When best-selling early-Christianity scholar cum apostate Bart Ehrman was a child, he remembers thinking deeply about an afterlife.
“I obviously had no clear understanding of death,” he writes in the preface of his new book, Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife. “But I did believe that after I died I would go to heaven or hell. And I was bound and determined to make it one and not the other.
Ehrman, an American, writes that he tried hard to be good in his youth because he had been taught to believe in God and because he knew God expected it of him. But at least in part, he recalls, he also “knew full well what would happen to me if I didn’t.”
He also believed that the “billions of people in the world” who hadn’t accepted Jesus “into their hearts,” as he had, were doomed to an eternal, fiery torment in hell.
But after he became an adult and an eminent authority on biblical texts, he failed to find evidence to support his youthful beliefs. He began to realize that what he had believed since childhood was “actually very complicated and maybe problematic.”
Eventually, Ehrman concluded, as he notes in his preface, an idea that has informed much of his scholarly writing: “that the Bible was not a consistent revelation whose very words came from God; that the traditional Christian doctrines I had always held as obviously true (e.g., the Trinity) were not handed down from heaven but were formulations made by very fallible human beings.”
Among the questionable doctrines Ehrman eventually jettisoned were the Christian concepts of heaven and hell.
“Ehrman is clear that ‘Jesus did not teach that when a person died they would go to heaven or hell,’” independent Kirkus Reviews writes in a review of Heaven and Hell. “Furthermore, he argues, ‘one of my theses is that a close reading of Jesus’s words shows that in fact he had no idea of torment for sinners after death.’”
But it was a long, slow, intellectually tortuous journey for Ehrman to permanent doubt about his faith’s central tenets. He recounts an unexpected crisis moment, as he was beginning to have doubts about the hereafter as a college divinity student, sitting alone in a sauna late at night at a tennis club where he worked.
“Wow, it sure is hot in here! It is really, really hot in here!” he thought, with sweat pouring off him, he writes in his book. “And then, naturally, the thought struck me. Do I really want to be trapped in an overheated sauna for eternity? And what if the sauna is many, many times hotter than this? Do I want to be in fire forever? Is it worth it? For me, at that moment, it meant: Do I really want to change my beliefs and risk eternal torment?”
Overtime, he did change into a more liberal Christian but subsequently left the faith altogether. He jokes that he “went from being born again to being dead again,” but that it’s a good thing.
Although most of Ehrman’s many books on Christianity are academic in nature, belying his vocation as a scholastic historian, Heaven and Hell is written for non-academic readers. It’s a fact poo-pooed by some of his reviewers, as though a less dense, more accessible treatment of the subject is a bad thing.
“A readable book of popular Christianity that offers little new theologically,” the Kirkus Reviews reviewer of his book sniffed.
However, I’ve discovered in writing this blog that hordes of “regular readers” exist “out there” who are hungry for information about religious doubt — and that they might never access it if its packed in what seems to them overly daunting, impenetrable form. So, my hat’s off to Ehrman for reaching out to the literary proletariat
But Heaven and Hell hasn’t suffered all brickbats. Publishers Weekly offered this positive, starred review:
“Ehrman’s eloquent understanding of how death is viewed through many spiritual traditions is scintillating, fresh, and will appeal to scholars and lay readers alike.”
Ehrman explains in his book that rather than coming to us from on high, concepts of an imagined afterlife came to us from human writers who fashioned spiritual concepts from the times they lived in and the cultures they inhabited, as all fantasies come to us.
In short, Ehrman tries to ensure us that we have nothing really to look forward to — or fear — from the “notions of eternal bliss or damnation widely accepted today.”
So, relax, it’s all good. You can still look forward to more than the best sleep of your life — in the afterlife.