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Publisher's Summary

A New York Times best-selling historian of early Christianity takes on two of the most gripping questions of human existence: where did the ideas of heaven and hell come from, and why do they endure?

What happens when we die? A recent Pew Research poll showed that 72 percent of Americans believe in a literal heaven, 58 percent in a literal hell. Most people who hold these beliefs are Christian and assume they are the age-old teachings of the Bible. But eternal rewards and punishments are found nowhere in the Old Testament and are not what Jesus or his disciples taught. 

So where did the ideas come from? 

In clear and compelling terms, Bart Ehrman recounts the long history of the afterlife, ranging from The Epic of Gilgamesh up to the writings of Augustine, focusing especially on the teachings of Jesus and his early followers. He discusses ancient guided tours of heaven and hell, in which a living person observes the sublime blessings of heaven for those who are saved and the horrifying torments of hell for the damned. Some of these accounts take the form of near-death experiences, the oldest on record, with intriguing similarities to those reported today.

One of Ehrman’s startling conclusions is that there never was a single Greek, Jewish, or Christian understanding of the afterlife, but numerous competing views. Moreover, these views did not come from nowhere; they were intimately connected with the social, cultural, and historical worlds out of which they emerged. Only later, in the early Christian centuries, did they develop into the notions of eternal bliss or damnation widely accepted today.

As a historian, Ehrman obviously cannot provide a definitive answer to the question of what happens after death. In Heaven and Hell, he does the next best thing: By helping us reflect on where our ideas of the afterlife come from, he assures us that even if there may be something to hope for when we die, there is certainly nothing to fear.

©2020 Bart D. Ehrman (P)2020 Simon & Schuster Audio

What listeners say about Heaven and Hell

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It may not be what you expect

No, not the afterlife. The book. Ehrman is a scholar of Biblical literature and this book is a journey through the world of those ancient texts, showing how beliefs of the afterlife evolved over time. If you expect a comparison of world religions or definite answers to your questions, this is not that book. If you are interested in the historical and philosophical depth of books which became part of the Biblical canon and those which did not (and were later termed heretical), if you are interested in how these beliefs evolved over centuries, and if you question where your beliefs come from, this is that book. Many don't realize early Christians and early Christian writings confessed beliefs about universal salvation with no eternal damnation, or total nonexistence. None of these beliefs survived because it was easier to teach good boys and girls go to heaven if they do what the Bible says and bad boys and girls go to hell and church traditions continued to describe what good or bad meant and the rituals you did to prove you were one and not the other. If you are not a fan of philosophy and literature, this will drag. If you are, this will be stimulating.

14 people found this helpful

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Thorough Examination of the Bible and Apocrypha

This is a very thorough examination of the after life. It examines what Jesus taught, old testament insight, the maccabees as their tortured, other apocryphal books and greek philosophies. Professor Ehrman's views are insightful and make us reexamine what the after life meant in ancient times and what it has come to mean post Jesus/The Roman Empire.

6 people found this helpful

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Best accessible, academic overview on the topic

By "on the topic", I mean from an historical & textual academic perspective on the early biblical Christian views on the afterlife. Perspectives on the afterlife have been diverse and hotly debated for millennia, and pre-date the Christian biblical texts and traditions. Even within Christianity, there has been a vast range of perspectives from the very beginning. And that diversity of beliefs and teachings has only increased as time has progressed. Ehrman does an impressive job of condensing vast swaths of content into a digestible sized book. He provides an excellent primer on the context and development of the various historical and textual trends that highlight the breadth and range of teachings over the millennia. Readers should be aware that this is not a theological work. And it's not intended to be a theological work. It is merely an accessible, academic overview of the historical record.

5 people found this helpful

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Kudos × 10!

Ehrman filled my cup to the brim! Could it be any better? "I think not"

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a bit disappointing

I have them all.... all of his books and was waiting hard for the new one - it left me a bit disappointed though..I don't know I thought he could have made that one a bit broader..comparing with other cultures,, religions.. - changes of how people viewed the afterlife over time - he kept to his field of expertise though.- ok understandable for a scientist... narration cosi cosi

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Great effort seriously undermined by liberal bias

Liberal bias seriously undercuts the value and credibility of this study. It does not appear that the author believes God had anything to do with the Bible nor that he even believes in the existence of God. To his credit the author states his biases up front in the Preface of the book. It appears the author has two main objectives in writing this book: (1) To prove that the traditional, Christian view of heaven and hell is based on Greek philosophy and (2) that the Bible has been shaped by centuries of human effort. Benefits of this book. The author has done a great job assimilating a wealth of ancient source material pertaining to the subject and it appears that he has done a good job in showing how and when the traditional, Christian view of heaven and hell developed throughout history. I believe the author has provided ample evidence to show that the traditional view basically a product of Greek philosophy, namely Platonic in origin. I also believe the author has done a good job of demonstrating that the Judeo tradition (based on the Hebrew Bible) did not have any notion that humans are bodies with spirits that depart the body after death. Instead, the Jewish tradition developed an apocalyptic view that envisioned a day of judgment when the dead would rise up (bodily). This was also the view of Jesus and Paul although some questions do arise regarding the other New Testament authors. If one does not believe that the Bible is inspired by God, then the author has also done a great job in showing how the traditional Christin view has evolved over time. However, for those of us who believe the Bible is in some way inspired by God, this book leaves much to be desired. The author’s position is that the Jewish view (and early Christian view) was by human design in response to new challenges and develops in Jewish history (not the product of revelation). Thus, whenever the author finds New Testament passages (e.g., Luke and John) that seem to differ from the Judeo tradition (and that of Jesus and Paul), he convenient counts these as later inventions by authors being influenced by Greek thought and needing to explain the delay in the coming of Christ. What I would like to have heard was a discussion as to how these so-called diverging passages might be interpreted other than dismissing them as later human inventions influenced by Greek thought. The author acknowledges that some interpretations have been presented, but he quickly dismisses them as implausible (liberal bias). I also found many of his interpretations of Biblical passages (which he dismisses) as being incorrect and rather unfair. He seems to pick these interpretations as they can be easily dismissed (like straw man). The author did this so much that it began to make me question his interpretation of all the other ancient texts that he interprets. Thus, one who believes the Bible is in some way inspired by God, I am left feeling uncertain about what the New Testament actually teaches on heaven, hell and the life between death and the resurrection. I, therefore, find it necessary to look for another book that will address the New Testament teaching on this subject in a way that is more fair and balanced (i.e., less biased and dismissive). Nevertheless, I do believe the author’s primary thesis is correct regarding the source of the traditional, Christian view of heaven and hell.

3 people found this helpful

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essential reading and listening

either you choose to understand what's been ingrained since birth regarding your family's religion or you choose not to understand. I am of the former ilk and find this work to be both thorough and fair given the sources for heaven and hell are all but minimally man-made.

3 people found this helpful

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Great Book.

Great book. Outstanding narrator. Controversial, but it makes you think. Well worth the reading time.

2 people found this helpful

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Interesting

Great review of how history and cultures have shaped Christian views, and general views, of the afterlife, assuming there is one

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Very moving with great narration

My opinion on the contents of the book itself: Heaven and Hell by Bart D. Ehrman is a beautiful walkthrough of how tales of the afterlife transformed what modern day believers (in most religious sects) teach today. This brings forth so much knowledge that every reader interested in the afterlife should know. If you are stuck with an extreme fear or any fear for that matter of the afterlife based on what you were indoctrinated with as a child, this book WILL put you at ease. The fear never leaves but a better understanding of where it all comes from will help. I will be forever grateful to Ehrman and his book. My opinion on the Narrator: John Bedford Lloyd has the type of voice that draws you in to whatever it is he is reading. Every story that was shared in "Heaven and Hell" kept me so engaged that I was able to feel the emotions to a much greater level than I would have otherwise. Fantastic Job.