Book Review: Heaven and Hell

Book Review

I had heard a lot about Bart D. Ehrman before I picked this book up. As a Christian student at Bible College, here in the UK, I was advised very much against reading his work. It was said that because Mr Ehrman is an atheist, that this will have affected his judgement of the biblical and early Christian texts. Whereas a ’rounded and faithful’ scholar will allow you to understand the scriptures more accurately and engage you deeper in your relationship with God.

I always found this strange, though I listened to the advice at twenty years of age. I didn’t want my mind to be sucked into an atheist mindset in regard to the Biblical and early Christian texts that we were studying. But for what I can tell, in finding out more and more about Mr Ehrman – his atheism has nothing to do with how he addresses the texts.

I noticed as well that right from the start of lock down for COVID-19 (I am writing this early May 2020) Bart D. Ehrman began to allow people to visit his blog and get a free two months to read all posts from the last decade-plus. As it stands, any money that people pay to get access to this blog is given away to various charities, all of which are listed on the blog, which is brilliant. The fact that people are able to read all his posts and engage on the forum for free during this tough time, well I am really impressed. You can check the blog out here, it is well worth it in my opinion as he writes 5-6 engaging and interesting posts a week, responds to all comments and gives all funds to charity. I will be paying for a membership when my free two months expire, that is for sure.

An example of a place I had come across him before is on the Unbelievable? podcast during their 2019/2020 ‘The Big Conversation’ series:

Now this is a fascinating debate, and it is the one that really got me interested in listening to non-Christian scholars trying to examine the texts as honestly as they could. Give it a watch if you have the time, it’s very interesting and helps anyone understand how important the Bible is, as well as how careful we need to be before we decide it is a linear narrative aimed at telling one coherent story.

As I began to read Bart D. Ehrman’s book ‘Heaven and Hell: A history of the afterlife‘, something that I hadn’t experienced for year took hold of me. Many of you know that I had a passion or ‘calling’ for teaching God’s people His word, and this was twofold. Firstly, because I wanted to help people engage with the Bible as the source of a living God’s communication and revelation, but secondly because the Bible is a fascinating collection of stories that can be viewed, dissected, read, cherished, lived out and sowed away. What Mr Ehrman’s book did to me was to enable me to remember the passion I had in studying the Bible, because it is an ancient and interesting set of texts, rather than the answer to all of life’s questions. You don’t need to believe that God is real, or that Jesus rose from the dead to appreciate the stories, ideas and messages that it is trying to get across. Ancient wisdom stowed for millennia shouldn’t be placed by the wayside because we disagree with its core message.

We will come back to the importance of the Bible later on in another blog post. I don’t want to be one of these unbelievers who tosses the Bible away as a load of crap, without understanding how important the stories held within it are to our society today. Another reasons for this spike in passion is all down to Mr Ehrman’s blog, each one will take you around 10 mins to read and it will give you a window into something that will be fascinating in or around the Bible. Culture, context, communities, literary styles, methods, archaeology, facts, agendas and messages, to name but a few of the sorts of things each blog post takes a look at in a snapshot.

‘Heaven and Hell: A history of the afterlife’ is written to go far broader than just the Biblical stories. In it we take a look at the Greeks, Romans, Persians, Jewish and Christian influences on heaven and hell, and how these have been evolving for thousands of years, changing and moving at different rates during different time periods.

When God revealed himself to humanity, (when, if and how we think this actually happened -it doesn’t matter), He didn’t grant a set belief in existence after death. To begin with, death was the absence of life, a person who was once animated was no longer such and was placed into the grave – Sheol. We can see that the belief in immediate rewards depending on the life lived was firmly held as a canonical belief, and the texts read along such lines when it became fully ‘cannon’.

As a Christian, I rarely glanced at ancient Greek figures such as Socrates and Plato. Then we have periods when Israel was in exile under the Persians which affected how their prophetic writings were constructed, with additions added later to texts, but being placed near the start of the text, to seem early and ‘prophetic’ in the predictions. Or the Maccabean revolts and how that period caused a massive shift in Jewish thinking about the immediacy of rewards and punishments when we die. Then into early church history, glancing at figures like Polycarp and Origin. Obviously touching heavily on Old and New Testament texts as well.

You don’t have to agree with how Mr Ehrman places and settles certain texts to not appreciate the clear reality that peoples thinking on the afterlife has significantly changed over time as our philosophical questions about purpose, meaning, fairness and justice have been mulled over, debated and people have tried to provide answers in rewards and punishments. I happen to appreciate and see all of Mr Ehrman’s points within his book, though I could see how certain passages like 1 Samuel 28 (witch of Endor) could be debated a bit more heavily with some more theories and scholarly references being examined.

But something that is made very clear in this book, time periods are not the same as geographical areas, and different groups of Jewish thinkers, within different communities, thought and held different beliefs as different times. Just look at the various schools of Jewish elites mentioned in the New Testament for example. What does seem clear though, is that over time more and more people’s views shifted and we see things eventually come to the place we are in today – we are taught about heaven and hell as being literal places where we are going as soon as we die.

I want to shift to my personal perspective now, and then we will take a look at two of the quotes in this book.

We experience hell in our lives, and we all try to push away from it towards heaven. I can see why these things were created. People do awful things to us and they never answer for the wrong or malice that is inflicted. We can all think of situations and circumstances that have left us feeling upset, hurt or pained. The idea of an all-loving deity who is also just and fair is something extrapolated from the Bible. Humanity wants it to be true and therefore some humans have placed it into some religions.

I am in dialogue with more and more believers who find the idea of hell completely evil. People today cannot explain how an all-loving and just God placing people into eternal suffering for things done and decisions made in a finite lifetime is either loving or just.

So, people are doing away with it. Books, articles, scholars, pastors and laypeople are slowly realising that they can’t and therefore don’t believe in Hell. Maybe some system to pay back the wrong of sin takes place, but eventually, everyone is allowed to enter into the presence of God, or maybe those who reject God are annihilated?

And so, the philosophical dialogue continues today, as our thoughts, reading and resting places shift on the idea of heaven, hell and the afterlife. It’s literally happening in our own day and age. I am sure we will see some massive changes in what the normal layperson thinks about the afterlife in the next twenty years or so. Watch this space.

It is fascinating to read a book tracking these changes and then realising that the very conversations that most of my Christian friends are having are still based around these ideas. Ideas that arguably are created from the need to fit the Biblical stories into a structure that makes complete sense with our reading, morality and hopes.

‘Knowing where ideas of the afterlife came from, how they developed, and how they changed can tell us, historically, a lot about how Christianity came to be what it is today: the most historically significant and culturally influential religion in the world.’ Ehrman, Bart D.. Heaven and Hell. Oneworld Publications. Kindle Edition.

This quote nicely and coherently explains what I have been trying to say at the start of this blog post. Christianity cannot be placed by the wayside because we don’t literally believe the tenants adhered to within. Christianity is the undercurrent that dictates the way the over-current is today, and how we live our lives within this over-current.

‘As it turns out, it is possible to trace a trajectory in our surviving Gospels away from the deeply apocalyptic teachings of Jesus in Mark and Matthew, to less apocalyptic teachings in the later Gospel of Luke, to non-apocalyptic teachings in the still later Gospel of John, to anti-apocalyptic teachings in the noncanonical Gospel of Thomas, written a couple of decades after John. In short, the words of Jesus, over time, came to be de-apocalypticized.’ Ehrman, Bart D.. Heaven and Hell. Oneworld Publications. Kindle Edition.

Time allows us the space to ask questions and then to reflect on the answers. When we place our everything upon a figure, who’s words were never recorded with a tape player or video recorder, time grants us the space to edit what He said. Maybe not on purpose, but because our memories are faulty and the longer the time that passes the less certain we really are about the events, words and purposes behind what we witness.

In short, ‘Heaven and Hell: A history of the afterlife’ is a very interesting book. It highlights some of the major concerns I have with how Christianity developed, what was extrapolated quickly and what we tacked on later. No one needs to have been trying to do these things on purpose, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t take place.

If things like Heaven and Hell have been created by our need to extrapolate justice, reason, mercy and purpose to its conclusion, then what else could and have we created in retrospect to explain a position or belief that we hold? Can we ever fully know?

_End of Blog Blurb_

Thanks for taking the time to read my blog. It has taken me a few years to get to a place where I am able to share my loss of faith and to start writing about the journey that I am still on for you all. I hope you find it useful.

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Farewell For Now When Belief Dies

It's time to stop, even though it breaks my heart. This episode serves as my reason why.   -Sam
  1. Farewell For Now
  2. When Belief Dies #100 – 'Psychedelics, Philosophy & God' with Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes
  3. When Belief Dies #99 – 'Open and Relational Theology' with Thomas Jay Oord
  4. When Belief Dies #98 – 'The Take Over' with Daniel Kelly & Roger Bretherton
  5. When Belief Dies #97 – 'The End?' with Daniel Kelly

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