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Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife

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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, 58% in a literal hell. Most people who hold these beliefs are Chri 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, 58% 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 the ideas come from? In clear and compelling terms, 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 the 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 the notions of eternal bliss or damnation widely accepted today. As a historian, Ehrman obviously cannot provide a definitive answer to the question of what happens after death. In Heaven and Hell, he does the next best thing: by helping us reflect on where our ideas of the afterlife come from, he assures us that even if there may be something to hope for when we die, there is certainly nothing to fear.


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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, 58% in a literal hell. Most people who hold these beliefs are Chri 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, 58% 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 the ideas come from? In clear and compelling terms, 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 the 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 the notions of eternal bliss or damnation widely accepted today. As a historian, Ehrman obviously cannot provide a definitive answer to the question of what happens after death. In Heaven and Hell, he does the next best thing: by helping us reflect on where our ideas of the afterlife come from, he assures us that even if there may be something to hope for when we die, there is certainly nothing to fear.

30 review for Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jenna

    A comprehensive and scholarly book that explores our ideas of the afterlife I think it's safe to say that just about every one of us has thought about what happens when we die. Many simply accept what it is they were taught growing up: they'll be reincarnated, they'll go to heaven (and not hell because they believe the "right" way), they'll cease to exist. Others think more deeply on the subject. I'm in the latter group, having been raised fundamentalist baptist and assured of a fiery hell where A comprehensive and scholarly book that explores our ideas of the afterlife I think it's safe to say that just about every one of us has thought about what happens when we die. Many simply accept what it is they were taught growing up: they'll be reincarnated, they'll go to heaven (and not hell because they believe the "right" way), they'll cease to exist. Others think more deeply on the subject. I'm in the latter group, having been raised fundamentalist baptist and assured of a fiery hell where all but the select few who believed exactly like us would spend eternity in utmost torment, an idea I eventually rejected. As a young adult, I spent a lot of time thinking about the afterlife (among other things), even though it terrified me to allow myself to question any of the things I had been taught. Still, in spite of my fear, I couldn't not think about the truth claims I had been told I had to accept. I decided that if there is a god, then it would want me to use the brain it gave me (well, at that time, it was still God with a capital G and "He", not it) in order to figure out what the truth was for myself, not merely accept something someone else told me. In fact, how could I even claim to really believe in something that I hadn't thought through myself? The view I came to have - that there is nothing after our bodies die - is not the popular view in America, nor perhaps even in much of the world. In America, 72% believe in a literal heaven, 58% in a literal hell. Maybe the majority are right and I am wrong? I cannot say for sure, no more than anyone can. None of us can know for sure. In the absence of any proof either way, I believe what makes the most sense to me, which is that we don't have a "soul" that is separate from our bodies; there is nothing eternal about us. When our body dies, we cease to exist. This idea could be sad to many who believe they will enjoy eternity in Heaven, but it can also be a relief to those who worry that maybe, somehow, they don't believe everything the "right" way and thus will be thrown in that fiery lake of hell, to suffer for all time. To help make sense of the afterlife and what we each of us really believe (as opposed to what it is we were taught, whether or not it ends up being the same), it is helpful to examine where all the different ideas of an afterlife came from.  And this book is a good place to start. In Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife", New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman goes back to ancient times to explore the evolving ideas of what happens when we die. While we cannot know what the majority of people thought, we can at least scrutinize what philosophers claimed and wrote about. Mr. Ehrman investigates the writings of ancient people such as Socrates, Lucian of Samosata, Lucretius, Aristophanes, and Epicurus.  He quotes extensively from Homer, Plato, and others of Antiquity.  Mr. Ehrman then moves to the ancient Jews, exploring the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament of the Christian Bible), looking at what they believed. It may come as a surprise to some to learn that "There is no place of eternal punishment in any passage of the entire Old Testament".  In fact, "Nowhere in the entire Hebrew Bible is there any discussion at all of heaven and hell as places of rewards and punishments for those who have died." It is only in the relatively late book of Daniel that we encounter the idea that there will be a resurrection of the dead at the end of time.  We then move to the New Testament, examining Jesus' teachings and what we can know of what he thought would happen. Looking closely at Jesus' teachings, we see he believed that while some would live eternally with God in paradise, others would simply cease to exist. There was no hell or eternal suffering. Punishment came in the form of simply not being given an eternal body. Wicked and ungodly souls would be annihilated, never to exist again nor enjoy the glories of God's kingdom. As Bart Ehrman notes,"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." It is interesting to see the changing beliefs, even from the earliest gospel of Mark to the latest of them, the gospel of John, and then what Paul preached/believed. It is also interesting to see those changes through several apocryphal books that did not make it into the official Bible but were widely circulated amongst early Christians. There is a chapter decoding the book of Revelation too, which I found most interesting! It had nothing to do with some literal apocalypse millennia in the future. Indeed, the author indicates "his account is symbolic and in fact gives keys to the interpretations of his symbols". Mr. Ehrman also explores the teachings of various early Christians such as Augustine, Tertullian, and Cyprian.  One thing is clear: beliefs of what happens after we die changed with the times. Modern beliefs were built on earlier ideas, transforming through the ages.  While Mr. Ehrman as a historian mostly refrains from making truth or value claims, he does tell us exactly why he has come to believe there cannot possibly be a place of eternal suffering and punishment such as hell. That should be a comfort to those who have been brainwashed into believing they will be tortured for all time if they so much as question the validity of what they were taught. When we see that Jesus himself did not subscribe to such an idea, there is no reason that modern Christians have to accept what later Christians came to believe about the afterlife, those horrific scenes of torture they painted. It does not mean people must abandon their faith, but it does mean they can be freed of their fear of endless suffering.  No matter what one believes of the afterlife, Heaven and Hell is a most interesting look at how ideas have always changed... and probably always will. If you're interested in the subject matter, ancient beliefs and philosophy, or just want to explore your own ideas of an afterlife, you will find much to learn and consider in this book. 

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jessaka

    Imagine There’s No Hell December 1965. San Pablo, CA. I was studying the bible with one of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who was trying to tell me that there was no real hellfire. It sounded good, but I was not sure if I should believe her or not. She suggested that I find a King James version of the bible, one with margins. and check out the words, “Shel” and “Hades” which are the Hebrew and the Greek words for our English word “Hell.” I went to the Richmond library, found a King James bible with marg Imagine There’s No Hell December 1965. San Pablo, CA. I was studying the bible with one of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who was trying to tell me that there was no real hellfire. It sounded good, but I was not sure if I should believe her or not. She suggested that I find a King James version of the bible, one with margins. and check out the words, “Shel” and “Hades” which are the Hebrew and the Greek words for our English word “Hell.” I went to the Richmond library, found a King James bible with margins, and sat down to read it. Both Sheol and Hades were translated as “the common grave of mankind.” I was satisfied. The Jehovah’s Witnesses also be3lieve that God’s kingdom would be a paradise on earth, and that the wicked would die, just die, not burn for eternity. The Witnesses also used reasoning: “If you had a child would you punish him by putting his hand in a fire?” “No,” I said, “That would be cruel, even Sadistic.” “Then,” my teacer, Mavis, said, “Why do you think that God would punish us, his children, in a burning fire?” Six months later I had joined the Witnesses, and I remained one for four years before being asked to leave. Ostracized. Since then I had also questioned as to whether a loving God, one who loves unconditionally, would kill anyone of his children. I could not conceive of it, but I could believe that he would save everyone, somehow. A few years later I moved to Berkeley, California and walked up the hill from my apartment to what we all called “Holy Hill,” Berkeley’s Christian seminary. I found a minister and asked him about “Sheol” and “Hades,” telling him what I had learned. He said, and I paraphrase, “There is no hellfire, but if I preached this, people would walk out.” Then, I talked with a rabbi as to the meaning of the word “Sheol,” and his statement went like this, “We, the Jews, didn’t know what Sheol meant. We thought maybe it could be a watery deep. We do not know what happens after we die. We just love God.” I was deeply impressed by anyone who would love God without knowing if there were a reward or not. A while back, I learned of Bart Ehrman, the bible scholar who is a member of the Jesus Seminar, the group that had published the book, “The Five Gospels.” I had that book in my possession, and I had learned when reading it that what Jesus had preached had been mostly preached before. There was not much that was new. Since then I had read other books by him, or tried, one that I had finished dealt with the issue of suffering. Lately, I had wished that he would write a book on the history of hell. I just wanted his opinion. I knew my own: there is no hell. Then the other day I learned that he had just published this book. I bought and read it immediately. So. the bible scholar, Bart Ehrman also learned that Hades means “the common grave of mankind,” and he explains away scriptures, like the one on Gehenna, just as the Witnesses had done, but in a more scholarly manner. The beginning chapters of this book dealt with the Greek philosopher’s views on the afterlife. Plato’s version was that man had a Soul, and that it was immortal and was more real than the body. I like this view. Ehrman then went on to explain Jesus’ beliefs, which were apocalyptic. He taught that his kingdom would be on earth and that his disciples would still be alive when this happened. He also taught that the wicked would die. Just die. No everlasting punishment, no hope for a resurrection. When his disciples realized later that they would not be alive to see his kingdom, they changed their beliefs. Plato’s beliefs filled the gap. And this is where the bible became confusing. First, Jesus’ teachings were changed, and then Paul preached a different message. Then even the Christians became confused. Some of them believed in one thing, others, another. While God is said to not be a God of confusion, everyone was confused, everyone but Paul who thought that he had all the right answers. Next, I learned that even the church fathers had their own beliefs and argued them as well. Let’s face it, no one knows what will happen after we die, even if we think we do. While I do believe in a Creator, I do not believe in the bible. If there is a personal God, I do not understand why He allows suffering. I have not even heard of a good reason for why there is suffering in the world. And it could be that the mystics get glimpses of God when meditating, and that He is a God of Love, and that there is a reason why things are as they are. But like the teachings on the afterlife, we just don’t know and may never know. For some of us, it is enough to realize that the universe had a Creator and that we get to enjoy this creation. For others, the suffering is too great to believe in any Creator, much less a personal one. Then there are those that just accept reasons as to why suffering exists. I used to be one of those people. Now, I don’t know what to believe and maybe it doesn’t matter.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Ryan Boissonneault

    What happens after you die? No one knows, of course, but that hasn’t stopped people throughout history from making extraordinary claims backed with extraordinarily little evidence. The history of this wild hypothesizing is the subject of Bart Ehrman’s latest book, Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife. Ehrman is in a unique position to tell the story. As a New Testament scholar, he’s spent his entire career critically examining the Bible and the development of early Christianity. But he’s n What happens after you die? No one knows, of course, but that hasn’t stopped people throughout history from making extraordinary claims backed with extraordinarily little evidence. The history of this wild hypothesizing is the subject of Bart Ehrman’s latest book, Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife. Ehrman is in a unique position to tell the story. As a New Testament scholar, he’s spent his entire career critically examining the Bible and the development of early Christianity. But he’s no Bible thumper; over the course of his life, his burgeoning knowledge of the subject led him to eventually abandon the faith, moving from fundamentalist to liberal Christianity and eventually to atheism. Ehrman is therefore among the most knowledgeable atheists on the planet regarding Christianity, having earned both master’s and PhD degrees in the textual criticism of the Bible and having written over 30 books on the subject, including three college textbooks. Apparently, Ehrman’s increasingly sophisticated understanding of Christianity correlated perfectly with his move to eventually reject it. As Penn Jillet wrote, “Reading the Bible is the fast track to atheism,” and studying it for a living—in an intellectually honest manner—should all but guarantee the transition. In Heaven and Hell, Ehrman traces the evolving nature of the Western mind’s picture of the afterlife, not from the perspective of a believer, but from the perspective of a well-informed but disinterested observer. Ehrman covers early Greek, Jewish, and Christian conceptions of life after death and how this has changed over time within the Judeo-Christian tradition. While the book is filled with fascinating stories, anecdotes, and analysis, for our purposes we can focus on Erhman’s (probably unsurprising) main thesis, which is that most Christians majorly misunderstand their own faith regarding the afterlife (in addition to much else). Ask the majority of Christians today, and they’ll tell you that after you die your soul escapes your body and ascends to heaven or descends to the depths of hell depending on whether you lived a good life or held the appropriate beliefs. But, as Ehrman shows—leveraging his extensive research in Biblical criticism—this view is not only incorrect, it also contradicts the teachings of Jesus himself! In brief, Ehrman shows that a careful reading of the words of Jesus in the New Testament reveals that Jesus was part of a long line of Jewish apocalypticists. Jesus did not believe, nor did he ever say, that the soul leaves the body at death and travels to either heaven or hell. Consistent with Jewish teachings, Jesus prophesied an imminent day of judgment where God would raise the dead, defeat the evil forces in the world, and create a utopia on earth to be enjoyed by the righteous while the wicked would be annihilated forever. But this was not something people had to wait 2,000 years for. As Jesus said: “Some of those standing here will not will not taste death before they see that the Kingdom of God has come in power.” (Mark 9:1) And: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place.” (Mark 13:30) A major fact often overlooked when reading the Bible is that the authors were consistently writing about their own times and context, and, as Ehrman repeatedly reminds us, it is always a mistake to read the author as prophesying events that are to occur thousands of years later. The most honest reading of Jesus’s words suggests that he thought judgment day was imminent. Neither Jesus, nor the Jewish apocalypticists, thought that the soul traveled anywhere without the body. They believed that the body required the soul and the soul required the body, and that God could either resurrect the body for eternal life on earth or else annihilate life altogether. Jesus never speaks of any separate realm of heaven or hell, or of eternal punishment, and while he did speak of an eternal fire that the wicked would be thrown into, he did not say that they would burn forever. So where did the idea come from, that the soul leaves the body at death and journeys to some mysterious location of eternal bliss or torment? It comes from—like much else—the ancient Greeks! In a weird twist of irony, most practicing Christians today are really Platonists in disguise. Soul/body dualism is not a biblical idea, it is a Greek idea. Plato invented the idea that the soul is superior to the body and that, after death, it is the soul that lives on, as the soul is, by its very nature, immortal. Christians at some point decided that Plato knew better than Jesus and adopted the Platonic view. So why did this happen? Because the day of judgment never came (as it was supposed to during the time of Jesus), so people had to adapt their beliefs and find another way to justify the bad things that happened to the faithful. People believe in the afterlife for a host of reasons, including the natural desire to extend one’s life indefinitely, to reunite with loved ones, or to simply placate a fear of death and the unknown. But they do so for another reason altogether: namely, the desire for justice. People noticed that it is often the case whereby the wicked are rewarded for their sins and the righteous suffer for their piety. They eventually asked how this can be, particularly when one believes in an infinitely just God. Christians realized long ago that the only way to square this paradox required the administration of justice in another realm (since apparently the day of judgment wasn’t happening anytime soon). To do this, they stole a simplified version of Plato’s philosophy and imagined that their souls left their bodies at death to unite with God in heaven (instant gratification) and that their enemies’ souls would not simply be annihilated—as Jesus and the Jews taught—but rather would be tortured FOR ETERNITY. Torture for all eternity seemed like a reasonable punishment, apparently. As Ehrman wrote, “Seeing your enemies horribly tortured for eternity is apparently considered one of the greatest joys possible.” The early Chrisitan author Tertullian seemed to take particular joy in the prospect of divine retribution. He wrote: “What a spectacle. . .when the world. . .and its many products, shall be consumed in one great flame! How vast a spectacle then bursts upon the eye! What there excites my admiration? What my derision? Which sight gives me joy? As I see. . .illustrious monarchs. . . groaning in the lowest darkness, Philosophers. . .as fire consumes them! Poets trembling before the judgment-seat of. . .Christ! I shall hear the tragedians, louder-voiced in their own calamity; view play-actors. . .in the dissolving flame; behold wrestlers, not in their gymnasia, but tossing in the fiery billows. . .What inquisitor or priest in his munificence will bestow on you the favor of seeing and exulting in such things as these? Yet even now we in a measure have them by faith in the picturings of imagination.” Not exactly consistent with the Sermon on the Mount or the command to love your enemies, but this is just another example of most Christians’ tendency to deviate from the teachings of the historical Jesus. And so most practicing Christians ought to call themselves Platonists, unless they are willing to realign their beliefs according to what Jesus actually taught: bodily resurrection on earth on the day of judgment. This is unlikely to happen because, as Ehrman demonstrates, Christians always have and always will adapt their beliefs according to the circumstances or to popular culture and NOT according to a critical reading of Jesus’s actual words (even Jesus’s direct disciples seem to have modified his teachings). Of course, the Juedo-Christian view of the afterlife (or the Platonic view) is not the only ancient view. As Ehrman shows, Epicurus and the ancient Greek atomists saw through all of this in the third century BCE. Epicurus (along with his predecessor Democritus) held the prescient view that all that exists are atoms and the void, and that the soul—a particular arrangement of atoms—was simply annihilated at death. This is not only the most likely scenario, but it is also the precise reason why we shouldn’t fear death—and why we should come to appreciate life even more. As Epicurus said: “Accustom yourself to the belief that death is of no concern to us, since all good and evil lie in sensation and sensation ends with death. Therefore the true belief that death is nothing to us makes a mortal life happy, not by adding to it an infinite time, but by taking away the desire for immortality….Death, the most dreaded of evils, is therefore of no concern to us; for while we exist death is not present, and when death is present we no longer exist. It is therefore nothing either to the living or to the dead since it is not present to the living, and the dead no longer are.” Or, to think of it in another way: “Look back at the eternity that passed before we were born, and mark how utterly it counts to us as nothing. This is a mirror that nature holds up to us, in which we may see the time that shall be after we are dead.” If we’re honest, there’s really not much more to say on the subject than that.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Linden

    Most of us have a preconceived notion of what happens after death. Nothing? Punishment or reward in heaven or hell? Ehrman presents an academic yet accessible perspective on the topic, exploring views of pagans, Jews, Christians, Greeks, and Romans. We also learn about the early Christians and their views on martyrdom, and why St Augustine is not really "the father of purgatory" as he has been called. Most of us have a preconceived notion of what happens after death. Nothing? Punishment or reward in heaven or hell? Ehrman presents an academic yet accessible perspective on the topic, exploring views of pagans, Jews, Christians, Greeks, and Romans. We also learn about the early Christians and their views on martyrdom, and why St Augustine is not really "the father of purgatory" as he has been called.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Bryan Alkire

    Good book on the topic. I’ve always been interested in the history of religious concepts so this was a natural. The pace is good, chapters are logical arranged and there aren’t any digressions and few wasted words. I’ve never really been a fan of the author’s writing style. It’s somewhat dry and I’ve always thought that he presents everything as an argument, not a discussion. But then again, I read the author for his ideas and information, not his writing style. The content is interesting and I Good book on the topic. I’ve always been interested in the history of religious concepts so this was a natural. The pace is good, chapters are logical arranged and there aren’t any digressions and few wasted words. I’ve never really been a fan of the author’s writing style. It’s somewhat dry and I’ve always thought that he presents everything as an argument, not a discussion. But then again, I read the author for his ideas and information, not his writing style. The content is interesting and I learned about some new aspects about the history of the afterlife I hadn’t come across before. So, this book met my expectations. In fact, I enjoyed it much more than the author’s last couple of books. I give this one a 4. It’s interesting and well organized even if the writing style isn’t the easiest to get through.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Caidyn (he/him/his)

    I received an ARC through Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review! 1.5/5 I got super excited about this book when I saw it on Edelweiss because I find the different perceptions of heaven and hell across a variety of religions fascinating. They're all so different and unique, yet it's so cool to see the similarities at times. These things aren't topics I really learned about in my undergrad when I studied religions, but it's still super interesting to me. This book started off strong with talking I received an ARC through Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review! 1.5/5 I got super excited about this book when I saw it on Edelweiss because I find the different perceptions of heaven and hell across a variety of religions fascinating. They're all so different and unique, yet it's so cool to see the similarities at times. These things aren't topics I really learned about in my undergrad when I studied religions, but it's still super interesting to me. This book started off strong with talking about the perceptions throughout history. Greek perceptions especially, as well as The Epic of Gilgamesh. Then it covers Jewish and how that evolved over time. And then, we hit Christianity. That was when the book fell apart for me. It was at that point where I realized that this book is about the history of Christian thought. It starts with mainly Greek because Christianity was adopted by Greeks first. And since Christianity sprang out of Judaism, of course we had to cover Jewish thought as well. So tie together Greek and Jewish thought. It never went beyond Christianity. And here I was so excited to read about Hindu heaven and hell, Buddhist (and all the different Buddhisms), and Islam, as well as all the other thoughts you could talk about. And this book failed to do that. It's all about Christianity. Don't let the title fool you as it fooled me. I thought it was going be about history across different cultures, but it is ALL about the history and development of the Christian afterlife. I was so disappointed and immediately turned off. Christianity is very interesting, yes, but it's more apt for the subtitle to be about the history of Christian afterlife.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Raymond

    Review coming soon!!

  8. 5 out of 5

    Wendy

    3.75* I've always been fascinated with religion and the afterlife. The amateur shrink in me thinks it's due to being brought up by strong, religious women with 3 different faiths. One of my grandmothers is Catholic, the other one is Buddhist, and my mother is Evangelical Christian. I was brought to the Buddhist temple and also went to Sunday school. While I did not attend mass, my Catholic grandmother and aunts were very detailed about hellfire and brimstone and what happens to sinners in this l 3.75* I've always been fascinated with religion and the afterlife. The amateur shrink in me thinks it's due to being brought up by strong, religious women with 3 different faiths. One of my grandmothers is Catholic, the other one is Buddhist, and my mother is Evangelical Christian. I was brought to the Buddhist temple and also went to Sunday school. While I did not attend mass, my Catholic grandmother and aunts were very detailed about hellfire and brimstone and what happens to sinners in this life and the next. Looking back now, they took much inspiration from Dante. So, one can see how this book appeals to me. This is a well-researched book that explores how Christianity's notion of an afterlife has evolved through the years. For some, the body dies and awaits judgment and resurrection in a distant future. For others, one's soul goes immediately to heaven or hell depending on how one lived his life on earth. What about purgatory? Where did this concept come from? Through the various religious works over the years, from the Bible to the Gnostic Gospels to the works of Plato and the Church Fathers, the author dissected and presented how the belief in an afterlife has evolved throughout history. After reading this book, I find myself examining myself and my beliefs. It provoked a lot of critical thoughts that may not be comfortable for some people.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Marks54

    Bart Ehrman has written a superb history of the afterlife - a history of heaven and hell. The title of the book provides an example of what is both strange and intriguing about it. Heaven and Hell are both ideas that in their theological uses have clearly meant to identify ultimate, unchanging, and timeless locations. Heaven, whatever it is claimed to be, does not evolve - it just is. Similarly with Hell. Apart from whatever origin story one adheres to, its very concept is of an absolute and ine Bart Ehrman has written a superb history of the afterlife - a history of heaven and hell. The title of the book provides an example of what is both strange and intriguing about it. Heaven and Hell are both ideas that in their theological uses have clearly meant to identify ultimate, unchanging, and timeless locations. Heaven, whatever it is claimed to be, does not evolve - it just is. Similarly with Hell. Apart from whatever origin story one adheres to, its very concept is of an absolute and inescapable and unchanging place - of torment in some views or nothingness in others. So the notion of a “history” of Heaven and Hell comes about as close to being a fundamental inconsistency or contradiction as it is possible to be. They are outside of time and yet are the subjects of a history, in which at one point virtually nobody held ideas of either while at a subsequent time millions structured their lives so as to live righteously and avoid sin so as to earn Heaven and avoid the fires of Hell. Sounds like a worthy book topic to me! I was raised a Catholic and recall some of the later versions of the Baltimore Catechism - which provided some initial encounters with ideas of Heaven and Hell. I do not recall when I first began to wonder where the detailed accounting of salvation ledgers came from, but I do remember Father Arnall’s sermon in “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”. That is a book that one grows into but the vision of hell was gripping, even for a high school student. Many of Mr. Ehrman’s were not new to me. I read lots of history and these are topics that have received some coverage in the past, such as Plato’s influence. Pelikan’s history raises all sorts of related issues of eschatology but is almost too detailed. If one reads through Dante’s Inferno and does not wonder where the organizational details of hell came from given the paucity of biblical referents, then one is not paying attention. What I never picked up, however, was how we get from the early church to the Baltimore Catechism and where the elaborate social control mechanism actually came from. This is where Mr. Ehrman’s book excels. In particular, Ehrman is a master of non-canonical works of the Church Fathers - that is the epistles, gospels, apocalypse, and the like that did not “make the cut” and get selected into the theological body of work that is formally approved and that most believers spend some time studying. So knowing of the Gnostic Gospels will be informative of what early believers thought of heaven or hell, even if most people today have barely heard of them. This is also a clever and compelling motivation for a more popular book. It is thorough, well written, and well argued. Professor Ehrman even provides guidance of how to read the apocalyptic literature and how to keep your Sts. John distinct from each other. I do not know where I will use this knowledge next, but the book is filled with cool tidbits. Perhaps someone can put these works online in a searchable database? I have never been personally troubled about afterlife stories or related accounts of heaven and hell. Nobody has yet provide a credible account of how one could access such details and come back to relate them to others. I guess that’s why they call it faith. This means that the details of heaven and hel must be more social constructions than anything else. This is the case, even though large numbers of people still believe in heaven and hell, if the polls are to be believed. How these stories developed and came to be adopted and believed is a worthwhile topic, especially given their importance to people. Mr. Ehrman is a fine guide who does not threaten you with damnation if you disagree with him on some point.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Grumpus

    The grumpus23 (23-word commentary) Is this life all there is? Is there a heaven and hell? This is a biography about what earliest man thought through today.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Sarah-Hope

    My first encounter with Bart Ehrman was his Misquoting Jesus, which I was given as a gift and found to be an excellent read. I've read almost everything he's published since then. His work is never "bad," but its strengths are uneven. Lost Christianities, like Misquoting Jesus, was brilliant. Other titles, like Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene feel less substantial: some interesting ideas spun out into a book-length work when they could have been effectively presented in a briefer fashion. Heaven My first encounter with Bart Ehrman was his Misquoting Jesus, which I was given as a gift and found to be an excellent read. I've read almost everything he's published since then. His work is never "bad," but its strengths are uneven. Lost Christianities, like Misquoting Jesus, was brilliant. Other titles, like Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene feel less substantial: some interesting ideas spun out into a book-length work when they could have been effectively presented in a briefer fashion. Heaven and Hell is interesting, but it does fall into that second category, a book that feels longer than it needs to be in order to make its points. Heaven and Hell explores the evolution of the Christian concept of the afterlife going back to pre-Christianity, the early Jewish world, as well as Greece and Rome. As always, Ehrman's writing shakes up what seemed to be solid ground, showing us that what seems obvious today wasn't always obvious. Heaven and Hell offers a multitude of perspectives on the afterlife, from viewing it as annihilation to a sort of grey half-life to eternities of great cruelty or reward. The material is fascinating, but I didn't need 352 pages to understand what Ehrman is presenting. I would have enjoyed some deeper digging with more detailed historical and textual discussion to fill out those 352 pages. I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley. The opinions are my own.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Thomas

    I think there are two things you need to realize if you’re going to get the most out of this book. The first thing you need to realize is that this is intended as a history of thought about and belief in the afterlife in the Classical Greco-Roman and Biblical Judeo-Christian worlds. There is pretty much nothing about the history of such thought in any of the other major religions or cultures. To be fair, a more inclusive book would’ve been quite a massive doorstop. This one should really have be I think there are two things you need to realize if you’re going to get the most out of this book. The first thing you need to realize is that this is intended as a history of thought about and belief in the afterlife in the Classical Greco-Roman and Biblical Judeo-Christian worlds. There is pretty much nothing about the history of such thought in any of the other major religions or cultures. To be fair, a more inclusive book would’ve been quite a massive doorstop. This one should really have been titled: Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife in the West. The second thing you need to realize is that if you are a believer, you’re going to have to find a way to suspend belief long enough to hear what the author has to say. He makes plain that he is a born-again-not-really-born-again-anymore Christian if he still identifies as a Christian at all. He approaches the Bible with the view that it is the work of men alone and interprets it accordingly. Ehrman doesn’t hold back but he also doesn’t do it in a malicious all-religion-is-fairytale-so-you’re-an-idiot-for-believing-in-anything kind of way, so you have a chance to get something out of this book. This is definitely an interesting read. It goes through three different main lines of thought when it comes to the afterlife. The first is the idea is that there is no afterlife. When you die you actually die and you’re not coming back. Game over, man. Game over. This belief was far more popular in the biblical world than most people today realize. The second idea is the resurrection. Sometime after you die, you may be brought back to life, perhaps with an opportunity to live in an everlasting paradise. The third idea is the notion of the immortality of the soul. This belief was far less popular in the biblical world than most people today realize. These three beliefs, along with endless variations, such as reincarnation, were mashed up against each other and mashed together in all kinds of interesting ways. And of course, one can’t forget the great debate about what kind of afterlife there ought to be and what sort of rewards for the faithful and punishment for the wicked seems fair, hence the question of heaven and hell. The thing that really caused me to pick up this book in the first place is the knowledge that the popular notion of an immortal soul that goes straight to either a heavenly reward or a fiery hell for the rest of eternity is not actually found anywhere in the Bible whether you believe it was the word of God or of men. I always found that comforting because whatever you might think about the notion of heavenly bliss, the idea that anyone can sin egregiously enough to deserve being tortured for the rest of eternity by an allegedly loving God is pure madness. On that particular point, I wasn’t disappointed. I found that the author approaches the issue in a fair-minded and thorough way. There was a lot of stuff that started to get a little tedious for me at times. If you dismiss the Gospels as unreliable, there’s no way you can ever know for sure what the historical Jesus actually believed about anything. Also, I found a lot of the debates and reasoning of the people in that era on the subject to be kind of tedious and silly. Maybe it’s the arrogance of hindsight. I imagine I would have been just as ignorant if I’d lived back then. Whether it challenges your core beliefs or not, knowledge is never a bad thing. This was worth my time.

  13. 5 out of 5

    James Kenney

    Loved this book. I’ve been waiting for years for Bart Ehrman to finish this book. Anyone interested in the various views on the afterlife, where Heaven and Hell came from, and the views on the afterlife from the Ancient Greeks, the Old Testament, the historical Jesus, and early Christians should read this book. Highly recommended!

  14. 5 out of 5

    Thomas

    There's more about hell here than heaven, because as we all know, "Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens." (St. David Byrne) The journey to Hell has always been more interesting. Ehrman's rather academic treatment describes how Hell's landscape was explored by early Christians, and before that by the Greeks (though the Greek Hades seems rather mopey compared to Dante's inferno.) Ehrman's specialty is the history of early Christianity, so it's natural that he focuses on Judeo-Christian con There's more about hell here than heaven, because as we all know, "Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens." (St. David Byrne) The journey to Hell has always been more interesting. Ehrman's rather academic treatment describes how Hell's landscape was explored by early Christians, and before that by the Greeks (though the Greek Hades seems rather mopey compared to Dante's inferno.) Ehrman's specialty is the history of early Christianity, so it's natural that he focuses on Judeo-Christian conceptions of the afterlife, though I was hoping that he would at least touch on the ideas of other cultures. As it is, this book is not only an introduction to Judeo-Christian perspectives on the afterlife, but a nice intro to early Christian thinkers like Origen and Tertullian as well. And to be fair, Heaven does get a fair shake, but ideas of the afterlife were primarily motivated by a desire for justice rather than mercy, so Hell gets the lion's share of the attention.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Paul Vogelzang

    Thanks to the publisher for sharing this book. I've read several by Dr. Bart Ehrman, who I've interviewed for work with Smithsonian. I always enjoy Dr. Ehrman's books and his unique way of making God, Jesus, religion understandable. Dr. Ehrman always offers me a different perspective, his newest, about after we die, gives me more to think about. Thanks to the publisher for sharing this book. I've read several by Dr. Bart Ehrman, who I've interviewed for work with Smithsonian. I always enjoy Dr. Ehrman's books and his unique way of making God, Jesus, religion understandable. Dr. Ehrman always offers me a different perspective, his newest, about after we die, gives me more to think about.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Patricia

    This book was good, although I think the title should be changed to indicate that it's only a history of Christian ideas about the afterlife. I've read a lot of Ehrman's books, so this is what I expected, so I wasn't too disappointed, but I still would have been interested in a comparison to other religions. This book was good, although I think the title should be changed to indicate that it's only a history of Christian ideas about the afterlife. I've read a lot of Ehrman's books, so this is what I expected, so I wasn't too disappointed, but I still would have been interested in a comparison to other religions.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    Super accessible and well-written history, albeit an entirely western one. I expected a wider survey of more recent developments in philosophies of the afterlife too but the book centred almost entirely on interpretations of the Bible in the centuries immediately succeeding the death of Christ. This specificity is definitely a strength of the book but I was disappointed to not see any discussion of Islamic interpretations. Ehrman clearly writes about what he knows, rather than attempting to wade Super accessible and well-written history, albeit an entirely western one. I expected a wider survey of more recent developments in philosophies of the afterlife too but the book centred almost entirely on interpretations of the Bible in the centuries immediately succeeding the death of Christ. This specificity is definitely a strength of the book but I was disappointed to not see any discussion of Islamic interpretations. Ehrman clearly writes about what he knows, rather than attempting to wade into unknown territory in order to produce a vast history. I also think the conclusions could’ve been more impactful and concise, rather than just returning to a slightly more detailed rehash of the introduction. Ultimately a great read though and Ehrman approaches a potentially bleak subject with tongue-in-cheek humour and a reassuring, rational voice. As an agnostic I didn’t expect to be so drawn to the descriptions and explorations of Biblical text, which is testament to how much of an easy-read the book is.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Ryan

    In Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife, Bart D. Ehrman, a historian of early Christianity, explains how the ancient Greeks understood death and how that understanding evolved among the early Christians. Death is the end turns into death is a pit for shades, which then turns into a resurrection of bodies on Earth. (As Paul grows older, he begins to reconsider.) Eventually, Christians decide that the body dies but the spirit endures. What's more, it is evaluated and rewarded or punished. W In Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife, Bart D. Ehrman, a historian of early Christianity, explains how the ancient Greeks understood death and how that understanding evolved among the early Christians. Death is the end turns into death is a pit for shades, which then turns into a resurrection of bodies on Earth. (As Paul grows older, he begins to reconsider.) Eventually, Christians decide that the body dies but the spirit endures. What's more, it is evaluated and rewarded or punished. What happens to souls if they do not immediately ascend to Heaven? Purgatory. The history mostly fizzles out a few hundred years ago, and I was left wondering whether Purgatory is still a thing. After reading James Clavell's Shogun last summer, I resolved to read more about the history of Catholics. The last book I read, Ross Douthat's To Change the Church, is deeply committed to the ideal of an unchanging (or very slowly changing) faith and set of norms. But, after reading Heaven and Hell, I was left with the feeling that maybe we should think about Christianity in the same way that William Gibson thinks about science fiction novels: they are not prophetic texts but are better read as responding to the culture and historical conditions that give rise to them. 3.5.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Anthony

    I always enjoy Prof. Ehrman's books. The only issue I have is that I've read so many (add well as listened to many of his lectures and talks) that a book like this is bound to cover material I'm at least painfully familiar with. This is expected though since his most often subject matter overlaps quite a bit in both time and subject matter. But the advantage is if this is your first book by him, it'll be a complete and very comprehensible experience. And, of course, new research and discoveries I always enjoy Prof. Ehrman's books. The only issue I have is that I've read so many (add well as listened to many of his lectures and talks) that a book like this is bound to cover material I'm at least painfully familiar with. This is expected though since his most often subject matter overlaps quite a bit in both time and subject matter. But the advantage is if this is your first book by him, it'll be a complete and very comprehensible experience. And, of course, new research and discoveries address always being made in the field of biblical history, so the material bears repetition more often than not. This is an exceptionally good book since it delves deep into the history of ideas about the afterlife, starting from when there was none, and relating it to non Judaeo- Christian ideas also prevalent during the times and their possible influence on Christian ideas, especially as more Gentiles than Jews became Christians. And then again when Christianity became the dominant religion in the Mediterranean rather than a minority.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Christian

    Universal Survey-tion AT A GLANCE: A flawed but engaging look at the Christian afterlife. CONTENT: Bart Ehrman, a noted textual scholar, acts as our Virgil through the afterlife. After covering such diverse material as Mesopotamian mythology and Platonism, Jewish and early Christian writings are then parsed for their insights. This is exemplary when he's focusing on the authors surveyed, though often less so when he inserts his own insights. It must be noted that he is setting out to undermine the C Universal Survey-tion AT A GLANCE: A flawed but engaging look at the Christian afterlife. CONTENT: Bart Ehrman, a noted textual scholar, acts as our Virgil through the afterlife. After covering such diverse material as Mesopotamian mythology and Platonism, Jewish and early Christian writings are then parsed for their insights. This is exemplary when he's focusing on the authors surveyed, though often less so when he inserts his own insights. It must be noted that he is setting out to undermine the Christian orthodoxy of his youth (as described in the foreword). He is less careful here than in his academic works, and his famous axe-grinding is on full display. He ends the book with a David Bentley Hart-esque conclusion in an afterword that feels unnecessary. NARRATOR: John Lloyd sounds a bit stilted at first but I quickly became accustomed to it and his voice is fine. It begins with Ehrman and then throws you for a loop by switching narrators. OVERALL: While possibly misleading to those unfamiliar with Ehrman, this is a useful introduction to Christian views on the afterlife.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Faith

    I wanted to like this book but I felt that it didn't really give a lot of new info about the subject. To be fair, my undergraduate degree was in religious studies. However, I think the information about the views of the afterlife in the Western tradition are well known. That brings up my second issue with this book: it's focused exclusively on the Western religious traditions. I would have loved if Ehrman had a discussion about how Eastern religions view life after death. Having a survey of how I wanted to like this book but I felt that it didn't really give a lot of new info about the subject. To be fair, my undergraduate degree was in religious studies. However, I think the information about the views of the afterlife in the Western tradition are well known. That brings up my second issue with this book: it's focused exclusively on the Western religious traditions. I would have loved if Ehrman had a discussion about how Eastern religions view life after death. Having a survey of how various religion traditions view death (and a potential afterlife) and how they possibly came to these views would have been fascinating to read. Instead, I feel that Ehrman wrote this book to convince literalist Christians (who I doubt will actually read this book) that heaven and especially hell are later constructs that much of the ancient world didn't believe in. This might be interesting for this audience. However, I doubt it will be a new discovery for typical readers of Ehrman's books.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Thomas Achord

    In one sense, Bart Ehrman has written only one book under various titles. The subtitle for every Ehrman work should be: “Jesus didn’t say that; Christians invented it.” Each poses as an uncovering of some ancient secrets that everyone else has forgotten or covered up. In reality, much of Ehrman’s work doesn’t require much scholarship but a simple education in the classics of western civilization. Nearly all of Ehrman’s arguments are old, like thousands of years old; but he pitches them as new, u In one sense, Bart Ehrman has written only one book under various titles. The subtitle for every Ehrman work should be: “Jesus didn’t say that; Christians invented it.” Each poses as an uncovering of some ancient secrets that everyone else has forgotten or covered up. In reality, much of Ehrman’s work doesn’t require much scholarship but a simple education in the classics of western civilization. Nearly all of Ehrman’s arguments are old, like thousands of years old; but he pitches them as new, unique, something his deep studies have reveal. In this work, he borrows heavily from the arguments of N.T. Wright but without mentioning it. He interprets the Old Testament in terms of exile and restoration. This, “resurrection” to “life” after “death” in the OT is for Israel a restoration of the nation back into the promised land. “Heaven” and “hell” are later categories made up by individuals concerned for their individual souls. Ehrman admits that people in the OT expressed these views, but he normalizes the former view and labels these as outliers. This is akin to Wright’s interpretation of post-exilic Israel: the themes of salvation, resurrection, righteousness etc are each to be understood in light of the restoration of the Jewish nation to their land - and NOT to individual soul salvation. All that said, Heaven And Hell is actually refreshingly clear and interesting. Ehrman departs from the narrow confines of the first few centuries of the church to cover a wide survey of the afterlife. The work is thoroughly interesting and happily light on potshots toward christians. The only critique I have is that Ehrman deals falsely with actual Christian scholarship on the passages of scripture he interprets, leading to widely divergent conclusions. Heaven And Hell weren’t invented. They were universally understood places to be visited by all humans. Ehrman also lacks overlapping nuance in his discussion of various views of the afterlife. The Greco-Roman view of the underworld is not unlike Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man. Quoting a few mystic dreams of later followers of christ doesn’t fault the rule of overwhelming agreement.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Joe Kessler

    An interesting topic, delivered in a somewhat dry and academic tone. The general thesis of the work is that modern Christianity's conceptions of the hereafter are not exactly what would have been believed throughout history, and we can trace their gradual development across the centuries in the written record of the faith. The shifts detailed by religious studies professor Bart D. Ehrman are fairly nuanced -- often mandating both a close reading of the text and a trust in his expertise for appar An interesting topic, delivered in a somewhat dry and academic tone. The general thesis of the work is that modern Christianity's conceptions of the hereafter are not exactly what would have been believed throughout history, and we can trace their gradual development across the centuries in the written record of the faith. The shifts detailed by religious studies professor Bart D. Ehrman are fairly nuanced -- often mandating both a close reading of the text and a trust in his expertise for apparent context -- yet they add up to rather large drift effects over time. This is not a book for anyone who insists that today's church doctrine accurately represents the original teachings of Jesus, or that scripture is the infallible word of God. Although the author is a Christian who makes no claim as to which of the differing beliefs are true in any ontological sense, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that someone must be mistaken about the nature of the afterlife (whether contemporary worshippers or their predecessors, dating back to Christ himself). Overall it's a reasonable and well-supported account, sure to ruffle some feathers but not particularly revolutionary in terms of the writer's field. From simple nothingness to bodily resurrection to heavenly paradise and eternal damnation, the historian's framing of this progression of ideas towards the now-dominant paradigm is something to behold. Find me on Patreon | Goodreads | Blog | Twitter

  24. 4 out of 5

    Lesley

    I always enjoy Bart Ehrman's lucid, well reasoned prose and his skill at explicating tricky areas of theology in a way that is both intellectually honest, yet respectful to believers. His latest doesn't disappoint, and will be just as enjoyable to divinity school grads as to those binge watching The Good Place. Ehrman draws a clear throughline from the Platonic conception of the soul as completely separate from the body, through the ancient Hebrew apocalyptic visions of bodily resurrection, (lar I always enjoy Bart Ehrman's lucid, well reasoned prose and his skill at explicating tricky areas of theology in a way that is both intellectually honest, yet respectful to believers. His latest doesn't disappoint, and will be just as enjoyable to divinity school grads as to those binge watching The Good Place. Ehrman draws a clear throughline from the Platonic conception of the soul as completely separate from the body, through the ancient Hebrew apocalyptic visions of bodily resurrection, (largely articulated by Jesus) on to Paul's wrestling with afterlife without an apocalypse. To the surprise of many Christians, Ehrman contends that the idea of eternal torment is a much later, post biblical addition to Christianity, and not something either Jesus or Paul advocated or likely believed in. A well argued thesis, but it bothers me that Ehrman primarily limits himself to 3 traditions; Greek, Jewish and Christian, without looking at how Egyptian, Assyrian, and Islamic traditions influenced, and were influenced by them. His claim that there was no concept of judgement and eternal punishment in the pre-Christian period is contradicted by his mentions of the Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Grecian Tartarus. Feels like there is more to the story.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Radu Dorin Micu

    Despite the fact that is written in an accessible, almost popular manner, the book is worth reading even for those with a good theological background,or historical for that matter.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Todd Martin

    Although most religious adherents aren’t aware of it, the fact is that religious beliefs morph and change over time. One stark example can be found in those who preach a prosperity gospel, an idea that is not only incompatible, but entirely contrary to the teachings of Jesus. Another is the modern day belief in heaven and hell, which can be summarized as: Your soul and personal consciousness survives death and goes to a place of judgement in which the sinners are sent to hell to be tortured for Although most religious adherents aren’t aware of it, the fact is that religious beliefs morph and change over time. One stark example can be found in those who preach a prosperity gospel, an idea that is not only incompatible, but entirely contrary to the teachings of Jesus. Another is the modern day belief in heaven and hell, which can be summarized as: Your soul and personal consciousness survives death and goes to a place of judgement in which the sinners are sent to hell to be tortured for all eternity, while the righteous go to heaven to bask in God’s glory. According to Bart Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, this view does not go back to the earliest stages of Christianity. It cannot be found in the Old Testament and it is not what Jesus himself taught. Instead, like any good meme, it’s an idea that evolved over time. In Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife Ehrman documents the changing beliefs regarding death using text from the book Christians purport to believe is inerrant … the Bible. Given the disparity between what Christians believe and what is found in this book, one has to wonder whether they have any idea what it actually says. So, what does the Bible have so say about heaven and hell? Well, if you read the Old Testament … nothing. As one scholar of Judaism has stated: “There are not any notions of hell and heaven that we can identify in the Hebrew Bible, no obvious judgement and punishment for sinners nor beatific reward for the virtuous”. Instead a place known as “Sheol” is described, which can be interpreted as a kind of Jewish Hades – a shadowy netherworld where spirits go to live an uninteresting existence for all eternity (an idea borrowed from the ancient Greeks). But this idea is entirely unsatisfactory. It seems totally unfair that good and bad people are treated to the same fate. There is no ultimate justice at all. This was remedied by later Jewish religious leaders who began teaching that there was, in fact, a type of divine karma … this would occur at the end of time at which point people would be resurrected to face judgement and either be rewarded or destroyed (where destruction meant a cessation of consciousness for the remainder of eternity). Jesus, being a product of his time, taught much the same thing. It’s a widely held view among biblical scholars that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher … he taught that the end of the world was coming (i.e. Judgement Day) and that when it did, the dead would be resurrected and God would reward the virtuous with everlasting life, while the wicked would be destroyed. Judgement Day was supposedly coming during the lives of those who heard his teachings, but when this didn’t happen excuses had to be concocted, which continue to this day. Evidently, a big point of contention among Jewish (and later Christian) believers was whether the resurrection would involve the soul or the actual physical body of the person. Paul was a big proponent of the latter, and this is the view that predominates in the Bible. But this creates a number of problems: - If an arm is amputated, does the resurrected body lack an arm? - Will the resurrected body be old and decrepit for eternity? - Will those born with severe birth defects exhibit these same deficiencies upon resurrection? So, even though the Bible teaches of a physical resurrection, the story that ultimately won out is that of resurrection of the soul. Since the soul is supposedly this perfect embodiment of a person’s conscious it avoids the inconvenient questions above. Later in the New Testament in books written hundreds of years after the death of Jesus, the concept of hell, a place of eternal torture for the wicked, is introduced. Later still the idea of purgatory (a place between heaven and hell, where sins of the less-than-perfect would be purged through harsh but temporary suffering) is developed, presumably to give some hope to those who weren’t able to uphold Christian values for their entire lives. But these were later inventions that Jesus knew nothing about. So … there you have it. Just like a virus, the one that survives is the one that evolves characteristics that allow it to propagate through a population. Similarly, the idea (or meme) that survives is the one that has evolved to propagate through the medium of people’s minds. The concept of heaven, hell and later purgatory were the most successful in this regard because they satisfy people’s lust for justice (or vengeance), even though they have little if any basis in the actual teaching of Jesus. Of course, there’s no evidence for the existence of either heaven or hell and it’s safe to say that our consciousness is extinguished at the time of death. We’ll enter the same state that we were in for the first 13.8 billion years of the universe’s existence. As to the book, it was fine. Ehrman has a nice professorial manner and style of writing that provides the right context and background for his clear explanations. Unfortunately, I just didn’t find the topic to be sufficiently fascinating to hold my interest throughout. Reading about the back and forth arguments of religious scholars has the pointless air of those who purport to know “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin”. It feels as if these early Christian writers were just making it up as they went along, which … of course … was exactly the case.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Dan Graser

    Having read everything that Bart Ehrman has written, including his academic textbooks, I was very pleased to see a new volume on perhaps the most interesting part of the christian faith. This interest stems from this topic being historically elusive, theologically baffling, while also holding, quite literally, eternal ramifications for those who espouse belief in such an idea. At all times, Ehrman is at his usual extremely readable self while maintaining an incredible level of erudition with a f Having read everything that Bart Ehrman has written, including his academic textbooks, I was very pleased to see a new volume on perhaps the most interesting part of the christian faith. This interest stems from this topic being historically elusive, theologically baffling, while also holding, quite literally, eternal ramifications for those who espouse belief in such an idea. At all times, Ehrman is at his usual extremely readable self while maintaining an incredible level of erudition with a firm commitment to putting the literary examinations of the text and the beliefs espoused therein within the proper context. It should be said that this book does not examine every notion of the afterlife from every faith position, rather, it seeks to put the historical developments in christian theology, Ehrman's specialty, as clearly as possible and suggest how it is that contemporary views on the subject have greatly diverged from the faith's own founder's views. Ehrman begins with early literary notions found in the usual suspects such as the Epic of Gilgamesh. Here such notions of life after death, eternal paradise, fear of death, possible redemption and others are explored as clear forerunners of later myths. The shift between Greek philosophy on the afterlife and Roman literary notions of the afterlife centuries later are bridged with discussion of Plato, perhaps the most important philosopher on the subject through his characterization of Socrates. I also appreciate the acknowledgement of the most rational philosophers on the subject, Epicurus and later Lucretius, as this shows that there were some, even at this early time, that were rational on the subject. The diversity of thought among Jewish belief systems is also thoroughly explored as pertains to the Essenes, Pharisees, and Sadducees, leading up to the writings of Josephus and others close to the time of Jesus himself. Following a deft analysis - that is similar to previous works of Ehrman's - of Jesus's and Paul's genuine thought as expressed in the canonical writings, Ehrman shows how this morphed in the generations afterword in the words of the writers of John's gospel and Revelations. The minutiae of how these writers deviated from the earliest words attributed to Jesus from "Mark" and "Matthew" follow a path to the metamorphosis of both notions of eternal punishment and eternal reward presented by the early church fathers Origen and Tertullian. As these latter two theologians took great license with notions of bodily, physical, and entirely spiritual resurrection/eternal reward or punishment, they paved the way for the more philosophically nuanced but nevertheless bafflingly "specific" writings on the subject from Augustine. With Augustine, though not necessarily directly, the concept of purgatory found its most firm early grounding. As someone raised in certain concepts of heaven and hell within a catholic upbringing, looking back to the formative writings of the church was a mystifying experience since it was so completely different than the dogma being preached in the late 20th century at least. Jesus, Paul, and the gospel writers with the exception of the writer of John's gospel would find little with which to agree in modern conceptions and the temptation is there for modern believers of most christian sects to completely misread this as if the language used has no context, and rather supports what they presuppose. Where writers were being literal, people now choose to be figurative; where writers were referring to the nation, people choose to see this as happening to the individual; where writers were being allegorical, we now choose to be literal; and where texts disagree, we choose to ignore their disagreement. Contextual and historical analysis of these notions is necessary and fascinating, even for someone such as myself who does not think they hold any real merit. A great read as always for anyone with a passing interest in the history of christianity.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Edward

    As I was reading this book, I was reminded of Karen Armstrong’s HISTORY OF GOD. Both works examine in close detail notions that we tend to think about, too literally in spite of ourselves, for example, God, a supreme being who controls the world, and life after death which usually means heaven. They are concepts that have a long and involved history. Ehrman’s “afterlife” is not dealt with as a simple idea – speculation on the fate of human beings after they die takes varied forms, just as Armstr As I was reading this book, I was reminded of Karen Armstrong’s HISTORY OF GOD. Both works examine in close detail notions that we tend to think about, too literally in spite of ourselves, for example, God, a supreme being who controls the world, and life after death which usually means heaven. They are concepts that have a long and involved history. Ehrman’s “afterlife” is not dealt with as a simple idea – speculation on the fate of human beings after they die takes varied forms, just as Armstrong’s book does with the idea of God. Ehrman writes as an historian and tries to make it clear that he is not interested in arguing readers to either believe or disbelieve. He states that originally in Western culture, as far back as there are written records, people thought that a common fate experienced after death meant only a shadowy place of near non-existence. This came to change as people thought an afterlife ought to have room for justice, as there is in this world. Virtuous people should be rewarded and the wicked punished. As Ehrman puts it, the ethical idea became “not so much scaring the hell out of people as scaring people out of hell. Plato’s views developed somewhat along these lines of at least an eternal ethical reward for the soul. An essential difference between Plato’s afterlife thoughts and that of ancient Hebrews was that for Plato, only the immortality of the soul existed, the body simply perished. In most Hebrew afterlife thought there was not this dualistic idea, but a unitary one in which any kind of afterlife included the body. However, Hebrew scriptures have a wide range of views, though, and some authors thought that death was the end of the story. As to fear of death, the thought of no longer existing, one consolation held by Socrates as he drank the fatal hemlock, was to think of the centuries of time that had existed before his existence and of which he had no part. Why should the future be any different? The doctrine of the bodily resurrection of the dead originated about two centuries before the time of Christ, and then became fairly common in Jewish thought. With Christians, influenced by the belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ, teachings about the afterlife developed into the idea of rewards and punishments, in other words, the ideas of heaven and hell. There were at first ongoing disputes as to whether a dead person was resurrected immediately or had to wait until the end of worldly time. The former belief seems to have prevailed. As for what Christ believed, the record is not very clear, one good reason being that he wrote nothing down, so what Christ actually said and meant is always subject to later and usually opinionated interpretations. It’s true that Christ, as reported by Paul and the gospel writers, spoke of the hereafter, the afterlife, but many of his words could be construed as symbolic and allegorical, and not literal descriptions. But over the centuries, literal versions prevailed so that today a majority of Christians believe in an actual heaven and hell. Catholic refinement of the notion of hell developed into purgatory, in which punishment was of limited duration. The author, in a parenthetical afterword, doesn’t see death, the lack of any kind of consciousness, as a misfortune. It can be simply a “restful cessation of existence.” And if one wants to think of living on after death, even if our bodies and brains have disintegrated, it could simply be in the lives of those we have touched. But if that’s not enough, then religious ideas of the afterlife provide solace and happiness

  29. 4 out of 5

    Matt

    Anyone familiar with the political intrigue behind who gets to sit on the Texas State Board of Education knows the power these people wield, and the implications for whether or not children learn about natural biological selection, and to what degree they learn about "slavery" or "states' rights". And so it was sometime in the 4th Century with whatever Latin-speaking leaders deciding what books to retain, purge, or edit for the book we know as the Bible. I've periodically been pulled into Bart E Anyone familiar with the political intrigue behind who gets to sit on the Texas State Board of Education knows the power these people wield, and the implications for whether or not children learn about natural biological selection, and to what degree they learn about "slavery" or "states' rights". And so it was sometime in the 4th Century with whatever Latin-speaking leaders deciding what books to retain, purge, or edit for the book we know as the Bible. I've periodically been pulled into Bart Ehrman's popular books because I know at heart I'm really getting a lesson in political history through the lens of a scholar of ancient religions. Ehrman starts with a very basic question. Ancient Israelites didn't believe in the immortality of the soul. The historical Jesus didn't believe that the soul of a person who died would go to heaven or hell. And the Apostle Paul's understanding of resurrection was that bodies would come back to life, in contrast to the Greek view of resurrection. So, where did the widespread understanding of heaven and hell originate, and why did these become the predominant beliefs of Christians? The short and all-too-flip answer, of course, is that because there was no apparent and imminent coming of justice here on earth, followers tweaked the doctrine. When Christians de-apocalypticized the teachings of Jesus, they retained a dualistic understanding of the future but they flipped the temporal, horizontal dualism on its axis so that it became a vertical conception, not moving from left to right but from below to above. The emphasis now is not on time – this age and the age to come – but on space: this awful world on earth and the glorious world above in heaven. It is no longer about 'now and then' but about 'down and up'. The deeper truth, of course, is of book length and full of colorful stories. Women who procured abortions are cast into an extremely deep pit up to their necks in excrement and foul substances. Opposite them are their aborted children, who send forth flashes of lightning, piercing the eyes of their mothers who 'for fornication's sake have caused their destruction'. The better arguments highlight the need for doctrinal responses to historical developments. For example, why, if devout Jews are favored by God, would God allow Jerusalem to fall? Answer: the nation would be resurrected. If Jesus was the messiah, why did he die without successfully bringing the Kingdom of God here on Earth? Answer: he will rise again at the end of time, when God will make right all that is wrong. The dead will be raised and God will reward his people while punishing their enemies. And the future resurrection will happen soon. And Ehrman, in true form, minces no words: [Christians took Jesus's] teachings and translated them into a new idiom for a new day, making them relevant for their current situation. Christians have always done this and always will. Prophetic? But the author doesn't just stick to Christian scholarship. He is always careful to emphasize the wide spectrum of beliefs and views (annihilation, immortality, resurrection, separate existence of a soul, etc.), and pull in the influence of Plato, Virgil, and others. And as far as this particular layperson is concerned, he seems skilled as a folklorist too – to a fault. Ehrman's books tend to drag a bit, I feel, in no small part because he is far too busy covering his bases. A good thing in a scholar.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Brent

    A fascinating narrative on the evolution of thinking about the afterlife. I think an important note is that Ehrman approaches this as a history of Judaism and Christianity's belief of heaven and hell. While he briefly discusses the Greek & ancient Mesopotamian beliefs, the focus is almost entirely on the Judeo Christian thinking of the afterlife. Another important note is that Ehrman comes from a Christian background — Moody Bible & Wheaton College-educated, leading to Princeton where he abandoned A fascinating narrative on the evolution of thinking about the afterlife. I think an important note is that Ehrman approaches this as a history of Judaism and Christianity's belief of heaven and hell. While he briefly discusses the Greek & ancient Mesopotamian beliefs, the focus is almost entirely on the Judeo Christian thinking of the afterlife. Another important note is that Ehrman comes from a Christian background — Moody Bible & Wheaton College-educated, leading to Princeton where he abandoned his faith. Anyone reading this book should understand that this will be his approach, and not be upset simply by his conclusion. Ehrman's goal seems to be to challenge the lay reader and the average Christian about their understanding of heaven & hell. While that maybe his target audience, I doubt that many of his readers will be evangelical Christians (and those who WILL read this will probably have a solid theological background and may think this juvenile). Of course, the author is unable to dictate who will read his book. So, in light of that, I believe Ehrman did a great job of balancing approachability with substance. He was able to make a somewhat dry theological topic quite interesting. Ehrman's conclusion is quite the opposite of what most of my friends would come to, and indeed contrary to my entire upbringing. I am unsure if this book will change anyone's beliefs (but honestly, what will?) but it was quite fascinating nonetheless.

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