The Last Judgement, by Michelangelo, in the Sistine Chapel

Bart Ehrman is a professor of New Testament studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a prolific author. He has written some 30 books, including six New York Times bestsellers. His latest book is Heaven and Hell. A History of the Afterlife.

The Last Things will always be a fascinating subject: death, judgement, heaven and hell. All of us humans face the questions “Where did I come from?” (before I was born) and “Where am I going?” (when I die).

Bede’s story of Paulinus and Coifi in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (written in 731) is well-known.

Paulinus was a Roman missionary to England sent by Pope Gregory I. In about 625 he converted King Edwin of Northumbria and his followers. This included the pagan chief priest, Coifi, who confessed to Paulinus his ignorance about those existential questions: “We do not know. If you can tell us…”

Paulinus then explains the Christian doctrine. In brief: “We have been created out of nothing by God. We live this life invited to believe in God and follow his teaching. When we die we are judged. If we have lived aright we go to heaven and eternal happiness with God; if we have allied ourselves to evil we go to hell and everlasting woe. No one escapes this choice of destiny.”

This doctrine teaches us that we are not spectators; we are participants. And though we can live for long periods ignoring or side-stepping these questions, at some time in our life we all find ourselves face to face with them: “In every man’s life there comes a time sooner or later when his soul draws the line. He has had enough of the usual explanations. The lies of the false prophets no longer satisfy” (Josemaría Escrivá, Friends of God).  

Ehrman is no exception. A born-again Christian, believing in the traditional heaven and hell, his moment came in a late-night sauna turned up to maximum heat. He asked himself, did he believe in hell. “Do I really want to be trapped in a massively overheated sauna for all eternity?” He decided he did not, nor did he want to believe his faith anymore: “I left the faith altogether. As a friend of mine, a Methodist minister, sometimes jokes, I went from being born again to being dead again”.

But he continued studying and became a professor in Biblical studies — a professor in something he did not believe. A professor of medicine who considers medicine is untrue, all quackery, may seem odd. But this it is not at all unusual in Biblical studies. It is a fascinating field and many study it, seeking those ultimate answers. But the fact is that many exegetes (experts in Biblical criticism) are unbelievers.

Heaven and Hell ends up telling us that the ideas on the subject that billions of Christians have inherited (and to which many of them are still attached) are false and he, Ehrman, has come to put us right.

Jesus, he tells us, did not teach those ideas. Instead, he taught that the end of the world would come immediately and with it the kingdom of God with the Messiah triumphant. When this second coming did not take place, his disciples had to give an explanation. This is what led to the Christian teaching on heaven and hell.

There is a slight problem for Ehrman here, which he has the honesty to acknowledge.

And it is that Jesus in the Gospels teaches abundantly on the subject. Ehrman asks “Haven’t I left out some of the most important passages, such as the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man in Luke 16?”. He admits he has. His justification is that we have to distinguish in the Gospels between those words which are authentically words of Jesus and those which were put on his lips later by his disciples.

This distinction is a favourite one with a certain type of exegete. It is argued that the Gospels were written a couple of generations after Jesus’ death and so there was plenty of time for alterations to be introduced into his teaching.

And here is a response to this: is it not strange that, according to this theory, Christ’s disciples introduced many changes into his teaching in those first 60 years after his death (between 30 and 90 AD) and ever since then have rigorously excluded any further changes to the scriptural texts?

Another argument is that the Christian belief that Jesus is God is, according to those scripture scholars, false.

Ehrman proceeds steadily with his unpicking of the divinity of Jesus, although always with a certain respect for his subject. Thus, when it comes to the virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, he does not reject it directly, but we are told that the Apostle Thomas was (or might have been) Jesus’ twin brother.

Now if Jesus is not God and many of his supposed teachings are not his own, then Ehrman is pretty free from the constraints of Christianity to say whatever he considers reasonable about heaven and hell. He seems closest to Socrates — we do not know what will happen to us when we die; our soul is probably immortal; we ought to act well on earth and so be in a position to justify ourselves before whatever tribunal we may meet when we die. And that includes the tribunal of human history.

As to heaven and hell, if heaven exists, Ehrman holds that we can hope to attain it when we die. However, if we have acted badly then he does not like the idea of eternal punishment in hell. He prefers the idea that the punishment will be annihilation.

My impression is that Ehrman is taking us back to Coifi in Bede’s story: “We simply do not know.”

Christians will not agree with that. If Christ is God incarnate, if God has taken the trouble to lower himself to our human level, and indeed to undergo the horrific kenosis (self-emptying) of his passion and death (see Philippians 2:6-11), it is for a very good reason: to save us from the fires of hell and open up for us the gates of heaven. Jesus came to S.O.S., to Save Our Souls.

Interestingly, in his study of Christian authors Ehrman only goes as far as St Augustine, who died in 430 AD.

Perhaps it would do him well to become familiar with the visions of the three shepherd children of Fatima in 1917. Mary appeared to them and gave them a vision of hell. They were terrified and devoted their lives to prayer and penance so that men and women would pay attention to God and open their lives to him. 

Father Andrew Byrne is chaplain at Grandpont House, a residence for students at the University of Oxford, in England.