Heaven And Hell Are 'Not What Jesus Preached,' Religion Scholar Says
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
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.
Ehrman is a distinguished professor of religious studies at The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and is one of America's most widely read scholars of early Christianity and the New Testament. His books such as "Misquoting Jesus" and "How Jesus Became God" challenge a lot of beliefs and common wisdom. As for Ehrman's beliefs, as a child, he was an altar boy in the Episcopal Church. At age 15, he became a born-again fundamentalist evangelical Christian. After attending the Moody Bible Institute, he studied at Princeton Theological Seminary, which introduced him to texts and interpretations that led him to a more liberal form of Christianity. Eventually, he left the faith altogether.
Bart Ehrman, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It is a pleasure to have you back. How are you and your family?
BART EHRMAN: We're all well. And thanks for having me back.
GROSS: So is the pandemic making you think differently about your book? Are you seeing your book in a way that you didn't quite when you were actually writing it?
EHRMAN: I would say not so much. I mean, my view is that, you know, people have always been concerned about death, about what happens to them when they die, and so that's why I took on this book in the first place. But the pandemic, for me, is simply making it crystal clear why these are issues for so many people. Most people, of course, are more concerned about the process of dying right now or getting sick or the economics of that. But there's still the issue of death, so it's just simply become more pronounced.
GROSS: Is it fair to say you're an atheist now?
EHRMAN: That is fair to say (laughter). I actually consider myself both an atheist and an agnostic because I - you know, I don't really know if there's a superior being in the universe, but I don't believe there is. And so in terms of what I know, I'm an agnostic. But in terms of what I believe, I'm an atheist.
GROSS: In a time like this, do you wish you could still believe in a heaven that offers eternal life, in a place where you would be united with loved ones?
EHRMAN: Yeah, that would absolutely be good. It's not that I wish I believed it; I wish that it were true. And as I say in my book, as we'll probably get to, it may be true that we will live after we die. But if we do, it'll be something pleasant like that. It's not going to be something awful. So I - you know, it's not that I wish I believed it so much as I wish that it were true.
GROSS: So what do you believe about death now, about what happens after you die?
EHRMAN: Well, I - you know, I've read about death and thought about death and the afterlife for many, many years now and what - you know, what philosophers say and theologians say and biblical scholars say and, you know, what people generally say. And I still think that Socrates is the one who probably put it best. When he was on trial, on capital charges - so it was a death sentence awaiting him - he was talking with his companions about what death would be, and his view is that it's one of two things.
Either we live on and we see those we knew before and those we didn't know before, and we spend all of our time being with them, which for him was absolute paradise because Socrates liked nothing better than conversing with people, and so now he could converse with Homer and with all the greats of the Greek past. So that would be great. And if it's not that, he said it would be like a deep sleep. Everybody loves a deep, dreamless sleep. Nobody frets about it or gets upset by having it. And so that's the alternative. And so it's either a deep sleep, or it's a good outcome, and either way it's going to be fine. And that's exactly what I think.
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?
EHRMAN: I think one of the hardest things for people to get their minds around is that ancient Israelites and then Jews and then Jesus himself and his followers have a very different understanding of what the relationship between what we call body and soul. Our view is that we - you've got two things going on in the human parts. So you have your body, your physical being, and you have your soul, this invisible part of you that lives on after death, that you can separate the two and they can exist - the soul can exist outside of the body. That is not a view that was held by ancient Israelites and then Jews, and it's not even taught in the Old Testament.
In the Old Testament, what we would call the soul is really more like what we would call the breath. When God creates Adam, he creates him out of earth, and then he breathes life into him. The life is in the breath. When the breath leaves the body, the body no longer lives, but the breath doesn't exist. We agree with this. I mean, when you die, you stop breathing. Your breath doesn't go anywhere. And that was the ancient understanding, the ancient Hebrew understanding of the soul, is that it didn't go anywhere because it was simply the thing that made the body alive.
And so in the Old Testament, there's no idea that your soul goes one place or another because the soul doesn't exist apart from the body. Existence is entirely bodily. And that was the view that Jesus then picked up.
GROSS: Are there specific passages in the Hebrew Bible that support the notion of an afterlife?
EHRMAN: Yeah, no, it's a good question. And people generally point to these passages in the Book of Psalms that talk about Sheol, or Sheol. It's a word that gets mistranslated into English. Sometimes Sheol is translated by the word hell, and it absolutely is not what people think of as hell. Sometimes Sheol is talked about by people today as a place that's kind of like the Greek Hades, a place where everybody goes after they die, and they aren't really physical beings down there; they're just kind of like souls, and they exist forever there, and there's nothing to do, and they do - they're all the same. And so Sheol is sometimes portrayed like that. The Bible does talk about this place Sheol, especially in poetry, especially in Psalms. And it's probably not a place that people go to, per se.
If you actually look at what the Psalms say about Sheol, they always equate it to the grave or to the pit. And so it appears that the ancient Israelites simply thought that when you died, your body got buried someplace. It got put in a grave, or it got put in a pit, and that's what they called Sheol, is the place that your remains are. But it's not a place where you continue to exist afterwards.
Just about the only place in the Hebrew Bible where you get an instance of somebody who has died who seems still to be alive afterwards is in this very strange and interesting passage in the book of 1 Samuel, where the king, Saul, is desperate for some advice from somebody who knows, and so he calls - he has a necromancer, a woman, this woman of Endor, who calls up his former adviser Samuel from the grave. And she holds a kind of seance. And Samuel comes up and is really upset that she's called him up from the grave, and he gets upset with Saul for doing this, and he predicts that Saul is going to die the next day in battle, which he does.
And so people often point to that as an instance that's - well, so people are alive after they're dead. And right, it kind of seems like that when you read it - when you just kind of simply read it. But if you actually read it carefully, it doesn't say that. What it says is that Samuel came up, but it doesn't say where he was, and it doesn't say if he was living at the time. It looks like what - before he was raised up, it looks like he was simply dead, and he was brought back to life temporarily, and he didn't appreciate that (laughter), and so he was upset.
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF STEFANO BOLLANI'S "ALOBAR E KUDRA")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Bart Ehrman, 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.
So you write that starting in the sixth century, Hebrew prophets began to proclaim, you know, that the nation had been destroyed and would be restored back to life by God. It would be the resurrection of the nation. But then toward the end of the Hebrew Bible era, some Jewish thinkers came to believe that the future resurrection would apply not just to the nation but to individuals. So how does that shift happen?
EHRMAN: Right. So this is a really important shift for understanding both the history of later Judaism and the history of later Christianity and the historical Jesus. About 200 before Jesus was born, there was a shift in thinking in ancient Israel that became - it became a form of ideology, a kind of religious thought that scholars today call apocalypticism. It has to do with the apocalypse, the revelation of God. These people began to think that the reason there is suffering in the world is not what the prophets had said, that it - because people sin and God is punishing them; it's because there are forces of evil in the world that are aligned against God and his people who are creating suffering. And so you get these demonic forces in the world that are creating misery for everyone.
But they - these apocalyptic thinkers came to think that God was soon going to destroy these forces of evil and get rid of them altogether, and the world would again return to a utopia. It'd be like paradise. It'd be like the Garden of Eden once more. The people who thought that maintained that this Garden of Eden would come not only to people who happened to be alive when it arrived; it was going to come to everybody. People who had been on the side of God throughout history would be personally raised from the dead and individually would be brought into this new era, this new kingdom that God would rule here on Earth.
GROSS: So this was all dependent on, like, the Messiah coming on the end of days, which some Jewish prophets predicted would be soon. When Jesus was alive, he thought the end of days would be soon. And of course, it kept not happening.
GROSS: And you say that for the ancient Jews, the fact that the Messiah didn't come, that was a turning point in beliefs about what happens after death, too. There started to be a belief that reward and punishment would be right after death, as opposed to after the Messiah comes.
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.
It's not an accident that that came into Christianity after the majority of people coming into the Christian church were raised in Greek circles rather than in Jewish circles because in Jewish circles, there is no separation of the soul and the body. The soul didn't exist separately. But in Greek circles, going way back to Plato and before him, that was absolutely the belief. The soul was immortal and would live forever in Greek thinking. And so these people who converted to Christianity were principally Greek thinkers, they thought there was a soul that live forever. They developed the idea, then, that the soul lived forever with God when it's rewarded.
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.
But then time dragged on, and a couple of decades passed, and it didn't arrive, and Paul started realizing that, in fact, he might die before it happens. And so in some of his later letters, he ponders the possibility of death, and he wonders, well, what happens to me, then? If I'm brought into the presence of Christ at the resurrection, and, you know, there's a gap between the time I die and - what happens to me during that gap? And he started thinking that, surely, he's going to be in Christ's presence during that time.
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.
GROSS: How does hell come into it?
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF MATT ULERY'S LOOM'S "OVER UNDER OTHER")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Bart Ehrman, 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 and is one of America's most widely read scholars of early Christianity and the New Testament. His earlier books include "Misquoting Jesus" and "How Jesus Became God."
You've also studied the Gnostic Gospels, which were the recently discovered gospels that never became part of the canon. And these are more mystical texts. And the most famous of the Gnostic Gospels is Thomas. What was his vision of what happens after death?
EHRMAN: The various groups of Christians that people sometimes label gnostic would cover a wide range of views. There are lots of different religions that people have called gnostic. But one thing that most of them have in common is the idea that the body is not what matters. The body is not your friend, and God did not create the body. The body is a cosmic disaster. It's why we experience so much pain and suffering because we live in these material shells. And in most gnostic religions, the idea is to get out of the shell, to escape the shell. So they have very much a differentiation between soul and body. It comes - Gnosticism, in some ways, comes out of Greek thinking. So for them, there's no resurrection of the dead.
Gnostics disagreed with the Jewish idea that at the end of time, God would raise the dead physically. For Gnostics, the idea of being raised in your body was repulsive. You mean I've got to live in this thing forever? No. Real life is in the soul. And so they denied the idea of the resurrection of the body. And what is interesting is Gnostics then claimed that Jesus also denied it. And so when you read the Gnostic Gospels, you find Jesus denouncing the idea that there's a resurrection of the body or that life will be lived eternally in the body; it's strictly a matter of the soul.
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?
EHRMAN: Well, yeah. You know, a lot of people read Revelation as indicating that people who are opposed to God - sinners will be cast into the lake of fire forever, and they will be - yeah, they'll be floating in fire for eternity. And they get that from several passages in the Book of Revelation. I have to deal with this in my book, where I try to show that, in fact, the Book of Revelation does not describe eternal torment for sinners in the lake of fire. The - there are several beings that go into the lake of fire, but they are not human beings; they are the antichrist, the beast and the devil, and they are supernatural forces that are tormented forever.
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.
GROSS: So a lot of the imagery of hell comes from the Book of Revelation. It's a very explicit, kind of gruesome book, and I wonder if you've thought about why it's so graphic.
EHRMAN: Yeah, I've thought a lot about it. As you said, this is going to be what my next book is on, is about how people have misinterpreted Revelation as a prediction of about what's going to happen in our future. And the graphic imagery in the book has really contributed to all of these interpretations of Revelation. When earlier I was saying that Jesus was an apocalypticist who thought that the world was going to come to an end, that God was going to destroy the forces of evil to bring in a good kingdom, that is precisely what the author of the Book of Revelation thinks, that - and the book is a description of how it's going to happen.
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.
GROSS: You've talked about how belief in the end times led in a circuitous way to belief in heaven and hell. I've heard a lot of joking lately about how it's the end times. You know, California was on fire. We have climate change and extreme weather and earthquakes and volcanoes. And people are afraid that the planet itself is dying. We have, you know, plastics in the ocean, ice caps that are melting. And now we have the pandemic. I'm wondering if you're hearing that kind of thing, too.
EHRMAN: Yes. Yeah, of course. I mean, you know, a lot of people aren't joking. They take it very seriously. And it's - I want to say a couple of things about that. First is every generation from the time of Jesus till today has had Christians who insisted that the prophecies were coming true in their own day. There have always been people who actually picked a time when it's going to happen. And there are two things that you can say about every one of these people over history who've picked a time. One is they based their predictions on the Book of Revelation. And secondly, every one of them has been incontrovertibly wrong (laughter). So that should give one pause. The things that are happening now are absolutely dreadful as, of course, they were in 1916 to - 1914 to 1918 and as they have been at other times in history.
The book that I'm writing that I'm now calling "Expecting Armageddon" is all about that. It's about how people have misused the Book of Revelation to talk about how the end is coming and how it always seems like it's going to be coming in our own time. And everybody thinks this is as bad as it can be. And, you know, this time we may have it right. This kind of thinking, though, really came to prominence at the end of the 19th and into the 20th century and hit big prominence in 1945, when we actually had the means of destroying ourselves off the planet, which we still have, by the way. People aren't talking about nuclear weapons anymore, but they probably should be because that's another way this whole thing might end.
But now the talk is more about climate change, as it should be. We absolutely may do it to ourselves this time, but it won't be a prediction - a fulfillment of predictions of a prophecy; it'll be because of human stupidity and refusal to act in the face of crisis.
GROSS: Let's take a break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is religion scholar Bart Ehrman, who is the author of the new book "Heaven And Hell: A History Of The Afterlife." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE'S "SUPERA")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Bart Ehrman, 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 and the author of many books about early Christianity.
So now we're faced with a pandemic. You could, I suppose, use the word plague, and the word, you know, plague is in the Hebrew Bible. What were the explanations in the Hebrew Bible for plagues?
EHRMAN: Yeah. The old testament has a fairly uniform and rather stark explanation for why there are plagues or epidemics or pandemics. In virtually every case, we're told that it's because God is punishing people. People have gone against his will, and so he is - so he's bringing this disaster of epidemic upon them. You get that in the story of Moses in the Book of Exodus. You get it everywhere in the writings of the prophets in Amos and Isaiah, etc. This was the old view that the reason God's people suffer is because they've done something wrong and he wants them to repent.
Eventually, Jewish thinkers began to reason that it didn't make much sense because there were times when they would be doing what God told them to do, or at least they'd be doing their level best to do what God told them to do, and they'd still be suffering these plagues. And that's when they developed the idea that, in fact, it's the forces of evil causing these disasters. These continue to be two of the common explanations today.
There are people today who are saying that the reason of the pandemic is because, you know, one sin or another. It's because of, you know, those LGBTQ folk, you know, who are allowing promiscuous activity. God is punishing us. Or it's because of, you know, one social ill or another that God is punishing. And you have that group. And then you have group who saying that it's the devil doing it, that in fact, it's the forces of evil. Satan is working his way, and that it's because we're at the end of time, and he has to be released here at the end of time before God will intervene. You get both of those explanations. Most people probably don't subscribe to either one. Most people just say, well, look - you know, it's a pandemic, and we better pay attention to our scientists, which is, obviously, the more socially satisfying answer to the question.
GROSS: When you were 15 and became a fundamentalist evangelical Christian, what would you have believed about the pandemic?
EHRMAN: That's a really good question. I probably would have subscribed - I would have subscribed to either the view that God was upset and we needed to repent so that he would relent, or that the devil - it was the devil doing it, and we needed to pray to God for mercy and for him to intervene on our behalf.
GROSS: And compare that to now.
EHRMAN: Well, I think those views - I mean, I respect believers. I do not try to convert anybody. I don't try to trash anybody's views. I try to respect everybody's views. I think that sometimes those very highly religious views can be socially extremely dangerous because if you think that the cause is supernatural, then you don't have much motivation to find a natural solution. It is quite dangerous to refuse the findings of science because of your personal beliefs. And we all just hope that it doesn't lead to even further disaster.
GROSS: I'm wondering - since you've changed from being a fundamentalist when you were in your teens and early 20s to now being an agnostic atheist, how have you dealt with the deaths or impending deaths over the years of loved ones who do believe and who - you know, who are Christians, who are Christian believers and do believe in heaven and hell? Like, I'm sure you don't want to talk them out of their beliefs. But it's not what you believe.
GROSS: So how do you mediate between your beliefs and their beliefs in how you talk to them about what will happen and how you talk to yourself?
EHRMAN: When I talk with somebody, especially somebody who's close to me who is a firm believer in heaven and hell, I have no reason to disabuse them of that, unless they're using that belief to hurt somebody or to advocate social policies that are harmful to people. My dear elderly mother is a very good Christian, and she believes that she will die and she will go to heaven and she will see her husband. And so I would be crazy to say, no, Mom, actually, yeah, you're not going to see him (laughter). Of course, I'm not going to - I mean, there's no reason to shatter somebody's beliefs, especially if they simply are providing them with hope.
My view is that we all believe very strange things, and most of the time we don't realize how strange they are. And so I don't - it's not that I think that I believe only rational things and everybody else is irrational. I have a different set of beliefs. But my firmest belief is that whatever we believe, it should not do harm in the world; it should do good in the world. And of course, belief in heaven and hell has done a lot of good; it's also done a lot of harm. It has terrified people. There are people who are terrified of dying because they're afraid - they are literally afraid that they will be tormented for trillions of years, just as the beginning. And I think that's a harmful belief.
And so I will never try to talk somebody out of a belief in heaven, but I certainly will try to talk people out of a belief in hell because it's simply wrong, and it's harmful. It does psychological damage. And when people raise their children on this stuff, it can scar them for life. And so I think that hell is something we need to fight against; heaven, I'm all for.
GROSS: Do you feel that believing in hell scarred you?
EHRMAN: I do in some ways. I don't think I'm scarred much longer, but I worked really, really hard at it. I was terrified of going to hell. And I think that, you know, psychologically, that was very bad. It made me a rather obnoxious fundamentalist Christian because I thought that everybody else was going to go to hell, and so I had to go out of my way to convert them all (laughter). So I wasn't always a pleasant person to be around because I was right and they were wrong, and since they were wrong, they were going to hell.
But the main thing is that I think that, in fact, it imposes emotional damage. When people need to find life pleasant and hopeful and they need to be helpful to other people, they need to enjoy life, if all you're looking forward to is what's going to happen after you die, you can't really fully enjoy life now because this is just a dress rehearsal. And so I don't try to talk people out of their view of heaven, but I think, actually, it's better off, you know, not living for what's going to happen after you die; it's better off living for what you can do now.
GROSS: Let's take a break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is religion scholar Bart Ehrman, author of the new book "Heaven And Hell: A History Of The Afterlife." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL NYMAN'S "HOW DO I KNOW YOU KNOW?"
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Bart Ehrman, 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 and the author of many books about early Christianity.
You know, you write in your book that it's hard for you to conceive of God as being a sadist who would torture people for eternity in hell.
EHRMAN: Right. So the bottom line of the book is that the way you kind of trace the history of heaven and hell is that when people thought that everybody dies and it's the same for everybody forever, they thought, well, that's not fair. Surely, if there are gods in the world or God in the world, there has to be justice. So suffering now must be rewarded later, and wicked behavior now must be punished later. And so they came up with the idea of an afterlife with rewards and punishments.
But eventually, in Christianity, the idea was that since the soul is eternal, it's either rewarded eternally or it's punished eternally. But then people started thinking, well, wait - is that fair? So, OK, suppose I'm just a regular old sinner, and I die when I'm 40, and so maybe I had about 25, maybe even 30 years of not being the most perfect person on Earth. I'm going to be tortured for 30 trillion years for those 30 years? And those 30 trillion years is just the beginning? Is there really a God who's going to allow that, let alone cause it? I mean, I just - no (laughter).
And so I think - I cannot believe that you can actually say that God is just and merciful and loving - even if he believes in judgment, he is not going to torture you for 30 trillion years and then keep going. It just isn't going to happen.
GROSS: I'm wondering what you think about when you think about how the number of people who are contracting COVID 19 and how the number of people who are dying keeps growing as we get closer to Passover and Easter, which are very holy times in Judaism and Christianity.
EHRMAN: I think that - I'll speak from the Christian tradition, which I still cherish even though I am no longer a Christian, there are aspects of Christianity that I resonate with because they're so deeply ingrained in me. The Easter story is a story of hope that - in the Easter story, death is not the final word, that there's something that comes after death. There is hope in moments of complete despair. There can be life after death.
I don't take that literally anymore because I don't believe there is. I'm open to it, and I hope there is something after death, and if it is, it'll be good. But I personally think, probably, this life is all there is. But I take the Easter story as a metaphor that, even in the darkest hours when there looks to be no hope and it looks like it's simply the end of all things, there actually is a glimmer of hope and that something good can come out of something very bad. And so I really believe that, and I'll probably always believe it.
GROSS: So what are you doing to stay safe? You live in North Carolina. You teach in the - at The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I know you're on sabbatical right now. We're recording this on Thursday. As we speak, is there any kind of advice you're getting in North Carolina about how to behave?
EHRMAN: Well, the same advice everybody's getting who's listening to the right news sources, which is that you need to self-isolate. You simply - it is going to be a disaster for some way - somewhere, on some level, for the economy, but it'll be a worse disaster if we are out in public because we could be spreading the virus. We have to self-isolate. And so I'm - my wife and I have been completely self-isolated for a week now, and we're going to stay this way. And it's really the only way to stop this thing from growing. It's going to grow. It'll be exponential. But it's the only way to stop it.
GROSS: So does that mean you're not leaving the house at all?
EHRMAN: Just to go out in my yard. I'll occasionally walk around the block if nobody's around. But other than that, no. We aren't using our cars. We're not going out. We're not doing anything else. We're staying - absolutely staying inside, and we're in the yard.
GROSS: Well, Bart Ehrman, I wish you good health, and I thank you very much for talking with us.
EHRMAN: Well, thank you for having me. I hope you stay safe, too.
GROSS: Thank you. Bart Ehrman's new book is called "Heaven And Hell: The History Of The Afterlife." And if you're thinking, but what about this passage in the Old Testament or what about that passage in the New Testament, let me just say we only had time to touch on a few of the points in Bart Ehrman's book, so if you want to know more about what he has to say about the history of the afterlife, I refer you to his book. Bart Ehrman, thank you again.
EHRMAN: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Bart Ehrman is the author of the new book "Heaven And Hell: A History Of The Afterlife."
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be a doctor who has worked in war zones around the world and is now battling the pandemic, treating patients in his own country, England. I'll talk with David Nott, who's been a trauma surgeon in conflict zones, including Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and Iraq, and trains doctors in conflict and natural disaster zones. His new memoir is called "War Doctor: Surgery On The Front Line." I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
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