Bart Ehrman on the Intellectual History of the Afterlife (And Why Most Christians Misinterpret Their Own Faith)

Heaven and Hell Book Cover

What happens after you die? No one knows, of course, but that hasn’t stopped people throughout history from making extraordinary claims backed with extraordinarily little evidence. The history of this wild hypothesizing is the subject of Bart Ehrman’s latest book, Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife.

Ehrman is in a unique position to tell the story. As a New Testament scholar, he’s spent his entire career critically examining the Bible and the development of early Christianity. But he’s no Bible thumper; over the course of his life, his burgeoning knowledge of the subject led him to eventually abandon the faith, moving from fundamentalist to liberal Christianity and eventually to atheism. Ehrman is therefore among the most knowledgeable atheists on the planet regarding Christianity, having earned both master’s and PhD degrees in the textual criticism of the Bible and having written over 30 books on the subject, including three college textbooks. 

Apparently, Ehrman’s increasingly sophisticated understanding of Christianity correlated perfectly with his move to eventually reject it. As Penn Jillet wrote, “Reading the Bible is the fast track to atheism,” and studying it for a living—in an intellectually honest manner—should all but guarantee the transition. 

In Heaven and Hell, Ehrman traces the evolving nature of the Western mind’s picture of the afterlife, not from the perspective of a believer, but from the perspective of a well-informed but disinterested observer. Ehrman covers early Greek, Jewish, and Christian conceptions of life after death and how this has changed over time within the Judeo-Christian tradition. 

While the book is filled with fascinating stories, anecdotes, and analysis, for our purposes we can focus on Erhman’s (probably unsurprising) main thesis, which is that most Christians majorly misunderstand their own faith regarding the afterlife (in addition to much else). 

Ask the majority of Christians today, and they’ll tell you that after you die your soul escapes your body and ascends to heaven or descends to the depths of hell depending on whether you lived a good life or held the appropriate beliefs. But, as Ehrman shows—leveraging his extensive research in Biblical criticism—this view is not only incorrect, it also contradicts the teachings of Jesus himself!

In brief, Ehrman shows that a careful reading of the words of Jesus in the New Testament reveals that Jesus was part of a long line of Jewish apocalypticists. Jesus did not believe, nor did he ever say, that the soul leaves the body at death and travels to either heaven or hell. Consistent with Jewish teachings, Jesus prophesied an imminent day of judgment where God would raise the dead, defeat the evil forces in the world, and create a utopia on earth to be enjoyed by the righteous while the wicked would be annihilated forever. 

But this was not something people had to wait 2,000 years for. As Jesus said:

“Some of those standing here will not will not taste death before they see that the Kingdom of God has come in power.” (Mark 9:1)

And:

“Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place.” (Mark 13:30)

A major fact often overlooked when reading the Bible is that the authors were consistently writing about their own times and context, and, as Ehrman repeatedly reminds us, it is always a mistake to read the author as prophesying events that are to occur thousands of years later. The most honest reading of Jesus’s words suggests that he thought judgment day was imminent. 

Neither Jesus, nor the Jewish apocalypticists, thought that the soul traveled anywhere without the body. They believed that the body required the soul and the soul required the body, and that God could either resurrect the body for eternal life on earth or else annihilate life altogether. Jesus never speaks of any separate realm of heaven or hell, or of eternal punishment, and while he did speak of an eternal fire that the wicked would be thrown into, he did not say that they would burn forever.

So where did the idea come from, that the soul leaves the body at death and journeys to some mysterious location of eternal bliss or torment? It comes from—like much else—the ancient Greeks! In a weird twist of irony, most practicing Christians today are really Platonists in disguise. Soul/body dualism is not a biblical idea, it is a Greek idea. Plato invented the idea that the soul is superior to the body and that, after death, it is the soul that lives on, as the soul is, by its very nature, immortal. Christians at some point decided that Plato knew better than Jesus and adopted the Platonic view.

So why did this happen? Because the day of judgment never came (as it was supposed to during the time of Jesus), so people had to adapt their beliefs and find another way to justify the bad things that happened to the faithful. 

People believe in the afterlife for a host of reasons, including the natural desire to extend one’s life indefinitely, to reunite with loved ones, or to simply placate a fear of death and the unknown. But they do so for another reason altogether: namely, the desire for justice. People noticed that it is often the case whereby the wicked are rewarded for their sins and the righteous suffer for their piety. They eventually asked how this can be, particularly when one believes in an infinitely just God.

Christians realized long ago that the only way to square this paradox required the administration of justice in another realm (since apparently the day of judgment wasn’t happening anytime soon). To do this, they stole a simplified version of Plato’s philosophy and imagined that their souls left their bodies at death to unite with God in heaven (instant gratification) and that their enemies’ souls would not simply be annihilated—as Jesus and the Jews taught—but rather would be tortured FOR ETERNITY. Torture for all eternity seemed like a reasonable punishment, apparently. As Ehrman wrote, “Seeing your enemies horribly tortured for eternity is apparently considered one of the greatest joys possible.”

The early Chrisitan author Tertullian seemed to take particular joy in the prospect of divine retribution. He wrote: 

“What a spectacle. . .when the world. . .and its many products, shall be consumed in one great flame! How vast a spectacle then bursts upon the eye! What there excites my admiration? What my derision? Which sight gives me joy? As I see. . .illustrious monarchs. . . groaning in the lowest darkness, Philosophers. . .as fire consumes them! Poets trembling before the judgment-seat of. . .Christ! I shall hear the tragedians, louder-voiced in their own calamity; view play-actors. . .in the dissolving flame; behold wrestlers, not in their gymnasia, but tossing in the fiery billows. . .What inquisitor or priest in his munificence will bestow on you the favor of seeing and exulting in such things as these? Yet even now we in a measure have them by faith in the picturings of imagination.”

Not exactly consistent with the Sermon on the Mount or the command to love your enemies, but this is just another example of most Christians’ tendency to deviate from the teachings of the historical Jesus. 

And so most practicing Christians ought to call themselves Platonists, unless they are willing to realign their beliefs according to what Jesus actually taught: bodily resurrection on earth on the day of judgment. This is unlikely to happen because, as Ehrman demonstrates, Christians always have and always will adapt their beliefs according to the circumstances or to popular culture and NOT according to a critical reading of Jesus’s actual words (even Jesus’s direct disciples seem to have modified his teachings). 

Of course, the Juedo-Christian view of the afterlife (or the Platonic view) is not the only ancient view. As Ehrman shows, Epicurus and the ancient Greek atomists saw through all of this in the third century BCE. Epicurus (along with his predecessor Democritus) held the prescient view that all that exists are atoms and the void, and that the soul—a particular arrangement of atoms—was simply annihilated at death. This is not only the most likely scenario, but it is also the precise reason why we shouldn’t fear death—and why we should come to appreciate life even more. As Epicurus said:

“Accustom yourself to the belief that death is of no concern to us, since all good and evil lie in sensation and sensation ends with death. Therefore the true belief that death is nothing to us makes a mortal life happy, not by adding to it an infinite time, but by taking away the desire for immortality….Death, the most dreaded of evils, is therefore of no concern to us; for while we exist death is not present, and when death is present we no longer exist. It is therefore nothing either to the living or to the dead since it is not present to the living, and the dead no longer are.”

Or, to think of it in another way:

“Look back at the eternity that passed before we were born, and mark how utterly it counts to us as nothing. This is a mirror that nature holds up to us, in which we may see the time that shall be after we are dead.”

If we’re honest, there’s really not much more to say on the subject than that.

Further Reading

In addition to Heaven and Hell, check out these books by Bart Ehrman:

 

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