'Heaven and Hell': New history of the afterlife shows origins of the idea

Our view of the afterlife isn't from Jews, Christians, but from Homer, Plato, Virgil.

Heaven and Hell (photo credit: NEEDPIX.COM)
Heaven and Hell
(photo credit: NEEDPIX.COM)
After visiting the Kotel on a Shabbat night this January, I left the Old City through the Dung Gate and walked to the German Colony. And as I skirted along the Hinnom Valley, I looked down and thought, “Wait – that’s Gehenna! That’s hell!”
Now it’s a park, but Gehenna was once where ancient Israelites sacrificed children as burnt offerings to the Canaanite god Molech. It was known as the most unholy, godforsaken of places.
In fact, when Jesus refers to the fires of “hell” in the Gospels, the word he actually uses is “Gehenna.” Elsewhere in the Bible, we find Sheol, Hades, and Tartarus, but never hell or heaven – at least not as we use the terms today.
As prolific biblical scholar Bart D. Ehrman writes in Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife, “The ideas of a glorious hereafter for some souls and torment for others, to come at the point of death, cannot be found either in the Old Testament or in the teachings of the historical Jesus.”
As revealed by his use of the Old Testament, Ehrman approaches the subject from a Christian perspective. He completely neglects the Koran and Eastern religions, which is unfortunate, not to mention negligent – the Koran influenced Dante’s Inferno, and Buddhist scriptures have detailed depictions of various heavens and hells, red-hot iron pokers and all.
Ehrman begins with early Christian texts that offer similarly vivid “guided tours” through heaven and hell, like the Apocalypse of Peter.
But as these are clearly didactic tales written centuries after Jesus lived, Ehrman goes back to the source, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, written “more than a full millennium” before the oldest strands of the Book of Genesis. Eventually, Ehrman gets to the Hebrew Bible, which doesn’t mention heaven or hell but Sheol, where everyone goes after they die – well, almost everyone; Elijah and Enoch were mysteriously taken up to God.
“Sheol” is usually understood as the Hebrew Hades. Yet Ehreman notes that “Sheol” is used interchangeably with “pit” and “grave,” and suggests that Sheol is not a place underground but simply a euphemism for death.
When you’re dead, you’re nonexistent – just like before you were born. That’s why no one wants to go down to Sheol. Because life is nice. You get to eat bread, drink wine, and praise God. You can’t do any of that when you’re dead. So being deprived of life is the worst punishment anyone can have.
Then where did the idea of resurrection come from, if it’s not in the Torah?
Well, Isaiah and Ezekiel use the image of rising corpses to prophesy Israel’s “return to life” after the Babylonian exile. In context, the language of resurrection is clearly a metaphor for the nation, not to be understood as an individual’s resurrection after death.
Yet by the late Second Temple period, most Jews believed there would be a Day of Judgement, after which righteous souls would be raised, and sinful souls would be punished.
And how did they come to think that? Because of the Greek ideas that spread during the Hellenization of the Mediterranean after Alexander’s conquest.
In ancient Greek thought, each human had a psyche, which means “life breath” but is often translated as “soul.” After death, this life breath goes to Hades, existing as a mere shade (eidolon).
In Homer’s eighth-century BCE Iliad and Odyssey, we’re taken to the underworld and see these ideas in action. About three centuries after Homer came Socrates, and his ventriloquist Plato, whose mythic dialogues promoted the idea of an immortal soul. (It’s no coincidence that the only book in the Hebrew Bible to suggest “everlasting life,” the Book of Daniel, was composed during the Hellenistic Period.)
Then, in the first century BCE, the Roman poet Virgil wrote the Aeneid, in which he adds Plato’s ideas to Homer. In Virgil’s telling, Ehrman writes, “the souls in Hades are either punished for their sins or rewarded for the upright lives.” And there you go.
IN THE second half of Heaven and Hell, Ehrman explores Jesus’s enigmatic statements about the world to come, demystifies the symbolism of the Book of Revelation, and then gets stuck in the bog of contradictory Christian thinkers trying to hash out the nuances of resurrection, from Paul to Origen to Augustine, the so-called father of purgatory.
But why did ideas of the afterlife continue to evolve, from nothing to an actual place of eternal pleasure or torment?
Short answer: Generations of disappointment. The prophecies didn’t come true – Israel remained oppressed; the Kingdom of God never came – so reinterpretations were needed. As Ehrman writes, “adjustments have to be made.”
Also, humans desire equity; we think evildoers should be punished, and do-gooders should be rewarded. In other words, the Day of Judgement and the idea of eternal glory or torment after death developed because of theodicy – an explanation for how God is just, despite evidence to the contrary.
Now, what’s interesting is that our understanding of the afterlife doesn’t come from God, Moses, or Jesus, but from Homer, Plato and Virgil. That is, it comes from fiction. Using their imagination, artists created stories that are obviously not literally true, but, rather, convey truths about how people should live – and people later considered the stories to be literally true. So true that countless people have been murdered for not believing them. As Elie Wiesel wrote, “Fiction is a dangerous business.”
The writer has a master’s degree in theological studies from Harvard University, where teaches writing. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and many other publications.
By Bart D. Ehrman
Simon & Schuster
352 pages; $28