Book Review: ‘Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife’ by Bart D. Ehrman

Author: Bart D. Ehrman
Book: Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Year: 2020
Page Count: 352 pages
Price: $28.00 (hardcover)

I. INTRODUCTION 

In his book The Demon-Haunted World, the late Carl Sagan talks about the death of his parents. “I still miss them terribly,” he writes.[1] He describes dreams of his parents so vivid that he wakes up thinking that maybe they really are still alive, that their death was just some horrible dream. But then reality kicks in and he mourns them all over again. “Plainly, there’s something within me that’s ready to believe in life after death. And it’s not the least bit interested in whether there’s any sober evidence for it,” he says.[2] Belief in the afterlife is so thoroughly prevalent in our society that we take it for granted that not only are people’s conceptions of it wildly different at times but not everyone thinks it’s a real thing to begin with. I certainly don’t despite moments when I long to hug my younger brother again or to sit on my grandmother’s front porch and toss poker cards into a hat. I’ll be the first to admit that there are times when I’m envious of believers whose confidence that there is life after this one can make it so that when their loved ones breathe their last, they “do not grieve as the rest who do not have hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13, my translation). Nevertheless, my views align with Sagan’s: “better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy.”[3]

The psychology of belief in the afterlife – the why of its existence – is a fascinating and nearly inexhaustible subject. Less explored (at least in a scholarly, popular form), though, is the history of the afterlife itself, especially as it relates to Judaism and Christianity. To fill the gap, historian Bart Ehrman has written a fascinating and compelling look at the subject entitled Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife (Simon and Schuster, 2020). 

II. SUMMARY

Ehrman opens Heaven and Hell with a preface (pp. xv-xxiii) that among other things describes his own journey from fundamentalist belief to agnosticism. In ch. 1 (pp. 1-16), he takes us on a tour of guided tours of the afterlife found in works like the Passion of Perpetua and the Acts of Thomas. Chapter 2 (pp. 17-34) is an overview of the very human fear of death itself, examining the Epic of Gilgamesh and the words of Socrates and their views on why or why not we should fear it. Following this, Ehrman gives us a breakdown of the afterlife in the Homeric epics and Virgil’s fanfiction version of them in the Aeneid (pp. 35-55). In ch. 4 (pp. 57-79), the author details the rise of postmortem rewards and punishments, citing the works of Plato, Aristophanes, and others. Chapter 5 (pp. 81-101) explores death in the Hebrew Bible, including that mysterious place known as Sheol. In ch. 6 (pp. 103-126), Ehrman discusses the “rise of apocalyptic thinking” and how it played into the development of views on the afterlife in ancient Jewish thought. Chapter 7 (pp. 127-146) considers the origins of immediate postmortem rewards, setting up for the discussion in ch. 8 (pp. 147-167) for a discussion of Jesus’ views of the afterlife (see “Analysis” below). Paul’s views are investigated in ch. 9 (pp. 169-189) as are those of later Gospel writers like the authors of Luke and John in ch. 10 (pp. 191-211). One of the most puzzling books of the Bible, the book of Revelation, is taken up in ch. 11 (pp. 213-231) and ch. 12 (pp. 233-251) talks about pagan ridicule of Christian teaching on resurrection as well as the response of apologists to those criticisms. In ch. 13 (pp. 253-269), Ehrman explores the subject of martyrdom and the views of early Christians on the nature of existence in the afterlife. The final chapter (pp. 271-290) features a discussion of purgatory, universalism, and reincarnation (among other things). An afterword closes out the volume recapitulating the main ideas of the book, contending that the dominant view of the afterlife in modern Christianity “cannot be found in the Old Testament or in the teachings of the historical Jesus” (p. 292).

III. ANALYSIS

Like everything he writes, Ehrman’s Heaven and Hell does two things well: it offers a sweeping overview of the relevant information (e.g., anthropology, texts, etc.) and presents it in a clear and compelling manner. Readers should bear in mind that as is always the case with popular level trade books, not everything that could be said can be. For example, while I would have appreciated a fuller discussion of Sheol, especially as it relates to the cosmic geography of ancient Israelite thought, this clearly wasn’t in Ehrman’s purview.[4] His discussion of Sheol in ch. 5 is sufficient for the purpose of his book. 

One of the exciting things about Heaven and Hell is that it does not examine only those texts found in the typical Protestant canon of scripture with its sixty-six (and only sixty-six) books. For example, in ch. 6 Ehrman discusses the subject of apocalypticism and brings to bear on the subject ancient writings popular among many ancient Jews (and even some Christians) like Jubilees and the Book of the Watchers from 1 Enoch. In the next chapter, he introduces readers to 4 Ezra and the Testament of Abraham to give readers a glimpse into what some Jews believed about the afterlife around the time of Jesus. Moreover, early on in Heaven and Hell, Ehrman discusses works like the Iliad and Odyssey as well as Virgil’s Aeneid. Greek philosophers like Plato and Epicurus too become relevant data as background for the Hellenistic world in which Christianity began to flourish. Finally, he presents the views of Christians from the second century CE and beyond like Ignatius, Tertullian, and Augustine. Ehrman’s incorporation of so many varied views on the afterlife gives the reader a more rounded picture of the complex world of ancient religion. Many readers of the Bible come to it knowing very little about the background of the biblical texts. Such ignorance often leads to a misreading of what Jesus or Paul had to say on a given matter, including the afterlife.

Nevertheless, Ehrman shines when he talks about the Bible itself. Consider, for example, ch. 8 – “Jesus and the Afterlife.” 

Jesus’ Views on the Afterlife 

Of all the views that should matter to Christians concerning heaven and hell, surely Jesus’ ranks among the highest. And yet, as Ehrman points out, “very few” have a grasp of them (p. 147). But there is considerable difficulty in ascertaining Jesus’ views: Jesus “is…virtually the only figure we will be discussing in [Heaven and Hell] who did not leave us any writings” (p. 147). To put it another way, every word spoken by Jesus in the New Testament is mediated through someone else. Further complicating this is that none of the accounts that contain Jesus’ words (e.g., the canonical Gospels) were written by people who knew Jesus directly (pp. 150-151) How can we ever hope to know if anything the canonical Jesus says was something that the historical Jesus did? 

Luckily, historians have devised clever (though imperfect) methods for figuring out what the historical Jesus said and did. “These methods involve rather obvious and commonsensical rules of evidence that you would use today if you wanted to know if anyone in the past actually said things attributed to him or her,” Ehrman writes (p. 152). So, historians favor sources closer in time to the historical person (p. 152), a saying or action that is attested in multiple independent sources (pp. 152-153), and words spoken that are congruent with what people thought at the time they were purportedly said (p. 153). Ehrman elaborates on these methods in other volumes and does not spend considerable time discussing them in Heaven and Hell,[5] but it suffices to say that with these and other methods we have some measure of hope of figuring out what Jesus actually said and did generally and what he thought about the afterlife particularly. Based upon these methods, Ehrman writes, “Jesus did not teach that when a person died they would go to heaven or hell. He taught that the Day of Judgment was soon to come, when God would destroy all that is evil and raise the dead, to punish the wicked and reward the faithful by bringing them into his eternal, utopian kingdom” (p. 154). Additionally, “a close reading of Jesus’ words shows that in fact he had no idea of torment for sinners after death. Death, for them, is irreversible, the end of the story. Their punishment is that they will be annihilated, never allowed to exist again, unlike the saved, who will live forever in God’s glorious kingdom” (p. 155). 

The idea of annihilation might be a surprise to some readers but Ehrman demonstrates in ch. 6 that though Jewish views on the afterlife varied (p. 144), annihilation was certainly on the table for many. Evidence that Jesus thought this way can be found in texts like Matthew 7 where he says that those who enter through the narrow gate find life but those who enter the wide gate find destruction (Matthew 7:13-14). “Jesus does not say it leads to eternal torture,” Ehrman observes. “Those who take it will be destroyed, annihilated” (p. 155). Other texts suggest a similar view (e.g., Matthew 13:47-50). In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus warns that it would be better to go into the kingdom of God maimed in some way than to be whole and “be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched” (Mark 9:43-48).[6] The word translated in the NRSV (and many other English translations) as “hell” is geenna or “Gehenna.” Given such a stark warning, “Gehenna is obviously serious business,” Ehrman writes. “But what is it?” (p. 157)

The word itself is an abbreviated form of gei ben Hinnom, “the valley of the son of Hinnom.” Ehrman points out that scholars have at times claimed that the valley served as a garbage dump (p. 157).[7] The claim, derived from a rabbi in the thirteenth century CE, is without merit. “Neither archaeology nor any ancient text supports the view,” Ehrman writes. Rather, the valley became infamous because it was claimed that children had been sacrificed to the pagan deity Molech there (e.g., 2 Kings 23:10). Joel Marcus in his commentary on the Gospel of Mark notes that the valley’s “associations with death, judgment, and fire contributed to the later Jewish conception of Gehenna as a place of eternal postmortem punishment in fire.”[8] For example, in 4 Ezra 7:36 we read, “The pit of torment shall appear, and opposite it shall be the place of rest; and the furnace of hell [i.e., Gehenna] shall be disclosed, and opposite it the paradise of delight.”[9] Ehrman points readers to the book of 1 Enoch where Gehenna is referred to as the “accursed valley” (p. 159). The language in Mark of worms that do not die and of an unquenchable fire is taken from the book of Isaiah where the bodies of the rebellious dead are outside Jerusalem for all to see: “And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh” (Isaiah 66:24). This is language of final destruction and Ehrman thinks that the Markan Jesus would have taken it as such as well: “So too when Jesus teaches about Gehenna, he is thinking of annihilation, not torment” (p. 160). 

Ehrman doesn’t query whether the claims of human sacrifice in the valley of Hinnom correspond to any material evidence for it. As K.L. Noll observes, there is “a complete absence of evidence for human sacrifice in Palestine during the Bronze and Iron ages.”[10] Moreover, simply because some biblical authors decry human sacrifice doesn’t mean that any were actually being performed. For example, though the prophet Jeremiah complains that in the valley of Hinnom the people had “burn[ed] their sons and their daughters in the fire,” an activity not prescribed by Yahweh (Jeremiah 7:30-31), Robert Carroll pointed out in his commentary that the cultic ritual that took place in the valley 

is not described but abused and condemned. There is some evidence in the ancient world that for cults of human sacrifice, but it should not be assumed that the abuse of opponents necessarily is to be taken literally….Writings influenced by the Deuteronomists [e.g., Jeremiah] have a tendency to substitute abuse for argument and contempt for description.[11]

Carroll goes on to explain that the ritual of passing through the fire was probably a kind of dedication service but that the children were not burned and were returned to their parents following the service. However, biblical authors ramp up the language such that the ritual became human sacrifice and that of helpless children. Carroll also finds some irony in the eventual connection between child sacrifice in the valley of Hinnom (i.e., Gehenna) and later conceptions of hell: “for many who would condemn human beings for burning their children would also praise god for burning his children for ever!”[12]

Whether or not actual child sacrifice happened there is moot. What matters is that it developed into an image of utter destruction and annihilation, language that befits the fate of those who resist God’s kingdom. For those who rebel against God, “there would never again be any hope of life” (p. 160).

Following his discussion of Gehenna, Ehrman moves on to reward for the saints, a subject that is less easy to document than Jesus’ words about Gehenna (p. 161). To close the chapter, he turns to Jesus’ teaching about the sheep and the goats found in Matthew 25. Ehrman thinks that there is a good chance that the teaching found there from Jesus is something he actually said. Since Jesus’ earliest followers believed that it was faith in him that saved, the idea that salvation actually comes by living a good life and helping the poor and oppressed suggests it was something Jesus actually taught. “If a later Christian storyteller were to make up a saying and place it on Jesus’s lips about how one could be saved at the resurrection, would he indicate that salvation had nothing actually to do with believing in Jesus but instead would involve doing all sorts of good things?” (p. 164) I cannot help but disagree with Ehrman here. Having faith in Jesus is being construed as mere assent to propositions about him. But is this how the NT understands faith? I’m not sure that it does. Earlier in the Matthean Gospel, Jesus taught that the merciful would themselves receive mercy (Matthew 5:7) and that the disciples should love their enemies (Matthew 5:43-47). In other words, these are the kinds of things the followers of Jesus do: they show mercy, and they love their enemies. When we come to Matthew 25, the Sermon on the Mount is background. The sheep showed mercy and loved their enemies but were not aware that in so doing they were actually showing mercy and loving Jesus (Matthew 25:36-40). Additionally, while pistis (“faith”) is not frequently used in the Gospel of Matthew, its usage there seems to suggest that it is always connected with action. For example, the woman who suffered from a flow of blood pursued Jesus, intending to touch his cloak and thus be made whole again. Jesus witnesses this action and says, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well” (Matthew 9:22). It is not faith plus action but rather faith that is action. So then, Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25 coheres well with the view of faith generally in the Gospel of Matthew and even in much of early Christian teaching found in the New Testament.

Ehrman observes that Jesus was an apocalypticist who anticipated the end of the world in his own lifetime. Consequently, “his apocalyptic understanding of his world extended to his view of the afterlife” (p. 166). What need, then, for a heaven or hell following death? After all, if the world was coming to a close soon and the righteous would be raised from the dead, those who had died in the meantime could just wait it out in a state of peaceful slumber. In fact, Ehrman writes that Jesus was never focused on what happened to individuals at death but was “principally concerned with the great act of God that was coming soon, with the appearance of a cosmic judge from heaven, the Son of Man, who would destroy the evil powers in control of this world and establish a great, utopian, and eternal kingdom” (p. 167). Of course, the coming of the Son of Man was delayed and so apocalyptic expectations changed. 

IV. CONCLUSION 

While Heaven and Hell is far from an academic treatment of the issue, it is nevertheless a helpful volume that both scholars and amateurs alike can turn to when wanting an excellent summary of the available data. It is by no means a perfect volume but Ehrman would be the first to admit his own short comings. For readers desiring an easy to digest volume on the thorny and often complex subject of the afterlife in the Jewish and Christian traditions, Heaven and Hell is an excellent place to start. Not only does Ehrman write with perspicuity, but the endnotes will allow readers to find other works covering the topics he addresses but is unable to get into deeply. 


[1] Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996), 203.

[2] Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, 203.

[3] Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, 204.

[4] Readers are encouraged to peruse Philip Johnston’s Shades of Sheol: Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2002).

[5] E.g., Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, sixth edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 242-248.

[6] Unless otherwise noted, all citations of biblical texts are from the New Revised Standard Version.

[7] E.g., Kenneth S. Wuest, “Mark in the Greek New Testament,” in Wuest’s Word Studies from the Greek New Testament for the English Reader, vol. 1 – Mark, Romans, Galatians, Ephesians and Colossians (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1966), 191.

[8] Joel Marcus, Mark 8-16: An Introduction with Translation and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 691.

[9] Translation taken from The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha, Jonathan Klawans and Lawrence M. Wills, editors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).

[10] K.L. Noll, Canaan and Israel in Antiquity: A Textbook on History and Religion, second edition (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 212n34. 

[11] Robert P. Carroll, Jeremiah, The Old Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986), 222.

[12] Carroll, Jeremiah, 224.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: ‘Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife’ by Bart D. Ehrman

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  1. Of related interest: Who are ‘the least of these’? Bible scholars say they may not be the poor, Religion News Service, First Published May 27 2015 https://web.archive.org/web/20160404065859/http://www.sltrib.com/lifestyle/faith/2558192-155/who-are-the-least-of-these

    The “least of these” are not the poor but the Christian baker, photographer, and florist by Denny Burk on May 13, 2015 http://www.dennyburk.com/the-least-of-these-are-not-the-poor-but-the-christian-baker-photographer-and-florist/

    The Gospel of Matthew seems to be speaking about the need for all Jesus cult members (disciples) to support fellow cult members who are busy spreading the word in light of an imminent final judgment. Which also aligns with “let the dead bury the dead” and “‘hate’ your earthly connections/relatives” rhetoric.

    Matthew 10:42  And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones WHO IS MY DISCIPLE, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.

    Matthew 18:6 If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.

    Matthew 18:10 See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.

    Matthew 25:40 The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these BROTHERS AND SISTERS OF MINE, you did for me.’

    “The Matthean community consists of two groups which are symbolized by ‘sheep’ and ‘goats’ respectively. In Matt. 25:31-46 the ‘least of these’ are not the poor in general, but those who are in the mission fields sent out by the Matthean community. Determining that the unsuccessful result of the missionary works was due to the insufficient support from the community, Matthew attempts to elicit a strong concern among them. Hence, the Matthean Jesus, who identifies with the missionary team at the brink of collapse, encourages the sheep group to maximize its ongoing support for the least, and warns the goats group not to be indifferent to them.” SOURCE: Das Weltgericht und die Matthäische Gemeinde by Joong Suk Suh, Novum Testamentum, Brill Academic Publishers, Volume 48, Number 3 / June, 2006, Pages 217-233

    If you mistreat the missionaries whom Jesus sent out youʼll be judged negatively by God. Theologian A. J. Mattill Jr., himself a universalist minister, pointed this out in his paper, “What the world owes the church: A breakthrough in the understanding of the parable of the sheep and the goats,” The Homiletic and Pastoral Review 71 (April 1971) 8-17. I have a copy of Mattillʼs paper but include a condensed description below from New Testament Abstracts, Vol. 15, #861 :

    ‪Note what the author of Mt. 25 was trying to say in light of earlier and later passages in Mt.: ‬

    The parable of the sheep and goats (Matt. 25:31-46), which may be regarded as a midrash on Matthew 10:40-42; 18:5; and 16:27, is about what the world owes the disciples and/or the church. People are judged by the king on the basis of how they have treated the lordʼs missionaries. Those who have not received the disciples hospitably are condemned, for they have not done it unto the Lord (25:45,46). Those who have given food, drink, and clothing to the missionary disciples, those who have visited the disciples when they were sick and in prison, will be declared righteous (25:37) and will inherit the kingdom prepared for them (25:34).

    Hospitality to the disciples is hospitality to Jesus: “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me” (10:40). This theme repeats itself in 25:35-40: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren you did it to me” (25:40). Thus in both discourse and parable Jesus expresses the close ontological union between himself and his church (cf. Acts 9:4). This dwelling of the believer in Christ and of Christ in the believer is forcefully stated in Matthew 10:32: “Every one therefore who shall confess in me before men, in him will I also confess my Father who is in heaven” (American Standard Version, margin).

    Hospitality to disciples will be rewarded on the day of judgment: In 10:41, 42 there are three references to the reward of eternal life granted in the judgment to those who were kind to Jesusʼ messengers, a reward granted by Jesus himself (10:32). Similarly, in the Great Assize the righteous will go away into eternal life (25:32-40, 46b), as directed by the Son of Man (25:34).

    Inhospitality to disciples will be punished on the day of judgment: The fate of those Jews inhospitable to the missionaries is even worse than the fiery destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (10:14, 15). Jesus himself will repudiate them (10:33). Jesus also warns his agents not to “fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (10:28). Likewise in the parable those not hospitable to the disciples are condemned (25:32, 33, 41-46a), and the Son of Man says: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food …” (25:41,42).

    Hospitality to the disciples is expected from the world: The twelve are to take no gold, nor silver, nor copper, nor a staff (10:9,10) but, being on a house-to-house mission, are to be absolutely dependent upon the hospitality of the people along their journey, living with those who are worthy (10:11-13). Note, too, the stress in 10:40-42 upon receiving the twelve, prophets, righteous men, and disciples. The parable presupposes this same receptivity by the populace: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (25:35).

    Hospitality to hungry disciples is demonstrated by giving them food to eat: Jesus advised his disciples that “the laborer deserves his food” (10:10). It is precisely the same in the parable: “I was hungry and you gave me food” (25:35).

    Hospitality to thirsty disciples is demonstrated by giving them water to drink: “And whoever gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he shall not lose his reward” (10:42). This promise points directly to 25:35: “I was thirsty and you gave me drink.”

    Hospitality to ill-clad disciples is demonstrated by giving them clothes to wear: The twelve proceed with no shoes and without a change of undergarments (10:10), so necessary for cleanliness in a hot climate, and thus will soon need clothing from friends, even apart from persecution. This need is also reflected in the parable: “I was naked and you clothed me” (25:36).

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  2. Awesome review. I’ll be picking up the book as well.

    One thing that always bugs me a little bit about Ehrman when he talks about these topics is that he still brings a lot of evangelical theological assumptions to these texts, such as assuming that what Jesus is positing is basically the end of history. God destroying all evil and replacing it with an “eternal, utopian” kingdom. I don’t think there’s much evidence that’s what Jesus envisioned, and it would be much more continuous both with prophetic thought before Jesus and apocalyptic imagery to think he’s talking about an age-defining, huge disruption of power where evildoers will be punished and the righteous faithful will rule, but he’s casting it in terms of an actual kingdom on Earth where history will still continue as it does with earthly kingdoms.

    That’s not to say there’s no concept in the Bible of an end of history when death itself is destroyed, etc. There is. But this seems quite distinct from Jesus’ thought about the imminent arrival of a new kingdom.

    I like how his analysis of Gehenna starts heading in that direction. The death Jesus is talking about is not an eternal spiritual torment but rather an ignominious death at the hands of the violent who destroy those have rebelled. Isaiah is describing the state of Jerusalem’s destruction at the hands of the other nations. This sounds much, much more like a temporal historical event passing judgement on a political entity than an end-times final judgement on individuals. Ehrman has nothing to lose – I don’t know why he doesn’t just press fully into the ramifications that Jesus is just not talking about the evangelical idea of final judgement.

    I will say on the Gehenna thing, though – even though I totally agree with the analysis presented here and I believe that’s was Jesus was drawing on – Gehenna does over time take on a quasi-mythic significance in rabbinical literature even before Jesus’ day. You start seeing things like “the sun does not set on Gehenna” or Gehenna being described as a mouth to the underworld. Just in fairness to the view that Gehenna represents something like the concept of Hell – there is a basis for it, even though I don’t think that’s the tradition Jesus is drawing from.

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