Bart D. Ehrman: Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife (S&S 2020)

When I’ve told people the title, they have often been puzzled or even slightly offended. But let me be clear: I am not saying that a literal heaven and hell have experienced historical changes. I’m saying that the ideas of heaven and hell were invented and have been altered over the years.
And I think that can be proved. 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.

I’ve mentioned my misspent youth as a fundamentalist before. In the years since, my interest in religion has been more academic and historical (and, musical: I love church music from Palestrina to Mozart and standard Protestant hymns; I bounce in and out of various churches periodically because that’s where the music is). This book is just another attempt to make sense of a pretty insane path that, in spite of the difficulty of pinning anything down, keeps affecting our daily lives for better or worse. And it’s less prone than Dante to give me nightmares (once the Pentecostals get into your brain, you can never completely get them out).

My impression – and I haven’t done the careful study that would be necessary to confirm this – is that this book at least generally follows the flow of thought as presented in the Yale OCW’s I went through last year, and has at least some elements in common with the mooc “Early Christian Outlook and its Jewish Matrix: Narratives of Gospels and Acts”, which looked at Christianity as a Jewish sect and examined the influences in the Jewish world that would have been in play at the time. That is: Judaism itself, under the pressures of exile and Roman rule, underwent a shift towards anticipating a Messiah and into apocalypticism in the late Second Temple period; that shift influenced both the message of Jesus and Paul; early Christianity had many different beliefs, and what ultimately became today’s Christianity was also influenced by apocalpyticism generated by, among other things, Roman persecution and the need for unity to expand and maintain the church. I still think there’s another phase of development: the Roman Christianity that used hierarchy and strict obedience to orthodoxy to maintain power. But I’m just a dilettante, though I prefer to think of myself as a learner at an elementary level.

The book starts at the end: In Chapter 1, Guided Tours of Heaven and Hell, Ehrman looks at the early Christian period, between the time of Jesus and the original apostles and the codification of the Canon, a time when many varieties of Christianity existed in widely separate places. We learn about “the earliest Christian forerunner to Dante’s Divine Comedy”, the Apocalypse of Peter, attributed to the disciple but written some time around 100 to 150 CE, too late to have come from his pen. Several other works are included here to underline the second-century belief in a hell of torment versus a heaven of paradise. Then comes the kicker:

None of these visions can be found in the Bible, because they do not, in fact, represent the earliest Christian views of the afterlife. The ideas of a glorious hereafter for some souls and torment for others, to come at the point of death, cannot be found in either the Old Testament or in the teachings of the historical Jesus. To put it succinctly: the founder of Christianity did not believe that the soul of a person who died would go to heaven or hell.
But this became the standard Christian view over time, and it will be helpful to see where it ultimately came from, when it started to be adopted, and why it seemed so attractive….To see where this belief originated, we will need to begin our explorations many years before Christianity – before even the most ancient writings of the oldest parts of the Bible.

The rest of the book is the examination of how we got to this view of heaven and hell, essentially the one most commonly held today in Western Christianity. We start in 2100 BCE with the Epic of Gilgamesh, considered the first extant written literature in the world, to look at the fear of death. Enkidu goes to great lengths to find a way to cheat death, but ultimately fails. In several philosophy and religion moocs I’ve encountered the idea that the fear of death – the very impossibility of imagining what it is to be dead – may have been the motivation for imagining an afterlife; this seems to jibe with Ehrman’s thinking. I’ve also frequently seen the idea that the lack of justice in this world may have motivated consideration of judgment in the afterlife, where those who were wicked but went unpunished or even profited from their wickedness would finally get their just desserts. Again, this fits with the ideas in this book, though it comes in much later.

Another idea I encountered in some mooc along the way – I wish I could remember where – is that Virgil invented the hell of punishment in the Aeneid. Ehrman concurs with this as well, showing how, in Homer, the shades lived in Hades as sort of depleted, bored people, but weren’t punished, except for a very few (Tantalus, Sisyphus, Tityus); the pleasant Elysian Fields await heroes (or perhaps offspring of the gods, favored of the gods, it seems to shift). Then, several centuries later, comes Virgil, who turns the afterlife into reward and punishment galore.

Some six or seven centuries after the Homeric epics, Virgil does not populate Hades with shades that all experience the same boring and pleasure-free existence. He writes of hellish torments for some and heavenly glories or others. Most have to be punished for their sins before being given a second chance at life. Why such a change from Homer? What has led to this invention of heaven and hell?
It is hard to say what among the enormous changes in the political, social, and cultural worlds between seventh century Greece and first century Rome might have affected the shift in thinking. But it is relatively easy to see what happened in the realm of ethical thought. Equity has become an issue. …The wicked, no matter how powerful and revered in this world, will pay a price in the next. Those who have done what is right, however, will be rewarded.
By the time of Virgil, these ideas had been around for centuries, popularized most importantly by the greatest philosopher of antiquity, Plato.

I was glad to see that my hazily-recollected notion was confirmed, and that further explanation was forthcoming. We spend a few pages looking at Greeks and early Roman philosophers before arriving at the main event: the Biblical view of what happens when we die.

Ehrman’s primary point is that throughout much of the Hebrew bible (what Christians refer to as the Old Testament), resurrection concerns not individual people but the nation of Israel. In later books and in the apocryphal books such as the Maccabees, a more apocalyptic view comes into play, possibly a reaction to the Babylonian captivity and/or the growing awareness of Hellenistic philosophy – specifically, Platonism – in Jewish thought. While resurrection of the body and soul becomes more prevalent, the punishment for sin is annihilation: death, in other words. Torment isn’t part of the picture yet.

In a very interesting section subtitled “What Did Jews Believe at the Time of Jesus”, Ehrman gives us an overview of the work of Pieter Willem van der Horst, who examined a thousand epitaphs that have been preserved in the archaeological record in a thousand-year period of Jewish life leading up to Jesus. He points out what an extremely small sample this is. In fact, the conclusion doesn’t go much beyond noting the variety of beliefs about resurrection. We then take a look at the work of Josephus, the first-century historian who wrote extensively about the Jews as a people and a nation. This gives us three distinct groups with differing views on the afterlife: the Essenes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. These views boil down to “annihilation, immortality, or resurrection.” This is where we start with Jesus and the Greek bible (the New Testament).

I get antsy whenever someone, anyone, points to a Biblical verse and declares what it means, whether it’s a PhD who’s studied six ancient languages and knows the history and archeological findings of the area of ancient Israel, or a country preacher who is sure he has a direct connection to God via prayer. Let’s face it, we’re dealing with documents written by people in a very different time and culture, in a different language, and, to boot, those documents were recopied over and over, broken apart, reunited, and so may or may not closely resemble the original texts. We in the US can’t agree on interpretations of the Constitution, which was written in our language a mere 200 years ago and is buttressed by a fair amount of supportive documentation including the explicit Federalist Papers; how can anyone claim to know the exact meaning of esoteric references in documents far more alien to us?

But we have what we have, and Ehrman goes through the hot spots of afterlife theology in the gospels: Gehenna, sheep and goats, poor man Lazarus and the rich man. He ends up here:

One of the other criteria I take very seriously is the need for any saying of Jesus to fit well into his own early first-century historical context as a Jew from Galilee. I have pointed out that for over a century now critical scholars have been widely convinced that Jesus subscribed to a thoroughly apocalyptic worldview. My contention in this chapter is that his apocalyptic understanding of his world extended to his view of the afterlife. Jesus did not focus on what would happen to an individual at the point of death. He was principally 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. Those who lived as God wanted to them to – loving their neighbors as themselves, doing good for others in need – would enter into that Kingdom. Those who lived lives of self-centered sin and wickedness, on the other hand, would be destroyed, never to exist again.
Like other apocalypticists of his day, Jesus believed this day of reckoning was coming very soon ….But what happens if it doesn’t come? Then adjustments have to be made, and those who accept Jesus’s teachings have to reinterpret and possibly even alter them – maybe a little at first but then, possibly, more thoroughly. …It will be these later developments that lead to the views of heaven and hell still believed by so many of Jesus’s followers in our day.

We then go on to look at the books of Paul, and how it seems he might have changed his view when he began to realize the End of Time might not come before his death. It’s one thing to talk about what happened to some other people who die before the Return; but when it seems it might be your fate as well, maybe you reconsider. However this mostly concerns whether, at death, souls go into a kind of hibernation until the Return, or whether they immediately go on to be judged and rewarded or destroyed (because annihilation is still the punishment for sin, not eternal torment).

One of the topics I found most interesting was the discussion of 1 Corinthians on the new incorruptible and eternal body that will be given to the righteous at the resurrection. This draws from the transitory state of matter in neo-Platonic thought and removes that problem from the afterlife by a “mystery”: “We shall be changed.” This interests me for a musical reason: I remember all those Messiah performances, as a singer and an audience member, hearing that phrase from “The Trumpet Shall Sound” and not having a clue what “we shall be changed” meant but loving the sound of it. Paul turns it into an act of God that allows the resurrection of the body in incorruptible form.

So Ehrman considers that the actual words of Jesus and Paul indicate a heavenly afterlife for the righteous, and destruction, eternal death, for the wicked. He then looks at how the notion of torment crept into both the scripture and thinking of earliest Christians. This is the section that is likely to cause the most discomfort for those whose belief follows from the King James Version of the Bible. I can appreciate that discomfort on two levels. Spiritually, if you’ve been raised with a belief, it’s hard to hear that maybe Jesus didn’t say that, or maybe this piece here was appended to that part there three centuries later by a Roman empire now adjusting to Christianity. And aesthetically, the KJV is, in many places, beautiful to those of us whose first language is English, so saying it’s wrong is like editing Shakespeare. But we’re looking at analysis here.

And, of course you knew we’d get here eventually, there’s the book referred to as Revelation, or, if you prefer, The Revelation of St. John the Divine. Ehrman points out that this is not whoever wrote the Gospel of John, as the writing is very different (“a bit like reading a page from a Dickens novel and then another from a sophomore in a creative writing class”). There are also some important points about the genre that affect how it is read.

This book, like all books of the Bible, was written both in and for its own day, and if we want to understand what its author meant, we have to place his book in its own historical context.
In addition, we have to understand better what kind of book it is. I will be arguing that it is not a prediction of what was to happen thousands of years after the author’s day. He was describing what he thought would take place in his own time. He did so by using a literary genre common at the time, called the “apocalypse,” a genre found in a number of works, especially during the four-hundred-year period between the Maccabean revolt and the end of the second Christian century.

In other words, the Whore of Babylon isn’t whatever scandalous actress is making gossip sheets these days, nor is it your least favorite politician; it’s Rome. And the Beast isn’t Hitler, it’s Nero. The Lake of Fire is a symbol. Just as Gehenna was a dump used to burn trash, the wicked were destroyed, not tormented.

So how did we get to burning forever? The post-Biblical period; the apocalyptic books; and the earliest communities of Christians who every once in a while faced a new round of persecutions from Rome. And a sense of justice. He even mentions apocatastasis, Origen’s theory that no one is in Hell forever but all are eventually purged of sin and saved. I learned about this back when I read Jo Walton’s Lent, and wish Augustin hadn’t dispatched it to the dustbin of theology.

I was a bit disappointed that the book ended here. I suppose it is the end of the story, since we’ve now got people going to heaven when they die, then being reincarnated for the Final Judgment, and the wicked being punished forever. But it seems to me heaven and hell continued to develop in different ways, as reflected, not only in religious and academic discourse, but also in fiction. Look at Dante, at Milton, and, yes, at Walton.

I chose to read this book after seeing a blog post Jim Harris about a previous Ehrman book. We’d just crossed paths discussing BASS stories, so I was intrigued my new friend was, like me, interested in religion as an academic rather than a spiritual pursuit; that is, more interested in the history of Christianity than it its truth or guidance. He mentioned this book would be published soon, and since I’d so enjoyed Walton’s Lent just months before, I put a hold on it at my local library.

That brings us into a bit of contemporary drama. I placed the hold in late February 2020, knowing the book was scheduled for release on March 31. In late February, COVID-19 was something happening in China and, maybe, Italy. On March 15, 2020, the Portland Public Library shut down the physical building (online services continued) following the diagnosis of two cases in Maine; what we now refer to as lockdown followed within days. I forgot about this book; I was still working on Pushcart and had a shelf of other reading, and the closure was only for two weeks (we were so naïve).

During the first week of June, the library announced it would open a “Library-to-go” service, initially to distribute books that had been placed on hold before lockdown by appointment only, staggered to reduce the number of people at the library at once. The pickup notice I found in my email delighted me, as 1) I’d forgotten all about it, and 2) the library was waking up! On June 11, stepped into the library building for the first time in months; it was only for about 30 seconds, but it was wonderful.

This has nothing to do with Ehrman’s book, of course, but does show how unexpected events can influence one’s viewpoint. I probably have a positive bias towards this book because of its place in my personal COVID history, minor as it is. So I have no trouble imagining the impact exile, destruction of the Temple, or persecution could have on one’s point of view. And for those who find these kinds of man-created-God thoughts offensive, that’s fine; there’s plenty of other stuff you can read.

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