Present Mirth, or Bart D. Ehrman’s Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife

In the past thirty-five-odd years, Bart D. Ehrman has probably written more books on early Christian doctrine than the collective theology faculty of the Sorbonne.  The flyleaf of his latest, Heaven and Hell:  A History of the Afterlife, lists thirty titles, several of which, as a fawning review in Time Magazine points out, made it to the New York Times bestseller list.  Assuming that being a New York Times bestseller must be evidence of Ehrman’s scholarly attainment — though I doubt that Jean Daniélou, Henri de Lubac, or Étienne Gilson ever achieved that distinction — the reviewer deigns nowhere to speculate as to how such a literary miracle might have transpired.  I admit that I harbor elitist misgivings. Were popular success an index of scholarly mastery in the discipline of the history of religious ideas, Andrew Lloyd Webber would be recognized as a world authority on Christology.

If you haven’t guessed yet, you need only look at the catchy titles of his best-selling bestsellers to see why Ehrman is so fashionable and prolific: Jesus Before the Gospels; The Other Gospels; Forgery and Counterforgery; Did Jesus Exist?; Forged; Jesus, Interrupted; Misquoting Jesus; Lost Christianities; The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture; Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code.  Encapsulated in these titles are the groundbreaking revelations that have propelled Ehrman’s scholarly oeuvre to the eyries of bestsellerdom:  that (a merely human) Jesus existed; but that the canonical Gospels “interrupted” and “misquoted” him; that there were other, no doubt more authentic gospels, and other, no doubt more authentic “Christianities” deliberately suppressed by the Church hierarchy, whose orthodoxy “corrupted” Scripture, besides; and that Dan Brown is (at least partly) to be taken seriously.  All of which (with the exception of the Brown Codex) is about as “new” as Higher Criticism and the eternal “search for the historical Jesus.” 

Like that of Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, and the rest of the New Atheists, Ehrman’s “scholarship” is harnessed to the project of proving that orthodox Christian doctrine is inauthentic, childish, deceitful, and malevolent — a project that always advances by means of scholarly “discoveries” about Christianity (the Pentateuch wasn’t written by God or even Moses but by four different human authors!  the Gospels disagree!) that our latter-day deliverers from religious ignorance breathlessly pretend to have been revealed for the first time, as if Christian theologians (not to mention educated laymen) haven’t known about them for centuries.

Unlike the cradle atheists Dawkins et al., Ehrman feels entitled to trade on his status as a former believer — a recovered believer, one might say — in order to assure his readers of the fair-mindedness of his critique; but from his description of his as yet unredeemed self as a “liberal Christian,” we might well suspect that the seeds of enlightened doubt were already gnawing at his conscience in the baptismal font.  A good deal (rather too much) of this, as of Ehrman’s other books, is tiresomely autobiographical:  an account, not of ancient and early Christian eschatology, but of the heroic quest by which the author progressed from credulous certitude about the existence of heaven and hell to the mature awareness that the admonitory tale that had frightened him into obedience as a child of Mother Church was, well, forged (!)

Thus he laments that, as a born-again youth, he at first “had no doubt:  I was going to heaven”:

I was equally convinced that … most of the billions of other people in the world … were going to hell.  I tried not to think I was being arrogant.  It was not as if I had done something better than anyone else and deserved to go to heaven.  I had simply accepted it as a gift.  And what about those who hadn’t even heard about the gift …?  I felt sorry for them.  They were lost, and so it was my obligation to convert them.

Here, on the second page, you already catch the sneering note that resounds throughout the book:  the calumny that the Christian intellectual tradition is hopelessly mired in literalism (when, as we all know, it was born in an allegorical revolution against Jewish literalism); the charge that it is inhumanly arrogant and sectarian in condemning non-believers to eternal torment in hell (when, as we also all know, that had never been the case, and the nulla salus extra ecclesiam stricture had been volatilized, in the case of the patriarchs, pagan worthies, unbaptized dead, and even “ignorant” heretics, since the Patristic age).

It continues thus.  At the Princeton Theological Seminary, Ehrman’s “scholarship led me to believe that the Bible was a very human book,” with “human biases and culturally conditioned views,” and the Church’s beliefs in God and Christ “were themselves partially biased, culturally conditioned, or even mistaken”; that doctrines such as the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, and his Resurrection, weren’t “handed down from heaven,” but late “inventions,” “fallible human formulations.”

And then occurs Ehrman’s Agony in the Sauna.  Noticing that “It sure is hot in here. Oh, man, it is hot in here!,” his spirit perspires over whether he really wants “to be trapped in a massively overheated sauna for all eternity.” “Do I really want to change my beliefs and risk eternal torment?”  But at that incandescent moment, Ehrman sets out on his journey to enlightenment.

The book is made unreadable by its repletion with similarly infantile locutions,[1] and the condescending implication that the great minds of the Christian theological tradition (Origen, Augustine, Boethius, Dante, St. Thomas, Ficino) — not to mention the minds of his readers — are as reductively puerile in their understanding of the afterlife as his own.  Thus he has the effrontery to announce in his Preface that “One of the surprising theses of this book is that these views [the Christian belief in heaven and hell] do not go back to the earliest stages of Christianity,” “cannot be found in the Old Testament and … are not what Jesus himself taught.”  Surprising?  Who does not already know that the New Testament sometimes superannuates the Old, that Christian doctrine is a plant that germinates from apostolic seeds; and how can you proclaim it as your “thesis” when thousands of books, going back to the Christians Fathers themselves, have already acknowledged it, none of their authors, sensibly enough, finding it particularly controversial that not all of the Church’s teachings come fully-formed from the mouth of Jesus, nor are they quite as avid as Ehrman to amputate thereat a living tradition that has lasted for two thousand years?  Yet we are supposed to be “surprised” that other religions too “were remarkably diverse in their views” about the afterlife, that “even within the New Testament” Jesus, Paul, and the Evangelists “promoted divergent understandings,” all of which leads, apparently, to the conclusion that the Church’s teaching about the afterlife is “late” and therefore spurious (assuming that the Church’s teaching ever coalesced into quite the concretistic, monolithic caricature of heaven and hell that Ehrman conveniently erects as his straw man).


Here’s how the consoling Christian fable was “invented.”  Neither Homer nor the writers of the Old Testament, you understand, had anything but the most caliginous notion of an even more vaporous existence in the afterlife (!), but people came to think “this wasn’t right,” “because it was not fair.”  Then, as ever after, men yearned for some compensation for the hardship, misery, and injustice of their earthly lives, some assurance that vengeance would be visited upon their enemies, and that right would eventually prevail.  Thereupon arose the Jewish expectation of a general resurrection at the end time, and the earthly restoration of Israel “as a sovereign state.”  This is the view proclaimed by Jesus of Nazareth; that those “who did God’s will would be rewarded at the end, raised from the dead to live forever in a glorious kingdom here on earth.” (So, forget Jesus’ seminal rebuke to the Pharisees, “The Kingdom of God cometh not with observation:  Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there!  for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”)  But the end time, assumed to be imminent, wasn’t; accordingly, “some of his followers came to think that God’s vindication of his followers would not be delayed until the end of human history” but “would happen to each person at the point of death.”  And thus “heaven and hell were born.”

Fortunately for Christianity, the real afflatus of its doctrine of the afterlife is rather more complicated than Ehrman’s pop-psychological aetiology about the Hebrews’ feelings of “unfairness” and the early Christians’ impatience.  Heaven and hell were hardly “born” at this rather late juncture, but were already thousands of years old, in the ubiquitous presupposition of the immortality of the soul and a retributive afterlife repeated in the myths of the Egyptians (remember Osiris weighing souls in a balance?), the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, all of which were — hardly “remarkably diverse” but — in remarkably universal agreement, and all of which the Christian Apologists and Fathers knew and regarded as analogous to or prefigurative of their own teaching.  The proximate influences upon early Christian eschatology were the myths and dromena of the Orphics, the Pythagoreans, Plato, Cicero, Virgil, Apuleius, the Middle and Neoplatonists, the Hermetic corpus, and the mystery religions (of Eleusis, Isis and Osiris, Mithras, and Hercules).  But Ehrman scarcely mentions them (when he mentions them at all), save for the dozen-odd pages in which he disposes of the half-dozen Platonic dialogues in which the subject of the afterlife is front and center.  Ehrman’s is a history of the afterlife rather in the manner that Mel Brooks’ two-part cinematic farce is a history of the world.


The whole purpose, of course, of Ehrman’s perfunctory survey is to demonstrate that the Christian belief in the immortality of the soul and its hoped-for “rewards” in heaven or dreaded “torments” in hell is a neoteric confabulation, a theological aberration, and therefore not to be taken seriously—notwithstanding that even the thin historical gruel he provides contradicts his own thesis.  But no review would be long enough to catalogue its omissions, not to mention its errors of fact (including the stretchers that Socrates actually believed in the soul’s extinction at death, and that Jesus and Paul made no construable reference to a post-mortem heaven or hell).

The Church’s teachings on heaven and hell have indeed been various, wide ranging, and sometimes contradictory:  from the literal fire and brimstone of Protestant fundamentalism to the spiritualizing interiority of a Marlowe (“Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscrib’d …”) or a Milton (“The mind is its own place, and in itself …”).  But Christian doctrinal plenitude is a cause for rejoicing, not repining; not an indictment of the risible falsity of Christian belief, but an acknowledgment of the ineffable mystery it vainly gropes toward:  that the invisibilia dei are, as Plato said in the Timaeus, “beyond knowing or expressing,” never to be reduced to crude concretisms yet at the same time representable only through the visible shadows and analogies necessary to accommodate the limitations of the human imagination.


The book’s other purpose is to show how embarrassingly illiberal and unmodern are all the traditional Christian postulates of sin, heresy, damnation, and eternal punishment, the most lurid descriptions of which Ehrman lovingly details from the literature:

Do you want to spend eternity hanging by your genitals over eternal flame, standing in a deep pit up to your knees in excrement, having your flesh perpetually shredded into pieces by ravenous birds?  Or do you want to luxuriate in a lovely garden with the pleasant smells and cool breezes of eternity wafting over you…. You get to choose.

So Ehrman anatomizes the darkly manipulative agenda of one early Christian account of the afterlife.  The author of another (The Acts of Thomas), fulminates benightedly against lust (“the root of all evil, apparently”), and retails the gruesome tortures to which those vaguely guilty of it (“whatever it was, it involved sex”) are promiscuously sentenced.  Thomas warns that, for the unrepentant, there are even worse punishments to fear. (“Worse than these?”, our author editorializes.  “How could they be worse than these?  Apparently they are.  You don’t want to go there.”)  Alas, early Christians appear to have taken such grisly descriptions literally, and “Many Christians still do,” terrorized “to behave now …  in the belief that there will be torments later for those who misbehave.”  Conversely, Ehrman bemoans the example of St. Perpetua and all others since, who are willing to “throw away” their lives for their faith, or “so they can be rewarded afterward.”  For Ehrman (apparently), it is quite inconceivable that the archetypal mythos of an afterlife in a metaphysical other world could be rooted in anything more profound than a personal craving for reparation or revenge, the Church’s anxiety to keep the flock in the fold, or society’s to ensure that citizens don’t “misbehave.”


The heavy hand of Ehrman’s modernist moralizing thus strangles his “scholarship” in its crib.  (A scholarly treatment of early material requires some natural sympathy for it; Ehrman is only capable of mockery.)  Indeed, the moral is announced pre-emptively in the Preface.  Liberated from our childish hopes and terrors, we will know that “we have absolutely nothing to fear,” and “this assurance, on a practical level, can free us to appreciate and enjoy our existence in the here and now living lives of full meaning and purpose in the brief moment given us in this world of mortals.”

How glibly and with such primitive fideism does the modern mind accept the gospel of present mirth!  The totalitarian horrors of the post-Christian twentieth century might have brought to such a mind Dostoyevski’s admonition that “If God doesn’t exist, everything is permissible,” and induced at least a moment’s consideration of the ethical utility of “scaring the hell out of people” (Ehrman’s typically reductive and juvenile phrase).  And what about giving life meaning?  As Jung observed long ago, the expectation of an afterlife has always been central to that primordial psychological need, a hope without which mortal life is more or less akin to painstakingly building a house, brick by brick, floor by floor, knowing that one won’t survive long enough to settle in.  Ehrman scants these perennial philosophical problems, just as he seems to be entirely innocent of the theme (rehearsed by Platonists, Stoics, and Christians alike in every century) that no “happiness,” properly understood, can be founded in the possession of earthly joys and pleasures, since at the very height of their enjoyment, one’s contentment is subverted by the knowledge that they are mutable and transitory.



[1] Ehrman writes throughout as though he were explaining things to first-graders (perhaps because he thinks Christian believers have the intellects of first-graders).  On Plato’s Apology, he explains, “The Greek word for ‘apology’ does not mean ‘saying you’re sorry.’” On the dialogues in general, he explains that Plato speaks through Socrates “ventriloquist-style.”  Socrates was charged with promoting the worship of “non-sanctioned gods” and in general made himself a “social nuisance.”  In the other world, Socrates “would love” to meet Orpheus, Homer, Hesiod, and “all the greats” of Greek civilization.  But Socrates is not certain, so “he hedges his bets.”  The Iliad is the record of a war with “numerous casualties,” and the Odyssey involves perilous “escapades” at the end of which “just about all humans … are eventually killed off.”  It goes on in this idiom interminably.