A New Look at Old Ideas About Heaven and Hell

Most ideas about an afterlife do not come from the Old Testament.

Posted Mar 26, 2020

Review of Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife, by Bart D. Ehrman. Simon & Schuster.

The vast majority of Americans believe in an afterlife. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 72% of Americans believe a heavenly place exists “where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded.” In addition, 58% believe that “people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry” will be eternally punished in hell. The percentages, of course, are significantly higher for religiously-affiliated Americans, and especially for Christians.

Many of these folks will be surprised to learn that their ideas about an afterlife cannot be found in the Old Testament or the teachings of Jesus; and that the New Testament includes divergent understandings of life after death.

In Heaven and Hell, Bart Ehrman, a professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author or editor of more than two dozen books, including Misquoting Jesus, How Jesus Became God, and The Triumph of Christianity, provides an informative, engaging, and compelling account of the evolution of conceptions about the afterlife and how they were “modified, transformed, believed, doubted, and disbelieved.” His historical tour features close readings of the philosophers of ancient Greece, the Hebrew Bible, the Gospels, the letters of the Apostle Paul, the Book of Revelations, Saint Augustine, and the writings of lesser-known Christian martyrs.

 Jeroným Pelikovský/Pixabay
Source: Jeroným Pelikovský/Pixabay

The final shift away from the belief in death after death but no life after death, Ehrman suggests, accompanied a recognition among many Christians that judgment and resurrection were not imminent, the wicked were thriving, and the righteous still suffering. A just God, some of them concluded, would dispense rewards and punishments not at the end of time but at the moment each individual died. By the mid-third century, a period of civil war, barbarian invasions, epidemics, and famine, Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage in North Africa, compared the fate of non-believers—not annihilation but conscious torment, in an eternal dungeon “with flames belching forth throughout the horrid darkness of thick night”—to the “delights” that awaited the faithful, who would enjoy forever the company of apostles, multitudes of martyrs, and triumphant virgins in the verdant fields of Paradise.

Still later, Ehrman points out, some theologians maintained (in a view that did not become dominant in the Christian tradition) that although God is just, He is even more merciful, and sent Christ to overcome evil, human suffering, and wicked free will and save everyone by his act of righteousness on the cross.

Raised as an Episcopalian, educated at the Moody Bible Institute; Wheaton, an evangelical Christian liberal arts college; and the “decidedly non-fundamentalist” Princeton Theological Seminary, Ehrman (whose college nickname was “Mr. Spock"—i.e., all thought, no emotion) has retained “an instinctual fear of torment after death,” but no longer believes it. He wonders whether views of an afterlife would have developed differently if Christians had imagined God “not as an all-powerful Monarch, but as an all-doting Mother.”

Ehrman notes that more and more people in Western Europe and the United States now believe human beings appeared because of a series of “freak chances in nature”—and that this life is all there is. He maintains as well that he has fewer problems with non-existence than he once had, in part because he has internalized the teachings of Epicurus and Lucretius.

That said, Ehrman acknowledges that the prospect of death (and an end to consciousness) makes him sad because he loves his existence, his family, shared conversations and experiences with good friends, casual walks, overseas journeys, fine wines, and steam baths. Who can blame him? And how many of us, like me, will envy (or doubt) Professor Ehrman his professed lack of anxiety about his demise and his determination to use it as a “motivation to love this life as much as we can for as long as we can, enjoy it to its utmost for as long as possible, and help others do the same”?