According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, 72% of Americans believe in heaven, a place where “good people are eternally rewarded.” A sizable majority (58%) also believes in hell, the place “where people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally punished.” These rates are even higher among Christians. If these beliefs truly guide the actions of their adherents, then it’s arguable that heaven and hell are the two most influential pieces of real estate in American society. It was therefore fascinating to learn from Bart D. Ehrman’s Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife that this concept of the afterlife is nowhere to be found in the Bible.
Ehrman’s subtitle is a bit misleading, since it’s not an actual history of these places. He is not rewriting Paradise Lost. Instead, he details the development of our ideas about heaven and hell. Starting with Mesopotamia, Ehrman carefully traces how ancient ideas of death as an “eternal sleep” developed into our current conception of death as a place of retribution or reward. Ehrman argues that, far from being set in stone, our views of heaven and hell have evolved in response to crises confronting the societies that ultimately created modern Christianity. Our view of the afterlife, it turns out, owes more to Greek mythology, Plato and Greek theologians of the first millennium than it does to the Old Testament or even Jesus’ words and actions.
This is a complex history, and it could easily become confusing or, worse, boring. But Ehrman has avoided both pitfalls. As the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ehrman has the expertise necessary to make this difficult subject comprehensible. Even better, his witty, self-deprecatory style makes Heaven and Hell an enjoyable read. Most importantly, this is an optimistic book. Professor Ehrman invites us to revisit a “truth” that most of us hold almost instinctively and, in the process, to lose the fear of the afterlife that can prevent us from fully living our present lives.