Heaven and Hell - A History of the Afterlife: All surface, no substance

Book review: Bart D Ehrman’s popular history is a shallow grave of bulked-up timelines

Illustrated  Christian imagery of hell, purgatory, and heaven in the Armenian Vank cathedral in Iran. Photograph: Getty

Illustrated Christian imagery of hell, purgatory, and heaven in the Armenian Vank cathedral in Iran. Photograph: Getty

Bart D Ehrman’s latest work of popular scholarship is boldly subtitled A History of the Afterlife, but it is a history in only the most rudimentary sense. An unsatisfying read, Heaven and Hell is more of a bulked-up timeline, which evades close historical work and nuanced contextual thought by either dismissing the possibility of such work or wilfully misunderstanding the nature and function of literary texts. If readers are seeking A History of the Afterlife, they would be well-advised to look elsewhere.

Ehrman’s book, with its lavish cover and catch-all title, is certainly an appealing prospect, and could have achieved far more within its remit. On reading the work, it is hard not to think that its failures can be attributed to laziness – certainly, no book published for a scholarly audience could get away with such looseness or generalisation, and no book for a popular audience should be afforded such slackness. Rather, the lack of evidence of in-depth research which this book conveys, and Ehrman’s willingness to simply relate and explain (in the loosest terms) a series of texts, acts as though the general reading public is incapable of grasping rigorous argument.

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