Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife by Bart D. Ehrman

My father used to say that the idea of life after death struck him as no more preposterous than the idea of life itself: the notion that animate beings could arise from inanimate matter is the sort of thing we’d scoff at if we weren’t already alive.

But what might life after death actually look like? Here’s where wishful thinking combines with a desire for cosmic justice. Heaven strikes most people as a fine idea—I mean, why not?—and perhaps even a necessary one, given the pain and tragedy of earthly life for so many. How could a benevolent God permit such widespread suffering? The prospect of eternal bliss in the next life gets God (somewhat) off the hook.

Purgatory, too, makes a kind of sense. We don’t lead equally virtuous lives, so we should look forward to unequal periods of cleansing before going on to our ultimate reward. Moreover, if everyone entered heaven immediately, the ripple-back effect on earthly behavior would be much diminished. Why toe the line if it has no bearing on your destiny or on how quickly you reach it?

Heaven strikes most people as a fine idea—I mean, why not?

And then there is hell. Eternal damnation is a terrifying prospect. As Hieronymus Bosch and others understood, it can be hard to pull your eyes away. There’s a reason why readers are more compulsively drawn to the “Inferno” portion of Dante’s Divine Comedy than to the parts that follow. Heaven can seem faintly boring, but hell strikes an emotional chord. There are individuals for whom no earthly punishment can ever be enough. Dante was open about whom he’d like to see in hell—naming names and matching finely parsed forms of evil with specific gradations of torment. I suspect many people keep an informal private list. I seem to be adding to my own almost daily.

Eternal Triangle

We’re all familiar with this tripartite division of the afterlife. The basic scheme is the stuff of a thousand New Yorker cartoons. But you won’t find it laid out in the Hebrew Bible or in the words of Jesus. Tracing the backstory is the job that Bart D. Ehrman has assigned himself in Heaven and Hell. Ehrman is the right person to take this on—a prominent New Testament scholar who was a deeply committed evangelical Christian before graduate study at Princeton Theological Seminary turned him, predictably, onto a more skeptical path. Ehrman is currently the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is a fine writer who shuns theological jargon and knows how to bring himself, very occasionally, into the story. (There’s an episode near the beginning where an experience in a sauna leads to an epiphany about hell.)

Ehrman bears no animus toward religion—not for him the snark and dudgeon of a Richard Dawkins. He does not accept the visions of the afterlife he explores, but rendering a verdict is not his task. His aim is to describe how the ideas arose, and to show that the impulse behind them is rooted in our earthly lives. Good people suffer. Bad people prosper. Celestial jurisprudence becomes the only recourse—a court of last resort. Ideas about the afterlife, Ehrman writes, “emerged over a long period of time as people struggled with how this world can be fair and how God or the gods can be just. Death itself cannot be the end of the story. Surely all people will receive what they deserve.”

The prospect of eternal bliss in the next life gets God (somewhat) off the hook.

Ehrman begins his account with the discovery in Egypt, in 1886, of an early Christian text called the Apocalypse of Peter. The parchment, preserved in a monk’s tomb by dry desert conditions, was an incomplete copy of a lost work known to date back to the second century A.D., and it offered what Ehrman calls a “guided tour” of the next world, with appropriate tortures for various types of sinner and endless joy for the righteous. Like other so-called Apocrypha, the Apocalypse of Peter never became part of the accepted canon of New Testament scripture, but it provides a window onto what some believers were thinking as Christianity was taking form.

The idea that the afterlife should serve as a tool of equity—apportioning just deserts according to a divine calculus—was awhile in coming. The Hebrew Bible consigns all the dead to a single place—Sheol—regardless of virtue. In other ancient traditions, death simply means “lights out.” Roman tombstones are sometimes carved with the initials n.f.f.n.s.n.c., which stood for non fui, fui, non sum, non curo—“I was not. I was. I am not. I care not.”

Ehrman sees Plato as a turning point, because his ideas penetrated everywhere. Plato saw the afterlife as a chance for justice. In the Phaedo he described a range of fates: from an eternity in “divine company” to the “utter desolation” of Tartarus, with a bracing spell in the Acherusian Lake for those who need purification before some eventual reward. Ideas like these had wide circulation. Christian writers such as the authors of the gospels of Luke and John, and of the fever dream known as Revelation, would have a lot to work with.

Pay Your Way

Ehrman ranges widely, from Gilgamesh and Homer to Virgil and Augustine. He does not mention The Good Place, but he brings up The Frogs, by Aristophanes—dramatists have been having fun with the afterlife for millennia.

Toward the end, Ehrman focuses on Purgatory, a late development anticipated by ancient writers but not enshrined as Church doctrine until the Second Council of Lyons, in 1274. One opportunity afforded by Purgatory was the chance to bargain. Through the agency of prayer, saints in heaven and the faithful on earth could plead your case, thereby reducing the duration of purgatorial suffering. You could give alms—making charitable contributions and diminishing your future sentence. Eventually, when Popes needed money to build St. Peter’s, you were able to purchase indulgences that guaranteed not only salvation but also access to the TSA PreCheck line.

The association of philanthropy and posthumous regard has left its mark everywhere. It’s why Rockefeller and Carnegie created foundations. James A. Gray lives on as the man who endowed Bart Ehrman’s professorial chair, not as a former president and chairman of the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.

Cullen Murphy is the Editor at Large of The Atlantic. His books include God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World