P. M. Oliver

The Endgame

A review of Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife by Bart D. Ehrman (OneWorld, 2020)

One of the most intriguing reported exchanges involving Jesus is found in chapter 3 of John’s Gospel. Nicodemus, a potential new disciple, elicits from Jesus the remark ‘Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God’. When he (very reasonably) queries the feasibility of being born again, Jesus elaborates: ‘Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.’ What every New Testament translation conceals is the fact that the Greek adverb ἄνωθεν [anōthen], usually translated ‘again’, as in the King James Version from which I quoted Jesus’ words, also means ‘from above’, which is what prompts Nicodemus’s understandable misunderstanding. Like it or not, as a translator you have to opt for one meaning to the exclusion of the other even if you include the latter in a footnote.  
            It’s a refreshing exchange, though, by the standard of the Gospel narratives in that it bucks the trend of bad-tempered claim and counter-claim that characterises so many of the debates in which Jesus becomes embroiled. There’s just one snag: Jesus and Nicodemus will have been speaking Aramaic, not Greek, and (you’ve guessed it) there isn’t a word that means ‘again’ and ‘from above’ in Aramaic. The conversation, in other words, cannot have occurred, at least not in anything like the punning form recorded in the Gospel. The saying must have been put on Jesus’ lips by a member of the early Christian Church in the sixty or seventy years between his death and the production of the fourth Gospel. It may have been inserted by one of the Gospel’s compilers. It’s not inconceivable that Nicodemus, who makes two further brief appearances in John’s Gospel (and plays no part in the others), was brought on at this point solely in order for him to be able to get hold of the wrong end of the stick. You can’t help thinking that a real-life Nicodemus would have said, ‘Before we go any further, can I check what you mean by ἄνωθεν?’
            Naturally, it’s impossible to know how many preachers down the centuries have drawn the attention of their congregations to this fascinating lexical difficulty when expounding the exchange, but it would be astonishing if it has featured on more than a tiny handful of occasions. Historically, preachers have tended to be nervous about passing on to their flocks anything which might be thought liable to disturb their faith. But the perception that Jesus cannot have said or done some, many or even most of the things ascribed to him in the New Testament oughtn’t to come as too much of a shock today. It has been the common currency of practitioners of the historical-critical method of biblical exegesis for two centuries—scholars like David Friedrich Strauss, best known as the author of Das Leben Jesu Kritisch Bearbeitet, published in Tübingen in 1835–6 and translated into English by George Eliot shortly afterwards.
            Among many other things, Strauss believed that, like all of the miracles imputed to Christ, his bodily resurrection was a myth created by the fledgling Church. He was especially struck by the inconsistencies in the New Testament accounts of it (or, rather, of its various sequels, since none of the Gospels attempt to describe the resurrection itself) and concluded that the resurrection was the disciples’ solution, worked out over time, to the challenge of squaring the fact of Jesus’ death with their enduring faith in him. But, while a curate in rural Swabia a few years before he penned his masterpiece, Strauss found that the disciples’ resourcefulness left him with a problem of his own: what do you tell people who have been taught from childhood to believe that the Christian faith stands or falls on the truth of the historical, corporeal rising of Jesus from the dead—especially on Easter Sunday? He decided that, since it was wrong to mess with people’s orthodox faith if it gave them comfort, what the conscientious pastor had to do was educate the members of his congregation so that they would eventually be in a position to appreciate the new ways of reading Scripture. Unfortunately, this admirably ambitious project was still in its infancy when Das Leben Jesu was published. Far from bringing its author fame and fortune, it put a premature end to what was all set to be a glittering academic career. Strauss had recently landed a chair at the University of Zürich, but such was the popular outcry against his book that the university authorities felt obliged to abbreviate his career and jump straight to paying him his pension.
            Despite selling well (and helping at any rate to boost Eliot’s career), Strauss’s book didn’t do much to improve the religious climate in Britain, either, to start with. A good indication of how much ground remained to be covered here was the fallout from a collection entitled Essays and Reviews published in 1860. The seven enlightened Anglicans who contributed to it were motivated by the desire to do something to acquaint their contemporaries with the implications of recent developments in biblical scholarship. Benjamin Jowett, Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, for example, used his piece to argue that, when it came to such things as ‘the meaning of words, the connection of sentences, the settlement of the text, the evidence of facts’, the same rules should govern reading of the Scriptures as applied to ‘other books’: the books of the Bible were products of their times and ought to be treated as such. But it was all too much. E. B. Pusey, the Professor of Hebrew, cast himself in the role of Chief Inquisitor and did his best to have Jowett arraigned before the Vice-Chancellor’s Court. (The force of Pusey’s reaction makes you wonder if he was privately atoning for his little known early-career dalliance with German critical scholarship.) A petition masterminded by Pusey garnered the signatures of 11,000 Anglican priests who thereby committed themselves to belief in the verbal inerrancy of Scripture—including the Genesis account of creation.
            Pusey didn’t, however, manage to depress sales of Essays and Reviews: in the 1860s and ’70s they greatly outstripped those of Darwin’s Origin of Species, published in 1859. Moreover, even if 11,000 priests signed the petition, nearly 14,000 chose not to. Those dangerous new continental ideas now began to circulate, thanks largely to the efforts of the very people who had been keen to suppress them. Robert Elsmere, a novel by a friend of Jowett’s, Mrs Humphrey Ward, published in 1888, is a sympathetic portrayal of an Anglican priest who feels compelled to rethink his beliefs in response to the work of people like Strauss. Ironically, though, the strongest proof that historical criticism caught on during the final third of the nineteenth century is the rapid rise of fundamentalism. What fundamentalists believe about the Bible—that its numerous books should be treated as one big book that was dictated by God, that it is therefore inerrant (any inconsistencies being merely apparent), and that every verse has a single, unchallengeable meaning—points to historical criticism as the perceived enemy.

Malipiero Badoer chapel in San Francesco della Vigna. The resurrection of Christ by Paolo Veronese. (Photograph Didier Descouens).

            Fundamentalist churches, particularly those in the Americas and Africa, are now the only Christian churches whose congregations are experiencing significant growth. But even without taking the resurgence of fundamentalism, with its absolute closedmindedness, into consideration, the dissemination of the findings of historical criticism still has a very long way to go. After seeming to recover from its slow start, it somehow stalled. Preachers in the main continue to work on the assumption that what they learnt during their seminary or university Bible courses was never intended for retailing to a congregation. If they experience Straussian misgivings, they soon stifle them, clearly. Admittedly, plenty of Christians, including those who go to church with any regularity, don’t believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead. A poll conducted by the BBC in 2017 found that around a quarter of those who call themselves Christians in Britain don’t believe that the resurrection happened at all, with somewhere between 31 and 57 per cent believing that it happened in the manner reported in the Bible. While I wouldn’t advocate taking the numbers as gospel, the story they tell rings true. But the general trend they illustrate will be due to the instinctive scepticism of those questioned, not to encouragement from their pastors to adopt a critical attitude towards the resurrection.
            If it sounds as if I have it in for belief in the resurrection of Jesus as conventionally taught, I should say that that is not the case. Let those who wish to believe in it feel free to do so—provided that they can live with the contradictions in the biblical narratives. One of the ‘defences’ of these is that they are what you would expect from a set of eyewitness accounts. But they concern such basic factors: who the witnesses were, what they saw, what Jesus said to them, whether his body was the familiar physical one or a new, supernatural one, etc. And this event, if it happened, is held by many to be the basis of faith in Jesus! We’re used to hearing it said that it’s in the nature of faith that the beliefs it supports are not capable of verification, but shouldn’t there be some measure of agreement about the historicity of an event that is held to be the basis of faith? At the same time, and as the BBC poll demonstrates, belief in the resurrection as a historical event is not a pre-requisite for faith in Jesus. It isn’t even a pre-requisite for believing that Jesus is the Son of God (although it’s undeniable that what a fundamentalist means by ‘Son of God’ will differ from what many who deny the corporeality of the resurrection mean by it). It’s ultimately a question of honesty: to paraphrase what sounds like an authentic Jesus saying, is one’s faith built on reliable foundations?
            Meanwhile many Christian Churches and, to some extent or other, the societies in which they operate are stuck with the consequences of a large-scale tacit agreement on the part of those who are ordained to proclaim the gospel to conceal some important truths about the Gospels (and, indeed, the Bible as a whole). We just have to be grateful to those historical critics who are prepared to make some noise—people like Bart D. Ehrman, who has for many years worked with a proselytiser’s zeal to publicise the insights hammered out by scholars. In a remarkable series of books, Ehrman has patiently explained why, if we bear in mind the findings of historical criticism in our approach to the Bible, viewing it as the inerrant word of God is not a viable option.
            Ehrman does not envisage the recognition of the fruits of historical criticism as necessarily leading to loss of faith. What their recognition should do is embolden the believer to check that his or her faith is not underpinned by misreadings or misapprehensions. Ehrman regularly points out that, having been brought up to regard the Bible as infallible (he studied at Moody Bible Institute, founded in 1887 specifically to combat the effects of historical criticism), and having initially resisted the obvious inferences of the historical criticism he encountered at Princeton Theological Seminary, he was gradually forced to revise his beliefs by the realisation that the formation of the Bible was a considerably more  complex affair than he had been taught. But he is at pains to stress that he still didn’t lose his faith. Rather, he moved from one kind of faith to another, more rational, better substantiated one. What pushed him into agnosticism in the end was the age-old chestnut of human suffering.
            Although he could be excused for occasionally wondering whether, given the continuing burgeoning of fundamentalism, it’s all worth the effort, Ehrman shows no signs of throwing in the towel just yet. If he does have historical-critical dark nights of the soul, he never lets on in his books, which radiate optimism and energy. His latest, Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife, homes in on a subject of much wider interest than (for example) the proportion of history to legend in the stories of Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene in that it addresses beliefs about the fate of the individual after death. This explains its double focus. In the process of putting the eschatological record straight, Ehrman also hopes that it will provide solid reassurance that, when we leave this world behind, ‘we have absolutely nothing to fear’. This pastoral thrust makes the book something of a special case: historical-critical exegetes usually content themselves with educating their readers (even if Strauss didn’t).
            If fear of a retributive afterlife is to be authoritatively dismantled for those who espouse the conventional Christian scheme, either wholly or in part, it has to be able to be shown that Jesus himself didn’t think in terms of eternal punishment for sin(s), and this endeavour constitutes the argumentative core of Ehrman’s book. He contends that, since Jesus shared the apocalyptic outlook of his contemporaries (an outlook that has been fully documented in previous chapters), he ‘did not teach that when a person died they would go to heaven or hell’, a doctrine that his followers invented after his death. Rather, ‘He taught that the Day of Judgment was soon to come, when God would destroy all that is evil and raise the dead, to punish the wicked and reward the faithful by bringing them into his eternal, utopian kingdom’. So, pausing only as long as it takes to give a lucid explanation of the methods used by historical critics to deal with the challenge of discerning what is authentic in the Gospels, Ehrman finds sayings of Jesus which support his thesis that what Jesus predicted for sinners was not everlasting punishment but annihilation—sayings such as the ‘parable of the dragnet’ (Mt 13:47–50), in which the useless fish get thrown away: in just the same way, according to Jesus, at the end of the world angels will separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the furnace. ‘They will go up in flames’, Ehrman comments, like a house being destroyed by fire or a criminal being executed by burning: they won’t be tortured for all eternity.

Crucifixion and Last Judgement diptych, by Jan van Eyck, c. 1430–1440. (Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

            Ehrman then proceeds to examine the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 25:31–46), which he identifies as containing the fullest articulation of Jesus’ view of the afterlife. (He adduces a powerful reason for taking this parable as an authentic utterance: it visualises salvation being earned by good deeds done to those in need, whereas soon after his death Jesus’ followers were teaching that it was faith in his death and resurrection that made people ‘right with God’.) The parable assumes ‘that there will be some kind of final judgment in which some people will receive a reward and others will be punished.’ But, while the reward will be eternal, the punishment, Ehrman thinks, will not be. He suggests that in saying, ‘“These [sinners] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life,”’ Jesus ‘contrasts the eternal punishment of the wicked with eternal life’; since the opposite of life is death, the wicked are not condemned to eternal torture or misery. Death is not an ‘eternal punishment’, it’s ‘the ultimate punishment’ because it will never end. At this stage the reader isn’t actually being asked to do more than make an effort to avoid looking through the distorting lens of later Christian teaching, particularly about hell. Close reading is the order of the day.
            For the belief that the rewarding of the good and the punishment of the wicked will alike be eternal, we have to wait for the later Gospel of Luke, where it’s encapsulated in the parable of the rich man (‘Dives’) and Lazarus (Lk 16:19–31). This is an inauthentic saying: the ending of the parable is ‘a dead giveaway’ since it is underpinned by belief in the resurrection of Jesus (a perception that calls for more than close reading: it’s classically historical-critical). This is, Ehrman stresses, the one place in the New Testament where we find belief in everlasting post mortem reward and punishment—he assembles evidence that St Paul shared Jesus’ alleged conviction that the wicked would be annihilated, not punished for ever—and yet it rapidly became normative for the Church. The upshot of this is that ‘By the second century very few followers of Jesus held to his view of the afterlife’.
            Because of my respect for Ehrman’s work, and because I like the idea that Jesus did not teach what soon came to be termed ‘eternal damnation’, I would really have liked to be able to say amen to all of this. But I couldn’t. I’m far from being completely convinced by Ehrman’s argument that by ‘eternal punishment’ Jesus didn’t mean eternal, as opposed to ‘the ultimate’, punishment—that the eternal fire into which the goats are sent (Mt 25:41) is eternal only in the sense that it burns on once the goats have been destroyed for good and all. Moreover, Ehrman admits that his hypothesis is … a hypothesis (‘That [eternal punishment] must mean punishment forever, right? Possibly, but…’). He is very keen, and rightly so, that we should avoid reading back into the text the later eschatology that we are all familiar with. It seems to me, however, that what he does is read earlier eschatological beliefs about the fate of the wicked and what he takes to be the beliefs of Jesus’ contemporaries forwards and sideways into the text. Also, I can’t help wondering why we should assume that Jesus told his listeners what they (supposedly) already knew: wouldn’t it have been more in character for him to tell them something different? But as far as Ehrman’s desire to take the sting out of the afterlife for today’s believers and semi-believers is concerned, I would argue that all is not lost.  The implications of Jesus’ wrongness about the rapidly approaching day of reckoning surely indicate that, whatever one’s view of Jesus, he cannot be trusted as a guide to the future.
            It pains me to say it but leaving a gaping hole in the central plank of its main argument is not the only way in which Heaven and Hell underdelivers. There are bigger lacunae. Unlike the titles of most, if not all, of Ehrman’s other books, which spell out precisely what readers will find if they persevere, Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife is somewhat misleading: this is a history of the Christian afterlife, albeit one which takes into account the influence of Mesopotamian, Jewish, Greek and Roman beliefs and myths on Christian eschatology. Apart from two passing references to Mohammed in other connections, there is merely a brief allusion to the overlap between the Christian and Muslim afterlives. Readers would benefit from having this, and the numerous (and striking) differences between the two sets of beliefs, at least adumbrated.

            Even judged as a history of the Christian afterlife, one might have expected Ehrman’s book to be more comprehensive. A plethora of versions of aspects of the afterlife have appeared, or reappeared, in the sixteen centuries between where his surveys ends and the present. Marlowe’s Mephistopheles floated the idea that hell is a state that the damned carry round with them—and it seems safe to presume that his creator hadn’t invented it. In his heterodox theological treatise De Doctrina Christiana, John Milton expounded the opinion that at death the body goes into the grave to sleep until Jesus’ return in judgment (which, as Ehrman points out, was initially taught by St Paul). Pope John Paul II, on the other hand, defined heaven as ‘neither an abstraction nor a physical place in the clouds, but a living, personal relationship with the Holy Trinity’. However comforted they might have been by the notion that hell is a state of mind rather than a place of torment, most Christians down the years would almost certainly have found the thought of heaven as a relationship a bit of a let-down. The transmission and prevalence of (re)conceptualisations such as these are important elements of the story—or should be. The real history of the Christian afterlife is a more complicated, messier affair than Ehrman makes out. It’s said that in nominally Roman Catholic countries many believe, simultaneously, that they will spend eternity in heaven or hell and that there is no afterlife of any kind. Ehrman’s project is nobly motivated but it doesn’t allow for people’s tendency to believe what they want to as well as what they’re told to.