Journeys to Heaven and Hell: Tours of the Afterlife in The Early Christian Tradition
By Bart D. Ehrman
Publisher: Yale University Press; First Edition (April 5, 2022)
Hardcover: 344 pages
A New York Times bestselling scholar’s illuminating exploration of the earliest Christian narrated journeys to heaven and hell.
From classics such as the Odyssey and the Aeneid to fifth-century Christian apocryphal, narratives that described guided tours of the afterlife played a major role in shaping ancient notions of morality and ethics.
In this new account, acclaimed author Bart Ehrman contextualizes early Christian narratives of heaven and hell within the broader intellectual and cultural worlds from which they emerged. He examines how fundamental social experiences of the early Christian communities molded the conceptions of the afterlife that eventuated into the accepted doctrines of heaven, hell, and purgatory.
Drawing on Greek and Roman epic poetry, early Jewish writings such as the Book of Watchers, and apocryphal Christian stories including the Acts of Thomas, the Gospel of Nicodemus, and the Apocalypse of Peter, Ehrman demonstrates that ancient tours of the afterlife promoted reflection on matters of ethics, faith, ambition, and life’s meaning, the fruit of which has been codified into Christian belief today.
Named by the New Yorker as a Best Book of 2022
“[An] illuminating deep dive. . . . An edifying origin story for contemporary Christian conceptions of the afterlife.”
“Ehrman shows how Homer’s egalitarian afterlife, where all meet the same fate, gave way to Virgil’s version, where an elect few enjoy eternal rewards while the rest suffer torments. . . . As Ehrman notes, in every era, such tales aimed to teach readers ‘how to live in the here and now.’”
“When the late rapper 2Pac argued in song that we on earth are probably in hell already but don’t know it, and that a crackhead is right now suffering ‘eternal fire,’ he was grappling with weighty biblical and theological issues taken up by Bart D. Ehrman in his brilliant and provocative book Journeys to Heaven and Hell. Ehrman’s work richly informs us about how visions and tours of the afterlife shape our before-death existence—what we should do with our purse, our person, our proselytizing, and how we should view the power and politics of God. This wise and insightful tome by an erstwhile believer, and one of my absolute favorite biblical
scholars, stimulates the mind and charges the spirit of a hopeful Black evangelical like me.”
—Michael Eric Dyson, author of Entertaining Race: Performing Blackness in America
“Bart D. Ehrman explores the Greco-Roman background of Christian afterlife and provides a much-needed reassessment of its Jewish apocalyptic roots. This is an extremely well- documented and well-written book, a real intellectual pleasure to read.”
—Pierluigi Piovanelli, University of Ottawa and École pratique des hautes études
“In a characteristically scholarly yet engaging style, Bart Ehrman shines new light on ancient accounts of visits by the living to the realms of the dead. This is an important contribution to the reevaluation of the rich literary heritage of early Christianity.”
—Judith Lieu, University of Cambridge
“In Journeys to Heaven and Hell, Ehrman examines a range of apocryphal texts related to the afterlife, but his examinations of such issues as the ethical problem of wealth, conversion, and universal salvation reveal how much the study of these journeys to other worlds can contribute to the study of a wide range of areas of interest in this world.”
—Tony Burke, editor of New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures