Heaven and Hell, by Bart Ehrman

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Mendalla

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After much to and fro, I am ready to start a discussion of Heaven and Hell by Bible scholar Bart Ehrman. It is a fascinating look at how views of the afterlife in Greek and Jewish cultures contributed to the development of the Christian ideas around Heaven and Hell.

I currently plan to open this thread on February 11 and then try to cover a chapter (or topic) a week. Some topics, such as the Greek and earlier ideas of the afterlife, span a couple chapters so I may decide to go by topic rather than chapter in these cases.

There are some basic rules I would like to follow:
  • This is a book discussion. Therefore, I expect that people participating will be reading the book or be familiar with its ideas. I will link in a thread where I posted a couple interviews with Ehrman about the book.
  • This is not about whether Heaven and Hell are real. Like the book itself, we are not going to argue for or against the existence of an afterlife, but look at how ideas about the afterlife developed in Christianity and how that might impact our beliefs today.
  • Following from that, preaching is not welcome. We are discussing ideas here, talking TO each other not AT each other. If you don't know the difference, learn it or stay out.
  • This being a thread about a scholarly approach to the history of the afterlife, the Bible is going to be regarded and discussed as a human document by human hands reflecting human experience. It is the core source for much of the discussion not because it is "God's Word/Truth" but because it is where we find much of the beliefs being discussed. Using the Bible as a weapon or sledgehammer is discouraged.
  • We will be following the rules of the board and, in particular, keeping things as civil as possible.
There you go. If you are interested, I've given you time to get the book and get started. I will post about the Preface first, including some questions for discussion/consideration, once I unlock the thread.

The aforementioned post with some interviews and lectures related to the book.

 
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Mendalla

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Guess I should put these here, too, in case anyone wants to buy it. Do check your library, though. I am getting it from London Public's Overdrive using the Libby app.


(Amazon link covers both the Kindle and paper editions)



(Note that you can buy the Kobo version from Chapters Indigo still even though they sold their stake in Kobo.)

I am thinking that I will open it up this coming weekend. Not sure why I put Feb. 11 up there. That's actually a Thursday. You only need to have read the Preface by the weekend since we'll start with discussing that and some general discussion about Heaven and Hell and our personal experiences with the doctrines (and, hey, if you have personal experience of either Heaven or Hell to discuss, we're game to hear it).
 
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Mendalla

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Hello and welcome to our study of Heaven & Hell. Most people don't get to study them until after their funeral so count yourself lucky to be joining us on this trip. :p

Preface

Dr. Ehrman opens the book with a preface that basically does two things:
  • Gives his own, personal history with beliefs in the afterlife and how they developed along with his other religious beliefs
  • Does a high level overview of the subject and the book's approach to it
On the subject of Ehrman's beliefs, he has evolved over time, going from mainstream Christian with a fairly strong belief in the afterlife, to a born-again who waved the Bible around proclaiming his own salvation and destiny in Heaven, to a more skeptical, scholarly approach beginning in grad school.

Moving on to the afterlife, Ehrman points out a poll that showed 72% of Americans believe in Heaven and 58% believe in Hell. He presents a couple theses that he will be exploring:
  • The doctrines of Heaven and Hell do not go back to the earliest stages of Christianity, nor are they found in the Jewish scriptures
  • Neither early Christianity nor Judaism had a monolithic view of the afterlife, but had a diversity of views
He then talks about what he means by a "history of the afterlife" and goes over it in brief to illustrate that point.

Following from the first part of the Preface, I think talking about our own beliefs on the subject, which will no doubt shape the discussion going forward, is a good starting point. So here's some questions to contemplate. No need to answer them point by point. They are just to give us some things to consider in the discussion. And, we can probably come back to them from time to time as we read and discuss to see if any of us change, or learn something new about, our own beliefs as we study the history of the Christian view of the afterlife.

Have your beliefs about what happens after death changed over time? How?
How central is the afterlife to your religious beliefs?
How do they affect your other beliefs and vice versa?

Of course, if people have thoughts or questions about Dr. Ehrman's theses or approach to the subject, that's open for discussion, too.
 

Ritafee

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Ecclesiastes 12:7 "Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it."

Heaven and Hell for me are just words to describe conditions that we create for ourselves here on earth.
 

paradox3

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In my religious upbringing, heaven was much more emphasized than hell. My dad identified as an atheist so I never paid any attention to suggestions that only Christians would be "saved".

I don't think I was ever taught that hell was a literal fiery place. It was a symbol of separation from God. One Sunday school teacher suggested it could be a symbol for remorse and this idea still makes sense to me.

I probably developed a universalist view of heaven without having that language to describe it.
 

paradox3

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Have your beliefs about what happens after death changed over time? How?
How central is the afterlife to your religious beliefs?
How do they affect your other beliefs and vice versa?
My beliefs about an afterlife probably haven't shifted a great deal. I don't think the afterlife is central to my faith perspective but it is certainly part of it.

Not sure how entwined the afterlife is with my other beliefs. I need to think about that one.

In the past few years, I have read through the Gospels a couple of times and started threads about the first three here on WC2.

I was very struck by how apocalyptic Jesus actually was. End times are a major focus of His teaching. Much more so than an Immediate heaven or afterlife following death.


 

BetteTheRed

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Have your beliefs about what happens after death changed over time? How?

A great deal. My earliest faith, from about age 4 on, was quite fundamentalist Lutheran. I memorized that heaven and hell were actual locations that souls went to after death. And that it behooved one to be "fearful" enough that we would behave well enough to avoid hell. I was almost 14 when it sank in that this heaven I was so eagerly awaiting would specifically exclude my beloved Dad. Crisis of faith, led to leaving all religion for another 20 years. And it wasn't something I talked about, or even thought about. I became an agnostic atheist.

But over time, I've watched people die, in a number of ways, and I've had a mystical experience directly connected to death. I have no real view at all on heaven and hell. I don't even see them, as rita does, as metaphors for the realities we create on earth for ourselves, because I think that very little of very few lives depends on much but a roll of the cosmic die. As for death, my personal assurance is that "All will be well, and all manner of things will be well." And if it's just like a drop of rain being reabsorbed into the ocean, that sounds pretty pleasant and peaceful to me, (and please reconfigure some of my atoms into a tree and some into a bird, as I'd like to try them both out).
 
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Mendalla

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My background is rather similar to @paradox3. We went to a fairly middle-of-the-road, mainstream United Church. I really don't remember heaven and hell being talked about much, especially the latter. My friends and I probably talked about them more among ourselves that I ever heard in church and that was more from the stance of talking about the imagery and ideas, not really actual belief. We even had a Dungeons & Dragons book that was basically a guide to adventuring in Hell (Inferno from a company called Judge's Guild). That's not to say people didn't believe in them, they just weren't a big topic of conversation/preaching. Living a Christian life seemed to be more the focus than eternal life, even if "eternal life" got name checked at times. And once I got to reading the Bible more closely myself, I realized what Ehrman talks about: That the earliest Christian teachings, at least in the canon, are about a judgement and resurrection event, not heaven and hell.

So I was not a big believer in a heaven-hell afterlife to start with, just kind of a tacit one. Later, I moved to a more agnostic position, taking the view that we simply couldn't know what happened after death until we got there, but those didn't seem likely to me. This fit with my also moving to agnostic position on God and some other spiritual matters, though I remained Christian still. I also learned about Hindu and other Eastern ideas about reincarnation, which seemed to make more sense to me than an eternal afterlife anyhow (though I still would not say I believe in it).

Of course, all that spiritual exploration led me, eventually, to Unitarian Universalism. Given that universalism began as the idea that God would not condemn anyone to Hell, that we would all be saved eventually, Hell was largely ignored or derided even among UU Christians. Most UUs in my congregation were humanists or other atheist philosophies by the time I got involved, so Heaven was pretty much off the table, too. There were a few who leaned to Eastern beliefs so reincarnation. And in that environment, my agnostic position settled in quite nicely and did not change much.

So right now, I really do not believe in an afterlife, either heaven-hell or a coming resurrection. We die and that's it, life is over and our component atoms go back to the universe and probably end up in some new form eventually. A kind of scientific materialist version of reincarnation, if you like. Epicurus (I still identify as Epicurean to a degree) taught that death is the final end to suffering and anxiety and is therefore not to be feared so that's an influence as well.

However, I am curious about the ideas and imagery, hence this book getting my attention when it came up in my library's Overdrive collection.
 

paradox3

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I hear you @Mendalla about the focus on living the Christian life. This was most definitely the focus of Explorers and CGIT. I participated in both groups locally and went to the respective summer camps.

Formative experiences for sure!
 

Redbaron

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My home congregation is part of a mainline denomination, but it seems in that congregation they preferred to hear about hellfire and brimstone, thus trying to avoid hell was a big priority for me then. As I pursued higher education, got away from home, and found exposure to other expressions of faith, I was intrigued. Scared, but intrigued. I found people asking questions that, if I had asked those questions in my home church, they would have put me on the first express train to perdition. Through actually reading the gospels of the NT through more opened eyes, I found Jesus talking much more about this life, than the life beyond. I found asking certain questions was NOT a sin, that I was looking for clarification, not challenging God. (Challenging, God, btw was a huge taboo; 'hush and listen' was the advice I got). Through time, the threat of eternal punishment seemed to dominate my faith journey less; even the hope for reward was becoming less prominent. What mattered was what I did, thought, decided, etc here and now. Just try to be faithful to what you sense is true, and let God worry about the rest. I can't remember now if it was in the book, or in one of the interviews that someone pointed out, You have nothing to fear, but a lot to hope for. That resonates with me.
 

paradox3

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Having recently lost my father, I heard some surprising things from a few people. He will be at peace now; he will be reunited with my mother and so on

It is no surprise to hear comments like this from people of faith but they came from secular folks as well.

It is almost like some of these ideas are cultural as much as faith based. Curious, isn't it?
 

Luce NDs

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If dead to this world will it be peace? Or what if this imaginary organ ... called psyche goes elsewhere as utopia was anciently defined as "no where" ... thus never-never domains? These may be described as eternal ... something beyond mortal cognizance ... a fixed position!

Is psyche basically unreal, imaginary and abstract number beyond reality as an icon or absolutism? Dreaming of dark and troubled waters to be abridged in a myth? Absolute folk love mysteries ... thus the myth ...

Many credits to N Frye and CS Lewis! And as a plus I just finished re reading The SWERVE ( Steven Greenblatt) on Poggio's investigation of the swamp that is undefined due to burning retributions ... indications of manmade hells over the struggle for control ... avarice?

Does the unconscious psyche torment in a rebounding ... tis a rabid consideration ... maybe ribald from other positions ...
 
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Luce NDs

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"Be prepared!" Does that suggest some sense of cognizant and cognates of material and immaterial excesses? Extant ...

Rheum for thought as displaced by denial thereof ...
 

Mendalla

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Having recently lost my father, I heard some surprising things from a few people. He will be at peace now; he will be reunited with my mother and so on

It is no surprise to hear comments like this from people of faith but they came from secular folks as well.

It is almost like some of these ideas are cultural as much as faith based. Curious, isn't it?
Oh, they certainly are. With Christianity being so central to European culture for over a thousand years, the ideas and imagery are just so engrained. Look how many modern stories still incorporate heaven and hell imagery. For instance, Neil Gaiman's Sandman comic/graphic novel series has an issue quite early in the story set in Hell, and later has a whole plot arc about Lucifer giving up the keys to Hell and moving to Earth. Gaiman is no frothing at the mouth evangelical (in fact, he's Jewish and has a century old cousin who survived the Holocaust), just someone fascinated with the stories and images. The TV series Lucifer, about the titular fallen angel living in the modern world, actually traces back (via a circuitous route) to Gaiman's portrayal.
 

Luce NDs

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Oh, they certainly are. With Christianity being so central to European culture for over a thousand years, the ideas and imagery are just so engrained. Look how many modern stories still incorporate heaven and hell imagery. For instance, Neil Gaiman's Sandman comic/graphic novel series has an issue quite early in the story set in Hell, and later has a whole plot arc about Lucifer giving up the keys to Hell and moving to Earth. Gaiman is no frothing at the mouth evangelical (in fact, he's Jewish and has a century old cousin who survived the Holocaust), just someone fascinated with the stories and images. The TV series Lucifer, about the titular fallen angel living in the modern world, actually traces back (via a circuitous route) to Gaiman's portrayal.

Down to earth lucidity ... reason for the mortal experience? May be just Eire thought ... ghost-like fuzzy pass?
 

BetteTheRed

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The TV series Lucifer, about the titular fallen angel living in the modern world, actually traces back (via a circuitous route) to Gaiman's portrayal.

And farther back, although it's an awfully hard read, there's Paradise Lost. Milton portrays Lucifer as a very noble character, in many ways.

And yeah, Gaiman is fascinated with all things story. The Anansi Boys was a brilliant look at the African Anansi stories.
 

Waterfall

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And farther back, although it's an awfully hard read, there's Paradise Lost. Milton portrays Lucifer as a very noble character, in many ways.
Well seeing as the Old Testament tells us that God is the author of both good and evil that would make sense.
 

Mendalla

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Milton portrays Lucifer as a very noble character, in many ways.
Gaiman's Lucifer owes a lot to Milton as I understand it, though I have never read Paradise Lost all the way through myself. Of course, Dante is another stream by which imagery of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory got propagated through our culture. Larry Niven and the late Jerry Pournelle (and maybe Steven Barnes, too) did a nice sf/fantasy take on the whole "tour of Hell" concept from Dante.
 

BetteTheRed

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though I have never read Paradise Lost all the way through myself.

Neither have I. It featured in a second year (I think) lit course, but as I recall we only had to read maybe six "chapters" - the first two, a middle one and the last three maybe. And it didn't tempt me to rush out and read the whole thing. But Lucifer was a very captivating figure.

And yes, The Divine Comedy, although I haven't read that, either, lol. I know more ABOUT lit, than actually have read it. Or I've read "bits"; enough to get through an exam. There's a big chunk in the middle of Stoker's Dracula that I will probably never read.
 

Mendalla

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The Divine Comedy, although I haven't read that, either, lol.
I have only read Inferno, mostly out of curiousity after reading the aforementioned D&D module and the Niven/Pournelle novel. Might even have it on my bookshelf still. Should check.
,
Another fairly influential, albeit pre-Christian, one (which Ehrman does get to) is Virgil's Aeneid. Book 6 is the one that describes the hero Aeneas' trip to the underworld. It is the reason Dante had Virgil as his guide in the Divine Comedy. I actually read some of it in the original Latin back when I was studying Classics.
 
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