in an afterlife. After all, death might be rather like “a general anesthetic” — and what’s so bad about that?

Answer: that, unless there is a life after death, you never wake up. You are deprived, as the philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote, of all the goods of existence: “If there is no limit to the amount of life that it would be good to have, then it may be that a bad end is in store for us all.” Saint Paul would have agreed. “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ,” he wrote, “we are of all people most to be pitied.”

Heaven and Hell is a tour de force: erudite, provocative, and often fun. But many of Ehrman’s readers will experience his attempt at consolation as simply unbelievable.

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2020.]

Joel Looper has a Ph.D. in divinity from the University of Aberdeen, UK. He lives and writes in Waco, TX.

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