This story sounds like the wild and wonderful imaginings of a skilled fantasy writer. But it is not fantasy. Before Alexander underwent his journey, he could not reconcile his knowledge of neuroscience with any belief in heaven, God, or the soul. That difficulty with belief created an empty space that no professional triumph could erase. Today he is a doctor who believes that true health can be achieved only when we realize that God and the soul are real and that death is not the end of personal existence but only a transition.
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When we originally scheduled the interview we're about to hear, we didn't realize how weirdly timely it would be. Let's face it - the pandemic has made death a presence on a scale most of us aren't used to. Your beliefs about what happens after death or if anything happens might shape how you're dealing with your fears and anxieties. In the new book, \"Heaven And Hell: A History Of The Afterlife,\" my guest Bart Ehrman writes about where the ideas of heaven and hell came from. He examines the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, as well as writings from the Greek and Roman era.
GROSS: One of the theses of your book about the history of heaven and how is that views of heaven and hell don't go back to the earliest stages of Christianity, and they're not in the Old Testament or in Jesus' teachings. They're not
EHRMAN: (Laughter) I know, exactly. This is the big surprise of the book, and it's the one thing people probably wouldn't expect because, you know, when I was growing up, I just assumed. This is the view of Christianity. So this must be what Jesus taught. This is what the Old Testament taught. And in fact, it's not right. Our view that you die and your soul goes to heaven or hell is not found anywhere in the Old Testament, and it's not what Jesus preached. I have to show that in my book, and I lay it out and explain why it's absolutely not the case that Jesus believed you died and your soul went to heaven or hell. Jesus had a completely different understanding that people today don't have.
GROSS: Are there things in the Hebrew Bible that still support the idea of heaven and hell as people came to understand it, things that you can extract from the Old Testament that might not literally mention heaven and hell but still support the vision that emerged of it
GROSS: Why don't we take a short break here And then we'll talk about the history of ideas of heaven and hell. If you're just joining us, my guest is Bart Ehrman. He's the author of the new book \"Heaven And Hell: A History Of The Afterlife.\" We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
EHRMAN: Yeah. That became a view somewhat in Judaism, and it became a very pronounced view in Christianity. The - after Jesus. Jesus himself held to the apocalyptic view that I laid out. He taught - his main teaching is that the kingdom of God is coming. People today, when they read the phrase kingdom of God, they think he's talking about heaven, the place that your soul goes to when you die. But Jesus isn't talking about heaven because he doesn't believe - he's a Jew - he doesn't believe in the separation of soul and body.
He doesn't think the soul is going to live on in heaven. He thinks that there's going to be a resurrection of the dead at the end of time. God will destroy the forces of evil. He will raise the dead. And those who have been on God's side, especially those who follow Jesus' teachings, will enter the new kingdom here on Earth. They'll be physical. They'll be in bodies. And they will live here on Earth, and this is where the paradise will be. And so Jesus taught that the kingdom of God, this new physical place, was coming soon, and those who did not get into the kingdom were going to be annihilated.
What ends up happening is that, over time, this expectation that the kingdom was coming soon began to be questioned because it was supposed to come soon and it didn't come soon, and it's still not coming, and when is it going to come And people started thinking, well, you know, surely I'm going to get rewarded, you know, not in some kingdom that's going to come in a few thousand years, but I'm going to get rewarded by God right away. And so they ended up shifting the thinking away from the idea that there'd be a kingdom here on Earth that was soon to come to thinking that the kingdom, in fact, is up with God above in heaven. And so they started thinking that it comes at death, and people started assuming then that, in fact, your soul would live on.
GROSS: So you were saying there really isn't an explicit description of heaven and hell in the Hebrew Bible or even in the New Testament, but that Paul is important in understanding the history of heaven and hell. Tell us about what Paul wrote.
EHRMAN: Paul is very important for understanding the history of heaven and hell, as he's important for understanding most things about early Christian thinking. Paul was not a follower of Jesus during his lifetime, during Jesus' lifetime. He wasn't one of the disciples. He converted several years after Jesus' death. He - Paul was Jewish. He was raised Jewish. He wasn't raised in Israel; he was from outside of Israel. He was a Greek-speaking Jew. But he was also, like Jesus, an apocalypticist who thought that at the end of the age, there would be a resurrection of the dead.
When he became convinced that Jesus was raised from the dead, he thought that the resurrection had started. And so he talked about living in the last days because he assumed that everybody else now was going to be raised to follow suit. And so Paul thought he would be alive when the end came. For Paul, Jesus was going to come back from heaven and bring in God's kingdom here on Earth, and people would be raised from the dead for glorious eternity. Paul, in his earliest letters, affirms that view of the imminent resurrection. It's going to come very soon. And he fully expected to be alive when it happened.
And so he came up with the idea that he would have a temporary residence up with Christ in God's realm, in heaven, until the end came. And so this is what the later Paul has to say, and this is the beginning of the Christian idea of heaven and hell, that you can exist - even though your physical remains are dead, you can exist in the presence of God in heaven. And once Paul started saying that, his followers really latched onto it because most of Paul's converts were from Greek circles. They were gentiles. They weren't Jews. And they had been raised with the idea that your soul lives on after death, and now they had a Christian model to put it on. They could say that, yes, your soul lives on, and so when you die, your soul will go up to God with heaven. And as time went on, that became the emphasis rather than the idea of the resurrection with the dead.
EHRMAN: Well, so since these people believed that the soul was immortal, that you can kill the body but you can't kill the soul, they thought, well, OK, so our soul will go to heaven to be with God, but then they realized, well, what about the people who are not on the side of God Well, if we're being rewarded, they're going to be punished. And that's how you start getting the development of the idea of hell, that it's a place where souls go to be punished in - as the opposite of the people who go to heaven to be rewarded. And in thinking this, as it turns out, the Christians are simply picking up on views that had been around among the Greeks since way back in the time of Plato. Plato also has ideas about souls living on, either to be rewarded or punished forever. And Christians now, who were mainly coming from Greek contexts, latched onto that idea with a Christian way of putting it.
GROSS: We have to take a short break here. So let's do that, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Bart Ehrman, who is the author of the new book \"Heaven And Hell: A History Of The Afterlife.\" He's a distinguished professor of religious studies at The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. We'll be right back and talk more about the history of heaven and hell. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
And the other interesting thing is that what the Gnostics did, by reading their ideas into Jesus, is also what the Orthodox Christians did, by putting words in Jesus' lips that supported their ideas of heaven and hell. And so in our various Gospels, you have Jesus saying all sorts of things that are contradictory because different people are putting their own ideas onto his lips.
GROSS: So your new book is about the history of heaven and hell. Your forthcoming book that you're working on now is going to be called \"Expecting Armageddon.\" So how does the Book of Revelation contribute to the vision of hell
The people, in the Book of Revelation, human beings who aren't on the side of God, are actually destroyed. They are wiped out. This is the view that is fairly consistent throughout the New Testament, starting with Jesus. Jesus believed that people would be destroyed when - at the end of time, they'd be annihilated. So their punishment is they would not get the kingdom of God. That also is the view of Paul, that people would be destroyed if - when Jesus returns. It's not that they're going to live on forever. And it's the view of Revelation. People do not live forever. If they aren't brought into the new Jerusalem, the city of God that descends from heaven, they will be destroyed.
The book is all about the terrible destruction that is going to take place on Earth when God destroys everything that is opposed to him, before bringing in a good kingdom. And so all of the imagery of death and destruction and disease and war in the Book of Revelation is used to show what terrible measures God has to take in order to destroy the forces of evil that are completely - have completely infiltrated the human world, before he brings in a new world. This, though, is not a book that describes what's going to happen to individuals when they die and go to heaven or hell; it's a description of the final judgment of God that somehow is going to be coming to Earth. 59ce067264