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Heaven and Hell : A History of the Afterlife
by Bart D. Ehrman




Overview -
A New York Times bestselling historian of early Christianity takes on two of the most gripping questions of human existence: where did the ideas of heaven and hell come from, and why do they endure?

What happens when we die? A recent Pew Research poll showed that 72% of Americans believe in a literal heaven, 58% in a literal hell. Most people who hold these beliefs are Christian and assume they are the age-old teachings of the Bible. But eternal rewards and punishments are found nowhere in the Old Testament and are not what Jesus or his disciples taught.

So where did the ideas come from?

In clear and compelling terms, Bart Ehrman recounts the long history of the afterlife, ranging from The Epic of Gilgamesh up to the writings of Augustine, focusing especially on the teachings of Jesus and his early followers. He discusses ancient guided tours of heaven and hell, in which a living person observes the sublime blessings of heaven for those who are saved and the horrifying torments of hell for the damned. Some of these accounts take the form of near death experiences, the oldest on record, with intriguing similarities to those reported today.

One of Ehrman's startling conclusions is that there never was a single Greek, Jewish, or Christian understanding of the afterlife, but numerous competing views. Moreover, these views did not come from nowhere; they were intimately connected with the social, cultural, and historical worlds out of which they emerged. Only later, in the early Christian centuries, did they develop into the notions of eternal bliss or damnation widely accepted today.

As a historian, Ehrman obviously cannot provide a definitive answer to the question of what happens after death. In Heaven and Hell, he does the next best thing: by helping us reflect on where our ideas of the afterlife come from, he assures us that even if there may be something to hope for when we die, there is certainly nothing to fear.

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Overview

A New York Times bestselling historian of early Christianity takes on two of the most gripping questions of human existence: where did the ideas of heaven and hell come from, and why do they endure?

What happens when we die? A recent Pew Research poll showed that 72% of Americans believe in a literal heaven, 58% in a literal hell. Most people who hold these beliefs are Christian and assume they are the age-old teachings of the Bible. But eternal rewards and punishments are found nowhere in the Old Testament and are not what Jesus or his disciples taught.

So where did the ideas come from?

In clear and compelling terms, Bart Ehrman recounts the long history of the afterlife, ranging from The Epic of Gilgamesh up to the writings of Augustine, focusing especially on the teachings of Jesus and his early followers. He discusses ancient guided tours of heaven and hell, in which a living person observes the sublime blessings of heaven for those who are saved and the horrifying torments of hell for the damned. Some of these accounts take the form of near death experiences, the oldest on record, with intriguing similarities to those reported today.

One of Ehrman's startling conclusions is that there never was a single Greek, Jewish, or Christian understanding of the afterlife, but numerous competing views. Moreover, these views did not come from nowhere; they were intimately connected with the social, cultural, and historical worlds out of which they emerged. Only later, in the early Christian centuries, did they develop into the notions of eternal bliss or damnation widely accepted today.

As a historian, Ehrman obviously cannot provide a definitive answer to the question of what happens after death. In Heaven and Hell, he does the next best thing: by helping us reflect on where our ideas of the afterlife come from, he assures us that even if there may be something to hope for when we die, there is certainly nothing to fear.

 

Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781501136733
  • ISBN-10: 1501136739
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publish Date: March 2020
  • Page Count: 352
  • Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.1 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds


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BookPage Reviews

Heaven and Hell

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.

 

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