Bart Ehrman is known mainly for his work as a New Testament textual critic. His career has involved exploring the origins of the New Testament and trying to decipher how reliable the Christian Scriptures are in their presentation of who Jesus is and what Jesus did and said.
In Heaven and Hell, Ehrman attempts to produce a history of the afterlife; that is, to describe how perspectives on heaven and hell have developed since antiquity and how they have been passed down and altered through the generations. In the book, Ehrman writes a lot about the philosophers of Ancient Greece, for instance, and describes how Greek mythology may have influenced later thinking concerning the afterlife.
I really enjoyed reading this book. I found that it struck a nice balance between being scholarly in its research and accessible in its style. It is not a long book, but is full of interesting insights.
I do find the main assumption of the book — that thinking about the afterlife developed in a linear way through history — problematic. To look at things in this way is rather anthropocentric, and neglects the all-important factor of the will of God. Ehrman is agnostic about God’s existence, so it is perhaps not surprising that the author approaches the subject of the afterlife in terms of human progress rather than a divine plan.
The main thought that consistently came to my mind while reading the book was whether or not Ehrman has read the Qur’an. For me, this is the main source by which humans of our time are able to understand the subjects of heaven and hell. Ehrman’s book is entirely focused on how Christian thinking about the afterlife may have developed, and the author doesn’t explore the perspectives found in other religions. I suppose Ehrman is writing within his niche, which is understandable, but I would have liked the scope of Ehrman’s research to have included Islam and other religions.
At the close of the book, Ehrman succinctly describes his own view, which is that after death we probably cease to exist completely. In the same way as when someone is under general anaesthetic they lose consciousness completely, the author believes it’s likely this will happen to us when we die — there will simply be oblivion; nothingness. I suppose this means that Ehrman believes the entire subject matter of his book (the beliefs of humans about the afterlife throughout history) is just human invention and speculation. But if this is the case, why write the book? What are Ehrman’s motivations? Maybe intellectual interest, maybe the desire to make money, maybe the desire for recognition. God only knows, and it’s not for me to judge. I’m just curious.
I did learn a lot from the book, especially from the chapters about Greek mythology, which is not a subject I have explored in depth in my life thus far. I found the whole of the book to be entertaining and interesting, and I would recommend this book as a gripping read that is unlikely to disappoint anyone with an interest in philosophy and religion. I’m looking forward to reading more of Ehrman’s books on the subject of the text of the New Testament, as I think this is where the main value in Ehrman’s extensive research can be found.
‘Heaven and Hell’ by Bart Ehrman is available in eBook, paperback, and hardcover formats from Amazon and other retailers. To read my review of ‘Misquoting Jesus’ by Bart Ehrman, click here. To see a full list of the books I have reviewed on Perfect Chaos, click here. Thank you for reading!