Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife

Bart D. Ehrman. Simon and Schuster, 2020. 311 pages. $28.00.

Heaven and Hell Cover Image

By John McWilliams

Throughout his long, productive career, Bart Ehrman has striven to negotiate the sometimes uncross-able boundary between academic scholarship and accessible insights for the general educated reader. His subject here is the history of ideas of the afterlife from Gilgamesh through Graeco-Roman literature, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament to Augustine. He traces the momentous change from Gilgamesh’s fear that death is eternal nothingness, to Platonic ideas of the immortal soul, to Jewish and early Christian hopes for national resurrection through a last judgment, to Christian churches’ belief, fully voiced by Augustine, that each individual soul will be separated at death into the saved (Heaven) and the damned (Hell). The idea of a Purgatory would come only later, pace Dante.  

The essence of this succession, once assumed to be certain progress, is from an ancient people who viewed the afterlife as eternal silence, an empty void, to the Christian anticipation of an afterlife in which a single God rewards virtue and punishes vice with absolute everlasting justice. It is a nearly total transformation. By effective linkage of major texts, Ehrman provides a clear, compelling narrative of how changing ideas were shaped by historical events and cultural practices.  

Ehrman clearly believes that the many problems posed by theodicy, which have bedeviled monotheists for so many centuries, are ultimately insoluble. This assumption frees him to concentrate on informing readers, especially fundamentalists and creedal Christians, of many facts commonly overlooked. There is no resurrection in the epics of Homer and Vergil, only flitting unhappy shades evoked by searchers hovering around a votive pit. There is no soul in ancient Hebrew thought, no concern for heaven and hell in the Hebrew Bible. When resurrection surfaces during the times of the Hebrew prophets and the Babylonian captivity, resurrection is invoked as a collective national restoration, not a sign of individual moral salvation.  

Bodily resurrection does not become a widespread Jewish belief, Ehrman demonstrates, until shortly before the time of Christ. Jesus, in turn, was greatly concerned with the Last Judgment, but not with the afterlife of individuals. It was primarily Paul who linked both the eternal soul and the transformed body of the true believer directly to the resurrection of Christ. Heaven and hell thus became important to Christians only as hopes for the imminent Kingdom of God on earth slowly faded. Biblical images of Sheol and Gehenna, Paradise and Hades, Heaven and Hell, Ehrman suggests, should best be seen as metaphors designed to judge human behavior in the here and now, not as a vision of life beyond death. Ehrman cites a Pew Research Poll that found 72% of Americans in 2015 believe there is a literal heaven, a literal hell.  Even if we reduce the percentage due to likely statistical failings and the human tendency to lie in filling out opinion polls, 72 percent is an astonishing figure. At the end of his first chapter, Ehrman summarizes a main thesis of his book: “To put it succinctly: the founder of Christianity [Jesus] did not believe that the soul of a person who died would go to heaven or hell” (italics mine). The implication of this sentence for contemporary believers who remain uncritical of church doctrine is hard to ignore. 

Ehrman makes telling, succinct use of great literature of the ancient world:Gilgamesh, SocratesPlato’s Phaedo, Homer and Virgil, Aristophanes, Epicurus and Lucretius. The reader sees clearly where these great texts fit into Ehrman’s overall pattern of the history of ideas. The same cannot readily be said, however, for Ehrman’s many discussions of biblical apocrypha: I Enoch4 Ezra, the Testament of AbrahamI Clement3 Corinthians, the Letter to Rheginus etc. To be sure, these texts must continue to be of interest and importance to biblical scholars, but what about the general reader whom Ehrman is also addressing? The selection of materials for Ehrman’s very first chapter, treating The Apocalypse of PeterThe Passion of Perpetua and the Acts of Thomas, seems a special miscalculation; Ehrman surely should have begun, as his preface said he would, with Gilgamesh. Similarly, Ehrman does not in fact end his history of ideas with Augustine. Instead we have the Acts of Thecla, Origen, Perpetua and Tertullian yet again, and then, finally, the Gospel of Nicodemus. These unfamiliar texts need to be made interesting for the general reader; if not, Ehrman’s reader may be led to suspect there was good reason most of them were relegated to the Apocrypha.  

Ehrman proposes that, while awaiting the afterlife, “we do have something to hope” and fortunately “we have absolutely nothing to fear.” Accordingly, the Christian legacy of sinners’ eternal physical torment in hell becomes a special focus of Ehrman’s questioning, repudiation, and satire. “One of my theses is that a close reading of Jesus’ words shows that in fact he had no idea of torment for sinners after death.” Christ’s apocalyptic vision of the Day of Judgment anticipated the raising of the dead and the exaltation of those who had suffered for their beliefs, but it did not predict a binary system of divine justice for you and me. 

Ehrman’s careful selection and ordering of textual evidence mostly, but not always, bolsters his argument. Although Jesus Christ left us no written words, and all the Gospels were written at least thirty years after Christ’s death, Ehrman nonetheless believes that rediscovery of “what Jesus really said” remains possible. (The phrases “what Jesus really said” and “what Jesus actually said” occur ten times in one chapter.)  On the basis of the questionable assumption that the earlier gospels have more textual authority, Ehrman repeatedly credits Mark and Matthew at the expense of Luke and John. For example, Christ’s parable of Lazarus and Dives, in which beggar Lazarus is carried off to Abraham’s bosom, while Dives is eternally tormented in the flames of Hades, is described as a “an imaginative story attributed to Jesus only in Luke.”  Similarly, it is only in John’s gospel that Christ claims “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, will never die.”   

Ehrman thus traces a process in which “the words of Jesus, over time, came to be de-apocalypticized.” The immanent coming of the Kingdom was gradually replaced by individual resurrection through a cumulative succession of biblical writers from the time of Paul through the time of John. Perhaps so, but what then is the New Testament reader to make of Christ’s description of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25, in which Jesus declares that God the King will tell all the goats on his left hand, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire?” Jesus’ phrase seems explicit enough: “eternal fire.” Is it convincing to ascribe only metaphoric value to these words, and to assume that Christ “really” meant something close to our word “annihilation?” How exactly does eternity become a metaphor for non-existence?  Eternity, after all, is defined by endless time, but nothingness is not. Do not the words “eternal torment” connote endless consciousness in some form, perhaps physical? There are problems of philosophy here, as well as translation.     

A closing note from a letter of President Thomas Jefferson: “When I was young I was fond of speculations which seemed to promise some insight into the hidden country of the afterlife . . . but I have for many years cased to read or to think concerning them, and have reposed my head on that pillow of ignorance which a benevolent Creator has made so soft for us.” Jefferson considered himself a rationalist, but his stunning phrase “the pillow of ignorance,” ventures into emotional self-protection. Because the afterlife is an entity none of us will ever know on earth, we had best try to make a pillow of our ignorance, and sleep nightly upon it, as contentedly as possible. The acknowledging of ignorance should make us sleep better. I suspect Bart Ehrman would concur.  

John McWilliams (ΦBK, Princeton University, 1962) is emeritus professor of humanities at Middlebury College and a resident member of the Beta of Vermont chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.