Most Bible signs, both in the Old and New Testaments, never thought that if they died they would go to heaven – and many of them didn’t even believe in the idea of an afterlife.
The statement may sound strange to Christians and Jews today, but it helps to show how belief in the beyond of the religions of the West is the result of a slow and complicated development that goes beyond the biblical texts themselves.
This tortuous theological path is told in Heaven and Hell: A Tale of the Hereafter, the latest book by American historian Bart Denton Ehrman. The University of North Carolina researcher at Chapel Hill is the author of a number of best-sellers on the historical figure of Jesus and the origins of Christianity. This time, however, he also had to analyze broader aspects of ancient culture, from Babylonians to philosophers Greeks and Romans.
It is imperative to consider such a range of influences as the beliefs of many Catholics and Protestants on the subject may, paradoxically, be more inspired by certain pagan thinkers than by the books from Genesis to Revelation.
When it comes to the rewards or punishments Westerners expect at the time of death, the ideas of Athenian Plato and Roman Virgil are as important as those of the prophet Daniel and the apostle Paul, Ehrman explains.
The point is that in the ancient Mediterranean cultures that inspired the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible narratives, the idea was that each person’s soul should be judged according to their actions and according to the good or bad they have done in life Receiving different fates is relatively rare.
Instead of praying to go to heaven, most people worshiped God or the gods in hopes of living happy lives here on earth. When death came, it was believed that virtually all of the dead, indifferent, would spend the remainder of eternity in a seedy, boring, and immutable kingdom of the dead, with no reward or punishment.
It is more or less what we see in the Greek idea of Hades. It was necessary to be an avowed and violent enemy of the gods or a darling of the deities in order to suffer torment or indulge in individual pleasures.
It is possible that the place called Sheol by the ancient Israelites was similar to Hades. In a famous Old Testament passage, a witch succeeds in invoking the spirit of the prophet Samuel, whom she sees rising from the ground and who in Hebrew calls “elohim” or “divine being”. The scene is similar to that of the Greek hero Odysseus (or Odysseus) in Homer’s poem “Odyssey”.
However, it is also possible to interpret references to Sheol as simply synonymous with grave or grave, Ehrman says. In this case, not only would the ancient Israelites see no difference between the fate of the good and the bad after death, but they would also believe that there is nothing left when the breath of God leaves the human body.
Around 400 BC In his dialogues on the European side of the Mediterranean, the philosopher Plato began to speculate about the nature of reality, that the human soul is immortal and that after leaving this world everyone receives rewards or punishments according to their actions. .
This is the motto of Platonic texts such as the so-called Myth of Er, the conclusion of the work “República”, in which the Athenian thinker also defends the existence of reincarnation.
Centuries later, when ancient Israeli territory was ruled by empires of Greek culture, typically Hellenic ideas about the afterlife began to circulate among Jews. But the authors of late Biblical books take a special perspective on the subject.
Instead of talking about the immortality of the soul, writers like the one responsible for the book of Daniel envision a judgment on every human being at the end of time. At that time there would be the resurrection of all people who would be rewarded or punished by God according to their actions.
This belief seems to have originated at a time when some Jews were persecuted by pagan rulers and forced to give up their traditional beliefs and practices. When people who were believed to be faithful to God suffer and there seems to be no hope of righteousness in this life, these ancient Jewish thinkers now suggested correcting this condition with the Last Judgment.
Everything indicates that the vision revealed in the book of Daniel was basically the one Jesus of Nazareth embraced in his sermon around AD 30. Christ, Ehrman argues, was an apocalyptic prophet: he foresaw the end of the evil realm in the world. Beginning of the kingdom of God and resurrection of the dead.
After his death, at least some of his followers believed that he was resurrected on an imminent Judgment Day and that he had kept that faith, as evidenced by the apostle Paul’s letters (the oldest Christian texts that have come down to us).
The point is that the decades have passed without the expected apocalypse coming.
For this reason, although belief in the resurrection of the dead has never been given up, the idea that there would also be a “temporary” reward or punishment before the end of time became popular.
Around 150 AD For example, one of the first texts to describe in detail what the feathers of Hell would look like, the so-called Apocalypse of Peter (according to the story, the blasphemers would spend eternity hanging on their tongues)
The final step in this process, already in the middle of the Middle Ages, was the definition of purgatory, a spiritual kingdom in which souls who escaped from hell but are not yet ready to reach heaven would go through long periods of purification . this could be hastened by the prayers of the living.
Disputes over this doctrine would indeed have the most serious social impact in the sixteenth century, sparking the Protestant Reformation and the division of Christian Europe. As today, theology and politics often belonged together.
Heaven and Hell: A Story of the Hereafter
Bart Ehrman, eds. Simon & Schuster – R $ 76.69 (eBook); 346 pages.