Quaker Universalist Voice

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Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife (2020) by Bart D. Ehrman - A Book Review

B. Ehrman, Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife, clarifies the obscure history of our cultural education about the afterlife.  This is not a small subject. It is a universal human experience.  This book is a contribution to our understanding.

This is a book for thinkers. There is nothing new here.  The history of western human thought about post-death conditions is very clearly presented.  It provides a narrative for reflection and discernment. The author provides no new answers. There is no significant reference to science as a contrasting explanation for what occurs after death.  

In an Afterword, the book does offer a final candid personal view that humans know little about post-death and they have been ignorant about the subject throughout history, but there is basis for hope in a benign thereafter. The author’s personal views are consistent with those expressed in R. Dworkin, Religion Without God (2013).

This book covers the history of the concepts relating to death and beyond both promoted and rejected in the western discussion. All the major options and arguments are summarized.  It covers the thought of Greeks, Jewish sources, the New Testament gospels, Paul, Revelation, and Augustine etc. in the development of speculative ideas about heaven and hell to answer urgent questions about justice and comfort to satisfy the reader’s ambivalent values.

The author is clear that the modern view of heaven and hell is not what the testimony of the First  (New) Testament provides and is not what Jesus believed and advocated. The book effectively dismantles current views of post-death conditions and offers understanding, confidence, and consolation in our universal current ignorance of conditions after death.

The book includes helpful endnotes and an index.  The table of contents is helpful for the reader in its focus on emerging concepts regarding post-death through history.

Quakers: There is no mention of Quakers in the book. Quaker leaders and authors have shown little interest in post-death conditions, relying on a general cultural sense of justice, universal salvation, and divine mercy.  Quakers avoid thinking about death matters unless brought to their attention by events in their personal lives or their community.  By default, Quakers appear to follow a bland form of whatever is current speculation in dominant cultural wisdom.


  • How do Quakers explain post-death to inquiring Quaker children?
  • How do Quakers provide insight into worship about death and beyond?
  • Can Quakers contribute more positively to the larger cultural discussion beyond ignoring death and post-death as the area of mystery beyond human understanding?



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