Bart D. Ehrman has provided another book on the history of Christianity intended for both academics and the lay reader. Journeys to Heaven and Hell: Tours of the Afterlife in the Early Christian Tradition follows his earlier Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife (Simon and Schuster, 2021). This most recent book extends that survey (a history of ideas) with an exegetical analysis of Christian manuscripts that demonstrate Christian interpretations and innovations of traditional concepts from both Judaism and Greco-Roman culture over the centuries.
Chapter 1 highlights the important concept of catabasis, or descent—in this case, the descent to Hades. He reviews Odysseus in Homer, the descriptions (and myths) of Plato, and the additions and expansions supplied by Virgil’s Aeneid. Virgil introduced the idea of the ability to “purge” oneself of evil deeds, found in the later Christian adoption of the concept of Purgatory.
In Chapter 2 Ehrman reviews the books of the prophets and the Apocalyptic literature of the Hellenistic period. The dominant theme of these texts concerns what would happen in the future, when God would manifest his kingdom and institute a “final judgment.”
The next several chapters detail Christian innovations of the afterlife. Ehrman argues that neither Jesus nor Paul preached anything that resembles the modern concept of “eternal punishment” for sinners or the “blissfulness of heaven” for the saved. Both preached the idea of a transformed kingdom on earth for believers in Christ, with annihilation for non-believers. When the kingdom did not materialize, it was later Christians who construed heaven and hell as eternal experiences of either joy or suffering.
Christian texts differed in detail and scope. As Christians debated each other over correct beliefs (orthodoxy) and as they experienced persecution at the hands of Rome, the punishment for their enemies became more graphically violent. No longer content with annihilation, non-believers and heretics were to be tortured now, in the interim, as they awaited the return of Christ.
Providing historical and social context, Ehrman frames each text in relation to their function in evangelism and recruitment. In this sense, Christian accounts of heaven and hell had the same fundamental purpose of all descriptions of the afterlife, to validate contemporary culture. How one lived one’s earthly life was crucial for one’s ultimate destiny. One’s earthly life determined the details of one’s afterlife existence. This was particularly emphasized in texts that discoursed on the evils of wealth.
In the third chapter, Ehrman discusses the influence of miracles on conversion, beginning with the miracle of the resurrection of the dead. He claims that the miracles of Paul were well known (from the Acts of the Apostles and the later Acts of Paul). “I persevered,” Paul writes, “in demonstrating among you the marks of a true apostle, including signs, wonders and miracles,” (2 Corinthians 12:12), and Ehrman “accepts Paul on his word” (p. 71). But the historical problem remains that Paul never provided detailed descriptions of these “miracles.” And surprisingly, Paul never related any miracles of Jesus. Nevertheless, miracle stories remained important in recruitment and to validate the teachings. The chapter concludes with an analysis of Augustine’s promotion of continuing miracles in the churches at the end of The City of God. Upholding the conviction that God is a god of justice, Augustine conceded that justice may not yet reign in the world of the living, but it will surely be administered in the afterlife.
In Chapter 4, Ehrman analyzes both the Apocalypse of Peter and the Apocalypse of Paul, two texts that add detail to the Christian depiction of the afterlife. The Apocalypse of Peter describes the fate of the wicked in excruciating detail, following the idea that the “punishment fits the crime.” Each sin is punished in relation to the charge; liars have their tongues cut out eternally, etc. The Apocalypse of Peter was directed to the conversion of non-Christians. The later Apocalypse of Paul, building upon similar descriptions, was directed to heretics within Christian communities. Chapter 6 analyzes the Gospel of Peter and the evolution of ideas that became incorporated into medieval accounts of the “Harrowing of Hell,” which describe Christ’s descent into Hell following his crucifixion and before his resurrection.
The most helpful feature of this book is Ehrman’s surveys of the history of scholarly analysis of these ancient texts. Each one begins with an account of the historical discovery of a manuscript or fragment, followed by an overview of decades of scholarly theories in books and articles. Anyone working on the history of Christianity’s views of the afterlife now has a convenient research collection to add to their library. However, in this case, the lay audience will become lost in the nuances of scholarly debates, which are detailed in sixty pages of footnotes.
But there is a glaring omission in this book, as well as in his earlier one (Heaven and Hell). In neither volume does Ehrman present the evolution of ha-Satan into the Devil. Searching the Index, one only finds “devil” and “Satan” with appropriate page numbers where the terms appear in the literature. Given his popularity with lay audiences, one would think that the history and evolution of the concept of Satan would be of major interest to Ehrman’s readers.
The omission is puzzling. Beginning with Mark, the Gospels framed the ministry as a battle between Jesus and “the ruler of this world,” the Devil. When and where did that idea originate? There is no discussion of the concept of “the personification of evil” in the Dead Sea Scrolls, nor are related concepts that were expanded in texts such as Jubilees. The 2nd-century Church Fathers utilized the concept of “the personification of evil” to demonize Jews, women, and pagans; agents of the Devil infiltrated these groups and led them into “sexual immorality,” corruption, and “false worship.” The omission is even more noteworthy, because the Church Fathers’ use of this language coincided with the increased production of descriptions of punishments and rewards in the afterlife.
Ehrman has publicly stated that he does not believe in a literal Heaven or Hell. That is fine, and it agrees with many modern views. But the manuscripts Ehrman analyzes have been utilized to validate violence against all “others.” For this reason, the role of the Devil as the source of all evil (and the use of violence against his agents) in the evolution of Christian theology cannot be simply ignored.
Rebecca I. Denova is an emeritus instructor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.
Date Of Review:
August 31, 2022
Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has written or edited thirty-three books, six of which were New York Times best sellers. He lives in Durham, NC.
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