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Speculation on the afterlife in ‘Heaven and Hell’

Dave Cutler for The Boston Globe

Faith and superstition have long been partners in humanity’s intellectual test kitchen, and nothing they have concocted is as varied, colorful, and addictive as our last course: the afterlife. Bart D. Ehrman chronicles these two forces at work in “Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife,” in a fulsome sweep through the biblical, philosophical, and literary canon.

The fact that we die has sparked a never-ending stream of speculation. Why do we suffer? If there is a benevolent God, why are the virtuous crushed while tyrants triumph? Importantly, why live a good life if there are no rewards?


A recent Pew Research Poll reports that 72 percent of Americans agree that there is a literal heaven, and 58 percent an actual hell. Yet, Ehrman, an authority on the New Testament, surprises readers early in this book with the assertion that these views “cannot be found in the Old Testament and they are not what Jesus himself taught.”

The Old Testament thinkers did not conceive of an afterlife. Nor did they subscribe to a belief in the immortality of the soul. Death, for the authors of Job, the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Samuel, was final, uninteresting, and unredeemable. Jesus himself did not believe that a person would go to heaven or hell immediately upon death.

If the prototypes of eternal torture and Elysian Fields didn’t come from the Bible, where did they come from? Though it would take centuries to arrive at the images we hold today, Ehrman argues that it was Plato who most influenced later thinking, “leading ultimately to the views of heaven and hell that developed centuries later in the Christian tradition.” In Socrates’s famous last speech, written in the fifth century B.C.E., Plato has Socrates claim that the soul lives on, imperishable. Socrates argues that “all who think rightly … should ‘die daily,’ escaping the confines of their bodies by focusing on the welfare of their souls.”


The Greeks had evolved a keen appreciation of ethics and individual choice, and with these, the corollary issues of equity and justice. Five hundred years later, Virgil delivers a rendering of the underworld that reflects a first century B.C.E. awareness. Hell is a realm of cracking whips and dragging chains for those who die without confession; while for the good, there await fields of sport, singing, and feasting.

Ehrman knows this territory as well as anyone writing today; the reader is struck by his nimbleness in drawing the thread of this rich-layered narrative, sprinkling larger thematic arcs with anecdotes that honor the non-lineal and multivalent nature of eschatological thought.

As the Greek and Roman views evolved, the Old Testament thinkers’ notions of divine justice shifted as well. From the eighth century B.C.E. until the sixth, Israel’s prophets were most concerned with the survival of the nation in the face of continuous invasion by the Babylonians and Persians. Isaiah 26:19 promises that God would return to bring his “servant” Israel back to life. When a victorious kingdom did not come about, the idea of a Cosmic Evil at work in the world was born. The world was controlled by forces of evil, but God would ultimately triumph on the Day of Judgment, ushering in a new Kingdom for his faithful.

This was the theological climate into which Jesus was born. An Apocalyptic, like many at the time, Jesus predicted that the Day of Reckoning would occur in his generation, and involve the full resurrection of the body. When the predicted reckoning did not occur, his followers had to reinterpret his teachings.


It was precisely during this interval that the visions of the afterlife we hold today came into their own as a literary phenomenon. Over time, the Day of Judgment was replaced by a vision that rested “almost exclusively on … rewards and punishments that would begin immediately at death.”

We owe many of our lurid, fantastical images of heaven and hell — men hanging by the genitals, women cast neck deep into pits of excrement — to the Roman satirist Lucian of Samosata. The “Passion of Perpetua,” a second-century Latin text by a 22-year-old convert to Christianity, describes dream-visions of heaven beyond her impending martyrdom. The synchronous “Apocalypse of Peter” details bodies aflame, worms devouring entrails, and lightning piercing the eyes of mothers who kill their infants.

The cast of characters is vast and entertaining. There is Saul, arriving in disguise at the home of the Medium of Endor, a woman whose wizardry he had outlawed years earlier. Desperate in the face of an enemy army and the upstart, David, he seeks contact with his deceased counselor, Samuel, who the Medium produces through a séance. There is the pseudonymous 1 Enoch, in which “Sons of God” came to earth and impregnated women, producing giants who wreaked havoc by eating everything in sight (including humans), before God sends a flood to destroy them. And much more.


Ehrman suggests that the intent of the prophets and fabulists were of a piece: not to impose the terror of death, but a concern for living a virtuous life. He repeatedly hopes that his study will offer “’assurance and comfort” to an anxious world. In the process, he ably enlightens and entertains.

“Even if we do have something to hope for after we have passed from the realm of temporary consciousness,” he writes, ”we have absolutely nothing to fear.”


By Bart D. Ehrman

Simon & Schuster, 352 pp., $28

Kathleen Hirsch teaches at Boston College and blogs at kathleenhirsch.com.