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Journeys to Heaven and Hell: Tours of the afterlife in the Early Christian tradition by Bart D. Ehrman

28 October 2022

John Binns reviews a study of heaven and hell in the Early Church

CHRIST is teaching his disciples on the Mount of Olives, and they ask him when the end will come. He shows to Peter his right hand, which is filled with the souls of all people and also contains a vision of what will happen at the end of time. Then there is a description of the resurrection, judgement, and the rewards of the righteous and, with vivid detail, the punishments awaiting the wicked.

This account is found in the Apocalypse of Peter, written in the second century and belonging to a tradition of visions and journeys that take the reader into the world to come, to heaven and hell. It reaches back to Homer, with his account of Odysseus’s journey into the underworld, Virgil, and, in the Jewish tradition, the book of Enoch, and the Revelation of John. It was followed by the Apocalypse of Paul, the Acts of Thomas, and the Gospel of Nicodemus.

While these visions and journeys look to the future, they are addressed to the present. They provide comfort in times of persecution with reassurance that those who suffer will be rewarded and those who inflict suffering will be severely and endlessly punished. They also provide instruction that shows what kind of behaviour is commended and what is condemned.

These judgements arise out of the situation of the Church. The punishments of the Apocalypse of Peter, written when the Church was a minority, are directed against 21 kinds of offenders, including idolaters, persecutors, and blasphemers. Two centuries later, the Apocalypse of Paul includes a presbyter who neglects his ministry, and there are with severe penalties for ascetics who do not complete their disciplines among those punished. The challenges facing the Church have changed with its toleration.

The theme that runs through the visions is the message of the justice and the mercy of God.

Punishments of the wicked follow the eye-for-an-eye principle, with the relevant body part being afflicted. So an adulterer is hung by the genitals and a blasphemer by the tongue. The punishments are usually eternal, but there are passages that suggest that there might be forgiveness at the request of the one offended against; or a demonstration of divine mercy by a rest from punishment on Sundays. The absence of these passages in some manuscripts suggests that these may have been removed during controversy over teaching of universal salvation. Alongside these are other traditions that describe Christ’s descent into hell after the crucifixion and the breaking of the power of the devil: the harrowing of hell.

The book discusses these theological debates, the place of the journeys in the society of the time, and the textual history of the books. There is full discussion of the arguments of academic scholarship but this is presented in a colloquial and informal style which makes the debates accessible and the subject engaging. Contemporary surveys of religious attitudes often show the persistence of belief in a physical and literal hell; so maybe this book has a contemporary as well as historical importance.

The Revd Dr John Binns is Visiting Professor at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge.


Journeys to Heaven and Hell: Tours of the afterlife in the Early Christian tradition
Bart D. Ehrman
Yale £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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