According to the most recent Pew Research Center poll, 72% of all Americans believe in a literal heaven as a place of eternal blessing for departed souls, and 58% believe in a literal hell and its eternal torments. But even though Christians have held these ideas for centuries, they are not found anywhere in the Old Testament or even in the teachings of the historical Jesus. So where did they come from? Were they simply invented?
Bart Ehrman, a leading authority on early Christianity, the New Testament, and the life of Jesus, examines views of the afterlife from the ancient Near East, Greek, and Roman cultures, the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the early centuries of the church to examine the source of the ideas of paradise and hell and to illustrate how they became the dominant view of religion in the West.
9:30–10:45 a.m. Death After Death
The earliest records of the afterlife in ancient Near Eastern, Israelite, and Greek cultures portrayed it as no life at all: Death leads to only a dreary, uninteresting, eternally empty existence in which there is no joy, no pleasure, and no hope, as portrayed in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Hebrew Bible, and writings of Homer.
11 a.m.–12:15 p.m. Justice in the World Beyond
Both Greek and Israelite cultures eventually developed the concept that this life cannot really be the end of the story and that the misery and injustices experienced now will be vindicated later. There later emerged the idea of postmortem reward and punishments, as reflected in Plato and Jewish apocalyptic texts.
12:15–1:30 p.m. Lunch (participants provide their own)
1:30–2:45 p.m. Jesus, Paul, and the Book of Revelation
Neither Jesus, Paul, nor the author of Revelation believed that when a person died their soul went to heaven or hell. Instead, God was soon to intervene in history to destroy the current world order and set up a utopian kingdom here on earth in which his followers would live blessed lives forever, in bodies raised from the dead; those opposed to God would be annihilated from existence.
3–4:15 p.m. The Birth of Heaven and Hell
The end of the world expected by Jesus and Paul never arrived, leading Christians to believe that eternal life was not coming to this world in the future, but immediately after death. The body would die, but the soul would live on, either to enjoy the pleasures of paradise or the eternal torments of hell. Later, some came to believe in an interim period of punishment (purgatory), and yet others claimed that in the end, all people would be saved.
Ehrman is the James A. Gray distinguished professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His book, Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife (Simon & Schuster) is available for sale and signing.
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