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Otherworldly matters
Beliefs in the afterlife evolved from humble origins in the Hebrew Bible
to flamboyant Christian visions of it
By Tibor Krausz
TO THOSE of us unburdened by belief in Rhapsodic Christian notions of heaven the Hebrew Bible, whose authors didn’t
Jesus Christ, a popular Christian concept of and hell would have come as a surprise to seem to believe in an undying soul. In-
heaven would seem to be nothing short of Jesus too. stead, these authors spoke of what they
being like hell. There the souls of believ- In the Gospels, Jesus is rather tight-lipped called “nefesh,” a breath-like life force that
ers are, singing endless hosannas to the Al- about the nature of the hereafter beyond animated people and animals, departing
mighty. And they do this reverently for all promising “eternal life” for the saved and them at death. It was Hellenistic Platonism,
eternity. “eternal punishment” for the damned (Mat- which postulated the immortality of the soul
If that’s what heaven is like, you might as thew 25:46). Yet his promise of an ever- and an otherworldly system of postmortem
well fancy your chances in hell. lasting life to his followers set the stage for justice for deeds committed by people while
Then again, it’s not as if we had a choice ecstatic flights of fancy by believers who alive, that gave rise to the idea of heaven
in the matter, seeing as unbelievers are wanted to divine their lot in heaven while and hell as respective spheres of rewards
presumed to be destined straight for hell. crowing over the endless agonies of their and punishments.
Awaiting us there, we’re told, will be an enemies in hell, including stiff-necked Jews Or so Ehrman argues and he is right to a
eternity of torments, the varieties of which who refused to accept Jesus as their savior. point. Plato had a lion’s share of refining
have been described at length by Chris- The unknown author of the 2nd century and popularizing a moralistic view of the
tian exegetes, theologians, mystics, clerics Christian text “The Apocalypse of Peter,” hereafter, but the ancient Greeks’ concept
and artists who lavished graphic detail on which purports to be an eyewitness account of the hellish underworld Hades and the
the creative forms of medieval torture that of the great beyond by one of Jesus’s dis- idyllic realm of Elysium, where select souls
would befall unredeemed sinners. ciples, provides a case in point. This early lived happily ever after, predated Plato by
Left unexplained in such tracts of fore- Christian describes heaven as a paradisiacal centuries. Ehrman acknowledges this at one
warning is how incorporeal souls freed landscape populated by angelic figures who point, but spends little time exploring the
from the confines of the physical world can sing the praises of God. The author then how and why of Platonism’s formative in-
be tormented by forms of torture devised contrasts this Edenic idyll with the tribula- fluence in its contemporary milieu.
for flesh-and-blood bodies with functioning tions in hell where the damned are tortured Therein lies a problem with his book. In
nervous systems. Heaven, by contrast, has horribly in ways befitting their crimes— parts it reads like a grab bag of ancient texts
been portrayed as a delightful garden par- some of which would seem to be mere whose passages on the afterlife the scholar
ty of sorts in scenic settings with verdant misdemeanors, if that. For the “crime” of details at length but does so without much
meadows, gurgling brooks and blooming lending money at an interest, for instance, of an overarching thesis or proper context.
orchards. Commonly, depictions of heaven people are condemned to spend eternity This Greek text said this, that Roman text
have been far more anodyne than the lurid knee-deep in a bubbling swamp of gore and said that.
descriptions of hell. In the end, though, that ordure. Ehrman shuns Ancient Egypt, which is a
counts for little since, going by the available It’s not the allure of heaven but the dread peculiar omission since the pharaohs and
evidence, hell no more exists than heaven. of hell that is meant to get wayward souls their subjects geared their entire earthly ex-
Be that as it may, the presumed states in line. The author of the non-canonical istence towards their anticipated fortunes in
of affairs in the afterlife as per normative text “is not so much scaring the hell out of the afterlife. Just as dubiously, he credits the
Christian beliefs would have been news people as scaring people out of hell,” Bart 1st century BCE Roman philosopher Lucre-
to the ancient Hebrews, out of whose re- D. Ehrman, an American biblical scholar, tius with the invention of atomism whereas
ligion Christianity sprang. The authors of observes in his book, Heaven and Hell: A it was the Greek philosopher Democritus
the Hebrew Bible saw the afterlife, which History of the Afterlife. who had proposed several centuries earlier
they called Sheol, as a gloomy netherworld In his sweeping treatise Ehrman, who is that all matter was made of infinitesimal, in-
where dead people languished as listless a specialist in early Christianity at the Uni- divisible and imperishable atomos. By Lu-
shades. Alternatively they posited that death versity of North Carolina, traces the evolv- cretius’ time atomism had long been a staple
was the end of us. Once we die, Job laments ing concepts of heaven and hell from their of Epicurean philosophy, to which school of
(7:7-10), we will be “no more” and that will inchoate stirrings in the Hebrew Bible to thought he himself belonged.
be that. To these authors the survival of the their apotheosis in Christian theology. Ehrman is on firmer ground when he
nation of Israel mattered far more than the Visions of heaven and hell for the dead comes into his element with Second Tem-
fate of individual Israelites after death. were pagan in origin. They are absent from ple traditions and early Christian texts.


Jewish apocalypticism, which appeared in [in 4 Maccabees] is that these Jewish souls
the books of 1 Enoch and Daniel from the are not inherently immortal; they are given
2nd century BCE, came to the fore in the immortality as a gift from God,” Ehrman
post-biblical period and proved revolution- explains.
ary in religious thought by attesting to a di- In the turbulent 1st century Jews contin-
vine plan of perfecting the world according ued to have differing views of the after-
to an eschatological design. When the time world. The ascetic Essenes believed, like
came, the thinking went, the dead would Platonists, that souls were immortal and
be resurrected, the righteous would be re- death liberated them from their corporeal
warded and the wicked would be punished. vessels. The elitist Sadducees rejected that
Peace and justice would finally reign su- idea, considering death to be the final cur-
preme on earth as God had always intended. tain for both body and soul, in which they
This idea of redemptive justice in a recre- were in agreement with Greco-Roman Epi-
ated world likely emerged, Erhman argues, cureans. The populist Pharisees held a mid-
from the biblical belief that God would one dle ground by placing their faith in a future
day restore the nation of Israel to its former resurrection when the dead were gloriously
glory by resurrecting it from its ashes. “If restored to life. Heaven and Hell:
God can ‘raise from the dead’ the nation as a Jesus and his disciples, who were all Jew- A History of the Afterlife
whole, it is not a huge leap to think he could ish, ascribed to this latter belief (despite Bart D. Ehrman
do the same for the individuals who inhabit Jesus’s dim view of the Pharisees), accord- Oneworld Publications, 2020
the nation, who have suffered not national ing to Ehrman, who parses certain passages 352 pages; $28
destruction but personal death,” he writes. in the earliest known Gospels (Mark and
Yet until the Day of Judgement, it was Matthew) to reach this conclusion. Jesus Jesus’s promised Kingdom of God on earth
widely thought, the dead would stay in lim- taught that the righteous would be bodily failed to materialize.
bo, neither in heaven nor in hell but in an in- resurrected and allowed entry into an immi- Along the way, believers turned Satan, a
sentient state, until God chose to raise them nent “Kingdom of God” where eternal life minor character from the Book of Job, into
by breathing life back into their reconstitut- awaited. the Prince of Hell whose demonic minions
ed bodies. This was a reasonable supposi- Sinners, meanwhile, would be annihilated dished out horrific punishments to the wick-
tion with scriptural backing. If God once for good by fire in Gehenna, a ravine near ed in the underworld. At the same time, they
made Adam from nothing but dust, what Jerusalem’s historic heart which was be- continued to speculate on the bodily form
could stop him from remaking dead people lieved to have been forsaken by God as an in which the dead would emerge from their
from the dust into which they had turned? abomination because it was where children graves after their resurrection. Would they
This view, however, gave way to another, had once been sacrificed to the Canaanite spring forth in perfected physical bodies or
which was propagated in the Fourth Book of deity Moloch by being burned to death. would they materialize as spiritually recon-
Maccabees in the 1st century CE. It proved “[A] close reading of Jesus’s words shows stituted angelic manifestations?
far more comforting to Jews contemplating that in fact he had no idea of torment for It was all fantasy but a highly potent kind.
their otherworldly prospects: they would sinners after death,” Ehrman writes. Nearly two millennia on, untold millions
be judged right away upon death and sent This may seem surprising to anyone fa- still believe that when they die they will
either to heaven or hell, there to await the miliar with Christianity’s elaborate visions wind up either in heaven or hell before they
day of resurrection. The righteous had noth- of heaven and hell, yet those visions were are resurrected at the End of Days. Ehrman
ing to fear, for they would be ensconced in still in the future when Jesus reportedly isn’t among them. Once a born-again evan-
heaven above rather than a dusty grave un- walked the earth in the early 1st century. gelical, he is now a self-professed agnostic.
derground. Taking their cue from his teachings about an “My sense is that this life is all there is,”
Better yet, the wicked would earn their undefined “Kingdom of Heaven” that lay in Ehrman notes.
just deserts in hell as payment for their store for them, later Christians began filling The scholar clearly knows far too much
evil deeds — a thought that could be just in the blanks about the nature of this blissful about how ideas of heaven and hell changed
as comforting. “The difference from Plato realm as they imagined it — especially as over time to place much faith in them.  ■