Bart D. Ehrman—
Few literary genres facilitate deeper reflection on the profundities of life than tours of the realms of the dead. It is no accident that they lie at the heart of some of the great literature of the Western tradition, literally central to both Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid and the entire framework of Dante’s Commedia.
Despite their generative power, otherworldly journeys play a relatively minor role in the literature of antiquity, including the writings of the early Christians. That certainly does not mean that followers of Jesus did not take the afterlife seriously. On the contrary, unlike other religions of Greek and Roman antiquity, the Christian movement placed an unusually high premium on heaven and hell, as seen in its theological debates, polemics, evangelism, and moral instruction. No one can read the final books of Augustine’s City of God and fail to see how deadly seriously the greatest theologian of Christian antiquity took afterlife realities. This level of sincerity was not a new development: Augustine stood in a long and sober line of Christian tradition that can be traced all the way back to Paul and Jesus himself. For a broad swath of the early Christian movement, life after death was to guide life here on earth, affecting beliefs, perspectives, values, ethics, life choices, and daily action.
Nowhere is the reality of the afterlife and, correspondingly, the fate of the soul expressed more emphatically and even enthusiastically than in Christian narratives of tours to the realms of the dead. That should at least raise the question of whether these accounts were thought of as imaginative literature—what we today might call fiction—by either the authors or their readers. However that matter is decided, Christian katabaseis were clearly never meant to be purely descriptive, providing factual information for those curious about the life beyond. The narratives were indeed instructive; but the instruction carried parenetic weight, showing people not only what to think or “know” but also suggesting, often none too subtly, what they should do about it. The same can be said of other accounts we have examined—Greek, Roman, and Jewish.
That remained the case after the early Christian centuries, and still is so today. Obviously a rather intense interest in life after death continues apace, all these centuries later, and discourse about the fate of the soul continues to guide life in the body—or at least strives to. Belief in a literal heaven and a literal hell still dominates not just the Christian tradition but somewhat more unexpectedly the vast majority of the population of the United States and most other countries that have adopted a traditional form of the Christian faith.1 These beliefs in the afterlife inspire genuine hope and fear and, as a result, often guide action. Where I live, in the southern United States, many, many people do not understand why one would fight for justice and work to end poverty, racism, gender bias, xenophobia, discrimination, bigotry, and intolerance of every kind if there is not an afterlife. Many of my students tell me that personal ethics could have no grounding apart from the hope for heaven and the fear of hell. If there is no afterlife, why bother with morality at all? Why not simply indulge every desire and whim and live completely oblivious to the needs and desires of others? These students have inherited their views, of course, from their families and environment.
Even so, this remnant of the Christian tradition is beginning to fade. In particular, for some decades now, increasing numbers of people have abandoned a belief in a literal hell, even within the conservative evangelical segment of our population.2 Only to a lesser extent have they given up on the belief in a literal heaven. Possibly, people are more inclined to jettison fear than hope. In response to such shifts in religious belief we have seen a conservative reaction, some of it driven by traditional religion but some coming in secular forms that insist that there is life to come and we should live in light of it. The TV series The Good Place was emblematic, not avant-garde.
Over the past few decades this move to salvage the afterlife has manifested in a modern form of katabasis, the literary near death experience (using “literary” in a rather loose sense). Such experiences go way back in the Western tradition, of course. We have seen examples in the Myth of Er and twice in the Acts of Thomas. But our contemporary iterations come with a very modernist twist, packaged in post-Enlightenment wrapping, even among fundamentalists. The accounts are not meant to be read as “fiction,” simply a “bunch of stories.” They present themselves as “objective” descriptions of historical realities. They really happened. They can be proved. They constitute scientific evidence. They are “true” stories in the modern deracinated sense. If they didn’t “really happen,” they would be meaningless.3
It would be a mistake to read ancient otherworldly experiences this way. Of course, we have no way of knowing in some cases if they too were meant to be taken “literally.” Certainly not Homer’s nekuia, Plato’s Myth of Er, and Lucian’s Downward Journey. What about the Christian iterations? Surely the author of the Apocalypse of Paul did not think his narrative had really happened. (Surely?) But did he genuinely think that it closely approximated what the afterlife would entail? One might suppose so, but not only can this not be shown, it also cannot be shown to matter.
This is true of all ancient accounts of otherworldly journeys. Whatever else they are, they are literary productions, meant to entertain, provoke thought, inspire emotions, and—most important—affect the way life is lived. They are meant to inform and guide readers’ views, commitments, priorities, values, beliefs, interactions, and—and everything else involved with being human. For now, we live. We may not know for certain what will come after death, but whatever we imagine it will entail should direct us along our path getting there. Ancient otherworldly journeys are meant to spur our imagination and guide the way.
- For the United States see the 2015 poll from the Pew Research Center: roughly seven of ten Americans believe in a literal heaven, and even more remarkably, six of ten believe in a literal hell (Murphy, “Most Americans”).
- See, for example, the discussion among Bible-believing, conservative evan- gelical Christian scholars about the biblical teaching of hell: Burk, Stackhouse, Parry, and Walls, Four Views on Hell. Only one of them believes in eternal conscious torment. See also, as an expression of the popular movement within evangelicalism, Bell, Love Wins.
- Rather than cite the long list of egregious examples, I name only two “favorites,” from each side of the heaven and hell divide (both best sellers!): Alexander, Proof of Heaven, and Wiese, 23 Minutes in Hell.
From Journeys to Heaven and Hell: Tours of the Afterlife in the Early Christian Tradition by Bart D. Ehrman. Published by Yale University Press in 2022. Reproduced with permission.
Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has written or edited thirty-three books, six of which were New York Times best sellers. He lives in Durham, NC.