heaven and hell

Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife, by Bart Ehrman

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  1. Just finished this book, “Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife,” by Bart Ehrman:

    Most Christians in the US today believe in heaven and hell as literal places where people who lead bad or good lives go after they die to be eternally punished or rewarded, respectively (a remarkable 70% and 85%). Even though most believe this, in fact such beliefs are not found in the Old Testament and are not what Jesus himself taught.

    In the oldest forms or our Western culture, nobody believed in eternal rewards or punishments in heaven or hell. Rather, people just died and then all experienced the same uneventful, boring, shady eternity in Hades. With a few notable exceptions, this was the view of Homer’s time.

    Whereas for Homer, then, the body was the most important reality of a person (the departed soul at death being just a shade or a shadow of the person), several centuries later Plato inverted the importance, saying that the soul is the real person and the body is just sloughed off when we die.

    Plato recounts various myths of the afterlife, such as the Myth or Er in Plato’s “Republic,” and another myth in his “Phaedo,” and for Plato the point of these stories is not a literal description of heaven or hell, but rather a reminder to behave well.

    Similarly, in the Hebrew Bible, there is no talk of life after death, but rather just about the state of death, in Sheol. Here also, as in Plato, the focus is on life in the present, how to be a good person, in particular the life of Israel, chosen by God as special.

    However, as Israel experienced one disaster and calamity after another, survivors began to wonder how or why this made any sense. Why would God allow this to happen to his chosen people? Thus arose the notion of resurrection – that Israel the nation would be raised from the dead.

    The idea of individual resurrection was still to come, but come it did, and this is the view that Jesus of Nazareth inherited and proclaimed.

    But for Jesus, it was an apocalyptic vision: Those who did God’s will would be rewarded, and those who did not would be obliterated (not tormented), and this would happen very, very soon, in their lifetime.

    Jesus’s followers carried on this message, but when the end never came, they had to reevaluate the message in light of new circumstances (something, incidentally, that we need to continue to do today).

    Eventually Christians came to think that punishment would not be annihilation (Jesus’s view), but rather torture, forever.

    In short, ideas about the afterlife arose largely out of a need to explain how the world could be so terrible.

    Early notions of heaven and hell arose out of a need to explain how it is that people could be so good yet suffer so much here on Earth, while others could do such terrible things and be fine. That’s not fair, right? And so a human need for fairness led to the explanatory ideas of heaven and hell, which could make sense of the injustice in this world.

    What do you believe will happen after you die?

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