Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife. By Bart D. Ehrman. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2020. 326 pp. Hardcover, $28.00.
What can an agnostic historian with atheist leanings tell us about heaven and hell? To those of us who believe the Bible, not much. Yet, he can tell us two important things. He can point out what people and religions have said about heaven and hell throughout history. In addition, he can demonstrate how to explain away certain parts of the Bible that mention these subjects.
Bart Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He is a leading secular authority on the NT and the history of early Christianity and has written or edited more than thirty books, some of which were New York Times bestsellers. He has also appeared on numerous television and radio programs and has been featured in leading newspapers and magazines.
Ehrman once claimed to be a “born-again Christian” who was “going to heaven” (p. xv), attended Moody Bible Institute, and finished his undergraduate degree at Wheaton College. After earning his PhD at Princeton Theological Seminary, he gradually “moved into a liberal form of Christianity” and finally “left the faith altogether” (p. xviii). Thus, it is no surprise that Ehrman believes that “the long book of Isaiah as it has come down to us is actually a combination of writings by different authors from different periods of history” (p. 97). He claims that the Book of Daniel was written “some four centuries later” than it claims to have been (p. 118), and that “some sayings attributed to Jesus are almost certainly things he did not say” (p. 148). Ehrman also believes that the Apostle Paul only wrote seven of the letters attributed to him (p. 170), that the Book of Acts “presents problems to historians” (p.170), and that the Book of Revelation is “full of symbols and is clearly meant to be interpreted figuratively” (p. 223).
In this book, Ehrman postulates that “the ideas of heaven and hell were invented and have been altered over the years” (p. xix). He maintains that the widely held view that there is a literal heaven and a literal hell “do not go back to the earliest stages of Christianity,” “cannot be found in the Old Testament,” and “are not what Jesus himself taught” (p. xix). Even within the NT and the writings of early Christians there are contradictions:
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 understandings of many Christians today (p. xix).
Ehrman is not urging anyone “to believe or disbelieve in the existence of heaven and hell” (p. xx). Rather, he is interested in “seeing where these ideas came from within the dominant culture of the West, Christianity, especially as it emerged out of the pagan religions of its world and out of Judaism in particular” (p. xx). A fuller understanding of where these ideas came from can provide “assurance and comfort” because “even if we do have something to hope for after we have passed from the realm of temporary consciousness, we have absolutely nothing to fear” (p. xxiii).
Heaven and Hell can be loosely divided into two parts: the ideas of heaven and hell outside of the Bible (chaps. 1–4, 7, 12–14) and in the Bible (chaps. 5, 6, 8–11). The first chapter presents some fanciful guided tours of heaven and hell as found in early Christian writings. The next three chapters concern the ideas of heaven and hell in the ancient world. Chapters 5 and 6 focus on the afterlife in the OT. Chapter 7 deals with these topics in the apocryphal books of 1 and 2 Maccabees, 4 Ezra, and The Testament of Abraham. Chapters 8–11 deal with what is said about these things in the NT. The last three chapters concern the resurrection of the body, ecstasy and torment in the afterlife, as well as purgatory, reincarnation, and universalism in early Christian writings. The book concludes with an afterword, notes, and an index.
In his chapters on the afterlife in the OT, Ehrman is actually not far off. He is certainly correct in saying that in “none” of the passages of the Hebrew Bible “can we find the traditional Christian views of the afterlife” (p. 92) and that “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” (p. 83). However, the well-known passage in Job 19:25-27 about a future bodily resurrection (“For I know that my redeemer liveth …”) is dismissed in a footnote: “Scholars have long recognized the massive problems attendant to these verses. The Hebrew text was jumbled over the course of its transmission, so that it is impossible to know how to translate the text or determine exactly what it means” (p. 391). Regarding the many that sleep in the dust of the earth that will awake “to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2), Ehrman says that it may well be that “they will be raised, shown the error of their ways, be put to shame, and then annihilated” (p. 123).
Ehrman divides the views of Jesus on the afterlife into two parts: the actual views of Jesus and the views attributed to Him. Ehrman believes that the four Gospels “can sometimes be highly problematic as guides to the actual words of Jesus” (p. 150). In fact, “Christian authors who later recorded Jesus’s teachings actually altered his words in places to make them reflect their own understandings, which had developed over time after his death” (p. 191). This allows Ehrman to say that “Jesus did not teach that when a person died they would go to heaven or hell” (p. 154). He had “no idea of torment for sinners after death” (p. 155). The account of the rich man and Lazarus is just a parable, “not a literal description of reality” (p. 199). But regardless, “The historical Jesus himself did not tell the story of Lazarus and the rich man” (p. 202). Yet, “The doctrines of heaven and hell are rooted in this imaginative story attributed to Jesus only in Luke, a story that readers later took literally to describe what the afterlife would be like for the righteous and wicked” (p. 203). In his chapters on Paul and Revelation, Ehrman concludes that, like Jesus, they teach that the wicked will ultimately be annihilated.
In the end, Ehrman says that neither he nor anyone else has any way of knowing if “there is some other kind of afterlife existence” (p. 294). Although “the notion of a happy afterlife” is not as irrational as belief in “the fires of hell,” Ehrman is “completely open to the idea and deep down hopeful about it.” He admits that he really doesn’t “believe it either” (p. 294). His sense is that “this life is all there is” (p. 294), and that in death we won’t have consciousness because “we won’t exist” (p. 295).
In the hands of the typical non-Christian or nominal American Christian, this is a dangerous book. Its message is, in general, that the Bible is contradictory, unreliable, and not what it claims to be. Specifically, it maintains that there is no judgment after death to be concerned about and certainly no such thing as hell. Even if there is, since “both Jesus and Paul believed that the wicked would be exterminated, never to live again” (p. 227), there is nothing to worry about. I can only think of two reasons to cautiously recommend this book to pastors. First, because Ehrman is such a good and popular writer, they should be familiar with his works and his arguments. Second, it is good to occasionally have our beliefs and traditions challenged.
Because a born-again Christian can’t be unborn, I firmly believe that we will meet Bart Ehrman in heaven. Calvinists would say that because he did not persevere in the faith, this means that he was never saved in the first place. Arminians would say that he lost his salvation when he rejected Christianity. Others would say that he won’t make it through the final judgment because he left the faith. Free Grace believers know better, even if Ehrman doesn’t.
Laurence M. Vance