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

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

‘Whether we believe in them or not, we are all familiar with the concepts of heaven and hell. There was a time, however, when no one thought they would go to either of these places after they died. In fact, Jesus didn’t believe a dead person’s soul was bound for heaven or hell, and these ideas are nowhere to be found in the Old Testament. So, where did they come from?

From the Epic of Gilgamesh to the writings of Augustine, Bart Ehrman provides a fascinating and thought-provoking history of the afterlife. He traces how beliefs changed over time and reveals the social, cultural and historical roots of competing views held by Greeks, Jews and Christians. Ultimately, he shows that many of our ideas about heaven and hell emerged long after Jesus’s time, through the struggle to explain the injustices of our world.’

One of the things I’ve always loved most about studying classical civilisation is looking at the systems of belief that governed societies, and how these beliefs developed, took on elements of other stories and legends, and the impact that they had on the growth of different cultures and what was and was not acceptable in societies. Working as a teacher of English, I do get to discuss a wide range of historical contexts in the study of literature through time, but I honestly miss getting to explore the ancient world in the depth that I used to, and I have to say that reading Heaven and Hell was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I may not be religious, but I do try to expand my understanding of different beliefs whenever possible, and I was thrilled to be able to learn about subjects that I previously had very little knowledge of, such as the Hebrew Bible.

One of my favourite chapters in Heaven and Hell was ‘Life After Death Before There Was Life After Death’, which looks at the representation of the underworld in Classical literature, and how much the perception of what stands to follow after has changed by the time Virgil writes The Aeneid, even what he has heavily ‘borrowed’ from The Odyssey impacted by the altered views of the time. I was very lucky to study Classics with excellent teachers and a group of good friends, and it did give me a bit of a giggle to see the same plot holes that we identified back then highlighted here too, such as why Odysseus needs a sword to ‘hold back’ the intangible dead, and how Circe simply tells him everything he learned in his trip to the underworld when he returns to her palace, making his journey all but needless, excepting what he learns of Elpenor and his need to be buried, meaning the trip perhaps only serves to draw attention to the importance of ritual and the afterlife in the Ancient Greek world. This chapter also brought to light something that I’d never really considered, not particularly having any definite belief in what might happen after death: is it worse to experience an eternal, bland, afterlife lacking in any purpose or meaning, or the torment of our more ‘traditional’ understanding of what the soul stands to suffer in hell? Each stand to be their own forms of torture, it cannot be denied.

In studying literature, one of the things I particularly love is looking at the different connotations of language and how words stand to be interpreted depending on context, beliefs and other elements of society that impact how we perceive the world. Another of the things that Heaven and Hell looks at is how our understanding of the words originally used in ancient and religious texts have changed over time, primarily down to the differing opinions involved in translations and what we have had to attempt to fill in when pieces of a text have been destroyed, or key pieces of context that lend specific meaning are missing. In considering this, it seems that, in some instances, we struggle to step away from what we associate with language as suggested by our learning and experiences. In the case of the Hebrew Bible, in reading the word ‘pit’, one of the immediate associations tends to be with that of what we are told of hell – that it is a ‘fiery pit’ of eternal torment, and not simply a physical place of burial. In making this assumption, this is one of the first steps to ‘altering’ the original meaning of a text and passing it down through generations, until the true meaning is lost.

As I read Heaven and Hell, I was often left wondering exactly what my own beliefs about life after death are. It seems that – at least in the UK – it is schools that first suggest that heaven and hell exist, even if they are not religious schools. Hymns are sung and a suggestion of there being a god and afterlife are made and generally accepted, the belief that to be good is to go to heaven and to be bad means going to hell something that we are brought up with even when our families are not religious. The suggestion is that to be a good person will have its rewards, which is realms away from the ancient belief in Hades and an equal experience of the afterlife for all – a frustrating and unfulfilling eternity though it may be. There is a part of me that cannot help but believe that these ideas are used as a form of control, an idea Ehrman highlights in discussing the supposed origins of religious texts and how they have, in all inevitability, been manipulated for purpose by men.

Heaven and Hell is a fascinating, thought-provoking and engaging book that I enjoyed immensely. It’s on shelves on April 3rd! Thank you, OneWorld Publications, for sending it to me!

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