Heaven and Hell
A History of the Afterlife
A New York Times bestselling historian of early Christianity takes on two of the most gripping questions of human existence: where did the ideas of heaven and hell come from and why do they endure?
What happens when we die? A recent Pew Research poll showed that 72% of Americans believe in a literal heaven and 58% believe in a literal hell. Most people who hold these beliefs are Christian and assume they are the age-old teachings of the Bible. But eternal rewards and punishments are found nowhere in the Old Testament and are not what Jesus or his disciples taught.
So where did these ideas come from?
In this “eloquent understanding of how death is viewed through many spiritual traditions” (Publishers Weekly, starred review), Bart Ehrman recounts the long history of the afterlife, ranging from The Epic of Gilgamesh up to the writings of Augustine, focusing especially on the teachings of Jesus and his early followers. He discusses ancient guided tours of heaven and hell, in which a living person observes the sublime blessings of heaven for those who are saved and the horrifying torments of hell for those who are damned. Some of these accounts take the form of near death experiences, the oldest on record, with intriguing similarities to those reported today.
One of Ehrman’s startling conclusions is that there never was a single Greek, Jewish, or Christian understanding of the afterlife, but numerous competing views. Moreover, these views did not come from nowhere; they were intimately connected with the social, cultural, and historical worlds out of which they emerged. Only later, in the early Christian centuries, did they develop into notions of eternal bliss or damnation widely accepted today.
In this “elegant history” (The New Yorker), Ehrman helps us reflect on where our ideas of the afterlife come from. With his “richly layered-narrative” (The Boston Globe) he assures us that even if there may be something to hope for when we die, there certainly is nothing to fear.
In this enlightening survey of human understanding of the afterlife, Ehrman (How Jesus Became God), professor of religious studies at UNC Chapel Hill, offers a persuasive analysis of how the current evangelical Christian understanding of eternal life and eternal damnation developed as well as a well-reasoned critique of that perspective. Ehrman begins with the Epic of Gilgamesh (written around 2100 BCE), continues through the ancient Greeks, and covers canonical and extracanonical Hebrew and Christian texts as he details humanity's long-standing preoccupation with death and the fear of what follows. He documents wide-ranging theories: Homer's vision of a bleak, dreary existence in Hades; Virgil's belief in hellish torments and heavenly glories; Plato's position on the soul's immortality; the ancient Israelites' view that death is the end, but not to be feared; and later Jewish belief in resurrection and a Day of Judgment. Calling into question many evangelical notions of damnation, Ehrman posits that neither Jesus, the apostle Paul, nor the author of Revelation believed in hell. Rather, the punishment for sin was annihilation, while the righteous received everlasting life. Ehrman's eloquent understanding of how death is viewed through many spiritual traditions is scintillating, fresh, and will appeal to scholars and lay readers alike.
Bart takes us on a journey that summarizes very coherently, a lot of scholarly work that covers 6000 years or so of religious developments. While the book focuses on early Christian beliefs it does start with the origins of Israelite religion and Judaism.
For more in depth study on these topics covered here, Bart references the source materials.