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Bart D. Ehrman

Heaven and Hell

A History of the Afterlife

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
A recent Pew Research poll has found that 72 per cent of North Americans believe in a literal heaven and 58 per cent believe in a literal hell. These numbers may seem high, though perhaps not unexpectedly so, to non-American readers, but in fact they reflect a decline in traditional religious belief in recent years in the USA. Such beliefs are less widely held in western Europe, even by some of the clergy, but they are still generally regarded as central to mainstream Christianity.

As Ehrman shows in this book, however, these ideas do not go back to the beginnings of Christianity. They have developed gradually over many centuries. In fact there was no unified belief system about the afterlife among early Christians.

The apostle Paul had different views of the afterlife from Jesus, whose views were not the same as those found in the Gospel of Luke or the Gospel of John or the Book of Revelation. Moreover, none of these views coincides exactly with those of Christian leaders of the second, third and fourth centuries whose ideas became the basis for the understanding of many Christians today.
Much of the book is concerned with these historical divergences. However, it is not wholly confined to Christianity; it starts with the Gilgamesh epic and continues with the beliefs that were current in classical antiquity and in ancient Judaism. Both of these described a shadowy postmortem existence in hades or sheol. The dead continued to exist in some sense but their state was vastly inferior to that of even the meanest living people. Yet the dead were not tortured or punished for their sins; this was not hell as we think of it today.

By Jesus's time some Jews believed in a future resurrection, although it is difficult to know how widespread such ideas were since few people left any written records. We do know that apocalyptic beliefs about a coming transformation of the world were common at this time, and Ehrman is one of many scholars who think that Jesus was an apocalypticist who believed the transformation would occur in the lifetime of his disciples.

Ehrman seems to have had two main motives in writing. One is historical: as in many of his other books, he wants to increase readers' awareness of the evolutionary complexity of Christian origins. The other is more personal. He had an evangelical upbringing, and in an afterword he recalls how this inculcated a fear of damnation in his mind. Now he wants to relieve the anxiety of others who may have a similar emotional legacy.

He still feels a residue of this fear but he recognises that it is irrational and finds that he can dispel it by reflecting on it intellectually. This is not just because he no longer is a believer; no benevolent God, he insists, would consign huge numbers of people to eternal torment just because they had held the wrong beliefs. He does not totally exclude the notion of some kind of postmortem experience—no one can know if this is possible—but if it happens it will not entail endless suffering. But in any case, his money is on simple extinction of consciousness, like that which has already happened to him when he underwent general anaesthesia for an operation. This is nothing to fear. We should make the most of the life we have and try to help others to do the same.


%T Heaven and Hell
%S A History of the Afterlife
%A Ehrman, Bart D.
%I Oneworld Publications
%C London
%D 2020
%G eISBN 978-1-38607-721-9
%P 327pp
%K religion, death and dying
%O kindle version, downloaded from Amazon 2021

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