Why I read Heaven & Hell
Heaven & Hell is a book that I kind of slipped into. I saw a review of it on LitHub, and when I checked my libraries, to my surprise I found that it was available. So I checked it out and then had to read it, even though it wasn’t on my reading schedule (yes, I keep a schedule for these things…otherwise I can’t keep to my post schedule).
Part of me wondered what in the heck a person could fill a whole book with about something no one really knows anything about. I supposed that the author could probably go one of two ways: either what different religions say about it or what people who have “flatlined” say about about it.
Well, this book is neither.
Why should you read Heaven and Hell
It starts with an analysis of the Greek perspective on the afterlife. I kind of knew this because of all of those years teaching middle school, but this section went into more detail. I wasn’t terribly interested because who believes in paganism anymore? I mean, really?
It got slightly more interesting when he got to the Bible. Everything in the Old Testament is confusing and messy because it was written over such a long period of time. Well, I found out the New Testament is also messy; the thing that makes it a little less so is that in comparison to the Old Testament the time span is much shorter and more recent, but it’s still a long, long time ago.
What grabbed my attention is the author’s academic approach to the Bible, and the effort he puts into sorting out, from the Gospels, what is actually likely to be the actual teachings of Jesus and what is not.
If you are a church goer and study The Bible, you might be surprised to find the approach quite a bit different than what you hear in church. I was always taught that the approaches of the different authors of the gospels had more to do with the perspectives of the authors (for example, Luke was a doctor), but this author also analyzes them in terms of where the author got his information, and what the perspective of when the book was written (all decades after Jesus’ death/resurrection) had to do with the final document.
I never stopped to think, or never realized, that Paul is possibly one of the only reliable authors of any book in the Bible, and according to the author, not even all of the writings attributed to him are likely by him.
I was about to give up when I got through the chapter on Paul, but then I “turned the page” (I was reading the digital version), and I got to the chapter on Revelation. Ok, things are about to get interesting because no one understands Revelation, I thought. So then the author takes us through an analysis based on the idea that Revelation is more about the world at the time of its writing than a prophetic version of the world we can expect, i.e. the “end times” theory.
The last two chapters of this book delve into an area I had never really thought much about: religious writing that came after the collection we know today as “the Bible”. These cover works that were written in the first 300 years or so after Christ’s death. It’s interesting to see how scholars expanded on their theories of heaven and hell as early Christianity developed, but perhaps they aren’t quite as interesting because no one really thinks they are divinely inspired. On the other hand, they flesh out the idea of heaven and hell as philosophical theories, which were needed, at least on one level, to justify why good doesn’t come to the good, necessarily, and quite clearly, evil doesn’t come to the evil.
The message I got from this book is reassuring: Heaven is a place where the righteous will get their reward, and according to this interpretation itself, Jesus did not seem to think you had to believe in any particular religion to be righteous (yes, I know you are flipping out if you are a Christian, just hear me out). According to the author, that belief came later.
Yes, again, I know what Jesus said about believing in him. I know what the Bible says about “all scripture being God breathed”. I’m getting there, relax.
When the unrighteous die, they aren’t punished forever, they are annihilated. They are destroyed. And Romans does say, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.”
Now getting back to all the things that the author says that are going to freak out Christians (and also Jews I’m sure, but I don’t know much about that since I’m not one). If you believe that all scripture is “God breathed”, that doesn’t mean that you can’t believe what this author says about when each book was written and by whom.
As an English teacher, I’ve worked with texts in translation enough…and taught them to students who could read the original…to know how much things get changed when they are translated. I also know enough about what scholars do involving studying original texts found at different times. They also study the author’s style, and it’s fairly easy to differentiate how an author might write at different times versus different authors. For example, an author with sophisticated syntax (word order/grammar) in one text isn’t going to start making basic mistakes in another, even if the author is trying to use a different style.
It also makes sense to me that Jesus may not have told the disciples everything he knew, so if he withheld things that his original disciples may not have understood, maybe it is the will of God that they were added later. Same with Revelation.
Keep in mind also that there are additional religious writings (known as The Apocrypha), which are not included as part of the “canon” that most of us consider the Bible. Scholars determined that they are not “God breathed.”
So it’s possible to read this book, which may be shocking for devout laypeople, without putting aside the belief that The Bible all came from God and was intended to be the way it is. The approach of this book is to analyze, from the Judeo-Christian religious (but mostly Christian) perspective what we might expect to happen after we die.
Does that make sense?
Who is Bart D. Ehrman?
Ehrman is a professor in Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. His scholarship focuses on the study of Jesus, and most of his books have to do with a historical analysis of Jesus and validation of the writings we have about Him as they were written between decades and centuries after Jesus’ death/ascension.
About the Cover Photo
The medieval church was not fooling around when it came to getting parishioners to behave themselves. If you are a Protestant Christian, who tend to have little if any artwork in their churches (Protestantism came along AFTER widespread literacy), count your blessings that you don’t have to stare at this through every service.
Personally, I like religious art, and I enjoy the detail, but it seems the original intent was to scare people into behaving…and remember, most of these people were not literate and could not read The Bible for themselves.
You Tell Us
What do you believe about the afterlife? Why?
Is a system of belief about the afterlife important for religion?